Thursday, March 18, 2004

Kaufman enhances spotless reputation

By Anthony Breznican
The Associated Press

Charlie Kaufman
Jim Carrey only needed to hear three words to know he wanted to act in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - and they weren't "20 million dollars."

Carrey, who agreed to drop his usual salary to play a dejected man who has a broken love affair erased from his brain, was lured to the film with the phrase "by Charlie Kaufman."

"I was given the script. They just said, 'Charlie Kaufman.' And I'm like, 'OK, where do I sign?' " Carrey said. "I mean, it's just to be part of his legacy. It's like a Hitchcock kind of thing, where you just want to go, 'Yeah, I did one of his movies, man.' "

Kaufman has never had a major box-office hit, but he has distinguished himself with a trippy brand of comically gloomy storytelling that often blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.

The breakthrough came in 1999 with Being John Malkovich, in which Kaufman used actor John Malkovich as the subject of a surreal fantasy about an office door that leads into Malkovich's mind.

"I'm kind of interested in subjective experience, what goes on inside someone's head, that being all they really know of the world," said Kaufman, 45.

The idea for Eternal Sunshine came from French artist Pierre Bismuth, who asked director Michel Gondry what he would do if a card came in the mail saying you had been erased from a friend's memory and should no longer contact them.

At the time, Gondry, who made videos for Beck, Bjork and the Chemical Brothers, was reading Kaufman's Human Nature, which he would make in 2001 with Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette.

Gondry brought the idea to Kaufman, who turned it into the story of a company, Lacuna Inc., that can remove your unpleasant memories. ("Lacuna" means "a blank space or a missing part.")

The story took shape around a sad man named Joel (Carrey), who's at loose ends in his own mind while undergoing a procedure to eradicate any trace of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet).

"I wanted to deal with someone's idea of their relationship. Because you're not seeing the relationship, you're seeing Joel's idea of the relationship," Kaufman said. "I was trying to figure out what a memory feels like. I think you just assume that your memory is just sort of a video playback of your experience, but it's nothing like that at all. It's a complete refabrication of an event and a lot of it is made up, because you're filling in spaces."

Kaufman and his wife even recorded some of their conversations, wrote down their own recollections of the talks, and then he studied the different perceptions against the recording.

Gondry brought his own dreamy imagery to the film, creating scenes of a beach house collapsing around the lovers as a memory is destroyed and a bookstore scene in which everything in sight slowly disappears.

Kaufman is one of the few screenwriters who has the power to influence the film's production.

Both Gondry and Spike Jonze, who directed Being John Malkovich and Kaufman's Adaptation, welcomed the writer's input.

Kaufman is writing another script for Jonze, but after that he hopes to take his own turn in the director's chair. "I want to try it to see what it's like and see what my stuff looks like when I take it from inception to completion."

Kaufman moved to Los Angeles to pursue a writing dream, bouncing around between short-lived sitcoms such as Get a Life with Chris Elliot, the romantic comedy Ned and Stacey and the sketch program The Dana Carvey Show.

He wrote Malkovich with no expectation it would be produced. It made the rounds in Hollywood before landing in front of Jonze and Malkovich, who liked it enough to give it a shot.

Although not a mainstream hit, the cult attention got Kaufman some name recognition. He gave himself more with 2002's Adaptation, in which a character named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) tries to adapt the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

His namesake character was dowdy, depressed, dejected - and dogged by a twin brother (also played by Cage).

It made Kaufman a kind of celebrity - which makes him bristle.

"I'm intentionally and defiantly not a celebrity," he said. "I don't have any interest in it. I don't have any talent for it. I keep my personal life out of my public life as cleanly as I can."

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