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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 09:45 GMT 10:45 UK
Inside screenwriter Kaufman's Mind
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online

Kate Winslet with Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry
Winslet with writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman talks to BBC News Online about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his film starring Jim Carrey and a blue-haired Kate Winslet.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman landed back-to-back Oscar nominations for his cult movies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, leaving both critics and audiences eager to see what he would come up with next.

The answer is another cerebral, provocative and off-the-wall comedy, albeit with a title some people - including its writer - have trouble remembering.

"I like that it's cumbersome," Kaufman told BBC News Online. "My original title was 18 words long.

"I wanted something you couldn't possibly fit on a marquee."

For the record, the film - directed by French music video maker Michel Gondry - takes its name from a poem by English writer Alexander Pope.

Memory erasure

Carrey and Winslet play Joel and Clementine, estranged lovers who take advantage of new technology to delete the memories of their painful relationship.

Regular cinemagoers may be feeling deja vu themselves at this point. Memory erasure was a key plot device in John Woo's action caper Paycheck, and the recent romantic comedy 50 First Dates featured a character with no short-term memory.

Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage played Kaufman - and his "twin" - in Adaptation
But it was an earlier film - 2000 thriller Memento, which also featured a character incapable of forming new memories - that gave Kaufman pause.

"When I heard about Memento I called Michel (Gondry) and said I was quitting!" he said.

Elements of autobiography filter through all of Kaufman's scripts, though the line between reality and fantasy is often blurred.

In Adaptation, Nicolas Cage played both a character called Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, Donald.

The elusive Donald shared a screenwriting credit on the movie and became the first non-existent person to be nominated for an Academy Award.

But such postmodern flourishes are not simply included for effect.

'Human element'

"I think sometimes my fantasies and nightmares are combined in movies," Kaufman explains.

"When I'm writing something I try to relate it to my experience and what's important to me at that time.

"If I didn't have a human element in my head, if it didn't resonate, the movie wouldn't be about anything."

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Winslet and Carrey play estranged lovers in the new film
Indeed, take away the sci-fi elements from Eternal Sunshine and Kaufman's real intentions emerge - to pick through the debris of a failed relationship and find the love beneath.

"I was interested in writing a movie about a relationship, not a romance," he says.

"I didn't want to contribute to the "rom-com" genre as I've had an unfortunate relationship with those types of movies.

"Growing up I had expectations about my life that were never met.

"I'm happy to hear people call the film romantic, because it means we came to it honestly, with no intent to sugar-coat or soften anything."

'Scary movies'

The former sitcom writer is one of Hollywood's most sought-after talents, but his career has not been entirely free of disappointment.

The experience of working with actor George Clooney on 2003's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - a satirical fantasy based on the life of US game show host Chuck Barris - left the writer with "a lot of sadness".

George Clooney
Clooney directed and starred in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
"I spent a lot of time working on the script, but I don't think he was interested in the things I was interested in," he says ruefully.

"I've moved on and I don't have any animosity towards Clooney, but it's a movie I don't really relate to."

Kaufman has higher hopes for his next project, a horror movie that will reunite him with Malkovich and Adaptation director Spike Jonze.

"I'm trying to make a movie that's scary, but not using the conventions of scary movies," he says. "I don't have any interest in trying to copy a formula."

In person, Kaufman does not resemble the media-shy, introverted loner he is often described as.

However, his quiet, unassuming demeanour hides a clear determination not to get caught up in the Hollywood game.

"I embrace the notion of failure," he explains.

"The only way to do something interesting is not care if you fail."

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes out in the UK on 30 April.

The story behind Adaptation
31 Jan 03  |  Entertainment
Kate Winslet has son in New York
27 Dec 03  |  Entertainment
Clooney's outlandish Confessions
14 Mar 03  |  Entertainment


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