Charlie Kaufman
Creative Screenwriting, VOLUME 9, #2 (MARCH/APRIL 2002)

On the 30th of September 2011, in front of a sell-out theatre at the BFI in London, Charlie Kaufman delivered the final lecture in BAFTA’s 2011 Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. Director/Editor Eliot Rausch extracted five minutes from Kaufman’s speech, and cut over a video titled What I have to Offer:

Christopher Boone: In terms of exploring subjectivity and how the mind works, Charlie Kaufman is perhaps today’s preeminent screenwriter. Either that, or he’s an expert in solipsism and desperate attempts to avoid it, which inevitably leads to becoming solipsistic and even more desperate attempts to avoid it. Either way, Charlie Kaufman is truly — truly — an original screenwriter, and one of my personal favorites. Kaufman’s perspective on screenwriting is obviously unique, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (better known as BAFTA) has posted a podcast of Kaufman giving a speech on what he thinks screenwriting really is. You can listen to the entire podcast here:

The speech is as reflexive as Kaufman’s scripts, which makes it entertaining, enlightening and inscrutable all at once, much like his films.  While the speech is rich in content, here are a few highlights specifically related to screenwriting. First, Kaufman defines a screenplay, and it’s far from a conventional definition (but what did you expect?):

A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. To step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere, there is a starting point, but the rest is undetermined, it is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form.

Most of us will write screenplays in this pre-established form and follow typical story conventions. It’s what we know and it’s what audiences know. When I read a Kaufman script or see one of his films, however, I want to push myself and my writing beyond my comfort zone, beyond my boundaries. Stepping into the abyss is certain an apt metaphor. Kaufman expands on this idea later in his speech when he talks about story:

Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include, what form it must take. As an experiment, go out of your way to write a non-story. It will still be a story, but it will have a chance of being a different story.

Many of us seek out the advice of established screenwriters on how to write a screenplay, to which Kaufman responds:

I can’t tell anyone how to write a screenplay because anything of value you might do comes from you. The way I work is not the way you work, and the whole point of any creative act is that. What I have to offer is me. What you have to offer is you. And if you offer yourself with authenticity and generosity, I will be moved.

For many screenwriters, the fear of failure can become an insurmountable obstacle, but Kaufman sees it completely opposite:

Failure is a badge of honor. It means you risked failure. And if you don’t risk failure, you’re never going to do anything that’s different from what you’ve already done or what somebody else has done.

The speech is rich with much more content plus a Q&A at the end, so find an hour to spare and listen to it in its entirety for the full impact.

Master class from the Göteborg Film Festival:

2009 Film & TV Forum at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Master class with the inimitable Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and director (Synecdoche New York). Moderated by Helen du Toit, creative Director of the Film & TV Forum:

Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.


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E. Thompson

I make movies. Sometimes people see them. I have been a martial artist for a very long time. I'm in a personal war with the Oxford comma.

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