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Young Frankenstein Says Fire Bad! ADAPTATION Good! Q&A With Kaufman, Cage & Jonze!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

This is a really nice report that we got in from Young Frankenstein. Sorry it’s been a week or so since the event happened, but I had to translate from the original e-mail, which was made up of variations on “GRRRRRRRR!!!” and “ARRRRRRR!!!” I think he did a great job putting this together, considering that abnormal brain of his...

TRYING TO ADAPT: KAUFMAN AND JONZE PREPARE AND DELIVER

“I’m too fat. I need to lose weight. I’m disgusting. I need to start exercising. I’m sweating like a pig. She’s staring at my reseeding hairline. I’m boring.” These are but a few self-depreciating lines uttered in the opening few minutes of the film over black and then as voice over as the blackness gives way to the ill at ease, uncomfortable in his own skin screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage, in Spike Jonze’s latest film aptly entitled Adaptation. As the onslaught of his own naked self-defeating narration is being unleashed on the audience, the camera holds on the squirming Mr. Kaufman as he attempts to struggle his way through this first of many awkward social encounters with people he is clearly unable to communicate with and situations in which he is clearly unable to adapt in this strange and wonderful cinematic world. At the time, the information seems to be about setting up a comedic tone that promises to be ubiquitous in the film however subsequent scenes suggest a more important and revealing aspect of the exchange; namely this notion of not wanting to be yourself and being envious of other people which has become, among several others, a favorite issue of exploration for real life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Marking their second collaboration, the first one being the highly praised Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman have formulated what appears to be a powerful and truly surreal partnership. The currently ‘it’ screenwriter will have had three films hit theatres this year when the eagerly anticipated George Clooney picture Confessions of a Dangerous Mind arrives in cineplexes on a limited release tour on December 27th. As was indeed the case with Malkovich, Kaufman’s Adaptation, which is set to crash in the minds of moviegoers on December 6th, is arousing a curious buzz surrounding its bizarre and truly unique premise.

What began as a job to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, for Jonathan Demme’s production company Clinica Estetico, oddly evolved into a mélange of the aforementioned task and a quasi autobiographical tale of Mr. Kaufman’s arduous and introspective journey to perform the job he was hired to do. Unbeknownst to his solicitors at Estetico and later Good Machine, Propaganda films, and Beverly Detroit according to Kaufman, who recently spoke after the film’s screening on November 22nd at the Egyptian Theatre, after four months of struggling to write the adaptation, the concept of writing a film about his attempt to adapt the script came to him. “The idea” admitted Kaufman “came out of desperation rather than inspiration.”

Because all of this was happening during the filming of Malkovich, Jonze was acutely aware of Kaufman’s anxiety. Unlike Kaufman, who he described as being “very nervous when all of this happening,” Jonze recalls being very excited when he first heard the news that Charlie had written himself into the script. Having agreed to direct the project, in the event people were actually interested in making it, Jonze remembers thinking “it would be great because neither of us had anything to lose” which he maintains “was very encouraging.”

Eventually a finished draft was decided upon and the unassuming Kaufman gave his backers the script. To his complete shock they liked it and were highly enthusiastic about getting it produced. “I didn’t think the picture was ever going to get made” confessed Kaufman. With Malkovich finished and released, the duo began an intense script renovating process ultimately creating a much slimmer and less surrealistic version of the script that originally began as a 256 page story with sci-fi elements including a seven feet tall seven-hundred pound Swamp Ape who consumes the Laroche character, played by Chris Cooper, at the end of the film. In the end, the decision was made to lift these unnatural elements from the script in an attempt to communicate realistic concerns about real life situations.

When it came time to cast the film Jonze realized he had an important task ahead of him. Certainly a story with so many layers would require a gang of talent that would sufficiently communicate all the bubbling Kaufmanian ideas. Meryl Streep, who plays Susan Orlean in the film, had been decided upon prior to casting any of the other parts. Clearly aware of her abilities, Jonze was convinced of her ability to play the Orlean character who suffers from many of the ailments to which the Charlie Kaufman character has fallen prey. Flying slightly under the radar, when Chris Cooper, the truly underrated alum of two John Sayles films and more recently American Beauty among many other brilliant performances, came in to read the part of Laroche, Spike immediately saw what he and Kaufman had been getting so excited about for so long. Upon hearing his first reading, Jonze quickly recognized that “he brought a lot to the character.”

Casting Kaufman evidently represented a more grand and perhaps more trying responsibility for Jonze. In a highly demanding technical performance, who could play both parts convincingly? Who out there in Hollywood processed the ability to communicate the angst of Charlie and the ease of Donald, subtlety developing these characters without relying on gratuitous gestures to distinguish between the two? What ever motivated the decision to choose Nicolas Cage to play the Kaufmans (Charlie and his twin brother Donald) turned out to be a stroke of absolute directorial genius. In a remarkable performance(s) that is indeed reminiscent of the charming, goofy Cage of early films such as Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the boring trite Cage of Face Off and Con Air is entirely undetectable. Before reading the script, Cage explains, “I had never met Charlie.” What he did not know at the time was that arranging a meeting with Charlie was going be about as easy as arranging a meeting with his screen persona. After several unsuccessful attempts to organize a face to face with the hugely private Kaufman, which at one point involved a failed effort to move into Kaufman’s house, Cage settled on obtaining a series of audio interviews with the writer. Breathing a slight sigh of relief, “with these devices I was finally able to really sketch him out” laments Cage. Rather than do a literal interpretation of Kaufman, according to Cage, he and Spike agreed on a surrealistic interpretation.

Perhaps inspired by the wackiness of Kaufman’s screen persona, very early on Cage made the decision to do something “brand new” with this role. According to Cage, “with Adaptation because I had such complete trust and faith in Jonze, I wanted to wholly give myself over.” Guided by his reverence for the idea that “thinking destroys knowing” and refusing to over intellectualize the intuitive process anymore, Cage simply handed Jonze the remote of his machine, resulted in a performance that is sure to earn him an academy award nomination.

Despite having achieved this state of complete acting comfort, initially Cage did nevertheless experience some trying moments on set. Because many of the films scenes consisted of the Kaufman brothers talking to one and other, Cage spent many days armed with an ear piece, so that he could hear either Donald’s or Charlie’s lines, acting with a tennis ball while having to be conscious of not invading the space of someone who was not there. Although he eventually settled into the process, Cage did admit that “switching back and forth was very confusing and at times very frustrating.” Overwhelmed by the task, Cage recalls breaking down one day and screaming at the top of his lungs in utter irritation.

Cage’s frustration to a certain extent comes with the territory of working on a Kaufman/Jonze production. Unlike the abundance of derivative films that are being made today, Adaptation and certainly Malkovich are films that pose serious challenges to the both its makers and its audience. The film’s complicated and ambitious narrative unfolds itself in such a way that invariably audience members are forced to make and formulate certain connections and conclusions on their own. The recent trend in movies, with the exception of a noble few, has ignored this approach and consequently has created and fostered an environment in which formulaic, give you all the answers type movies has become a favorite dish amongst the masses. “I really don’t have any solutions and I hate movies that do” says Kaufman who enjoys presenting provocative stories that require a high level of involvement from its viewers. “We want people to have their own reactions to it (Adaptation)” adds Jonze, “we want there to be dialogue after the film.”

Fantastic work, man. Thanks for the report. It’s a great read, and I’m sorry I wasn’t at the event.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 2, 2002, 7:30 a.m. CST

    FIRST

    by General Sarcasm

    Oh, and I can't wait to see Adaptation... damn limited release.... Why can't I live in LA or New York???

  • Dec. 2, 2002, 8:32 a.m. CST

    second

    by jrcash

    This movie sounds so good. Hopefully it will be better thn Solaris, which was a great demonstration of one thing: Steven Soderberg has way too much creative freedom in his films. George Clooney showed how good an actor he is. Maybe this film will be a resume tape for him to get more serious roles. But the film was self-indulgence at its worst!

  • Dec. 2, 2002, 8:58 a.m. CST

    I've been interested in this one for a while now...

    by exador

    but this article really brings it home...there were a few details, or bits of info i was curious about, like why Cage was cast, or how the script evolved.....now that i know a bit more, it makes me want to see the movie big time....thanks for the great article!!! cheers

  • Dec. 2, 2002, 8:59 a.m. CST

    What the...?

    by Chilli Kramer

    I wish they HAD pitched this, and filmed the meeting. Watch as many film executives quickly assess how best to top themselves. If the film is as good as this description was weird, it'll be damned good.

  • Dec. 3, 2002, 1:09 a.m. CST

    Face/Off was a cool flick

    by Pvt. Duke

    If you're going to bash a Cage movie from his string of post-Oscar brainfarts, then make it CITY OF ANGELS, GONE IN 60 SECONDS (a watered-down version of what had potential to be a kick-ass action flick), SNAKE EYES or 8 MM. Or FAMILY MAN, but that was a pretty good family film IMHO. FACE/OFF is John Woo's only good American movie, and as far as the action genre is concerned, THE ROCK is fucking cool. Even CON AIR was big, shiny, dumb fun (reeeally dumb fun), at least by action movie standards. If you're going to rip into one of Cage's action films, then make it Gone in 60 seconds. Watching that movie was like watching the TBS Superstation version of a real action flick. What a wasted opportunity. Hopefully Cage will make better choices after Adaptation earns him the kind of praise he hasn't seen since '95.

  • Dec. 4, 2002, 1 a.m. CST

    Adaptation is not as good as they say it is

    by MaxRockatanski

    Folk, ADAPTATION is really a lemon. Possibly the most self-consious film ever made, despite some funny moments, and some sentimental pathos that wouldn't be out of place in a SPielberg film, ADAPTIATION is a film that wishes it were as intelligent and hip as a European film. Unfortunately what you get is a excellently written film that ingeniously leads you by the nose straight up yr own arse. When you take a breath you will soon realise you have seen a film that has about as much substance as REM's entire musical catalogue.

  • Dec. 5, 2002, 4:32 a.m. CST

    Everytime I think about Cage and his limited acting range of lat

    by Hung-Wei Lo

  • Dec. 5, 2002, 3:38 p.m. CST

    FIRST!

    by JQuintana

    FIRST!! For the first time ever! In your face you bastards, all of you! There were those who said I would never do it, that I was too weak and too inconsequential and that my spelling wasn't good enough and that my timing was always off. But who's laughing now, eh? WHO'S LAUGHING NOW!? WAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!