Perhaps Movies As You Knew Them Are Dead

That moment when Charlie Kaufman, one of the most successful screenwriters of all time, plans his escape from the industry post-“Anomalisa.”
Ilya S. Savenok via Getty Images

First of all, of course movies as you know them are dead. Nothing stays exactly the same over time. But when talking about studios going through the motions of making motion pictures, you could rightfully wonder if that routine has led to a decay in form. Studios are businesses with incentive to find a formula that works, and then mindlessly repeat that formula. The writers behind the movies can choose this path as well. So what happens when they don't?

The beloved experimental screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's writing is purposefully designed to be completely inaccessible to anybody but him. Or at least, his physical handwriting is.

When Kaufman first started going to coffee shops and writing in notebooks, he'd purposely scribble his notes illegibly. He didn't want somebody to be able to read over his shoulder. Not because he necessarily wanted to keep his work secret, but because he was embarrassed. Though he no longer feels as shy about his work, the chicken scratch continues. It became a part of his routine, even if the original intention is lost. His own harmless decay of form. It's just "the way I write now," he told HuffPost in a room at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York. "I'm just sloppy."

Those scribbled notes have turned into many prize-winning screenplays, including "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," for which the Academy awarded him Best Original Screenplay in 2005. His screenplays "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" were also nominated for the same award in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

Kaufman was at the Crosby Street Hotel, however, to talk about his latest Academy Award-nominated project, 2015's "Anomalisa," which he both wrote and co-directed. It was the very last day of the press cycle Kaufman had embarked upon for the movie, along with co-director Duke Johnson.

Put as simply as possible, "Anomalisa" is about a married, middle-aged man who spends a night at a Cincinnati hotel where he tries to find love. But like so many of Kaufman's movies, there's much more than that. In the case of "Anomalisa," every character in the story -- save for the protagonist and one other -- has the same exact voice and looks more or less the same. Also, the whole thing is stop motion, and the movie is rated R for very detailed puppet sex.

The "Anomalisa" interviews over the last half year were largely focused on how hard it had been to make the movie. "'Anomalisa' literally almost destroyed the studio, multiple times," Johnson claimed in a podcast with The New Yorker. He added that the process involved "struggling everyday, sometimes crying in the parking lot," and joked, "you couldn't get [Kaufman] out of the parking lot."

With a budget of around $8 million, the project is still far from making its money back, only pulling in $3 million at the box office to date. ("Anomalisa" just debuted on Digital HD.) An Academy Award nomination and a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes does not always translate into money.

Johnson laments that the Internet seemed to wreck his movie's chances of earning a profit. He recalls discovering for himself that BitTorrent and other forms of illegal downloading particularly "hurts a small movie."

This current economic reality of the industry doesn't seem suited for a movie that insists on breaking formula.

"But I'm writing a novel now," Kaufman told HuffPost. "It [is] kind of a way out. Or at least theoretically a way out from this business." Kaufman is still writing a separate screenplay for "a sprawling satire about the United States," but he's unsure if he'll get the money to make it. In any case, for the cost of presumably somewhere around $10 and in a format that isn't quite so easily stolen, you will finally be able to read something Kaufman has written.


Given the chance for closing statements to end the "Anomalisa" press tour, Kaufman and Johnson decided to air grievances. Johnson exspressed frustration with people who "fancy themselves cinephiles" yet don't go to the theater in droves to support independent movies.

"Otherwise, the independent film will, if not die ..." Johnson trailed off, before backtracking slightly and conceding that even if making a movie top to bottom in the traditional sense may be becoming harder, the form probably won't fully die due to the increasing ease of the technicalities of filming.

The director expressed concern that the fate of independent film was to be dictated by whatever websites -- perhaps Funny or Die and BuzzFeed -- could afford to create. "And then people will only be able to see 'Star Wars' and Marvel movies in theaters, which is great and I like to do that, but I like to be able to do it all," Johnson said.

Kaufman agreed with Johnson. "There are not $20 million dollar movies anymore. I mean virtually none," he said. "A studio won't do it and independent people don't have that money. So they don't exist, [but] used to exist in studios."

The "$20 million movie" is how Kaufman made a name for himself -- "Eternal Sunshine" was made for $20 million, "Adaptation" for $19 million. Compared to years past, low-budget hits seem to be on the rise. (Though for what it's worth, the most recent Academy Award for Best Picture went to 2015's "Spotlight," a $20 million movie.)

"I wish that there was sort of a celebration of diversity in terms of content in movies," said Kaufman, going along with Johnson's superhero point. "I feel like that is a big big issue with our society and I feel like we've been trained as people to sort of go where the big money is and go where the corporations want us to and it's, I don't know, I find it disheartening."

Maybe Kaufman and Johnson are coming off a particularly disheartening few years in the movie business. But do we really want an industry that can't accommodate a screenwriter that has written -- according to Writers Guild of America -- three of the 101 greatest screenplays of all time? A writer whose work gets nominated by the Academy almost every time? Even when 2008's "Synecdoche, New York," didn't earn quite the same accolades, Roger Ebert -- arguably the most famous movie critic of all time -- still named it the best film of the decade.

When asked if he’s ever thought of what a dream $100 million Charlie Kaufman movie would look like, the writer initially said, “Well, the novel ...”

The upcoming Kaufman novel in his own words “is by design something I think is impossible to make into a movie. Sort of the opposite of what you're usually trying to do with a novel these days. It's like, it cannot be made. And that's what I set out to do."

And what's it about?

"It's about a movie," the writer said. "An impossible movie."

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