“I’m a walking cliché,” begins Charlie Kaufman’s breathy voice-over over a blank page in Adaptation, a pop-surrealist manifesto that works at every turn to confound the meaning of these words. Directed by Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich cohort Spike Jonze, Adaptation (in theaters Friday) looks into the horrific abyss experienced by all self-conscious writers who aspire to art—how do I create something original when everything has been done before?—and responds, as many self-conscious writers have, by writing about the process of its own creation: The movie’s neurotic, overweight, balding protagonist shares the name (and, we assume, the nebbish identity) of its Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
Adaptation is ostensibly the story of Kaufman’s own crackup after being hired to turn Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a big-budget screenplay. Following many tortured attempts to adapt Orlean’s book, a nonfictional exploration of the passion generated by the testicular flower, Kaufman (in the hefty form of Nicolas Cage) responds with the ultimate challenge to both commercial Hollywood and its novocained cousin, director-centric auteurism: He writes himself into the script. Charlie’s “twin brother” Donald plays the foil to his torment, his natural screenwriting skills blossoming thanks to plot-workshop guru Robert McKee.
The “conversation” that follows takes place at what is commonly called a “round table” at an industry love-in commonly called a “junket.” The two creators and their star(s), Cage (twirling a large signet man ring surely pilfered from Elvis’s boudoir), greet the journalist minions with varying degrees of studio-mandated enthusiasm. “Is someone going to ask a question?” Cage barks, before describing his “spinal column” as the key to his “character geography,” then sketching a likeness of Ringo Starr on a hotel notepad.
On a post-Jackass high, the scraggly bearded Jonze actually seems into the idea of journalist-auteur critical exchange, while Kaufman—nowhere near as bloated or balding as Adaptation‘s Charlie—nervously relays anecdotes about producer Edward Saxon’s bemused response to the script’s first draft (“He was angry and confused and wanted to know who Donald was, and why I had farmed out part of my script.”) Then one innocent journo makes the mistake of turning the inquisition around to the actual film: Much pre-planned evasion ensues. Still, frustrating as the authors’ trickster posture may be, in the context of Adaptation‘s barely hidden disgust for hackneyed models of presentation, it’s damned near principled.
I wonder if you could address the changes in Charlie’s character, and how this kind of snowballs into the film’s third act.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I guess, I’m not sure, I see what you’re saying, yeah, that part of it is, yeah, a gradual transition into this, yeah, another place, but, the, um, it’s hard for us to talk too much about the end as, uh, we’ve been trying not to explain what the movie is about because we’ve had a lot of reactions, both positive and negative, and, you know, I think that’s important. So maybe I think more importantly, like, what was your reaction?
It’s clear you’re playing with our notion of reality. At a certain point, characters change from “lifelike” to something “Hollywood.” But I’m not going to make any judgments.
Jonze: Oh you can! Whatever you say is legitimate.
But I think you don’t want me to make any judgments. How you’ve structured the film makes it, in a way, critic-proof. You guys sort of have your cake and eat it too.
Jonze: I don’t know, I mean, our goal, yeah, I guess, I’ve never heard of it being critic-proof . . . and I’m sure it won’t be. I guess that’s why we, we don’t want to, we’re not trying to defend it. If people have a reaction against it then that’s legitimate, and we’re not going to try and persuade them some other way of thinking about it, um. I think that’s important to be able to maintain that, as opposed to us trying to say, “This is how you’re going to think about it.” I don’t know if I’m making any sense. Charlie Kaufman: Not to defend it, we honestly don’t think about making films that are critic-proof. I mean, our goal is to do something, not to impress people or make it critic-proof or get a big audience. So, I mean, I guess all I’m saying is I’m agreeing with Spike, and any interpretation is acceptable, and it’s certainly acceptable to say it’s critic-proof, but I don’t feel like anybody was cynical.
I never said you were being cynical.
Kaufman: Well, I’d feel cynical if I was making a movie whose goal it was to be critic-proof.
I didn’t say that was your goal. I do find it intriguing that if someone criticizes the film, you can say—well, actually, I guess you wouldn’t say anything—but I can point to evidence that would counter their arguments.
Kaufman: We were trying to create a conversation. And maybe that’s what makes it, as you say, “critic-proof.” If it is, we were exploring different things. So the movie is more of a conversation with the audience, and hopefully people will participate as individuals. Jonze: Yeah, you guys have articles to write, and, uh, we don’t want to work against that. We encourage people to have reactions and think and talk and write about that. The norm now where there’s so much “entertainment journalism” is everything’s talked about to the nth degree by the people who make it, and there’s like this constant noise effect where, I guess, you know, not that that’s our motivation, but in terms of, uh . . . you know, I could . . . if . . . We just don’t want to present this movie in that context.
Read more meta-coverage
J. Hoberman’s review of Adaptation