Five years ago, when Charlie Kaufman was promoting (the wonderful) Anomalisa, he couldn’t get his movies made. Here’s the human being behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, yet to get Anomalisa made the project had to have a crowdsourced fundraiser. Then, after all that – after Anomalisa received all the film festival accolades, which resulted in a massive bidding war – not many people went to see the movie. To Kaufman, this whole process seemed like nonsense.
At the time, I asked Kaufman if crowdsourcing was the future of making his type of movie. He called it a “dangerous” way to make a movie, but didn’t have a choice. Smash-cut to now and we have a much better sense of the future of movies as streaming platforms are doling out money in a mad dash to build up a library of content. Kaufman’s first film in the last five years, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is on Netflix and the streaming wars seem like a perfect time for Kaufman. In theory, this could wind up being the most prolific time in Kaufman’s career. The days of worrying about box office, something he hates, could be behind him. So is Kaufman excited? Is this everything he had hoped for? When I asked him this his answer was basically, “Eh, I don’t really care anymore.” Which, as a huge admirer of Kaufman’s work, is somehow both infuriating and hilarious.
It’s a weird thing, Zooming with Charlie Kaufman. Well, it’s still a weird thing to Zoom with anyone, but especially Kaufman, because the need to do this feels like some sort of never-explained, establishing plot point of one of his movies. The thing about Kaufman that’s always surprising is that he’s not “aloof.” In fact, he’s surprisingly straightforward for anyone, let alone someone who’s made movies in which everyone seems to have their own individual different interpretation. Kaufman, as an interviewee, perfectly threads that needle of being incredibly smart, yet not at all a dick, which makes him even more interesting (and, frankly, intimidating).
His new film, well, I suppose this is where I try to explain I’m Thinking of Ending Things (based on the Iain Reid novel), which like a lot of Kaufman movies is almost impossible. Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley play a couple who have been dating for a short amount of time, who visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and then, well, a lot of strange things happen, especially in relation to our sense of time. Ahead, yes, is the weird zoom call conversation with Charlie Kaufman … which, maybe is the perfect way to talk to Charlie Kaufman, as he pops up on your computer as you try to plead with him to make more movies as he tells you he’s just not as interested anymore.
Oh, we have started?
Yeah, I think we started.
My view is weird. Okay, now you’re big on my screen. How are you doing?
I’m fine. How are you?
It seems fitting in these times that you’ve come to entertain us. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Well, I appreciate it. I don’t know if it makes sense either, but I thank you.
Watching this film, I have no concept of time right now, but this movie made perfect sense to me, which surprised me.
Well, I’m glad to hear it.
But your concept of time in the movie, is that something you’ve thought about with the concept of time to humans now as we go through this?
I haven’t thought about it. I mean, other people have said similar things to me, about the experience of this movie and how it seems to pertain to the time that we’re in, but I hadn’t thought about it. Obviously, when I was making the movie, this wasn’t a thing.
The last time we spoke you were talking about how it’s so tough to get a movie made. Kind of more than anyone, I’m more interested to know your opinion of where we are with streaming services. Has this changed things for you? Do you feel more optimistic because of the way they’re set up and the way they seem to be taking more chances on a wide spectrum of films?
I mean, I got this movie made. Really, aside from Anomalisa, it’s the first movie I made since Synecdoche in 2008. So, I mean, I don’t know if I’m optimistic, but I do think it’s possible. Certainly, if I keep budgets low, then there’s more of a chance that could happen. But I also just don’t have the same kind of drive I used to have, so I don’t really know. I don’t think about it as much. I had a lot of tension about it and worry about it, and I don’t feel that way anymore in my life. So if this is the last movie I get to make, I’m okay with that.
I can’t imagine that. I’m sure there’s something else you’re going to want to make, but I understand what you mean by that. But was there a specific moment where you decided this, or was this a gradual thing over the last five years? Because to go from, Kickstarting money to make a movie to, “It’s not my drive anymore,” is big shift.
Yeah, but I didn’t Kickstart that movie. That was something that they did at Starburns, which was the studio that produced it. They wanted to make that movie. I was like, “Okay, if you could raise the money, we’ll do it.” Assuming they wouldn’t. And then when they did, they did. And so, we made the movie, but I wasn’t desperate to make that movie.
Well, I’m glad you made it.
I’m glad I made it, too. And I’m glad I made this movie. But I don’t feel… It’s probably gotten less and less urgent for me to make movies over the last five years, sure. I’m getting older. My life has changed in a lot of ways. I just don’t feel that ambitious in that way. I don’t feel like I need to be part of this. I have a weird, antagonistic relationship with the business.
Right. But you’ve always had that.
Yeah, but I think a lot of the antagonism before might’ve been more, “I’m angry that I’m not getting to do things.” And now it’s sort of like, I don’t care about it. I don’t want it. I mean, I like working with actors and I like making movies. And if it happens, cool. But if it doesn’t, fine. That’s how I feel now. And it feels better to me.
It is funny to hear you say you’re not very prolific right now when you have a movie and a 700-page book that came out within two months of each other.
But I didn’t say I’m not prolific. I never said that, and I’m not sure what I said that may have sounded like that, but I didn’t say that. [Note: He is correct. He said, not ”ambitious,” but the point still remains.] I just don’t care about it. The fact that the movie and the book are coming out at the same time is coincidence. I’ve been working on the book since 2012, so it’s not like it was a planned event or I did them both at the same time. I finished the book, and then I made the movie. That’s how it worked.
Okay, but as someone who’s an admirer of your movies, to go back to my word, “prolific,” I think the way things are set up right now, with streaming services looking for content, you could be at your most prolific right now. You could probably knock out anything you wanted over the next five years. So it is interesting to hear, now, finally when that’s available, you don’t feel the same way.
But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to work. You know what happened? We’ve hit Anomalisa. We made it ourselves. We made it in the middle of nothing in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t know what we had. We finished it. We started sending it to Telluride and Venice and Toronto [film festivals], and these people went crazy for it. And it won! And everybody was bidding on it to buy it, because we didn’t have distribution. And we won the Silver Lion at Venice. And I thought, holy cow. And then … nothing happened. The movie didn’t do any business. And I really felt weird about that, because this is the second time that’s happened to me. And it’s like, I just stopped caring. And this thing with Netflix is … It doesn’t matter. There’s no box office. The movie will play on Netflix forever – and it won’t disappear in a week because the box office isn’t doing well. And that’s fine with me. And so, that sort of pushed me in the direction of not caring I think. Not that I don’t want to work or not be interested. It just means that it’s outside of my control.
It almost sounds like you just don’t like the fuss of it. Maybe that’s the wrong word, fuss.
I don’t like thinking about box office. I don’t like thinking about commercial viability. All those things that get put into your head, that turn you into some kind of numbskull and unable to do the thing that’s important. I want to be rid of it. I’m done with it. It’s not important to me. I understand that now. And the fact that I don’t care anymore, it makes easier, because I can do the work if I get the work. When I said that this was going to be my last movie, that was basically what I was saying. I mean, I wasn’t making a public pronouncement. I was saying, “I don’t care how this is perceived. I’m going to make the movie I want to make.”
Well, I guess, maybe I’m wording this in a poor way, but I guess the bigger point is it sounds like Charlie Kaufman and streaming is the perfect marriage, because you don’t have to worry about the box office, you don’t have to worry about the fuss. You get make your movie and people are going to watch it.
Who knows? I mean, if those offers come through, and it’s interesting to me, I’ll do it. If it doesn’t, I’m fine.
But I’m just speaking selfishly, because I don’t want to wait five more years, and before that, Synecdoche, it was, what, seven years between your movie?
Well, if that happens, cool.
There’s one particular scene in the movie I did want to ask about. There’s a movie within the movie and you do poke some fun, at least it’s perceived as poking fun, but it looks like you’re poking some fun at another director in this movie. And I want to know where that came from.
You mean Zemeckis?
It’s really just luck of the draw. I wanted to stick a credit on the end of that movie within a movie, and our assistant director pulled a name online and just stuck it on the movie. And it was Zemeckis from Contact and it just made us laugh. So we decided to try to contact him and see if he would allow it. And he did. So I’m not poking fun.
I’m not poking fun at him. I met him once and we had a very nice conversation about a project. And I liked him very much.
Okay, that’s why I wanted to ask. Knowing you got permission, it seems more in nice fun now knowing he was okay with that.
Yeah. It’s an interesting problem, because we didn’t know if we were going to get permission. There’s something really perfect about Zemeckis and that movie, because it’s a movie that he would never make. But it’s also a movie that he could possibly make. You couldn’t put Scorsese on there, because it would just be so part of a joke. But Zemeckis works a little bit, and I think that’s why we used it.
By the way, before we go, I didn’t want this to come off like, “Make more movies,” and you’re thinking, “What else do you want from me, man?” I just like your movies.
I appreciate your support. I don’t feel pressure.
‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ will being streaming via Netflix on September 4. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.