Confessions Of An Outrageous Mind

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman refuses to sit for photographs, and of course interviewers ask him why. When NEWSWEEK put the question to him at lunch last month, he started out by grumbling that his explanation--which he thinks is pretty reasonable--never gets into the story, forcing readers to conclude that he's either weird or disfigured. (He's neither.) So here you go, Charlie, the floor is yours. "The big thing is, I'm just not a public person. I'm a writer. I'm shy. I don't want to see my face plastered anywhere." Kaufman never imagined this would be an issue, even after "Being John Malkovich" got an Oscar nomination in 2000 for best screenplay. In Hollywood, who cares what the screenwriter looks like? And Kaufman never thought journalists would be writing about him. Now that they have, he wishes they hadn't. "People want to paint me in a very specific way," he says. "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." Kaufman is so sensitive, in fact, to what writers do to their subjects that he's now written an entire movie about it.

Kaufman's new film, "Adaptation," with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep and directed by "Malkovich's" Spike Jonze, is about a great many things--passion, failure, evolution, flowers, love, exploitation, honesty, baldness--but mostly it's about Charlie Kaufman. Three years ago, Kaufman was hired to write a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief," a non-fiction account of a flower poacher in Florida's Everglades, based on her article in The New Yorker. But after a few months, he had nothing. He stopped sleeping. Panicked, he began to write a movie about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who gets hired to adapt Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief," but can't do it. So, panicked, he writes a movie about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman... You get the idea. Well, maybe. Cage plays Kaufman as well as his genial, slow-witted (and fictitious) twin brother, Donald. Streep plays Orlean.

But Kaufman's script is really the star of the film. As in his other new movie, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"--a clever adaptation of "Gong Show" host and self-proclaimed CIA hit man Chuck Barris's "unauthorized autobiography"--he plays wild, M. C. Escher-like games with structure, and delights in the surreal. "The Orchid Thief" was supposed to be a departure for Kaufman, a chance to write realistic characters in a simple setting. He adored the book, but didn't have the foggiest idea how to make it into a movie until he began writing himself in. "I really did think this was going to be the end of my career," he recalls. "I said that to myself every day. 'This is it. This is the end.' But I felt like I was doing something adventurous." He turned in his finished script to producer Ed Saxon, who read it and... didn't call for three days. "Ed was pretty angry at first," Kaufman says, grimacing. But Saxon quickly warmed to the idea. Others read the script, including director Jonze. Everyone loved it.

But what about the real Susan Orlean? "I was having lunch with Ed," she says, "and it was taking him an awfully long time to give me the script. Lunch, dessert, coffee. And I thought, 'OK, enough already'." Finally he handed it over, warning her that it was "different." (For one thing, an hour into the film Orlean's character begins doing things that the real Orlean, to put it mildly, would never do.) "I was totally astonished," she says. "And shocked. And flabbergasted." Eventually, though, Orlean also came around, chiefly because she decided the leap of faith she'd be taking was nothing compared with Kaufman's.

During our lunch, Kaufman describes himself as shy four times. But like many shy people, he's not nearly as shy as he thinks. Meeting people is a chore for him, but once the initial squirms have passed, he's warm and chatty. When he laughs, which is often, it's like a knot untying. Since he won't pose, here's a description: he's small, maybe 5 feet 5, and very thin. His face is all sharp angles, and his hair is bursting and curly like a broccoli top. In other words, he looks just like Nicolas Cage.

When the two first met, Cage asked if he could crash at Kaufman's house for a couple of days, for research purposes. "I was gonna bring my sleeping bag," the actor says, laughing. "But that wasn't something Charlie was going to do. So I invited him to go with me on a fishing trip to Mexico. And that also wasn't something he was going to do." Cage settled for a series of tape-recorded interviews, which he used to build his on-screen Kaufman. (He calls Kaufman "biological Charlie" and his own creation "surrealistic Charlie.") After shooting wrapped on "Adaptation," Cage burned the tapes--as he promised Kaufman--"out of respect for his privacy." And what about this tape, in the cassette recorder here on the table? Sorry, Charlie. Don't even think about it.