Adapting Spike and Charlie
(expanded from 100 words written for) 7x7 Magazine
January 2003

 

One Friday in late-October, my editor calls, tells me she's got something fun for me if I've got time: a screening of a new film and interview with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. I yawn loudly and tell my editor that, sure, I think I can squeeze it in.

I hang up the phone and jump up and down shouting "Yessss!" and pumping my fist for a moment before rushing to my computer for some 411 on mssrs. Jonze and Kaufman and their new film, "Adaptation." Since I started at 7x7, this is my first chance for me to A.) interview someone that really interests me and B.) write about something firsthand rather than from phone interviews and press releases.

I learn from an obsessive fan website (beingcharliekaufman.tripod.com) that Kaufman hates the press, and especially abhors having his picture taken. Great. I find out that Spike's about five years younger than me (33) and Charlie's six older (44), that Spike got his start working with the Beastie Boys and with skater-turned-artist Mark Gonzalez, and that he's married to Sophia Coppola. I start working the phone. A friend who's just two degrees of kevinbacon from Spike tells me he's a good ping-pong
player and that he sometimes takes on zany, antagonistic personae when dealing with the press. And now it dawns on me, I am that "press" - not the fellow artist, not even a fan, I am the press.

I'm invited to attend either a private screening of the film on Tuesday or a larger word-of-mouth public screening on Thursday, and then participate in a round table interview with Spike and Charlie on Friday. By Tuesday morning, after reading half of "The Orchid Thief" and stuffing my brain with Spike and Charlie trivia and re- watching "Malkovich," I'm all atwitter. The whole thing is starting to feel like a blind date; I mean, I've asked my friends about Spike and Charlie, I've searched them on Google, you know - the usual pre-first-meeting routine, and, baby, I like what I see. I don't really begin to worry until I catch myself trying on outfits and wondering whether I should get a haircut before Friday.

* * *

On Tuesday morning, I arrive at a snazzy screening room in downtown San Francisco. The lobby's empty, so I wander into the dark theater to find that, but for one other writer and two women who work for the publicist, I'm here alone - Spike and Charlie are screening their new movie for ME. The room is like one of those small-screen rooms at an art house theater, only way more mod and cushy. I disappear into a huge, soft seat, open my notebook and settle in.

"Adaptation" starts with voiceover: Nicolas Cage as slouched, anxious Charlie Kaufman sits hunched and brooding over a typewriter, speaks in thoughtful voiceover: "To begin." Long pause. "I don't have an original thought in my head." He continues, struggling to put those tortured first words on a blank page, then drifts: "Coffee would help me think . . . coffee and a muffin." He pushes on, the creative mind at work, "Banana nut is a good muffin."

And, just like that, I'm hooked. I'm "Charlie" all over, only without all that bothersome success of the real Charlie K. The neuroses, the muffin, the blank page: all me me me. The film then begins its often frenetic jumps back and forth between Charlie and twin brother Donald's L.A. and Orlean's New York and LaRoche's Florida swamp with millions of stops in between until the three worlds inevitably collide. As the film progresses, I notice a few problems with "Adaptaion" - inconsistencies, occasional odd choices - but the film's so chock-full of amazing stuff (including one incredible scene involving Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and a dial tone) that when it's over I sit stunned. I leave the screening in a thrall and emerge, dazed, into the shocking midday sunlight.

Perhaps I'm unduly influenced by the fact that I'm actually being wooed by a publicist after years of begging for publicity as a writer/performer. Perhaps, no definitely, I'm being too much a fan, not enough a journalist. But fuck it: the movie is funny, it's clever, it's moving, it's good art *and* a good flick, and how often does that happen these days? They had me at "I don't
have an original thought in my head."

Two days later, there'll be that public screening in Berkeley and a Q&A with Charlie and Spike afterwards. There's no reason for me to go; I've already seen the film and I'll be interviewing them on Friday. And I don't have time, anyway.

* * *

Thursday evening arrives and, sporting a spanky new haircut, I get caught in heavy rush-hour traffic heading over to Berkeley and
barely make it to the grand, old California Theater before the screening is scheduled to start. Word of mouth spreads fast in a college town, and the cavernous venue is sold out. A long line of 18 to 26-year-olds waits outside anyway on the odd chance that there'll be leftover seats. I'm way late by now but see the PR guy, who ushers me in as if I'm Harvey Weinstein. The lobby is buzzing with youngsters saying things to each other like "Dude, you got in!! Did Rolf get in?!" And I realize that these kids have been weaned on "Malkovich" the way my generation was on "Blue Velvet" and "Repo Man" and "Stranger than Paradise."

After being shown to the cordoned-off press and VIP row, I get back up to buy popcorn, maybe a Coke too. Should I be buying popcorn? Will it seem unprofessional? There's no way Anthony Lane makes a popcorn run. But I'm really hungry. I hold off on the soda, though. Can't be seen sitting in press row with both hands full of concessions.

Back at my seat, the huge theater bristles with excited murmurs. I take notes about popcorn appropriateness. My mouth is dry. Popcorn with no soda, what exactly was I thinking? A middle-aged (and by middle-aged I mean 48-56, thankyouverymuch) woman leans over, asks "Are you a critic?" I tell her that I write for a magazine, but no, I'm not a critic. "So you *write* about films but don't *criticize* them." I consider explaining the concept of the preview/feature article, but then just say "Yes, precisely," and turn back to my notes, where I write a version of this very paragraph as she peers over my shoulder for a moment before zeroing in on her next target.

After a few minutes, the lights dim, and Berkeley English prof Kamilla Elliott gets on a mike and introduces the film to hoots and whistles from the revved-up crowd.

The audience laughs hard all the way through the film and offers a robust ovation when it's over. Then Spike and Charlie are trotted out to the front of the theater for a horribly awkward and ultimately out of control Q&A session. Kaufman and Jonze are extremely uncomfortable. They seem want to show their appreciation of their audience, but hate answering questions, often refusing to, in fact. (At one point, Spike passes his mike to a guy in the front row after a particularly convoluted query, saying, "Here, you handle this one.") Soon, people in the crowd just start randomly yelling questions and comments, and even yelling at each other to the tune of, "Why don't you just watch the movie again, moron!" I find myself worrying about Spike and Charlie and don't know how the publicists can let this get so out of hand. A couple of them finally jump in and end it, secreting Spike and Charlie out a side door. Clearly, they'll just be dying to talk to me tomorrow.

During the Q&A in Berkeley, a man in the back stood up and shouted, "I really loved your movie until it got to the last half hour and then it was all full of clichés and crap." Some people will indeed hate last act of "Adaptation" because of its self- consciousness and seeming self-contradiction and an irony bordering on cynicism. In the film, during his initial meeting with the producer who wants him to adapt Orlean's book, Charlie says, "I just don't want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end." In essence, the quasi-fictional Charlie wants exactly what the heckler wanted, what we all want: no "clichés and crap."

In "Adaptation's" early going, the fictive Charlie rails against these very sins of Hollywood, and while we as audience laugh at his pedantic extremity, we pretty much agree with Charlie because it's a Spike Jonze movie we've come to see, after all - we're all "indie" film fans here and we do bemoan how Tinseltown has ruined cinema. But just when we've gotten comfy with "Adaptation," it pulls the rug out from under us in a whirlwind, take-no-prisoners last act by indulging in every single one of those clichés, as characters do indeed overcome obstacles to succeed in the end.

We are repulsed by these Hollywood clichés, the real life Charlie K. seems to be saying, but we also love them, or at least need them - plots need them, and people, especially fictive people, do often require trauma to change or grow, and for a movie to move us, someone has to change or grow. (If this essay were comparable to "Adaptation," I'd now write, "just as orchids grow from inconsequential weeds into lush, miraculous objects of desire." The movie takes just such risks and pulls them off quite miraculously indeed.)

The man who shouted from the back of the theater just wasn't getting it. "Adaptation" may be faulted for its ambition, for trying to contain Whitmanesque multitudes of contradiction, but not for the clichés themselves. The film's great achievement is to show the necessity of just such contradiction - cynicism and romanticism duking it out, flagrant insipidness and the subtlest originality side by side, and Hollywood and Art hand in hand and toe to toe.

That said, I'll step off my soapbox. My wise and generous editorial-minded friends have all agreed that I shouldn't bother talking about the movie at all, that this essay is about me and my experience, but I just couldn't resist. But let's get back on track.

* * *

By this point, I've spent a week immersed in Spike and Charlie and Orlean and Laroche. I've seen the movie twice, I've watched its writer and director squirm in front of a couple thousand fans. I've envied them, I've felt like a fan, I've tried to feel like a journalist, I've even felt vaguely like a peer (if on a different scale - as they say, fame is just real life with a lot more people watching). Tomorrow, I'll meet them, I'll sit in a room with just a few other people and talk to them, listen to them. I'll ask them professional and literate questions, and they will answer with more or less interest, and that will be that.

I watch the last scene of "Malkovich" one more time, jot down a few questions, lay out my favorite shirt, cords, shoes, and go to bed.

* * *

After a very long and nerve-wracking Friday, it's finally 6 p.m. and I arrive at the Clift, a four-star hotel in downtown SF, where the interview is to take place. A bright-eyed young bellhop gets in the elevator with me, asks me my floor and presses the button, both with a certain verve, then says to me eagerly, "You look like you're going to a meeting, you've got that going-to-a-big-meeting look, are you going to a big meeting?!" I say no, an interview. He looks at me quizzically. I tell him no, not a job interview, I'm interviewing a movie director for a magazine. His eyes widen: "That's great, man! You're a writer! That's great! It takes a lot to get there man! Congratulations!" and he reaches out and gives my hand a vigorous shake and says again "Congratulations!" as the bell rings for my floor and I stumble off, frazzled. As it turns out, there's no one in the room I've been directed to - I rush back to the elevator and start to panic that I'm going to be late or miss the whole damn thing altogether, what was that kid some kind of a plant, some glitch in the matrix? But no sooner do I step off the elevator than I'm met by the PR guy, who at this point is beginning to seem like my own personal genie. He calmly escorts me (and three other writers) back upstairs to await the artists.

The four of us sit in a darkish, cozy, wood-paneled conference room. There's free Pellegrino and fancy bakery-style cookies. I take a cookie *and* a Pellegrino without hesitation.

About my colleagues: one is older than me, maybe 47, ex-rocker type, kind of grizzled, with tons of notes on a pad in front of him. Another guy is maybe 33 and blond, kind of incongruously handsome and hiply dressed for his geek/smarty-pants, fast-talking manner. The last of my fellow scribes is a young woman from a local free weekly. She's kind of collegiate indie-casual, seems at ease and experienced despite her apparent youth.

We all find the perfect spots for and turn on our mini-cassette recorders. I'm strangely unintimidated by any of them or the situation. I eat my cookie with authority - heck, I eat it with cockiness. It's a pretty good cookie.

In a few minutes, the PR guy brings in Spike and Charlie. There's a brief introduction period. Spike is going out of his way to be easygoing, friendly even, greeting each of us in turn, asking polite questions about our publications (all of which makes me nervous, he's being way too nice). Ex-Rocker works for a gamer magazine, and he and Spike chat about their current favorite video games for a minute. Spike seems to be compensating for Charlie's reticence. Charlie doesn't make eye contact, and offers only clipped hellos. He has the almost arrogant defensiveness of the truly sensitive soul, of a nice guy who's not at all comfortable with his growing fame. He answers questions curtly, often testily, and smiles rarely. All the same, Charlie's not being mean or nasty, just heavily guarded. Spike is playing "good cop" to Charlie's "bad cop."

They are both dressed completely casually. Spike is skinny, has long brown, unkempt hair and a lazy semi-beard, looks every bit the skater he was back in the day. Charlie's clothes are nondescript and I quickly forget them, something like jeans and a button down shirt. His hair is curly and shortish and he is shortish and pleasant looking almost in spite of his demeanor - not "fat, ugly, bald, repulsive," as his Nick Cage likeness repeatedly calls himself.

The actual interview goes well. Geek guy tries to get in every single question, but he is only hurting himself as the rest of us quickly gang up to get our licks in and Spike and Charlie become more and more brief in their responses to his questions that seem to simultaneously attempt incisive erudition and unabashed bootlicking. I ask the questions I'd hoped to ask - one in particular about whether the two of them were nervous to be working with an icon like Streep, and a couple of others. My questions are greeted for the most part warmly by S & C, whose answers in turn interest me. (Highlights of the actual interview, as mentioned earlier, are pasted below.)

After about 45 minutes of this bizarrely pleasant conversation (for a situation that's, in essence, two detainees held captive by a handler and four interrogators), the PR people come in to end the session. I tell Spike about a big art opening and party later that night for a show that his friend Mark Gonzalez has work in, and add that a mutual acquaintance of ours will be there. He seems interested, asks for the details, and says "Sounds great, we'll be there!" like he really means it. Spike and Charlie and Orlean are about to give a presentation and screening for the New Yorker Festival over at SFMOMA and we are hurried out the door. Spike passes me in the hall. "Here, man," he almost whispers, "take these," and hands me a bunch of the hotel cookies wrapped in a napkin: It's a lovely, kooky gesture and I want to slip him my phone number in return.

That night, the art opening was packed and I never saw Spike, but there were thousands of people there, so he may well have attended. I left early, but one friend said he thought he saw him.

And that, as they say, was that. I had hoped to tell you that Spike and Charlie and I met up later for drinks which became an all-night brainstorming session for a project that will make "Citizen Kane" look like "Billy Madison," but, alas, it was not in the cards.

* * *

Epilogue: One week later, I'm sitting at the café finishing my "Adaptation" item for the magazine and struggling with a first draft of this here that you're now reading. A lissome, raven-haired beauty sits down at the table next to mine, sees my copy of "The Orchid Thief" on the table, asks what it's about. I tell her, then I tell her about the movie and can't help but mention that I'm writing about it. She smiles. She has a lovely smile. She has the café's dog-eared copy of 7x7 in her hand. I give her a fresh copy that I just happen to have in my bag. We chat some more. Then her lover - tall, Cali-handsome, rebel/surfer/architect - sits down, and our conversation ends. When they get up to leave, she asks me my name, I tell her. "I'm Laura," she says, "I look forward to reading your article. Good to meet you, Jamie." And, suddenly, I am a cartoon man, pink and pliable, head expanded to the size of the entire café.

That Friday, I go into the 7x7 office and my editor tells me she just talked to the press agent for Spike and Charlie who said that "the guys" really liked me. This warms my heart way too fucking much. It also contradicts the accidental brilliance of Donald in the film, when, in a climactic moment, he finally explains his wide-eyed innocence and obliviousness to his brother, "You are what you love, not what loves you. I decided that a long time ago." Donald just doesn't care about approval, acceptance; he does what he does and loves what he loves, and if it doesn't love
him back, so what?

This is perhaps the masturbatoriest of all the masterbatoryish writing I've ever shared with you, my forgiving public. In "Adaptation," Charlie jerks off to fantasies of the movie producer for whom he's writing the script (Tilda Swinton, by the by); he jerks off to the jacket-flap photo of Susan Orlean and his fantasy of her makes love to him, softly tells him it'll be alright, just pare it down, just write the stuff that really matters, it'll be alright. The next day, Kaufman wakes, thinks "I have no understanding of anything but my own panic and self-loathing." Suddenly, the proverbial light bulb goes off over his head and he begins shouting maniacally into his tape recorder: "We open on Charlie Kaufman: fat, bald, ugly!" Charlie has found his muse, entered his own screenplay, and is on his way to writing "Adaptation."

I want to hear voices from book jacket flaps. I want an oblivious but ultimately wise and inspiring twin brother as my prod. Sadly, I don't live in a movie. But then again, neither does Charlie Kaufman, and he wrote "Adaptation." For now, I sit and struggle to put first words on a blank screen. Maybe coffee will help. And a bagel. Poppy's a good bagel . . . with cream cheese, and maybe some tomato. . . .

* * *

Interview with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman (excerpted)

Friday, 10/25/02, 6 p.m., The Clift Hotel, San Francisco

About my colleagues at the round-table interview sessin: one is older than me, maybe 47, ex-rocker type, kind of grizzled, with tons of notes on a pad in front of him. Another guy is maybe 33 and blond, incongruously handsome and hiply dressed for his geek/smarty-pants persona. The last of my fellow scribes is a young woman from a local free weekly. She's kind of collegiate indie-casual, seems at ease and experienced despite her apparent youth.

The four of us sit in a darkish, cozy, wood-paneled conference room. In a few minutes, the PR guy brings in Spike and Charlie. There's a brief introduction period. Spike is going out of his way to be easygoing, friendly even, greeting each of us in turn, asking polite questions about our publications. Charlie doesn't make much eye contact, and offers only clipped hellos. He has the almost arrogant defensiveness of the truly sensitive soul, of a nice guy who's not at all comfortable with his growing fame. He answers questions curtly, often testily, and smiles rarely. All the same, he's not being mean or nasty, exactly, just heavily guarded. Spike is "good cop" to Charlie's "bad cop."

They are both dressed completely casually. Spike is skinny, with long brown, unkempt hair and a lazy semi-beard, looks every bit the skater he was back in the day. Charlie's clothes are nondescript and I quickly forget them, something like jeans and a button down shirt. His hair is curly and shortish and he is shortish and pleasant looking almost in spite of his demeanor - not "fat, ugly, bald, repulsive," as his Nick Cage likeness repeatedly calls himself in the film.

Participants:
Ex-Rocker
Geek
Indie
Charlie
Spike
Me

The interview begins abruptly as Geek interrupts a conversation that Spike is having with Ex-Rocker about video games.

Geek: Has the real Susan Orlean seen the film?

Spike:
She's seen it a few times. She likes it a lot. She saw the script, she knew what she was getting into, we had to get her permission to use her name.

Rocker:
Has Robert McKee seen the movie? (McKee is the screenwriting guru whose workshop Donald takes to learn the "craft" of screenwriting, and whom "Charlie" initially reviles and mocks.)

Spike:
He has and he loves it. He thinks it's funny. He can laugh at himself.

Charlie:
He came up to me after the screening, said it was funny but fair.

Me:
What about Laroche?

Spike:
Laroche hasn't seen it yet.

Me:
I would think he'd be chomping at the bit.

Spike:
He was into being paid for his rights and that he received this sixty page contract from Columbia Pictures, he thought that was cool.

Geek:
There's the quote in the movie and if I've paraphrased it wrong forgive me but it was like "Adaptation is a profound process and a way to survive in the world." How would you say that you two guys have adapted to surviving in Hollywood?

Spike:
With "Being John Malkovich" we were able to make it the way we wanted to make it - part willpower, part luck, but most importantly John Malkovich himself, and that helped up making our second movie. People who gave us money for this movie had liked our last movie.

Geek:
What kind of work did you do with Nicholas Cage to prepare for this role and did you have any reservations about him playing the screenwriter?

Spike:
NO reservations. He read the script and was really into the script and just really gave himself over to us. The first day he said, "I don't want to work the way I normally work. I want to work the way you guys work." And he did, he really was up for whatever. He's up for anything. He'll make himself look like an idiot, he's unguarded.

Geek:
He's really into German expressionism right? So he's just totally all about weird looking things and weird looking things that are so over the top that take things to another level.

Spike:
(not knowing what to make of that) I watched "Raising Arizona" again last week and he's just so heartfelt.

Geek:
There's definitely this amazing sense of absurdity going on [in "Adaptation"] but it still feels like it's about people, not just "I'm just being weird and wacky for wacky's sake". How do you guys keep that balance?

Charlie:
Well, I think that's one of the most important things to us is being true to the characters. It only works if it attaches itself to something real.

Geek: How much of the script was real?

Charlie: Well I'm not saying that-- even in Malkovich, where none of it is "real" I'm still trying to make real interactions between people, so the reactions that "Charlie" is going through are real and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script even though specific things have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes.

Ex-Rocker:
Like all the masturbatory sequences, were those true to--

Charlie:
(laughing, which relieves the whole room)
Look, I'm not going to say that, but a lot of the things are pretty close to the way they happened.

Ex-Rocker:
What did you think when you turned in the script?

Charlie:
I though I was never going to work again. I thought "I have to turn something in, it's better to turn something in than nothing at this point." They were expecting something else entirely.

Me:
The reaction [at the Berkeley screening] was pretty incredible. I saw it on Tuesday pretty much by myself and then with the big crowd yesterday and it was a very different experience.

Spike:
Was it really different?

Me:
Well on Tuesday I was more involved in the emotional life of the film because there weren't people laughing all around me. On Thursday I felt almost protective of the film, like in the swamp scene, the audience was laughing and I'm thinking, "Hey, that's not funny" when Donald is talking about love and "You are what you love."

Spike:
We're hoping that one reaction doesn't cancel out the other, that any reaction to the movie is interesting and we don't want to say "This is what the movie is about."

Charlie:
And you can have different reactions to the movie in different circumstances.

Geek:
To paraphrase rapper Sadat X, he has a lyric that says "You keep one foot in the street, the other in the studio." Would "Jackass" ["Jackass: the Movie" opened the previous week and was number one at the box office - Spike's in the movie.] be kind of keeping your one foot in the street?"

Spike:
I guess I don't think of it that way, it's just all stuff that I'm interested in.

Me:
Charlie, you were talking about, and "Charlie" in the film talks about the anxiety of presenting yourself and your screenplay to Orlean. Was there any other, different pressure in presenting it to Streep because she's such an icon. The audience just gasped [at the screening] last night when Laroche says "What's come over you?" and Streep/Orlean says "Well you just came all over me a minute ago." Was there any anxiety at asking her to do any of that?

[Charlie starts to say something like "We don't want to answer that" but Spike jumps in]:
Not specifically to that, but just in general, I think, uh, I think she was interested in, she loved the script and from the beginning, she committed to going with it, and was beyond fine with it, added to it. It's a valid question, but--

Me:
(trying to clarify)
I'm not trying to find out if she was difficult to work with, I just meant your own fear in making your first film with such a huge Hollywood star, in asking her to say or do certain things that she's not usually asked--

Charlie:
(interrupts in what I'm beginning to see is classic Charlie form)
She agreed to do the movie and she read the script, we were all on the same page.

Geek:
Your character is kind of lurking around the set of "Malkovich" ["Adaptation" recreates a couple of sets and uses the actors from "Malkovich," a really nice touch]. Was that true to life? Were you really present day to day on this film? Were you like telling Nick Cage, "No no, I don't do it that way, I don't sweat like that."

Charlie:
No, Nick sweats in his own way. I met with Nick a bunch of times to talk to him and he kind of interviewed me then they went off and did it. I don't think he was trying to really do "me," just a character that happened to have my name on it.

Geek:
Did he have any input in the writing?

Charlie:
No, in fact he was so faithful to the script, down to the comma, it was really amazing, he'd come in and deliver the lines exactly as written.

Spike:
. . . and torment himself about it.

Ex-Rocker:
It's the best thing I've seen from him, I mean he's kind of become a caricature of himself in the last few years, and you guys , I was like "Holy shit," the two of you , I don't know what got into him, but it's the best thing he's done in years

Indie (to Charlie):
Were you involved in the casting at all?

Charlie:
We talk about everything but I don't have any veto power or anything.

Indie:
Did you have any say in who was going to play you?

Charlie:
I don't tend to think about actors when I'm writing.

Geek:
Can you definitely tell us whether Donald Kaufman really existed?

Spike:
What's real or not real isn't that important to us, it's part of the experience of sitting there.

Geek:
So does he or doesn't he exist?

Spike:
You can decide that for yourself.

Geek:
(to Charlie)
So is he your alter ego?

Charlie:
No.

( . . . and then the publicists came and ended the session . . . .)

One high point of the Q&A after the screening in Berkeley. Someone asks, "Did you two collaborate on the writing?"

Charlie: "I wrote the damn script."
Huge laugh.

 

 


© 2006 Jamie Berger