Contenders bend traditional story structure, reflect back on their medium
While movies that make it to the top of the Oscar heap are often grand, sweeping canvases grappling with epic themes, a new breed of stories is edging its way into Academy territory. This year, among the entries labeled “for your consideration” are a handful with decidedly quirky, nongrand subject matter, often told via fragmented and nontraditional means.
Call it the Charlie Kaufman era. Ever since 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” told the story of a portal that allowed people to experience life in the body of a movie star, a real-life portal into big-time screenwriting has opened for scripts that bend traditional story structure, reflect back on their medium or are driven by idiosyncratic philosophical inquiries.
Consider some of this year’s contenders: Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a story about a man who’s arranged to have memories of his lost love erased; “I Heart Huckabees,” a screwball comedy driven by the protagonist’s existential search for the meaning of a coincidence in his life; “The Incredibles,” an animated tale about the off-camera lives of a family of outlawed superheroes; “Bad Education,” about a filmmaker making a movie about his childhood so multileveled in its on- and offscreen juxtapositions that it defies retelling; Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea,” with another hall of mirrors device, in which Darin explores the meaning of his own life by making a movie musical about it.
Describing his technique, Kaufman tells Variety, “what I find interesting is trying to create a script that makes you need to go back and look at it again. The second time, you’ll see things you couldn’t have seen the first time because you didn’t have the information. And so the second viewing (of it) becomes a different movie, even though it’s exactly the same movie, if that makes any sense.”
Kaufman’s envelope-pushing with “Malkovich” and his follow-up films appears to have opened doors for nontraditional scripts. Says one production exec who has worked with Kaufman, “Charlie’s success has certainly given people who are experimenting with narrative and structure the courage and access to submit at the highest levels. Things that were readily dismissed are now moved to the top of the pile.”
He cites the recent successes of screenwriter Zach Helm, who has sold several scripts with story-inverting themes. Helm’s “Stranger Than Fiction,” in which the film’s narration suddenly becomes audible to the protagonist, who learns of his impending death, has been aggressively pursued by several major studios.
Lynn Harris, executive VP at Warner Bros. Pictures says that when it comes to studio development agendas, films in the Kaufman vein are still flukes. “It’s not a mandate: ‘Let’s set up more deconstructionist scripts.’
“Those are not projects that work well with five writers and a couple execs. There are certainly those who have tried to walk in his footsteps, but what Charlie does he does extra well, and it’s a real signature of his.”
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who was seemingly pulled through the fourth wall into a pivotal role in Kaufman’s “Adaptation” (portrayed by Brian Cox), says Kaufman’s story-warping techniques have historical precedent. “What Charlie does is not new,” McKee says. “Charlie’s form is as old as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass.’ What you have in this form is parallel universes and there’s a portal between them. In ‘Being John Malkovich,’ you have a portal that takes you into the mind of John Malkovich, where you can live in an alternate universe. In ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ the universe is memory, and there’s a device, a machine, that will take you into the memory to erase it.
“But in terms of structure,” McKee continues, “there is an inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. It’s held together by a spine of a character constantly pursing that which would put their life into balance. What’s new about Charlie is he’s got new content. His structure is story. His genre is fantasy. His content is contemporary. And he’s dealing with the frustrations of modern life.”