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January 14, 2012 9:43 AM   Subscribe

"We're starving." - Charlie Kaufman's BAFTA Screenwriters lecture, recorded September 30, 2011. PDF transcript.
Previously 1, 2
posted by timshel (20 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
He starts by saying he doesn't know anything. And yet, I want to continue to hear what he's got to say.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:53 AM on January 14, 2012

Huh. Interesting, makes concrete a few running themes in his movies so far, alienation, the inability to ever know what it's like to be another person/see inside their heads, the reinterpretation of events/the retelling of stories edited to favor the teller and the tricky problem of memory and being honest leading up to Synecochene, NY which, as soon as the credits rolled, made me think he'd better have a loving and supportive network cause damn that was very specifically depressing for say, writers who think they're smart and I wanted to go crawl into a hole and die.
posted by The Whelk at 10:01 AM on January 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Can't wait for the scene is his next movie where the lead character is delivering a lecture and
I get to hear/see ALL THE HORRIBLE THINGS that are going on in his head while he's giving this
posted by gcbv at 10:08 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just fyi for anyone thinking about watching this or not, it's not really about screenwriting.
posted by empath at 10:08 AM on January 14, 2012

I get to hear/see ALL THE HORRIBLE THINGS that are going on in his head while he's giving this

I guess you didn't get to the 25 minute mark.
posted by empath at 10:15 AM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

That was really great, thank you for posting this timshel.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:47 AM on January 14, 2012

Very nice. As someone who often turns to MetaFilter to avoid something I'm supposed to be writing (like right now), I really liked his quote from Thomas Mann, "A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people." And this, from Kaufman himself: "‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favorite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back."
posted by LeLiLo at 10:49 AM on January 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I enjoyed reading this piece.

On the other hand ...

As I’m sure you know, there is a fungus – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – that infects the brains of carpenter ants and it turns them into zombie slaves, more or less. What happens is that the ants climb to the underside of leaves near the forest floor, secure themselves to the leaves and then die, becoming a food source for the fungus ... Eventually the positioning of the ant corpse serves to allow the spores to burst out of the ant’s head and rain down on other ants.

... You can't un-read that.
posted by hypotheticole at 10:57 AM on January 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

One time I was at an art opening. The art being shown was distinctly terrible, like photos of fancy hotel lobbies that were run through a Photoshop kaleidoscope filter. It was also incredibly crowded, and I was struggling to get through a doorway at the same time a short curly-haired guy was trying to get through the doorway going the other way. We made eye contact for a split second and it seemed like a moment of understanding or commiseration passed between us: "Neither of us want to be here, at all."

It was not until much later that I realized it was Charlie Kaufman.
posted by speicus at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

... You can't un-read that.

You can't unsee this
posted by The Whelk at 11:01 AM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do.

As I move through time, things change. I change, the world changes, the way the world sees me changes. I age, I fail, I succeed, I am lost. I have a moment of calm. The remnants of who I have been, however, hover, embarrass me, depress me, make me wistful. The inkling of who I will be depresses me, makes me hopeful, scares me, and embarrasses me. And here I stand at this crossroads, always embarrassed, wistful, depressed, angry, longing, looking back, looking forward.

It’s always a mistake to settle on any explanation for anything, because whatever you settle on you will be wrong, even if you’re right.

That's what wisdom sounds like. He should do more nonfiction.
posted by euphorb at 11:05 AM on January 14, 2012 [17 favorites]

You can't un-read that.

For more of the same, read Parasite Rex. It'll squick you out, but it's a fascinating look at ecology and how systems are far more complex than they may appear at first glance.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2012

Oh holy crap. I started reading the transcript first, I got to about page 5 and I thought I really need to see him deliver this speech on video. The BAFTA intro montage, screaming of the artistic authority and esteemed cultural position of filmmakers, would probably have seemed like a good thing, if I hadn't already read to page 5. Now it just seems ludicrous. And then at about 6:35, they cut away from the speech to give an excerpt from one of his movies, audio only while the camera gazes lovingly over those words on a written screenplay.

Apparently, nobody at BAFTA who worked on this video presentation listened to the speech, or they would not have presented it in this manner. I can't take it anymore. Don't watch the video. Read the text. I'm only halfway through and I just do not know what to think about it. That's Kaufman's message, apparently.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:04 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

"‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favorite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back."

Thank you, Sean Penn.
posted by O Blitiri at 12:07 PM on January 14, 2012

Synecdoche, NY is one of my favorite movies. The first time I saw it, it just about crushed me to death. But every subsequent watching it's been a comedy, about people too obsessed with the purpose of life to enjoy the life they've got right in front of them. The happiest people are the ones who think about what they've got rather than what they want.

The wonderful thing about the movie is that the first time you watch it wondering what the end will be, what resolution. Then the end comes and it's the only thing it could have possibly been. It's like, stop giving such a shit about how it ends! Stop worrying about finishing every single thing in your life! Your art! It all comes to an end, and when it does, you have no control over that ending. All you control is what you've got now, and if you spend your life looking for the end, you might lose the people who want to be here with you right now.

It's a tragedy if you see yourself in Caden Cotard, a comedy if you don't. The act of watching the movie pushed me out of my own head, and returning I thought it was all hilarious. Funny enough, I've since screened it for friends who thought it was a comedy from the first watch. If I get to the end and somebody laughs, it endears them to me an awful lot.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:58 PM on January 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

I really needed to hear this right now, thank you.
posted by neuromodulator at 1:01 PM on January 14, 2012

the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back

Time well spent is time I'd never want to get back.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:56 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The happiest people are the ones who think about what they've got rather than what they want.

I think people really are more content and happy-in-a-deep-and-longterm-sense when our focus is on the moment, but sometimes it's incredibly depressing because it means that dreaming must be a kind of illness. A lot of the world is simply stupid and horrible. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a great example of horror, but it's kind of fascinating and adds a certain mystery and dread to the world that I at least appreciate. Many things in life are just miserable, mundane and soul draining. I'm reminded of three things, which are all of course borrowed from other people. There's this scene in Grant Morrison's The Filth:

Greg Feely: I don't care; you took everything I had. And I wanted an explanation. Wanted it all to make sense but it's just shit. [Greg picks up some horrible filth] What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do with this?

Mother Dirt: Spread it on your flowers, Greg.
There's this infamous koan:
A monk once asked Ummon, "What is the Buddha?" Ummon answered thus: "A dried shit-stick!" (Note: A 'dry shit stick' was the medieval equivalent of toilet paper. Hence Yunmen's reply is sometimes translated as "Something to wipe your arse on!"
And there's this, by Anais Nin:
You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book...or you take a trip...and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernation are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure.
That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children.
And then some chock treatment takes place--a person, a book, a song--and it awakens them and saves them from death.

Some never awaken.
Synecdoche is neither a tragedy nor a comedy in my view. It's funny, sometimes, and it's heartrendingly regretful at times. It's a lot more honest than fiction usually is. I guess something I pick up from it is that it's worth trying to awaken, to see the Buddha in a piece of shit and spread it on our flowers; but that's difficult. In fact, it's impossible. We all fail in that endeavor. We all die, eventually, and death is never pretty or something we'll ever make real peace with if we're completely honest. All the beauty and splendor of life exists in the midst of a swirling cloud of stupidity and horror, and not forever.
posted by byanyothername at 3:07 PM on January 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well that was an interesting way to spend the afternoon. I started out by watching the NHK Kouhaku, the annual New Year's Eve musical extravaganza. It took me some time to locate it on the net, I watch it every year because it is the biggest budget entertainment program in the world, and I often describe Japanese TV as a massive mechanism to sell the public on a specific way of thinking. I want to see what Big Media is selling, and how they sell it. The Kouhaku has indoctrination for everyone, from the kids with Mickey Mouse, to the elders with enka music. I skip through everything but the enka. A while ago, I asked a friend what it meant if I cry when I listen to enka. He said, "it means you're old."

This year's program filled me with ennui. The theme was "Sing of Japan's Tomorrow." The theme seemed more fatuous than I had ever seen, amidst's Japan's despair over the largest disaster in modern times. It seemed difficult to buy into a concept of a bright future, when the recent past had been so dismal. My own recent past seemed particularly dismal.

So pre-loaded with some unidentifiable pang of "sabi," regret over the passing of time, I loaded MeFi and found this little essay. It made me think back to my days in Hollywood as a minor Script Doctor, and how the screenwriters I knew were all so wrapped up in self-doubt and questioned the purpose of their lives so persistently that some of them became agoraphobics who could not leave the house. And instantly, I recognized this as a major theme of Kaufman's speech, and in my own life as well. He knows of wherefrom he speaks. And I had a shock of recognition that occasionally passes through me, "oh hell, I'm a writer." I often quote William Zinsser, who said, "A writer is inexorably alone with himself." Kaufman recognized this concept, the isolation of the individual as he wrestles with himself.

I began to ponder his essay. Could it be that writing, or all art, is that which in the creation and in the consumption, makes us more human? It could not be that easy (not that being or becoming human was ever that easy). Perhaps it is something that distracts us from that uneasy contemplation, while delivering that message subconsciously. I don't know.

I thought back to a quote from an old filmmaker's manual (which was stolen from me by a friend who is a failed screenwriter). It was from Truffaut, who said something to the effect that "Film is the art of leading the thoughts and associations of the viewer through time." And Kaufman surely is a master of invoking complex chains of thought and connotation. And I've never even seen one of his films. I spent several hours following those chains and never came to any conclusions, only more questions that filled me with a sense of dread. Oh hell, I'm a writer.

So I started wondering how the hell I became a writer, and why, and what the hell I'm doing. I surely didn't intend to become a writer, I intended to become a painter. I often quoted the apocryphal statement attributed to Picasso, "If I could tell you what this painting was about with words, I would be a writer, not a painter." Writing seemed to be my non-native language, compared to visual imagemaking. But I recognized a strong urge that Kaufman described. I told the same stories over and over, they changed with the telling, each iteration refining its way of seeking approval from the audience. When I recognized this in me, years ago, I was so disgusted that I took up blogging to exorcise these stories from my head. I figured that if I just wrote them down once, definitively, I would be forever freed from the urge to bore people with (and myself) with the same old stupid stories. It worked pretty well.. for a while.

It was through those blogged essays that I was contacted by an editor. He liked my writing and said I should consider letting him pay me for it, instead of giving it away for free. I agreed, and immediately I was seized with a bout of writer's block, over two years in duration. I felt like an idiot, this was the exact problem I used to coach scriptwriters about, it was my specialty. But now I could not solve this problem for myself. Script Doctor, heal thyself. Finally the editor said just ship me the story NOW and gave me 48 hours. I realized what I was doing in my writing process: torturing myself. I would iterate the story over and over in my head, telling it to myself repeatedly, until it was refined enough to blurt out onto the keyboard. So I blurted it out. Two years of neurosis became two days of activity. The story sold. The reaction was positive. I was a published writer.

So Kaufman's invocation of Thomas Mann, "A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people," resonated with me. I struggled with this for years, until I finally decided what makes someone a professional writer (or perhaps it was just me). A writer is someone who will do for money, what he would do for no other reason. It is too hard, only the sheer desperation of survival, of paying for food and rent, would motivate me. "We're starving."

But still those self-recriminations haunted me. I didn't need to read the critics to doubt my worthiness, I was capable of doing that for myself. I was particularly haunted over my most recent job. I wrote a story from my past, one of those stories I told over and over until it became part of my personal mythos, with myself as the hero (of course). I had told it so often, all I had to do was write it down. But I still tortured myself endlessly with more iterations, then blurted it out. I submitted it and got the strangest reaction from my editor. Instead of the usual edits and refinements, he said it was perfect. I insisted that it was only a first draft, it could not possibly be perfect, doesn't he have any suggestions at all? No. So I attempted to refine it myself in a second draft. I labored for days, and I could not change a single word. This freaked me out. I could not possibly be such a good writer that a first draft is the final draft. The editor said I should just live with it, I was a natural storyteller, and he wasn't aiming for perfection even if I was. I should just resign myself to "good enough" and let him run it and pay me for it. This freaked me out even more. But I accepted his judgement, and reluctantly accepted that the first draft was perfect.

And therein is the other problem that haunts me. I keep selling stories from my past and my supply is running low. Rudy Rucker wrote in the Transrealist Manifesto, "A writer's most precious commodity is his memories." I lived an interesting life at times, but not so interesting that I have an endless supply of stories. I protested to my editor that I was selling my best memories to him, too cheaply. I got back a testy response, the nastiest thing he ever wrote to me, that if I didn't like what he paid me, I could publish them for free on my blog. Immediately, the story assignment I was working on, iterating in my head, evaporated. There went that $1500 magnum opus, into the aether. I could not finish it, I could not even begin it. My editor and I have not spoken since.

But for a writer, that constant stream of logorrhea must flow, if in internet comments if not through paid work. Kaufman recognizes, and condemns, that self-aggrandizing urge of all writers, and asserts it's a product of cultural conditioning to assert our self-worth, amidst an environment that asserts our worthlessness. It is pernicious and evil, it distorts our souls. And I'm doing it again right now, but with that idea consciously lurking behind me. It is like something a client of mine told me, he won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. He said that storytelling is one of the most fundamental urges of mankind, men have been telling stories since the days of the cave men sitting around a fire, and it will continue as long as man exists. And in that, I recognize myself as the same as that stupid paleolithic brute, yelling at everyone, "Ogg Brave! Ogg kill mastodon! Look at me!"

But this is the sorry lot of the writer, to speak, and regret having spoken. After abandoning my career with writers in Hollywood, I went back to art school. One day I was chatting with my teacher, and thinking more of those writers than of painters, I told her, "every artist thinks the fate of the world is at the tip of his brush." She thought I was quoting someone, and questioned me, "who said that?" I told her, "I said that, just now." She didn't believe me, and questioned what I meant. I said that every artist carries the burden of the world on his shoulders, like Atlas. He worries that the future will hinge on whether he turns his brush to the left, or the right. This is a terrible, self-imposed duty, a prescription for paralysis, if not madness. And in taking on this burden, the artist mythologizes himself. How could he do else wise? There is an old saying, "Beware the writer at his desk, for he destroys worlds with the turn of a page." And Kaufman clearly elucidates, the world that writer destroys is either an act of liberation from that external world bearing down on him, or an act of destruction of his internal world and his very soul. Discerning which direction you are facing as the enemy, seems to be the core issue. It is too hard for me. I think I'll go back to painting. At least then, if anyone asks me what my paintings mean, I can just say that if I could explain that with words, I would be a writer. And with that, I will leave the curse on them, to find their own meaning.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:30 PM on January 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

I think I kind of thought he had some kind of schtick going on in life, but that talk was funny/honest/brave/moving.

That's just who he is. A nice message for the audience at the end.
posted by carter at 7:04 PM on January 14, 2012

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