There are people with a very low threshold for calling a movie “weird,” folks that will look at anything just a teensy bit unexpected and classify it as “random.” Being John Malkovich is, in a perverse way, precisely for these people, because it totally justifies the “random” label.
The most profoundly strange aspects, however, are not really conveyed by a capsule version of the plot, as kooky as it sounds: John Cusack, as a puppeteer named Craig, finds a door that leads to the experience of being John Malkovich. A power struggle ensues and allergists are consulted.
Sounds weird, sure, but so do a raft of other movies, like Donnie Darko, for one pretty random example. Donnie Darko, however, feels fairly consistently as though you are seeing the story through the eyes of a deeply alienated, possibly hallucinating adolescent. Being John Malkovich starts with an odd premise and then, on top of that, radically shifts between modes, being sometimes hilarious, sometimes character-driven and serious, and finally disturbing.
The first section of Malkovich is what I’d imagine you’d get if Paul Thomas Anderson were forced to direct a script by Adam Sandler. (Punch-Drunk Love was an Anderson film actually starring Sandler, but it didn’t feel like Sandler was setting the tone, more like he was fitting the Sandler thing into the Anderson thing.) In the first half hour or so of BJM, there are the following, all of which feel like Sandler jokes to me: old people talking about sex; people with weird quirks that are pretty unbelievable in real life and which serve as quick gags with little character pay-off; little people; “losers” who are into things like puppetry and having too many pets. Remember the tongue-in-cheek scenes of Boogie Nights? It’s kind of like that.
So that’s a single weird movie right there. But as it moves on, Malkovich (the movie) moves into being a dramatic character study, probably around the time Craig meets Maxine and discovers a door into John Malkovich’s head.
Part of what I like about this eccentric plot twist is that no one reacts with wonder or awe, except for Craig, and then only briefly. In the few minutes after returning from Malkovich, Craig is filled with philosophical questions, but he drops them as soon as he and Maxine partner up to do the only logical thing one would do in America with such a fantastic discovery: Turn a quick buck with zero regard for the larger consequences.
This leads into a significantly more dramatic block in the movie. I like to think of it as defined by the main characters’ different reactions to the Malkovich portal. For his part, Craig acts as if he’s discovered a new puppet. It becomes clear over the course of the film that Craig interacts with puppets the way he’d like to interact with the world (even if he fails at it): He wants to enact his fantasies. He doesn’t actually want to be Malkovich so much as he wants to use the actor to get what he wants.
Craig’s wife, Lotte, on the other hand, literally wants to turn into another person and take another body. Her identity, in a way, is that she wants a different identity, in one of the most fundamental ways we define identity — through our gender and our bodies. She doesn’t just want to be with Maxine; Lotte wants to be with Maxine as John Malkovich.
And then there’s Maxine. Notice that she never goes into Malkovich, which symbolizes her disinterest in manipulating people like Craig or changing identities like Lotte. Between the three, Maxine is plainly the least troubled by her place in the world and the least interested in changing it, so she doesn’t even really need to commandeer the Malkovich body.
This is how I think of the different reactions to the Malkovich portal as defining more or less how each of the characters relates to other people. As I was formulating it, I was hoping this conceptualization could be used on the entire movie, but really, it can’t. By the time Craig takes over the Malkovich body on a quasi-permanent basis, none of that seems too important. Craig already has what he wants, and by the end of the movie Lotte seems to have forgotten all about becoming a man.
Generally, it’s hard to characterize the movie after the first flash forward. The part where Craig-as-Malkovich watches a documentary about himself is funny and a great send-up of celebrity culture, but the last several minutes of the movie are just dark as hell. First, Craig is forced to leave Malkovich, and the actor’s personality is able to regain control of his body for a minute, but then a moment later he’s taken over again. As a viewer, you realize that Malkovich thinks he is getting his entire existence back for a second, but then just as quickly that hope is crushingly extinguished.
The last couple of reveals are also really unnerving. Yes, we learn that Craig is trapped in the girl’s body, although at this point I think our sympathy for Craig is about nil. What is deeply troubling is that Lotte and Maxine’s daughter, an eight-year-old girl, is the next target for bodily take-over. Lester-as-Malkovich shows Charlie Sheen his plan to invade her body and hold her consciousness captive (it would seem), in what would be in the best case a nightmare “locked-in” scenario. Maybe, of course, her personality would just be eliminated, which essentially means killing her. Either way, it’s horrifying.
This is the third big tonal movement: First, the film is whimsical, then it turns dramatic and psychological, and then it just gets profoundly disturbing at the end. And yet, I am here to say that Being John Malkovich makes a kind of sense if you think of these change-ups as analogous to the shifts the Malkovich body goes through in having different owners.
picture by Darwin Bell via cc
Start here: Consider your life as though your body were just a fleshy camera and your mind the film director. You produce new footage, and then, reviewing the dailies (every camera angle happens to be a POV shot), your mind/brain/soul thing decides what was important, what was funny, what was sad, what was exciting. You are the storyteller shaping the narrative of your life, telling the story to a rapt audience, yourself.
But if Craig’s mind were shoved into your body, taking over where your soul had been the director, he might make something very different of your world. He might be frustrated by your haircuts and your lack of interest in puppetry and being creepy around women. Your life would have an entirely different significance to him on a visceral level, as it would to Lotte or to John Malkovich if one of them were all up in your noggin. They would each find a different narrative, even given some of the same raw material to work with.
So Being John Malkovich, the film itself, is inhabited by three narrators, sometimes fighting for control and sometimes ceding it to one then the other, much like Craig battles John Malkovich for control of the Malkovich body. This could explain the wild changes in the mood of BJM, or at any rate, it’s the best theory I have.
My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who'd worked on the David Letterman Show. Adam's scripts were the best thing about Get a Life – and we all tried to write in Adam's voice. That was the job.
I was frustrated with the results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else's voice. The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. The major obstacle to this is your deeply seated belief that "you" is not interesting.
When I first got the job, I couldn't talk in the writing room. I was working on a sitcom and I could not talk. It wasn't as if I chose not to talk, or I didn't talk – I couldn't open my mouth. No words would come out. And that went on for six weeks. I thought I was going to get fired, and probably should have been.
I wrote Being John Malkovich while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season. My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work. I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone's head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a co-worker. And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them.
It got a really positive response. I started to get a little known. People would read it and tell me how funny it was, invite me for meetings, tell me nobody would ever make the movie. I had maybe 15 meetings like that, so I wasn't really expecting it to get made. Then it got to Spike Jonze, and he was in a position to get a movie made. I didn't really expect it to be anything. I don't think Spike did either. I remember it going to the Venice film festival, which was the first exposure it had. I wasn't invited, but they went: Spike and Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener. I just got a phone call saying that it was this big thing, and then all these articles got written about it. It was exciting.
Storytelling is inherently dangerous. Consider a traumatic event in your life. Think about how you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about how you told it for the hundredth time. It's not the same thing. Most people think perspective is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: it's a reconstruction with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.
The other thing that happens is adjustment. You find out which part of the story works, which part to embellish, which to jettison. You fashion it. Your goal is to be entertaining. This is true for a story told at a dinner party, and it's true for stories told through movies. Don't let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include. As an experiment, write a non-story. It will have a chance of being different.
I'll tell you this little story. There's something inherently cinematic about it. I run in my neighbourhood, and one day I ran past this guy running in the other direction: an older guy, a big hulky guy. He was struggling, huffing and puffing. I was going down a slight hill and he was coming up. So he passes me and he says: "Well, sure, it's all downhill that way." I loved that joke. We made a connection. So I had it in my head that this is a cool guy, and he's my friend now.
A few weeks later, I'm passing him again, and I'm thinking: "There's the guy that's cool." As we pass each other, he says: "Well, sure, it's all downhill that way." So I think: "Oh, OK. He's got a repertoire. I'm not that special. He's probably said it to other people, maybe he doesn't remember me ... but OK." I laughed, but this time my laugh was a little forced.
Then I pass him another time, and he says it again. And this time he's going downhill and I'm going uphill, so it doesn't even make sense. And I started to feel pain about this, because I'm embarrassed for him and I think maybe there's something wrong with him. And then it just keeps happening. I probably heard it seven or eight more times. I started to avoid him.
I like the idea that the story changes over time even though nothing has changed on the outside. What's changed is all in my head and has to do with a realisation on my character's part. And the story can only be told in a particular form. It can't be told in a painting. The point is: it's very important that what you do is specific to the medium in which you're doing it, and that you utilise what is specific about that medium to do the work. And if you can't think about why it should be done this way, then it doesn't need to be done.
• This is an edited extract from a lecture given by Charlie Kaufman for Bafta and the BFI. Full series at bafta.org/screenwriters.
• The headline and standfirst were amended on 4 October to more accurately reflect what is said in the article. The original headline was 'Charlie Kaufman: How to write a story' and the standfirst was 'Your goal is to entertain. If it works, it works says the cult film-maker'