Charlie Kaufman Biography

Screenwriter and producer

Born Charles Stewart Kaufman, November, 1958, in New York; son of Myron (an engineer) and Helen (a homemaker) Kaufman; married Denise; children: two. Education: Attended Boston University and New York University.

Addresses: Agent —c/o Marty Bowen, United Talent Agency, 9560 Wilshire Blvd., 5th Floor, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.


Producer and author of screenplays for film and television. Worked in circulation department of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Staff writer for television shows, including: Get a Life!, 1990-92; The Trouble with Larry, 1993; The Dana Carvey Show, 1996; Ned and Stacey, 1996-97. Producer of television shows, including: Ned and Stacey and Misery Loves Company. Author of screenplays, including: Being John Malkovich, 1999; Human Nature, 2001; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002; Adaptation, 2002; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2003. Producer of films, including: Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, and Adaptation .

Awards: Best screenplay, National Society of Film Critics, for Being John Malkovich, 2000; Saturn Award for best writer, American Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, for Being John Malkovich, 2000; best screenplay, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, for Adaptation, 2002. Both films also won numerous other film-festival and critics' honors.

Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman became one of Hollywood's hottest screenwriters by penning daring stories featuring a socially inept and often rather slovenly male protagonist struggling to make his way in the world on his own terms. Kaufman waited several years to make Being John Malkovich with director Spike Jonze in 1999, and the collaboration between the two has also yielded the Academy Award nominated Adaptation. Both films, while unconventional by Hollywood standards, were nevertheless box-office successes, and critics have lauded Kaufman's work as simultaneously entertaining and profound. These screenplays, noted Time writer Joel Stein, "upend time, logic, and the laws of physics, and in the process of writing them, he has upended many of the conventions of Hollywood films."

Kaufman is also famously publicity-shy, which has become part of the legend surrounding the success of this most unlikely of Hollywood creative talents. Certain facts are known: that he was born in 1958, grew up in Massapequa, New York, and finished high school in West Hartford, Connecticut. He appeared in high-school plays and liked to make Super-8 movies during his teens. After a stint at Boston University, he studied filmmaking at New York University, but never finished his degree. At one point in the late 1980s, he lived in the Twin Cities area and worked for the circulation department of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He also worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, delivering the standard "the museum will be closing soon" announcement over the public-address system.

Kaufman's writing credits were limited to a couple of articles that appeared in National Lampoon, the humor magazine whose staff roster included many notable Saturday Night Live alumni, when he decided to move to Los Angeles, California, to break into the television-comedy business. In 1991, he drove his old Volkswagen cross-country, and managed to land a writing job for Get a Life!, the Chris Elliott sitcom with a cult following. Elliott had gained fame on David Letterman's late-night show with his bizarre antics, and Get a Life! featured him as a 30-year-old paperboy who still lived at home with his parents. Kaufman and Elliott also made some short films that aired on Late Night with David Letterman

Kaufman came up with an idea for his own sitcom, with the unappealing title Depressed Roomies. He shopped its script around, but network executives turned him down repeatedly, and Kaufman took other writing jobs instead, including one on a short-lived sitcom called The Trouble with Larry. It starred Bronson Pinchot (of Beverly Hills Cop fame) as a man who is dragged off by a giant baboon during his honeymoon and is presumed dead. He returns a decade later to his wife, played by Courteney Cox, who has since remarried.

Kaufman also wrote for The Dana Carvey Show, and scored what was perhaps his biggest hit when he landed on the critically acclaimed Debra Messing sitcom Ned and Stacey during its second and final season in 1996-97. Ned and Stacey was also Kaufman's first screen credit as a producer, which gave him a degree of creative control. He insisted upon the same when he shopped his first script around Hollywood during this era, too. It was the story of a timid New York City puppeteer named Craig, whose street-theater vignettes contain themes unsuitable for children. Unhappy at home as well, he takes a job as a file clerk, and at the office discovers a door that allows him to enter the head of actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time.

Not surprisingly, there were few studios interested in Being John Malkovich ; some who were intrigued by the premise also wanted to make some major revisions to Kaufman's script, which he refused to do. He would only sign on if he was given executive-producer credit as well, and five long years later, the movie finally made it to screens thanks to a collaboration between Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. The 1999 film starred John Cusack as well as the real John Malkovich—a terrific but crucial casting coup—Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener. Newsweek critic David Ansen termed it "a teemingly imaginative screenplay . I don't know how a movie this original got made today, but thank God for wonderful aberrations."

Kaufman even earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay, which cemented his reputation as a daring new creative talent in Hollywood. Abandoning television altogether, Kaufman completed another screenplay, Human Nature, that failed to achieve the commercial success of the Malkovich movie. Directed by Michel Gondry, a former music-video director, the 2001 film starred Patricia Arquette as an extremely hirsute woman and Tim Robbins as her behavioral-scientist beau. The plot involves a man they discover, who has been raised as an ape, and the romantic intrigues that ensnare the trio and others. A farce that explores what differentiates humans from animals, the film delved heavily into psychology and seemed to have a murder-mystery subplot tacked on to lend it a narrative arc. Critics were mostly baffled, though some conceded it featured some hilariously written scenes.

The story surrounding Adaptation, the 2002 film that also earned Kaufman an Oscar nomination, is in itself part of the plot and made him the anti-hero of the "plot." In short, Kaufman had been hired to write the screenplay for The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, a nonfiction bestseller by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. It involved the rare-orchid trade and an eccentric Florida horticulturist who landed in legal trouble for his shady dealings on the market. Yet Orlean's story was a reflective one, more about the nature of obsession and what compels others to attach to an object, movement, or person, and Kaufman found it difficult to create a plot around it. To make matters worse, he also had another deadline looming, this one for an original story idea about a memory-erasing institute that helps mend broken hearts. "I was getting nothing done," Kaufman explained in an interview with Esquire 's Mike Sager. "I was going out of my mind. And then I came up with this idea to include myself in the story, because it seemed that my energy was in the paralysis of not being able to write. But I didn't want to tell anybody my idea because I thought they would say no. And I didn't have any other ideas. None."

In the end, Jonze agreed to direct Adaptation, and it hit theaters in late 2002. The plot featured a screen-writer named Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicholas Cage, who begins to panic when he cannot come up with a working screenplay for a book about an orchid thief. In the movie, he stalks the author (Meryl Streep), and is horrified when his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) comes to stay with him and decides to bang out a screenplay of his own. Donald's hugely successful script is a typical Hollywood blockbuster, with chase scenes and formulaic plot twists, and in the end the two scripts seem to merge, with Adaptation devolving into an action movie. "With subversive wit, Adaptation works in all the devices Charlie swore he'd never resort to, from drugs to violence to romance," noted Maclean's film critic Brian D. Johnson. "And a movie about nothing becomes a movie about everything."

Critics wrote reams on the hidden messages that surfaced in Adaptation. Was there really a Kaufman twin, or was this simply Kaufman's alter ego? Did Kaufman really stalk Orlean? What about casting Cage, whose career started with some impressive early performances but devolved into a long, nearly unbroken string of action films in the 1990s? Kaufman would say little about his immediate family, Orlean told one interviewer there were indeed some eerie similarities on the screen that hinted Kaufman may have been observing her unbeknownst, and Cage said that he just liked the challenge of the script.

Nearly all of Adaptation 's reviewers had nothing but accolades for it. "What makes the movie so accessible is that its expressionist devices—the twin brother gambit, the fantasies, Charlie's woebegone distress—don't exactly have a fancy pedigree," pondered Esquire writer Tom Carson. "They're poetic extrapolations of sitcom ploys . [Kaufman] may be the first artist to grasp the fluky profundity of nutso TV." The New Yorker 's David Denby theorized that "Kaufman and Jonze portray Charlie as a sweating loser because, in the big-money environment of Hollywood, that's inevitably how he would appear to himself—no matter how high-minded you are, you really can't mock the monetary success exploding all around you. The filmmakers are expressing their own anger and ambivalence about the movie business, and Adaptation, for most of its length, is a furious act of rebellion."

Famously reticent about giving interviews, Kaufman grudgingly participated in press rounds for the film, but perversely would not answer questions about his personal life or the screenplay. The mystery surrounding Kaufman prompted Esquire 's Sager to note that "not since Woody Allen has an American filmmaker seemed so self-consciously uncomfortable in the spotlight, nor produced such bizarre and original work." A long Los Angeles Magazine profile that seemed to involve an evasive interview session prompted Dave Gardetta to summarize the Kaufman mystique. " Adaptation had, of course, completed once and for all the shell that Kaufman now bumps around inside of," Gardetta asserted. "A movie about a fabricator fabricating the story of the fabricator's own fabrication."

Kaufman's next work, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, followed close on the heels of Adaptation, but it was based on a script he had written some years earlier. No studio was interested in the property until actor George Clooney acquired it for his directorial debut. The film's plot centers around the bizarre exploits of real-life game-show czar Chuck Barris, who created such hits as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, all staples of 1970s daytime television. Kaufman based the script on Barris's "unauthorized" 1982 autobiography, in which he claimed to have worked as a hit man for the Central Intelligence Agency while at the height of his television fame. As played by Sam Rockwell, Barris comes across as grasping and self-loathing, making yet another Kaufman film in which the hero is a decidedly unlikable character. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called the movie a "sharp, funny, unreasonably compelling adaptation," but most reviewers were baffled by it.

Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reunited him with director Gondry once again. Jim Carrey played Joel, a shy loner who undergoes a radical new experiment to erase the memory of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, after learning she has had the same done to her. Characteristic of Kaufman's scripts, the story is rife with romantic yearnings and odd plot twists, and some decidedly surreal scenes. Kaufman, wrote Graham Fuller in Interview, "knows it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved, but better still when you can remember it, for all that rejection costs us in dignity, self-esteem, and peace of mind."

There are rumors in Hollywood that Kaufman has sometimes hired actors to stand in for him at public appearances. Few photographs of him exist, but it is known that he is married, lives in Pasadena, and has two children with his wife, Denise. He continues to dislike discussing his work, his work habits, his ingenious ideas and how difficult it is to translate them for the screen, or anything about his personal life. He did once try to explain to Newsweek writer Devin Gordon why he was uncomfortable in the spotlight. "People want to paint me in a very specific way," he asserted. "A nebbish. Socially awkward. That seems to be the thing. You go, 'OK, I get this guy, he's the nerd who made good.' I mean, look, I read this stuff. I don't want to be a caricature."



Book, January-February 2003, p. 13.

Entertainment Weekly, January 10, 2003, p. 49.

Esquire, April 2002, p. 30; December 2002, p. 139; January 2003, p. 36.

Interview, April 2004, p. 100.

Los Angeles Magazine, March 2003, p. 98.

Maclean's, December 9, 2002, p. 78.

Newsweek, November 1, 1999, p. 85; April 15, 2002, p. 56; December 9, 2002, pp. 82-83.

New Yorker, December 9, 2002, p. 142.

New York Times Magazine, March 19, 2000, p. 80.

Time, April 29, 2002, p. 16; April 26, 2004, p. 83.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.

—Carol Brennan

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