There Are No Rules - Charlie Kaufman On Screenwriting

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on June 23, 2015

“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That's what Robert De Niro had to say about writers. I know a lot of you writers identify with this description and that may not be such a bad thing.

Alright, that's not a great way of living either. However you need not be disheartened. Even Academy Award winning screenwriters struggle. Case in point being Charlie Kaufman. The acclaimed Oscar winning screenwriter of classics like Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptationis one of the most eccentric writers around. And that is what makes him worth listening to.

This interesting interview has him talking about his writing process. Along the way he shares some interesting anecdotes and advice for his fellow writers.

1. It's OK If The Audience Doesn't Completely Understand The Script

A difference in perspective is something a screenwriter should embrace. It is not always necessary for the audience to understand your script. All a screenwriter should care about is how to write in the most subtle manner to hope for the viewers to understand.

When asked about perspective, this is what Charlie Kaufman had to say:

“But I also think perspective is overrated and not what I’m going for. When I’m writing, I’m trying to immerse myself in the chaos of an emotional experience, rather than separate myself from it and look back at it from a distance with clarity and tell it as a story. Because that’s how life is lived, you know? Life is not lived 10 years ahead of itself—there’s a lie to that. The conventional wisdom is—people say this all the time—you should only write something when you’re far enough away from it that you can have a perspective. But that’s not true. That’s a story that you’re telling. The truth of it is here, right now. It’s the only truth that we ever know.”

2. Sometimes The Most Difficult Scene To Write Might Be The Easiest To Shoot

It is not uncommon for a screenwriter to be stuck on one scene. You want to visualize, interpret or contemplate the sequence in your head, but might fail in the process. Try and take into account the structure and the concept.  It is during times like these that one needs to keep calm, practical and get by.

Charlie Kaufman shares his experience regarding the same:

“I don’t watch [my movies] either. You don’t want to. Because you’ve spent so many months going over and over it in editing. But I will occasionally, several years later, catch something on television. I feel I get a cleaner view of it after a few years. There are so many mistakes, so many glaring problems. I remember watching Being John Malkovich. We had this one scene, scene 100, which was so difficult for us. It was a scene where Dr. Lester explains how the portal works and it was a bear. We did so many different versions, so many different angles and voice overs. But when I watched it, it goes by pretty quickly. You don’t really think about it. It serves its purpose and it works in a way that for an audience, I think… I don’t have anything like that in this movie — you know, glaring problems that I had to work around. It’s hard for me to sort of feel it.”

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3. Embrace Change

This is one thing that every screenwriter should and must follow. There would be times when you are stranded at a point without any way to move forward. Just because it causes inconvenience, doesn't mean you ignore it. Change, modify, adapt. But keep moving.

4. There Are No Rules

There are no rules for writing a good screenplay. All you have to do is follow your instincts.

“So what is a screenplay, or what might it be? Since we’re talking specifically about screenplays tonight. A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a 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. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model.”

5. Explore and Find Your Voice

Like he says, there is no rule to follow. In order to become one, make sure you follow your inner voice to explore all the possibilities. This might be a struggle, but it is necessary for you to do so in order to move ahead.


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