Brain Humor

Playing Head Games with the Director, Writer, and Star of Being John Malkovich

 October 26, 1999

It was always self-evident that when Spike Jonze, the most offhandedly avant-garde and whacked-out of the MTV brats, moved on from commercials and music videos to feature films, the result would acquire instant cult significance. But even his most inventive promos (the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," the Levi's operating-theater spot) could not have prefigured the sustained ingenuity of Being John Malkovich (opening October 29). In first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze has found a partner in inspired lunacy.

Recklessly absurd, Kaufman's premise is a brain-bending amalgam of Borges, Svankmajer, Kafka, and Alice in Wonderland: Craig, a frustrated puppeteer played by John Cusack, stumbles upon a portal that leads into the head of John Malkovich (playing himself). The woman Craig is smitten with, Maxine (Catherine Keener), sees the discovery as a cash cow and starts charging admission; for Craig's wife, Lotte (an unrecognizably dowdy Cameron Diaz), the experience is so transportive it's the first step to sexual reassignment surgery.

State of being: John Malkovich, 1999
photo: Robin Holland
State of being: John Malkovich, 1999

Though its surreal, fabulist quality invites metaphoric readings, the beauty of Being John Malkovich is that its headlong lysergic logic prevents the film from lingering on any one theme. The movie unearths, in Craig's words, one "metaphysical can of worms" after another, and like the pure-pop fantasia it is, deems them all disposable— like a really good trip, it's always hurtling toward something somehow crazier and more profound. Throughout, Jonze directs with a poker face that sneakily downplays the relentless forward motion and renders the underlying sense of mischief doubly anarchic.

Celebrity fixation ends up as the most superficial aspect of Being John Malkovich, though Jonze and Kaufman get to the root of the condition more succinctly and less glibly than any Hollywood media-age parable ever has. The company slogan for JM Inc., the portal-exploiting enterprise Maxine and Craig set up, is "Have you ever wanted to be someone else?" and it's implicit that the fundamental desire being served is not adventure but escape (have you ever not wanted to be yourself?). As a matter of course, the film goes further, folding erotic frustration, romantic paranoia, and sexual-identity crises into a gender-bending mindfuck of a love triangle— a quadrangle, if you count Malkovich the vessel body, which you probably should. And there's more still: the philosophical implications of virtual reality; mortal fear and the transmigration of souls; human frailty and the desperately real need for personal reinvention.

It's just as well that their film is so richly and casually suggestive, since Jonze and Kaufman's idea of PR seems to involve not discussing the movie in any meaningful way. It's the day after BJM's U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival and the glitzy postscreening party at the Harvard Club, which was decked out for the night with gilt-framed Malkovich portraits and swarming with Malko-look-alikes reciting the mantra "Malkovich, Malkovich" (an echo of one of the film's funniest and most unnerving scenes, in which Malkovich tunnels into his own head to discover a sea of Malkoviches intoning his/their name). Malkovich, Jonze, and Kaufman are gathered in a midtown hotel suite, and observing the three together, you're amazed that their collaboration proved so cohesive— they don't even seem to be from the same planet. Malkovich's stream of consciousness emanates in a dreamy, almost disembodied monotone; Jonze, though friendly and keen to please, falters every time he opens his mouth; Kaufman, unaccustomed to interrogation, spends most of the interview squirming.

Of the three, Kaufman seems most guarded, especially when the conversation turns to the cerebral foundations of his screenplay. "I don't know if the movie's saying one thing," he says. "I mean, I didn't write it that way. I wrote it as an exploration of different things, and I just wrote it as I wrote it. I didn't have a master plan."

Could he at least say why, of all people, he chose John Malkovich? "Does it make sense to you why it's John Malkovich?" Yes, kind of, but could he elaborate? "I'd rather not because if it makes sense then it works. I'd rather let people have their experience of it. I just thought it was right, and I never veered from that. There were times when it looked like it was going to be made and Spike and I didn't know yet if [Malkovich] was going to do it and we had to think of other people and it was impossible for us to come up with anybody else that was satisfying. I feel therefore Malkovich is the right person— we spent all this time trying to think of who else it could be and couldn't."

Jonze, even more hesitant, offers his theory. "One of the things I think is interesting, which is one of the reasons Charlie— I don't want to put words in his mouth— chose John is, you don't know much about him so you project onto him."

Malkovich— whose first words upon entering the room are "Great, I can finally put these two kids under fire"— says it wasn't too difficult to divorce himself from the John Malkovich of the script. "I didn't think about it in terms of me. It's a construct. I didn't really think about why he chose me, or really worry about it." Malkovich is, of course, perfect for the role. A wholly distinctive enigma, he's either the most affected actor on earth or the most affectless. Few performers can mesmerize like Malkovich, yet his blustery screen presence and insidiously knowing manner beg for deflation— and, in subtle ways, he is often his harshest deflator. This becomes deliciously evident when, asked if he approached the role differently than he would any other, he responds, "Without being too polemical, I don't really think of myself as John Malkovich."

As self-parody, Malkovich's performance is immaculately brutal— he's portrayed as a windbag, somehow respected even if no one can remember anything he was in except "that jewel-thief movie." By the end of the film, he's literally reduced to a puppet— and forced to perform something called "Craig's Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" in a towel. Yet, Malkovich says, "My concern was never about making fun of me. My only concern was that the things that made it appealing to make fun of me also made it difficult for me to make the decision [to be involved]. If you're a public person who's constructed a quieter private life, the world is so freakish that this makes you a target. You're opening a door, you could become a sort of stalker's delight, and that concerned me."

Is he speaking from experience? "The last [stalker] I had was in England. I hit him on the head with my knuckles about 400 times. I never saw him again. I was doing a play in the West End. He was outside after the show with a sandwich board on which he had scrawled hundreds of thousands of times with an ink pen, 'I'm waiting.' And I just sort of literally flipped my wig— I was wearing a wig— and went downstairs and just started rapping him in the head, and said, If you really think you're going to come here and play a psychopath with me, you'd better go away and study for a while. I've been waiting for you my whole life. When I talked to a psychiatrist, he said it was probably very well-handled. Not because of the bullying but because if they sense the fear, that's fatal. It's not a massive concern of mine. Usually it's pretty harmless. Phoebe Cates had a Japanese guy who moved from Tokyo to New York and changed his name to Phoebus Catus. . . . "

Having read and liked Kaufman's screenplay at an early stage, Malkovich eventually met with Jonze in Paris after receiving a call from Francis Ford Coppola, now Jonze's father-in-law (Jonze recently married Sofia Coppola), who told him, "We'll all be working for this kid in 10 years." Says Malkovich, "I realized that if I said no, this really original, funny thing that talks about really important ideas either wouldn't get made at all or wouldn't get made in the spirit it was written." Replacing the subject, he adds, "would be like saying if you wrote a script about Jackson Pollock that suddenly you had to make it about Rembrandt because they both work with crayons."

Even if he was playing "himself," Malkovich says he felt in no position to offer any insights or request changes to his portrayal "because the script by its nature takes that right away. I don't think Charlie's stupid, I think he knew enough about me to know I'd probably find it funny on some level. The only fear I had was that in the desire— the very good and proper desire— to get the film done, Spike and Charlie would feel like they had to make it gentler, or less mocking."

Jonze adds, "Not only did he liberate us to be mean, he said the meaner the better. On the shoot, he made everyone comfortable with playing with this character John Malkovich, not taking this character seriously, and it enabled all the other actors to feel very loose. There's this scene where Malkovich and Catherine Keener are having sex on the sofa, and she slaps him on top of the head, and it makes this really loud smacking sound, and I don't think she could've done that if John hadn't come into it with this attitude of having fun with it himself."

No less than Malkovich's gameness, Jonze's well-established flair for understating the ridiculous (see matter-of-factly insane music videos like "Praise You" and Daft Punk's "Da Funk") is what juices the film. Kaufman says it was the exact approach he'd had in mind for his delirious fable. "I never envisioned it as wacky. I'd always thought these people's situation was a terrible one, tragic and serious, and Spike interpreted that in a very nonstylized way, so that you didn't get lost in the pyrotechnics, or the weirdness of it."

Spike? "Yeah, well, I mean, I guess I figured the less you show, the better. And, um, the less we try and, you know, the more we leave open to people to just imagine, what you want to fill into the blanks, the more, um, the more sort of real it would be."

The burden of interpreting the movie falls on Malkovich: "I think there's a need for us to escape ourselves for some period of time, escape our existence, our ridiculousness, our nature. And there's the idea that a celebrity's blowjobs are interesting and yours aren't, which our culture insists on as a constitutional right and our media promulgates in the most vicious, irresponsible, ludicrous, cynical way. But there's also something deeper which is very innocent about this film— the metaphor of discovery. In the case of actors, writers, directors, you open that portal and that's really what we get to do. We get to go somewhere for Warhol's 15 minutes. In that way, the film is a defense of the theater, of movies, of creation, and it's very moving in a weird way— people going through a process of creation to discover everyday joys. In that way, it's sort of like Our Town."

But are celebrities, whose blowjobs are already officially interesting, perhaps more likely to respond to the fear of people wanting to get inside their heads? Would they not identify with the vessel? Jonze: "Part of being a person is just being, you know, the insecurities that make you think, lead you to want, feeling, having the feelings of wanting to be somebody else."

Malkovich: "I agree. But it's also a lack of narcissism to think, He's interesting, wonder what he thinks, what he must feel. To have that kind of voyeurism must imply some respect for the other. It doesn't just mean that whatever you're doing is pathetic. It means also that you kind of know what you're doing, but you don't know what they're doing, and it might be nice to find out. I've never wanted to be anybody else without particularly liking myself."

While it's not unreasonable to wonder how an oddity like Being John Malkovich will impact its star's career, the man himself seems more concerned with the potential spillover into his personal life. "If you're an actor who plays people, you can say, 'Look, I'm a professional actor, fuck off, go bother someone else.' But if you start becoming the subject, then I think that's clearly a line that's crossed."

And what happens now that he's crossed it? "I don't know, we'll see."

Laughing, Jonze tells him, "At the very least, people are going to come up to you and say, 'Hey, you were in that jewel-thief movie.' "

"I think it'll probably just be that," says Malkovich. "People will go, 'I love you in that jewel-thief movie' instead of saying some line from Con Air."

Without taking anything away from Jonze or the cast, it's clear that the real revelation of Being John Malkovich is its screenwriter— who, in New York, seemed a little overwhelmed by his first brush with public exposure (he'd skipped the film's world premiere in Venice). A couple of weeks later, speaking on the phone from the safety of his home in Los Angeles, Kaufman was relaxed enough to answer a few more questions.

You seem reluctant to say too much about the film. I want to allow people to have their experience of it rather than an experience colored by something I say.

Does it pain you to hear people's interpretations? No, I actually get a kick out of it. I don't think it's possible to misinterpret the movie. And I certainly don't mind if a critic interprets the movie. If it's not me, it feels a little cleaner.

What kind of films do you like? I like things that I don't see as commercial. Not that I'm anticommercial but if I feel like something's been designed to manipulate or control me, I bristle.

I hate to do this because people see it, and go, oh, that's what you're doing. A lot of David Lynch . . . now that I've named just one it's going to seem even more so. I'm going to have to name a list of people: Mike Leigh, David Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Tom Noonan's film What Happened Was . . . I like it when no one's telling me what I'm supposed to feel.

Tell me a little about Human Nature [a film Jonze and Kaufman are producing, written by Kaufman, to be directed by music-video veteran Michel Gondry, with Patricia Arquette starring]. Spike said it was about a woman who grows hair at an uncontrollable rate. It's difficult to describe it without making it sound wacky, which it isn't. It's about people struggling, lost people.

Like Malkovich. Hopefully not too much. It doesn't have a supernatural component.

So the hair thing is a medical condition? There are medical conditions like that. The film doesn't deal with that element, though. It's just what it is.

I hear you've also written a script about [Gong Show host] Chuck Barris [with Mike Myers reportedly interested in the role]. It's called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and it's adapted from his memoirs, in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA. I was interested in whether it was true, and if not, why he would say something like that— it's fascinating to me either way. I've also written a script for Jonathan Demme's company. It's called Adaptation, and it's an adaptation.

So it's a meta-adaptation? Perhaps. It's based on Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book about the world of orchid collectors, and specifically this man, John Laroche, who stole a rare orchid out of a swamp in Florida.

Are you working on any original screenplays? I'm working with Michel Gondry on a story that takes place almost entirely in someone's memory.

What's it called? Right now it's called "Untitled Memory Project."

That's catchy. Maybe you should keep it. I might. I've done stranger things.

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