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Charlie Kaufman on Indie Filmmaking: ‘I Have to Have One Commercial Success’

Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) was nothing if not honest with aspiring scribes at the Karlovy Vary fest this week. In the Czech Republic to take home the fest’s president’s award and to screen the surreal stop-motion love story “Anomalisa,” Kaufman challenged would-be film writers to be brutally honest in their work — but also assured them this is no guarantee for success.

Your fan base in Europe, as a percentage, seems quite a bit higher than in the U.S. so this festival must be heartening for you.

It definitely seems like there’s a response in Europe — and also in places like Brazil there seems to be like people who like me. So that’s pretty exciting to know that it’s going across national borders and languages and that sort of stuff.

And a sign that your stories are hitting a universal human nerve that’s not limited to U.S. audiences?

It’s always the thing you imagine when you’re starting out or fantasizing about your career or something — to touch people, individuals. Like someone says, ‘This moved me or was important to me.’

But the process of creating these stories seems particularly torturous for you.

It takes me a long time. I’m not fast. And, yeah, it’s always worrisome. Especially when you’re not fast because the pressure mounts to deliver something. It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody. I think when I wrote “Adaptation,” a lot of writers felt that mirrored their experience so I figured it’s not unique to me.

You’ve said you don’t consciously think about story arcs or plot when you’re working — so it’s more instinctive for you?

Only instinctive, yeah. I don’t want to intellectualize anything. Sometimes I have themes and philosophical things I’m thinking about but they have to have an emotional core to me and there has to be a vulnerability. Like in “Adaptation” where I’m putting myself out there, either literally or figuratively.

And when do you feel in your gut that you’ve cracked the story and know how to tell it?

I knew when I came up with the idea of putting myself in the “Adaptation” script I really liked the idea but I was terrified about the idea at the same time. I didn’t know if it was good. I just thought, once I started thinking that way, I was able to write the script. I hadn’t been able to write the script before that. So I figured, OK, maybe there’s some value in this. As opposed to excruciatingly trudging forward, trying to figure out how to deal with Susan Orlean and such.

Is it an indicator that you’re on the right track when characters begin to argue with you and start going in their own directions?

I definitely find that there’s a point before which I cannot write dialogue and then there’s a point at which I have to start writing dialogue because it actually informs my understanding of the characters. It’s like I’ll come up with a line and it’ll be, ‘Oh, OK, that’s who this person is.’ And they become easier to write and I go back and sort of adjust things.

But you don’t reject the idea that story arcs and characters growing and changing are a part of story architecture?

I’m interested in all those things as a writer but I’m not interested in knowing where it’s going in the beginning because my belief is you can’t in any way know. Otherwise I would be doing, OK, the character has to get to here and here and here.

When I started writing in TV I didn’t study it. But what I realized immediately was that I knew how to do it because I liked watching those shows. So it’s just instinctive at some point. And I feel the same way about movies. I’m informed by the fact that I watched thousands of movies as a kid. Almost to my chagrin I have this stuff built into me. I try to fight it but it’s there.

You’re generally press averse but you’ve been quite available here at Karlovy Vary. Is this part of a campaign to get your next film made?

There’s no campaign. I’m doing press because they asked me to do press. If they had said you can come and you don’t have to do press that would have been my preference. The only time I do press is when I’m promoting something because it’s my obligation.

So there’s no hope this will help revive the fortunes of “Frank or Francis,” the project that you had Jack Black, Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Cate Blanchett, Nicolas Cage and others committed to?

Good luck. I mean everybody knows about it. I’ve been talking about it for six years now. It’s like whatever at this point. I have no expectation it’s gonna get made and it’s fine.

You employed a Kickstarter campaign to get Anomalisa made — so maybe all your films need to take off is one wealthy Silicon Valley fan.

No, I think I have to have one commercial success in the indie world and I’m off. Anything that I do in this form that makes its money back or a little bit more than break even. That’s all it is. I don’t think anybody cares about anything else when they’re financing movies.

But the idea of “Frank or Francis” certainly seems topical — and so much a part of the social media wilderness we live in, right?

It’s about the internet and internet anger and the way people interact with each other on the internet. It’s about a guy who is a self-proclaimed film critic, this middle-aged guy who lives in a garage with his parents. He’s got all this power just by virtue of the fact that he posts online and there’s this filmmaker whom he is interested in destroying.

And it’s a musical so there’s a lot of singing in it. There’s about 50 songs in it — I wrote the songs, I wrote the lyrics — but it’s about a bunch of stuff and that’s sort of the main story. We’re estimating we could do it for $11 million — but only outside of the United States.

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