Charlie Kaufman: Screenwriting Master Class

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Charlie Kaufman: Master Screenwriter & Storyteller

Charlie Kaufman, what can I say? In my opinion,

“Charlie Kaufman is one of the greatest screenwriters alive today.”

If you have ever read one of his screenplays or watch a film based on his writing you will see that no one on the planet, other than Charlie Kaufman, can write a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.

Charlie Kaufman in one of modern cinema’s most celebrated screenwriters, his work includes the surreal fantasy Being John Malkovich, the Oscar® winning cerebral sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the truly underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and one of my favorites the comedy-drama Adaptation.

Charlie Kaufman has had a career that most screenwriters and directors would envy and while his filmography is impeccable, it is his unique style of writing and director that has allowed him to receive great acclaim.

Being Charlie Kaufman

He grew up in Massapequa, New York and was born into a Jewish family. The entertainment bug bit him early on and he was an active member of his high school’s drama club. He met his first writing partner, Paul Porch, while attending New York University to study film and the two began to write spec scripts together for a variety of sitcoms.

Kaufman’s first taste of success came when he was commissioned to write two episodes of the short-lived Chris Elliott sitcom Get a Life during the 1991-92 television season. While he also wrote a few pilots, none went into production and after doing some additional writing work for The Dana Carvey Show and Ned and Stacey, he would set his sights on the film industry.

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His unique script for Being John Malkovich established his personal writing style and placed him on Hollywood’s radar as one of the most idiosyncratic and thoughtful writers currently working. He has spoken openly about taking his time when it comes to writing a script, so that he can truly get to know the characters.

Charlie Kaufman movies are their own experience and there is nothing quite like them. The viewer knows when they are watching Charlie Kaufman movies and his organic approach to writing allows his films to stand out like none other.

Control seems to be a recurring them in his filmography and Charlie Kaufman’s career had grown to the point where he was able to direct his own screenplays. He believes that your fate is what you create and this mentality permeates all of his films, from Being John Malkovich’s puppeteer protagonist to Syndeoche, New York’s tortured artist who only finds solace in creating art as it unfolds.

In the wake of the critical acclaim that was generated by Being John Malkovich, Kaufman was able to get another one of his screenplays produced and the resulting film, the Michel Gondry-directed Human Nature, received mixed reviews and is considered to be one of his more minor works.

Adaptation

His next film, Adaptation, reunited him with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze and firmly established Charlie Kaufman as a screenwriter who is not afraid to use his personal experiences to fuel the creative process. His avatar in the film is terrified to ask a woman for a date and the idea for Adaptation is based on his very real struggles with writing an adaptation for the novel The Orchid Thief.

Charlie Kaufman received a second Oscar nomination for his work on the film (the first was for Being John Malkovich) and he was ascendant on Hollywood’s A-list.

His ability to draw on things that have actually happened in his own life helps him when it comes to following characters into a story and creating worlds that are richly drawn. His writing also incorporates themes that are relevant to our times, as Being John Malkovich focused on our newfound need for avatars, while Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa took direct aim at social media ego-centrism.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

The follow up to Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, became George Clooney‘s first directorial vehicle and Charlie Kaufman took umbrage with Clooney’s methods, as he made sweeping changes to the script after consulting Chuck Barris, the game show who believed himself to be a hitman that the script was based on.

Charlie Kaufman’s desire for control fueled his eventual frustrations with the finished product, as he believes that Clooney and Barris cut him out of the process, expecting him to simply deliver a script and get out of the way.

From there, he embarked on a second creative union with Michel Gondry and the result, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, stands as one of his greatest cinematic achievements. While his approach and process may seem freestyle to some, it is clear to see that there is a method to the madness.

He received a well-deserved Academy Award for his screenplay and was finally able to seize the control he had always desired. His next two films, Synedoche, New York and the aforementioned Anomalisa, are the first where he was permitted to direct his own screenplays and while they both received great acclaim from critics, they were largely overlooked at the box office.

His Process

This has caused Charlie Kaufman to become more introspective in recent interviews and he has spoken openly about his writing process and his fear of failure. While his works are often tagged with the surrealist label, identity crises and the meaning of life are discussed on a regular basis.

His willingness to fictionalize his own life and draw on the problems he’s experienced in his own world give his scripts a much-needed touch of humanization, which allow him to explore the above themes in a much more thorough manner. A Charlie Kaufman script is not cranked out at the behest of an impatient studio, it is carefully and painstakingly crafted over the course of time, in a manner that is organic to him.

Kaufman was recently asked about his seeming obsession with the concept of authenticity and he spoke of his disinterest in anything else. To him, inauthenticity is one of the most interesting subjects and that is why it recurs in his works on such a regular basis.

He prizes the specificity of his writing style and says that when he watches films from other directors, he cannot imagine making them himself. The inability to pretend to be someone that he is not is what makes his films great, but it also serves to restrict many of them to cult classic status among cinephiles.

Despite his controlling, intensely personal style of writing, he does let this mentality bleed over into his bedside manner on set, as he believes that a set should be run much like a party. Kaufman sees the process of creating a film as a means for everyone on set to have a good time and while some might imagine him as a ruthless taskmaster on set, this is the furthest thing from the truth.

Charlie Kaufman: The Obsessive Artist

True to his neurotic, failure obsessive nature, Charlie Kaufman does wonder if the style he uses on set will detract from the final product. However, he also expresses a desire to avoid the temptation to mimic other, more exacting directors like Werner Herzog. His level of self-awareness serves him well, as he knows exactly where his strengths and weaknesses lie.

Few directors or screenwriters have ever explored the concepts of mortality and depression in quite the same way as Charlie Kaufman and he has a unique gift for telling stories that speak directly to life in modern society. His characters are angry and depressed, but they also possess the self-awareness to know that they are not alone in their suffering.

Charlie Kaufman’s ethos is summed up perfectly by a monologue from Synedoche, New York, as a minister character delivers a speech that encompasses many of the themes that are closely associated with his creative process.

The minister speaks about feelings about hurt and sadness that have existed inside of him for a long time, but he stops short of feeling sorry for himself, going on to say that he has also been pretending to be okay for just as long of a time period, because everyone is dealing with some form of hurt and sadness.

In his eyes, everyone has their own misery to handle and it makes no sense to add to anyone else’s burden by forcing them to hear about his. It is a poignant moment, one that sums up Kaufman’s filmography, style and process better than anyone else ever could.

It remains to be seen what Kaufman’s next step will be after the commercial failure of the stop motion animated Anomalisa, but it is safe to say that his name will always hold a certain amount of cachet in Hollywood circles. For better and for worse, a Charlie Kaufman film looks and feels a certain way that cannot be duplicated by less unique directors and screenwriters.

The CHARLIE KAUFMAN Screenwriting MasterClass

So when I discovered this screenwriting master class Charlie Kaufman gave at BAFTA I had to share a rare look inside the head of this master screenwriter.

He discusses the techniques of writing for the big screen.

“Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies, your dreams are very well written”

Seeking validation in a shared perspective from the common collective of one’s audience is wonderful for the ego, but should never be the goal of putting art together.

“Say who you are, really say it in your life, in your work..”

Prepare to have your mind blown by the master, Charlie Kaufman!


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Charlie Kaufman at Sundance Café 2016

“Anomalisa” co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, cinematographer Joe Passarelli, and producer Rosa Tran live at Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Café.


Related: The Million Dollar Business of Screenwriting


I’ve also added some other amazing video lectures and master classes that take you deeper down the Charlie Kaufman rabbit hole.



Once again Charlie Kaufman has push the edges of the film frame (though it was shot on digital) with his new stop motion animated film “Anomalisa.” An inspirational speaker (David Thewlis) becomes reinvigorated after meeting a lively woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who shakes up his mundane existence.

I’ll be first in line to see it. Take a look at the trailer and featurette below.


Here’s his filmography:


BONUS: Some of the BEST Online Screenwriting Courses & Books available:



If you like Charlie Kaufman: Screenwriting Master Class, you’ll love my:
TOP TEN Screenwriting Books You Need to Read

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  • GM52246

    Thanks for assembling! I’m a big Charlie Kaufman fan as well.

    Quick note–your “Top 10 Screenwriting Books” link here actually takes us to amazon.com’s page for the DVD of Being John Malkovich. I love the DVD, but I suspect you probably want ppl to go to the post.

    I’ll definitely be back to this site!

  • DE

    This was a masterclass in boredom. There was nothing in this that a class at USC or UCLA won’t teach you. Screenwriting was invented in 1910. Go read old books on Photoplay people. That’s where your masterclass is. This video has a lot of kissass moments and mind you, Kaufman’s work is so marginal. He can’t get a day job on a blockbuster. He writes his own personality disorders, recluse, tongue-tied self. If you want to learn screenwriting, to watch William Goldman, Trumbo, Tarantino or Chris McQuarrie movies, or Marshal Herskovitz, Ed Zwick, Oliver Stone, or Woody Allen. Those guys are real writers. REAL WRITERS, WHO CAN CRANK THEM OUT IN DAYS. I don’t care if Kaufman has won the Oscar. Oscar means nothing. Making blockbusters and movies with wide appeal means everything. If Marlon Brando and George C Scott, turned down the Oscar, what does it say about the statue? Woody Allen has never picked up and attended the Oscars. I’d rather write 10 blockbusters than be an oscar winner because that’s where the money is, the blockbuster. And the granddaddy of all screenwriters in western world is Shakespeare. Everything you need to learn about screenwriting is in Hamlet. Everything. You have to know what to learn from it, in order to learn from it. That’s the trick. A deep study of Hamlet will make you a great screenwriter, plus the books from 1915 on Photoplay. That’s it. And these books are free.

    • It’s interesting that you’d criticize Kaufman for writing his own personality disorders, then mention Woody Allen as a positive counterpoint. If either are guilty of using neuroticism as a crutch, surely it’s Allen.

      Nothing you say is wrong, but I think you’re too quick to assume that your preferences are universal. I quite enjoy films from all the writers you mentioned, and believe Shakespeare has multitudes to offer. But to suggest that “everything” there is to learn has already been done 400 years ago is to suggest that art has no room to grow; and to suggest that “true” craft is only about money and proficiency is pretty limiting. Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation, and Synecdoche New York are beautifully constructed and uniquely modern — they borrow from other greats (Allen and Fellini come to mind) but they add something new to the conversation. That’s why Eternal Sunshine has such lasting appeal: it tells a story in a way that feels true to this era’s neuroticism, just like Annie Hall felt true to the 70’s. Even if it was never a blockbuster, I think you can see its fingerprint in quite a few broader movies that followed (500 Days of Summer comes to mind). Just as today’s lit classes teach Pynchon and Wallace alongside Joyce and Hemingway, I think rising screenwriters have plenty to learn from Kaufman alongside the greats.

      • DE

        All I am saying is that a Master Class about screenwriting shouldn’t be about marginalized writing approach like Kaufman. His movies are not mainstream. This is a business. HW is not art. It’s business of entertainment. Kaufman’s entertainment value is low on the list. A person who wants to make an artistic cinema, surely can learn all that he needs from the likes of Kaufman, but it’s not good business. This is what screenwriters don’t deeply understand. They don’t write sellable, money-making stories. They need to learn that. There is room for Kaufman’s type of films, but they come every five years or so. That’s bad business. Book by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon said it best. It’s business first. This is pivotal for a writer to succeed. They should learn that first, then write for it, then make quirky stories, if they want to be working writers. Allen himself has made a lot of money, and knows that he has to make money as well. He entertains quite well and writes his own signature in it. This is a business. My manager tells me that every single day. Write a sellable script. Don’t write quirks. The “room to grow” as an art has nothing to do with the basics of human beings. We are all conflicted Hamlets of some sorts. Humans evolve, characters evolve, but the training, and that’s the point of my comment is that to train as a writer, one needs the basics. And this “master class” offers little of the basics. A master class must enable me to write instantly. I can show anyone how to write in one hour. Why, because my master class came from the masters like Shakespeare and alike. One hour, and I’ll make them a great writer. There are structures and basics, and if the article stated that this Kaufman’s journey into writing, then great, but I wouldn’t call it a master class. You’ll need some other writer for that. Chris McQuarrie can offer a master class, he knows his stuff. Any lesson from Ben Hecht and Hitchcock is a master class. But not Kaufman. Even Harold Ramos was a great writer with his own quirks but can give you a master class. But very few writer directors who can. Scorsese can’t give master class in the craft of writing. He’s not a writer. He’s a presenter of writing, but can’t tell how to write. That’s a different muscle. The list I stated includes writer/directors. But Trumbo and others alike know the craft, and they can repeat it. That’s the key. Repeatability. Kaufman can only repeat his own quirks. He can’t repeat other genres and stories. That’s the difference between a master and a artisan. He can create art, but he’s not a master who can teach it, and affect everyone else to create their own art.

        • Joseph Chastain

          “If my films don’t turn a profit I know I’ve done something right”–Woody Allen. You were saying?

    • Joseph Chastain

      Do you really think that writing a blockbuster makes you a great writer? There are blockbuster films like Transformers and Avatar that are sheer crap. And seriously, Woody Allen is one of the least bankable name writers in history if you think blockbusters are what matters, her’s a bad example. Eternal Sunshine made more money than ANY Woody Alan movie, so there goes your idea about money being what matters and Kaufman not being a real writer because he doesn’t make money and Allen being a real one. Anyone who thinks Chris McQuarrie is a real writer and Kaufman isn’t I REALLY have to question. Kaufman is a higher paid writer than Chris McQuarrie BTW.

      • DE

        Show me the deal of Chris McQuarrie, then state your fact. The deals are tiered, and based on backpoints, and future films, and always inline with the budget. There are first looks involved. A manager and an agent isn’t looking for the next Kaufman. They are in the money making business, and they are looking to sell script to the highest bidders. And Kaufman’s style isn’t a big money grab. I deal with contracts on $500k -$1M scripts and writing assignments every single day of my work week. I think I can confidently say that films in the budget of less than $10M, which Kaufman hovers around, his salary is substantially less than a blockbuster film. Eternal Sunshine’s budget is driven by Jim Carrey more than any other factor. Without him, the film would be around $10M. The ATL budget of a writer, and cowriters is about 3% max on such deals, and that is max. Kaufman is not going to make more money than a writer on a $150M movie, no matter what. It’s a business model. And if you have worked on any deals, on any $100M movies yourself, you’d know. It’s a different ball game, and it helps to be at the level that exposes you to such budgets to get the facts right.

        • Joseph Chastain

          The difference is Kaufman is also producer (and not producer just in name) of all his films so is being paid not just as writer. He makes millions on each of his films. IMDBPRO has info on his salary. After Synechdoche he might not be paid as much though.

          Also Woody Allen has never made a blockbuster film EVER, and you say if someone has to make one to be a real writer. Allen has always been a niche writer/director like Kaufman and always been just as quirky. You make really weak arguments there.

          Regardless Kaufman is doing what he wants and making a great deal of money at that. I’d rather make okay money at doing what I want than make more money at doing things I don’t want to do even if the money is millions.

    • M-Night Mistress

      I understand what your saying with the whole money thing, but you can’t always choose what you want to write, you just write. I can’t stand people who write things they don’t want to. If you can’t love what you write yourself (at least one thing about it) how can you expect anyone else to. Yes, you have to write to your audience, but you have to write something you want to. It’s almost impossible to write something when you don’t want to, it looses quality. It’s easy to see when the author loves their work, it becomes infinitely more enjoyable. Maybe I just don’t understand what you are writing or maybe I refuse to, but I just can’t agree with you at all. People are all people, there is something we call distinctly call human in all of us, this thing called humanity is what allows us to create the things we do, to write the things we do. Being human is flawed, it isn’t always liked, it doesn’t always make us what we want it to, and the things we create reflect their creators, the things we write reflect us, their writers. That is a bitter truth of humanity. Or maybe it isn’t, but that is what I know. Or at least, what I can believe.

    • Anon

      Amen.

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