I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Horror Movie and/or Kaufman’s Meditation on Loneliness, Alienation, Mortality?

One of the most celebrated writers in American cinema today, Charlie Kaufman has created features that defy easy classification. His narratives have explored universal themes–identity crisis, mortality, meaning of life–through a metaphysical and parapsychological framework.

Kaufman’s debut novel, “Antkind,” which was published last month, was deliberately written so as to be unfilmable–not even by him–and the book itself is about “an impossible movie.” Resisting labels, his entire oeuvre could be described as idiosyncratic and surrealist, existing in a universe all his own–call it Kaufmaneque.  His growing oeuvre over the past three decades qualifies him to be considered the greatest dramatist of our fractured postmodern consciousness.

Kaufman, who’s 61, has been nominated for four Oscar Awards: twice for Best Original Screenplay, for ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (winning for the latter), Best Adapted Screenplay (with his fictional brother) for ‘Adaptation,’ and Best Animated Feature for ‘Anomalisa.’ Three of his narratives appear in the Writers Guild of America’s list of the 101 greatest scripts ever written.

Meryl Streep in “Adaptation” (2002)

His directorial debut was the postmodern film “Synecdoche, New York,” starring an impressive ensemble headed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The idea came when Kaufman and Spike Jonze were approached to direct a horror film. Rather than make a conventional horror film, they decided to make a “more personal film that deals with issues that I found really frightening, such as mortality and life’s brevity.” Kaufman helmed the film after Jonze left the project to make a bigger picture, “Where the Wild Things Are instead.”

Initially, when “Synecdoche” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, it split critics, with some calling it the best film of the year, while others finding it pretentious and heavy-handed. However, since its release, the movie has been reevaluated and now appears on many lists of the best pictures of the 21st century. But ultimately, as Kaufman would be the first to admit, what counts in Hollywood is the bottom line, and the film’s weak box-office made it difficult, if not impossible, for Kaufman to gain funding for scripts that he really wished to direct.

He recalls: “I was looking for something to direct and I’ve been having difficult time getting directing work. I thought if I found something that existed already, I could adapt it. I found Iain Reid’s novel, and I liked it. It was very small, very contained, only four characters, three locations. I thought I might be able to get financing for it. And I liked the dreaminess of it. I’m interested in subjective experience and this was very much someone’s subjective experience. So I approached Netflix with my producer Anthony Bregman, and they said yes.”

Reid’s 2016 novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, tells the story of a woman’s trip to her family farm, leading to an unexpected detour that leaves her stranded, and a twisted mix of palpable tension, psychological frailty and sheer terror. Oscar winner Brie Larson (“Room”) and Jesse Plemons were to play the leads, and when Larson dropped out, she was replaced by rising British star Jessie Buckley, with Toni Collette and David Thewlis completing the cast.

“There’s a lot in the book that resonates with my work, but I made it my own in exploring aging, isolation, loneliness, mortality. If you read the book, you will see there are significant departures, but in terms of the storyline, it pretty much follows the book.”  Kaufman sees the book and his film as timely and relevant: “Right now, I feel there’s growing sense of alienation and isolation, both personally and within the culture we inhabit.  I like to write about subjective experiences because for me it’s the only honest way to write. When you look at subjectivity, you’re looking at a person’s ability–or inability–to connect with others. And the film raises questions of  what allows for human connection, and what impedes it, issue of self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and other anxieties.”

Song from Oklahoma!

He elaborates: “I added an element to the movie that wasn’t in the book, which was the life of the janitor working at night in school. I wanted some elements that would reflect this particular school’s life. And I thought there could be a rehearsal for a musical. I had been in ‘Oklahoma!’ as a kid, so I knew it well. And then I found there was a lot of parallel themes in ‘Oklahoma!’ specifically with Judd and his loneliness, which is reflected in the song, In my lonely room,” (characteristically, one of the obscure tunes of the otherwise gloriously melodic musical).  We were able to get the rights from Rogers and Hammerstein’s estate, and to place it in the movie.”

As expected, there are references to actual individuals in the movie: “I like to engage with the present with real people in my work. In my first screenplay ‘Being John Malkovich,’ I put John Malkovich. And I’ve done that with Susan Orlean in ‘Adaptation,’ and also myself. But this is more of a vaudeville for me me. And this movie does it in a way that feels reminiscent, or akin, to ‘Being John Malkovich.’  It’s a much more jokey piece of work than ‘Anomalisa.’ I wanted to write something that was funny, something that would allow people to laugh. It was making me laugh while I was writing, so I’m hoping the humor would spread into the worlds of other people’s psyches.”

Psychology and Physics

“I am often asked, what goes inside my brain? to which I say: “I do suffer from anxiety and insomnia, I do tend to have an OCD kind of personality where I go too far in my mind over ideas and worries, which makes it difficult for me.  I try to persevere those anxieties and put them in my work because they feels true to me, and it’s my outlet for them.”

“I am very interested in psychology, and I do read as much as I can about it.  I also am very interested in dreams, and using dreams as methods of storytelling and catharsis. I hope the movie is is cathartic for the viewers. For me, it was cathartic not so much in the process of writing, but when I actually got to bring the cast and the crew together and make it as real as possible.”

“I also love quantum physics and its impact on my wire and my brain.  it is something that makes me feel more healthy emotionally, because it makes me raalize that there’s a larger world outside of myself that’s saying to me, ‘the universe is more complicated than you can possibly understand.  You’re very small within it.  It is not about you’. And somehow that helps me to get outside of myself, and it’s also inspiring, because the ideas that it allows me to work with are mind-bending and exciting.”

Casting Nice Actors

Kaufman is known for his careful casting: “I didn’t have Jessie Buckley at first in this movie.  I didn’t know who she was, but I lost the actress who was to play that part and I was looking for somebody new. A friend of mine recommended Jessie, who was amazing in the movie ‘Beast.’  I was excited because she wasn’t a familiar face and I felt like she could fully embody the role.”

As for Jesse Plemons: “I’ve always loved him ever since I was introduced to him in ‘Breaking Bad.’ He’s a very interior actor, and there are very subtle changes that happen in his face and in his voice that seemed perfect for the part of Jake, because Jake is pretty much the creator of this story.  It’s taking place within his psyche, and the other characters are in a way like puppets.  There’s containment in Plemons and he’s such a good and honest actor.”

“I try to imbue my family of characters and actors with the sort of tensions that exist when sensitive people meet for the first time.  It’s like having two sets of friends who don’t know each other, and you are bringing them together at some dinner party, and you don’t know if they are going to get along, and you know certain things about both of them that might be problematic. I will avoid those situations at all costs. I sometimes make decisions based on not wanting to be uncomfortable in this world.”

“Other than talent, the main thing I look for in my actors is being nice. It sounds corny, but it’s very important to me that my actors be nice, because I don’t want to have to deal with the kind of craziness on movie sets, when there’s so much work to be done in such a short period of time.” He explains: “I loved working with all of the people. They were all great but it was a very difficult shoot.  It was 24 days and it was just overwhelming amount of work and there were a lot of worries involved. I especially remember the last scene, when Jessie Buckley was in the audience and Jesse Plemons was onstage, and they bonded so much. It was so emotional for them that it became very emotional for me. Jessie said she was sorry to leave, which made me feel warm, knowing that we had done something right, that we were able to work together in intense ways and still come out of it loving each other.”

Perpetual Worrier

“I am familiar with the idea of worrying too much that your family is going to embarrass you in front of the person you have brought them, and also worry that the person you brought is going to embarrass you in front of your family.  And being stuck in the middle of that and trying to navigate that and trying to control other people and how they interact with each other, which of course you can not do in the real world and you should not even try.  I have many, many regrets in my life, things that I didn’t do the way I wanted to do, based on worries, based on the fears of humiliation and embarrassment.  My regrets have to do with my fearfulness of consequences, and I don’t want to get too specific, because it’s all very personal.”

“I don’t go in my head to try and emulate anybody.  I am sure I am influenced by the things I have seen and read in my life, but basically, I’m trying to address those issues that I have anew, with every particular project. collaborating with my production people, trying to figure out, how do we do this now?  The ideas that come to me are not really based on other people’s work–at least not consciously.” Even so, when pushed harder, he mentions some favorite writers and directors, such as Kafka, Beckett, Stanisław Lem, Flannery O’Connor, Philip K. Dick, Patricia Highsmith, Italo Svevo, David Lynch, Lars von Trier.

While struggling to get his directorial projects realized, Kaufman continues to work as a writer for hire, producing narratives for others. These included a satire about group of global leaders to be directed by Spike Jonze, with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead; adaptation of George Saunders’s book ;CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’ to be directed by Ben Stiller; adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ to be directed by Guillermo del Toro; adaptation of Arthur Herzog’s novel ‘IQ 83′ with Steve Carell. Kaufman was hired to adapt Patrick Ness’ ‘Chaos Walking’ book series, of which he wrote the first draft. The film is scheduled to be released in 2021, with Kaufman sharing credit with John Lee Hancock and Ness, who have also worked on the script.

Pandemic Effect

“This pandemic and very strange year have definitely affected my writing. I had written a script several years ago about a virus that causes an epidemic, which in turn causes stupidity.  The movie didn’t get made, but recently HBO bought the rights from Paramount, and we are going to make it into a limited TV series.  It’s really appropriate now and timely and I’m very excited to sort of take all the stuff that I’ve experienced through this pandemic and try to incorporate that into a TV show.  The pandemic is affecting the way I think about the world in general, because of the experience we’re all going through right now, and the ways in which we are handling it and also not handling it. There’s real sense of not knowing what’s coming next, which is very frightening but also very fascinating to explore psychologically.”

Fearing that he might have come across too serious and anxious, Kaufman ends the interview on a more positive note: “The experience of making a movie with Netflix was actually really good. They let me make it the way I wanted to make it. What more can I ask?”