Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2004
David S. Cohen is a freelance writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker. His articles on film and television have been seen in print outlets around the world, including US Weekly, Premiere and Variety special reports.
Try to name Hollywood’s notable science-fiction writers: David Peoples, certainly. Andrew Niccol. James Cameron. Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, for sure. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Maybe Joss Whedon. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, I guess. But Charlie Kaufman probably doesn’t jump to the top of the list.
Of course, Being John Malkovich doesn’t often get lumped with Blade Runner, Alien or The Terminator in the sci-fi pantheon. Yet Kaufman likes to play with elements of the fantastic as much as any sci-fi writer, and in his next film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he works from a premise that is quite familiar to sci-fi fans: protagonists who have had their memories erased.
It’s familiar sci-fi territory, explored in such Philip K. Dick-inspired films as Total Recall and Paycheck, and even in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. But when we ask Kaufman whether he thought of the story as science fiction, he seems to tense up as if he’s been anticipating the question—and dreading it.
“You know, [I think both] Malkovich and this have supernatural kinds of elements to [them] … I try not to think of that,” Kaufman told Script. “I’m interested in downplaying that aspect as much as possible. You just kind of present it and then get on with it, you know. So, no, I don’t think of it as science fiction, but I recognize that there’s fantasy in it. I just want to try to make that as real as I can so that it’s not an issue for the audience.”
If downplaying the sci-fi was his goal, Kaufman has basically succeeded. Eternal Sunshine has none of the bigger- than-life trappings of Hollywood sci-fi. The memory-erasing machine has no overstuffed dentist chair with ominous restraints, and there’s no menacing apparatus attached to the subject’s head. Kaufman’s sci-fi/fantasy element seems as pedestrian as a Dell™ laptop.
There’s no dark conspiracy erasing memories; the characters have freely chosen to have their memories of their bad love affairs erased. The fate of Earth (or another planet) doesn’t hang in the balance. The movie’s concerns are at a more human scale: What makes a love affair good or bad? Would we be better off without our painful memories, or do we need them to learn? And, in the end, what makes us fall in love, anyway?
Like the very best science-fiction and fantasy writing, Eternal Sunshine uses its fantasy elements to conjure a situation that illuminates something important about the human condition. So, the question isn’t whether Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is science fiction, it’s why more science fiction isn’t this ambitious.
Maybe the answer is that most sci-fi films are trying to be “tentpoles,” so they’re developed to death. Kaufman, on the other hand, gets to write pretty much what he wants. He may not generate half-billion-dollar grosses or record-breaking opening weekends, but he’s writing movies that people will be watching and talking about for a long, long time.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from Focus Features, stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as seemingly mismatched lovers who opt to erase each other, with unexpected results. Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood play the staff of Lacuna, the memory-erasing company. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and shares story credit with Michel Gondry, who directed the film, and Pierre Bismuth.
It’s clear that like Kaufman’s earlier films, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind—it’s a challenging film, but a rewarding one.
The story is told out of sequence, jumping around in time, and there are large parts of the film that take place entirely in the mind of its protagonist Joel Barish (Carrey) as his memories are being erased. Joel discovers in the midst of the procedure that, despite his painful breakup with his lover Clementine (Winslet), he really doesn’t want to lose his memories of her. But he’s immobilized and can’t tell the technicians to stop. So a desperate chase ensues within Joel’s mind as he tries to hide his memories of Clementine in remote corners of his own memories while the technicians struggle to obliterate every trace of her in his mind—just as Joel hired them to do.
Kaufman and Gondry worked on the idea for a long time. The first germ of the idea came in 1998 when Bismuth, a conceptual artist, thought of the idea of receiving a card in the mail telling you you’ve been erased from someone’s memory. “Michel thought that was an interesting thing, sort of a starting point for a movie,” says Kaufman, “so we talked about it; and we developed the idea of [the film’s] being a relationship movie, and then that the story is taking place in this guy’s mind and he is trying to stop the erasing at a certain point.”
They came up with a short pitch, even though they didn’t think it was a very marketable idea; but Kaufman’s long-time agent, United Talent Agency’s Marty Bowen, recognized right away that this was a story that would excite the buyers. “(He) thought it was a very marketable idea, and he turned out to be right. We pitched it around town, and there was a bit of a bidding war on it,” recalls Kaufman.
“Then I got stuck having to write it, which was a lot harder. It’s very easy to tell the initial story in a five-minute kind of sound bite, but the practical problems of memory erasing, having this person in their memory as it’s being erased and having the story being told from the end of the relationship to the beginning—all that became very complicated.”
He didn’t spend all of the next five years on the project, of course. He was pitching Eternal Sunshine at the same time he was up for the job of adapting The Orchid Thief. As luck would have it, he got both jobs and was committed to writing The Orchid Thief first. That proved no easy task, as he documented in the screenplay that eventually emerged from the assignment: Adaptation.
Gondry and Kaufman also collaborated on the feature Human Nature, and Kaufman also took a few months out to write Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; but Eternal Sunshine was always simmering, even if it was on the back burner.
Having to pick up Eternal Sunshine after The Orchid Thief – Adaptation made Kaufman’s writing life difficult. “There were a lot of distractions, and I had an enormous struggle with the script. I remember being stymied a lot, which came right after being stymied a lot on Adaptation, so it was kind of a lot of stymieing going on.
Kaufman remembers writing the script as a great deal of “dogged work.” He encountered two major logic problems as he tried to work out the story. One was: “I wanted (to show) the memories, and Joel’s reaction to the memories and Joel’s interaction with Clementine outside of the memories in the memories. How do you do that? How do you actually have someone in and out of their memories at the same time? It was very complicated.” Eventually, he and Gondry decided that Joel would experience his memories, know he’s in a memory and be able to comment on the memory, like someone who is having a lucid dream.
The second problem, which was particularly tough for Kaufman, was: If Joel is having his memories erased, then, as each memory disappears, he should be unable to refer to it in the ensuing scenes. How can he still remember what happened previously if it’s been erased? They decided that Joel’s memories would be degraded—illustrated through surreal visual effects—but that they wouldn’t vanish altogether until Joel awakens after the procedure.
Even with those problems solved, Eternal Sunshine is not a simple film. It rewards close attention. This is a film for moviegoers who enjoy figuring out the puzzle as they go. Kaufman says he always tries to write that way because that’s the kind of film he likes to see. But he’s also thinking about a bigger issue.
“There’s a hurdle that is difficult for a movie to overcome. It’s set in stone, you know. It’s done when you see it. It’s not live. It’s not changing. It’s just there. What I find interesting is trying to create a script that makes you need to go back and look at it again; and that the second time you look at it, you’ll see things that you didn’t see, that you couldn’t have seen the first time because you didn’t have the information that you have by the end of the first viewing. So, the second viewing becomes the viewing of a different movie, even though it’s exactly the same movie.
“I think this movie is kind of like that because there are things you don’t know until the end—or later in the movie.” Indeed, because we first encounter Joel and Clementine after they’ve had their memories erased, there are many moments in their early scenes that only take on full meaning after we see what came before.
For Kaufman, though, it’s important that the memory erasure—he calls it a “gimmick”— not overshadow the relationship aspect of the story. There’s no doubt that Joel and Clementine aren’t a perfect couple and they’ve had a stormy relationship—but is that a bad relationship? They’ve had a painful breakup. Are they really better off without that pain? Those are left as open questions.
It’s a very different picture of love from what we usually see in movies. Films tend to like romance: pretty couples meeting cute and overcoming a few hurdles (big ones in dramas, smaller ones in comedies) to get together, usually to live happily ever after. In real life, though, love and happiness don’t always go hand in hand; the fact that two people are in love doesn’t mean they won’t grate on each other, or even make each other downright miserable. To some degree, Eternal Sunshine is a rebuttal of Hollywood love stories, even its sci-fi predecessors that covered some of the same ground.
“You don’t see movies that show a lot of the stress of the relationship,” says Kaufman. “I am always sort of trying to fight that kind of thing in my work because I feel that there’s a fantasy world that’s presented to people when they go to the movies. Speaking for myself, I’ve been very frustrated trying to find in my life what I see in movies, in terms of relationships or anything. Life is not like that, and so I sort of set out in my screenplays to try and write something that seems real to me, or true. I guess this is what’s true to me.”
Kaufman did not have to take studio notes during the early stages of writing. Propaganda Films, which had bought the pitch, was bought by USA, which in turn became part of Focus, so the property changed hands several times. Only at the end did he have to deal with studio input.
There were changes along the way, though, inevitably. When we spoke to him, Kaufman and Gondry were still working out whether to use a voiceover narration by Joel, and, if so, how much. Kaufman wrote scenes showing Joel with his previous girlfriend, Naomi, who Joel left to be with Clementine. Her scenes were filmed but didn’t make it into the film.
“I was against cutting her out, and I fought for her and she was cut out completely. Then part of it was brought back, and then the decision was made that there wasn’t enough of her; and coming at the end of the movie as she did, at that point it was, like, too little too late. “I really like the story element of having her there so we understand a little bit about where Joel came from, who he was with and how she contrasted with Clementine. Also, the fact that he had to make a decision that was monumental, which is not clear now because there’s an allusion to her but you don’t see her. The idea was that he actually left his long-term relationship, which was a very risky thing for him to do.” Kaufman, a onetime actor and playwright, had originally conceived the memory-erasing scenes so that Clementine, who is being erased, would begin to behave like an automaton or a “husk” of reality. It’s an unusually theatrical device in that it puts the burden on the actor to create a “special effect” strictly with performance. In the film, though, the scenes are played straight, and the degradation of memories is established visually as the settings disintegrate around them with elements from one set often intruding into another. “I think that Michel’s concern was that there is a lot of emotional stuff happening in these scenes at those moments and that making them robotic would be taking away some of the experience of the emotion. He may have been correct about that.”
There are some harrowing scenes of the Lacuna staff treating Joel pretty much as a piece of meat during the time he’s unconscious. We know he’s in a desperate fight to hold onto his most important memories, but at the same time, the technicians party, get high and use his bed—with him in it—as a trampoline. Gondry made those moments bigger and broader than Kaufman had written them, and Kaufman worries they’ve become too comic. “I wanted it to be insidious,” he says.
There’s even a little bit of identity-snatching á la Being John Malkovich, when one of the Lacuna technicians (Wood) uses Joel’s journals and words to seduce Clementine.
“I liked it as a nice sort of counterpoint to Joel and Clementine’s relationship to see this other person doing it, and the question of whether or not Clementine would feel the inauthenticity of this other version interested me. And I liked the character. I like characters who do kind of crappy things like that and betray people. I tend to put them in my scripts. I don’t know why, except that it interests me and it’s kind of a nice little sort of twist to play with; and I like twists and curves and stuff.”
All in all, the script and the film of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind bear Kaufman’s stamp. The script moves confidently from past to present, from Joel’s mind to the real world, from memory to reality, all the while trusting the audience to figure out what’s going on. It did make the studio a bit nervous, says Kaufman, but they stuck to their concept. “We liked the mystery of it, and we thought that was effective and exciting. I think they were nervous about it but I feel like maybe I’m in a sort of fortunate situation. I’m kind of allowed to do the things I want to do, for the most part, when making these things so far. I’m not sure why, but it seems to be that way right now.
“I’m essentially writing for myself because that’s the audience that I know and that’s the audience that I am kind of interested in. I’m assuming or hoping that there are other people who have similar feelings or problems to mine and that they would enjoy seeing something that I would enjoy seeing.”
Charlie Kaufman discusses why he doesn’t comment on the meaning of his films.
Script: Here in L.A. at this time of year, we’re bombarded by these commercials with clips from junket interviews, telling us what the award nominees are about. The more I see them, the less I want to ask what the film is about because I think the film speaks for itself.
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve never and I will never talk about what anything I write is about. I’ve never done it at any interview, and I won’t do it because I agree with you. The film is what the film is; and, also, as I said earlier, what is most exciting to me is that people have different ideas about what the film is about. I’ve consciously designed it so that, hopefully, that would be the effect it would have … that people will come out and then have conversation. It’s about this, or I got this from it or it touched me in this way. If I as the writer say this movie is about this, then that’s the end of the discussion; and I think that’s a disservice. That’s not why I write stuff, you know. I don’t think that’s good. So I have no interest in making any kind of statements like that.
Script: I’ve heard that somebody asked Samuel Beckett once what Waiting for Godot is about, and he said, “I don’t know.”
CK: Ah, ha. Well, I’m a big fan of Beckett.
Script: But does that mean it has no meaning? Of course not.
CK: You know, it may have been sort of a cute answer, or who knows? But I think the point is that you write something so that people have their own experience. That’s why you write things. I am not a politician, you know. I am not trying to get people to think a certain way or get people to … That goes back to what we were talking about before, about sort of what Hollywood movies do. You know, they tell people, ‘It’s important to be nice to people,’ or ‘Love is a wonderful thing’ and that ‘War is bad’ or whatever the hell it is that people want to say. That’s not interesting to me. You can say that in one sentence.
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