Charlie Kaufman: An extra-normal, extraordinary scriptwriter

Charlotte O'Sullivan meets the writer they all want to work with. And who isn't afraid to make an enemy of George Clooney
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I'm waiting to meet the writer Charlie Kaufman, currently on a last-leg promotion tour for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - a film, among other things, about the un-erasable past. A few years ago, Kaufman's brain pushed out Being John Malkovich for Spike Jonze and, in the lobby, who I should I see, but John Malkovich, flubby and gimlet-eyed. Somehow, this seems apt.

I'm waiting to meet the writer Charlie Kaufman, currently on a last-leg promotion tour for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - a film, among other things, about the un-erasable past. A few years ago, Kaufman's brain pushed out Being John Malkovich for Spike Jonze and, in the lobby, who I should I see, but John Malkovich, flubby and gimlet-eyed. Somehow, this seems apt.

Kaufman shows up early - tiny, tangle-haired, a beautiful version of Jerry Bruckheimer. He's also jet-lagged; having arrived yesterday afternoon, he was wide awake all night. Me (cheerily): "In a good way?" Him (scandalised): "Not being able to sleep at night is never good!"

He goes on. "I have a problem with sleep, generally, so I'm always tense about whether I'll get to sleep in a certain new situation or time-change." Now that he mentions it, the bags under his eyes are deep and dark as caves. Has he ever tried ear-plugs? He waves this away, in the manner of someone used to being misunderstood. "They don't work for me. Maybe for a normal person - not for me."

That Kaufman isn't normal is a truth Hollywood actors hold dear. He's extra-normal, extraordinary, the scriptwriter you turn to when all those blockbusters have left you rich at the bank but old at heart. Being John Malkovich re-invented Malkovich; it threw new light on Cameron Diaz, too. Adaptation reminded everyone that Nic Cage and Meryl Streep were wild at heart. Now Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has exposed a new Kate Winslet. The director, Michel Gondry, deserves credit, but, really, this is the Kaufman factor at work. He's got undreamt of, four-dimensional, neurosis to spare, and it's rubbing off on a celebrity near you.

He seems oblivious to his new-found status (the only writer to be included on Hollywood's recent "top 100" power list). I say that I always fret about the first question. "Don't worry," he replies, "I won't be alienated. Ask away."

I want to know if Eternal Sunshine's charismatic, demented heroine, Clementine (Winslet) - a woman who on a whim decides to wipe out the memory of her shy, awkward boyfriend, Joel (Jim Carrey) - is based on an ex-girlfriend. He says not. "There's this person I did have a relationship with who probably thinks she's Clementine," he adds with a sly smile. He says she was also sure she was the inspiration for Amelia (the English girl in Adaptation, on whom Cage's sweaty, tortured, "Charlie Kaufman" has a crush). "She went around telling everyone it was her," says Kaufman, "It wasn't. But it told me a lot about her that she thought it was."

In fact, Clementine is based on a performance artist Kaufman was "initially interested in". Interested how? "Interested as in I was attracted to her, and I was trying to think why. I didn't know her... I just wondered how much about her was real, how much was a schtick." She sounds alarming. He chuckles, suddenly, in Woody Allen mode. "Look at Maxine [the vamp in Being John Malkovich]! I completely understand an attraction to a woman like that. And she was barely human."

He says he's fascinated by infidelity and betrayal. "People are lost and lonely," he says, "and fall in and out of marriages. I'm not excusing people having affairs, I'm not even saying it's proper to practice infidelity. I just know that life often throws you into situations like that. Maybe I'm crazy, or atypical, but there's always some crush, or some attraction, or infatuation..." He decides it's not just him. "Maybe I know very select people, but that question of interest, or lack of interest, in an existing relationship - everybody I know seems to be going through that, in some form, always."

Kaufman, as it happens, has a "someone" in his life, and they're bringing up a kid who's just about to attend school (Kaufman is in knots about where she should go). I can't bring myself to ask him if all his "crushes" remain in his head - or if some are acted on. Nor do I inquire whether Jonze (whose marriage to Sofia Coppola famously broke up after Adaptation) is one of his "lost and lonely" friends.

For all his accessibility, Kaufman has a very private core. What he's interested in is finding "universals", and the universal he wanted to address in Eternal Sunshine is the part fantasy plays in our emotions, in life as much as art.

"If I had a crush on some woman," he says, brightly, "and I'd known her for, say, two days, and I was told we'd actually had this two-year, really dysfunctional, terrible relationship, I would think there was something kind of sexy about it. I would be excited to think that." A sigh. "Whereas, in actuality, if I had a relationship with her, it would be what it was. And then the problem is how to convey that. I wanted to have all these shots of a couple watching telly and not talking, but even that wouldn't tell you how deadening it can be, wouldn't put you in the real horror of that. In a two hour film, it's always going to look more romantic, more ideal."

Time constraints meant all sorts of things couldn't be included in the final version. For example, the hero, Joel, has a girlfriend before Clementine, called Naomi, whom he dumps for Clementine, but whom we never see. An American actress called Ellen Pompeo (who looks remarkably like Winslet) played her, and the character ("a very attractive girl, studying theology and trying to finish her PhD") had several crucial scenes, not least where Joel gets back with her (after having his own memory wiped). "And then he realises he loves Clementine and he rejects Naomi, all over again. But it's the way he does it. She keeps saying, 'Is there anyone else?' And he says, 'No.' He just won't be straight with her." All this, of course, got erased. "Michel felt it was too late to introduce this other character. I fought it. I really like the complication of having her in there. I think it makes Joel more culpable."

Clementine would never have ducked the truth like that, I say. Kaufman frowns. "Well, she's cowardly in other ways. I have to say, in the script, she was much more of a mess. But I don't know," he adds, nervously. "What is this article doing? I shouldn't be having this conversation, probably. Am I talking about the movie in a way that's not... I really like the movie, you know?"

He's delighted at the reaction the film has had in the States. "All these people have been writing in to this website the studio created, saying, 'this is me, this is my relationship!', really emotional stuff, very moving. I think there's an interesting phenomenon there. Don't you?" But surely the kind of people who write in are a little... "Weird?" says Kaufman. "I agree with you. It's not something that I would be motivated to do, although [he looks down demurely and smiles] I did see a movie, recently, that had a really intense effect on me. I was watching it on a plane, in fact, and I just started crying. So I wrote to the director, who was also the writer - I wrote him an e-mail, a very embarrassing one."

So what was the film? His eyes - and this may just be a trick of the light - actually look a little wet. He's still upset. "I can't tell you, it's too embarrassing." It wasn't Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love? Kaufman looks aghast at the suggestion: "Why would you think that? Do his movies affect you that way? Do you think his movies would affect me that way?" I say I only mentioned it because Anderson is a writer as well as director. "Ah!", says an appeased Kaufman. "OK".

I come up with all kinds of other names, but he won't spill the beans. Why? "Well, he never wrote back." Maybe he didn't get it. "Oh, he did," There's a big sigh. "I got his e-mail through a friend of mine, and he told them he'd got the e-mail. I thought maybe I would get something when this movie came out, saying, sort of reciprocating, which, um, didn't happen. But maybe he doesn't like my movies." He looks up, startled. "You know I really am beyond thinking about it. I don't want it to seem like I'm dwelling on it." Perish the thought.

Becoming famous clearly hasn't toughened Kaufman's hide. But, if he's coy about naming names in this case, he's astonishingly open about an earlier slight, endured while working with George Clooney on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Clooney - looking for a film to direct - picked up this script of Kaufman's, which had been doing the rounds for years; and, to put it mildly, the chemistry Kaufman enjoys with Jonze and Gondry did not fizz into life. Ironically, Clooney dismissed Human Nature in print, and said Gondry didn't "understand" Kaufman's writing. It seems it was the other way around.

"I was cut out of the process," says Kaufman. "He followed the script in a plotty way, but, to me, that's the least important part. I didn't say anything when the film came out, because I didn't want to hurt it. But, recently, someone in an interview said to me, 'I loved Confessions of a Dangerous Mind', at which point either I could say 'Oh, thank you', or 'Well, I didn't...'"

But surely Clooney is not a good enemy to have - the world of mainstream/arty movies is a small one, and he's a powerful man. "But that's a bad reason to not have someone as your enemy!", says Kaufman, excitedly. "I mean, he's not my enemy. I just wouldn't work with him again. Or Soderbergh, or anyone of those guys. The point is, I wouldn't want it to matter that he's powerful." There's a little pause. "OK," he allows, "maybe if my career goes south, he could make things hard for me, because of the things I've said. But, you know, so far, I'm OK. I'm not scared of Clooney. I don't needhim."

I say I can't imagine Eternal Sunshine's cowardly Joel taking such a stand, and Kaufman throws his arms up in the air. "But Joel would find the courage to do it! He would, he'd find the strength, because he'd know this was a David-and-Goliath thing, and that it's important to stand up for what you think!"

David and Goliath, I say - that's a story: the two-hour ideal version of life, not the real thing. He laughs. "Maybe you're right. Maybe there's a longer story about me and George Clooney still to come."

It seems only natural that, as I step out of the lift, I all but trip over Malkovich, serenely parked on a bench. The past is another country but, in Kaufman's world, it's also just around the corner.

'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is currently on release