Tag Archives: charlie kaufman

Akhavan On Kaufman

Akhavan On Kaufman

Of all the different types of guests we have on the show - critics, authors, actors, etc - it's filmmakers that spark a particular type of curiosity. When a filmmaker guest chooses the filmmaker they want to speak about, we immediately begin trying to find connections between their respective works.

How much of Claire Denis can we see in the works of Lynn Shelton? Are there elements of Andrei Tarkovsky in the films of Jon Hewitt? How did Paul Mazursky inspire Joe Swanberg? Or, even more surprising, when Brian Trenchard-Smith counterintuitively opted to talk about a filmmaker he'd inspired.

Desiree Akhavan has only made one film so far, last year's Appropriate Behavior, and we've spoken many times of how much we loved it (even before we realised we'd be getting her on the show). But in many ways, her initially surprising choice of Charlie Kaufman proved to be illuminating in the other direction. Because Desiree's film revealed genuine human truths through humour, the thing that we often forget Kaufman's films do.

We think of Kaufman as a high concept, postmodern writer who takes an extraordinary concept and explores in alarming detail. It's not until we're actually watching Being John Malkovich or Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that we remember how deeply he understands human emotion - we're talking about him like he's a robot, but go with it - how he can lure us in with an irresistible logline, then twist the emotive knife at the perfect moment. It's masterful.

It's also the first time we've spoken about someone who's best known as a writer, and we devote as much time to the films he wrote but did not direct. Given that, we thought this was the perfect episode to bring up a topic we've been wanting to explore for quite some time: are writers unfairly sidelined as the authors of films?

We always try to specify that our show is about filmmakers and authors, avoiding the word director wherever possible. We do consider the director to be the author most of the time, but there are writers, producers, cinematographers, composers and editors with such distinct and memorable styles, who can definitely be considered cinematic auteurs. And if ever there was a screenwriter who was even more closely associated with his works than the directors who helmed them, it's Charlie Kaufman.

So that's our show. Desiree Akhavan on Charlie Kaufman and the question of screenwriter authorship, plus a look back at some of the key films of this past month: Martin Luthor King Jr biopic Selma, Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater and the Wachowskis' return to all-out science fiction Jupiter Ascending.

If you want to brush up on the films of Charlie Kaufman before you listen, remember to check out our Cheat Sheet here, before listening to the episode here.

Special thanks to Desiree Akhavan for being so generous with her time in the midst of a whole bunch of international travel, and to the amazing Cecilia Frugiuele for making it all happen.

Hell Is For Hyphenates – February 2015

Writer/Director/Actor Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) joins the Hyphenates as they look at some of the key films of February 2015, ask whether screenwriters are unfairly sidelined as the authors of films, and talk about the postmodern high-concept works of Charlie Kaufman.

The Charlie Kaufman Cheat Sheet

Charlie Kaufman

Want to be knowledgable about our filmmaker of the month without committing yourself to an entire filmography? Then you need the Hell Is For Hyphenates Cheat Sheet: a recommended double that will make you an insta-expert in the director we're about to discuss…

CK Films


Okay, given our cheat sheets usually comprise of two films, two substitutions and a hidden gem, it kind of limits our options here. But even if Kaufman had made a hundred films, we'd still have no choice but to recommend these two. Being John Malkovich is still the first film most people think of when you mention Kaufman: the high-concept meta comedy/drama/fantasy/everything did not for a second rest on the laurels of an albeit compelling hook. When a puppeteer discovers a secret portal that allows him to possess the body of character actor John Malkovich (playing himself), he becomes enamoured by all the possibilities this offers. Kaufman explores every single facet of this idea, anticipating every question you could possible have when coming out of the theatre - “What happens if two people through the portal at once?” “What happens if Malkovich himself goes through the portal?” “What would happen if he was friends with Charlie Sheen?” - and sees them through in a way that is both inevitable and completely unexpected. It's a hell of a debut. You'll want to pair that double with Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. This is a film way, way ahead of its time, exploring questions of existentialism in a way that would make Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Satre bury their faces in the popcorn. When a theatre director is given a fellowship to pursue any artistic endeavour he chooses, he collects a group of actors to live out their lives within a warehouse, gradually and increasingly building a scale model of the city that lies outside the warehouse doors. And that doesn't begin to scrape the surface of what this film is. Spend an evening watching these films back-to-back, and you'll be able to talk Charlie Kaufman with the best of them.

Substitutions: If you can't get or are already familiar with Being John Malkovich, check out the equally-meta Adaptation (2002) which actually begins with Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) on the set of his first film, Being John Malkovich. If you can't get Synecdoche, New York, seek out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), the stunning, pitch-perfect film about how we deal with love and pain and memory.

The Hidden Gem: Want to seek out something from off the beaten track? Well, with Kaufman, everything is off the beaten track. But the least-known of all of his films is certainly Human Nature, the 2001 film that marked the first collaboration between Kaufman and his future Eternal Sunshine director Michael Gondry. It's not really as beloved as it should be, due to all of Kaufman's other films being hailed as all-time cinematic classics. But remove the burden of that benchmark and you'll find a damn funny film that's well worth the time.

The next episode of Hell Is For Hyphenates, featuring Desiree Akhavan talking Charlie Kaufman, will be released on the morning of February 28 (AEST).

Our Next Hyphenate: Desiree Akhavan

Desiree Akhavan
Filmmaker, actor and February 2015 Hyphenate Desiree Akhavan

If anything defined 2014 for the purposes of this post, it was the number of amazing new voices that flooded independent cinema. One of the biggest standouts was Desiree Akhavan, who wrote, directed and starred in her debut feature Appropriate Behavior, about a Brooklyn woman dealing with the fallout from an unpleasant breakup as she continuously tries to keep her bisexuality hidden from her conservative Persian family. It was hilarious, honest and unique, and we fell in love with it immediately.

With such a strong debut feature, we naturally had to find out which filmmaker had inspired Desiree. So who has she opted to discuss on the show?

(drumroll) Writer/director/cult favourite Charlie Kaufman!

Written by Charlie Kaufman

There's a reason we stress words like auteur and filmmaker instead of director, and it's not because we're impossibly pretentious. Sure, that's part of it, but there's another reason too: the author of a film, though most often a director, can also be the writer. Or the editor. Or even the producer.

Never was this more apparent than when Being John Malkovich arrived in 1999, and the names Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze both hit pop culture consciousness with equal force. When Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were released, the same thing happened: the prospect of a new Charlie Kaufman film created just as much excitement as the names of directors Jonze and Michel Gondry. He had, with his very first film, become part of that ultra-rare breed: a screenwriter whose name is used to lure audiences.

To date, the only feature film he's directed has been Synecdoche New York, a work that synthesised all of the themes he'd explored in his previous scripts. For the sake of the next podcast, our discussion of Kaufman's work will focus just as heavily on the films he wrote as the one he directed.

But what is it about Kaufman's work that specifically appeals to Desiree? Check back in with us when the episode is released on February 28 to find out.

Our next filmmaker of the month, Charlie Kaufman