May 23, 2012

Charlie Kaufman Gives 70-Minute Screenwriting Lecture

In terms of exploring subjectivity and how the mind works, Charlie Kaufman is perhaps today's preeminent screenwriter. Either that, or he's an expert in solipsism and desperate attempts to avoid it, which inevitably leads to becoming solipsistic and even more desperate attempts to avoid it. Either way, Charlie Kaufman is truly -- truly -- an original screenwriter, and one of my personal favorites. Kaufman's perspective on screenwriting is obviously unique, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (better known as BAFTA) has posted a podcast of Kaufman giving a speech on what he thinks screenwriting really is. You can listen to the entire podcast here:

[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/45290206" iframe="true" /]

The speech is as reflexive as Kaufman's scripts, which makes it entertaining, enlightening and inscrutable all at once, much like his films.  While the speech is rich in content, here are a few highlights specifically related to screenwriting. First, Kaufman defines a screenplay, and it's far from a conventional definition (but what did you expect?):

A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. To step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere, there is a starting point, but the rest is undetermined, it is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn't be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form.

Most of us will write screenplays in this pre-established form and follow typical story conventions. It's what we know and it's what audiences know. When I read a Kaufman script or see one of his films, however, I want to push myself and my writing beyond my comfort zone, beyond my boundaries. Stepping into the abyss is certain an apt metaphor. Kaufman expands on this idea later in his speech when he talks about story:

Don't let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include, what form it must take. As an experiment, go out of your way to write a non-story. It will still be a story, but it will have a chance of being a different story.

Many of us seek out the advice of established screenwriters on how to write a screenplay, to which Kaufman responds:

I can't tell anyone how to write a screenplay because anything of value you might do comes from you. The way I work is not the way you work, and the whole point of any creative act is that. What I have to offer is me. What you have to offer is you. And if you offer yourself with authenticity and generosity, I will be moved.

For many screenwriters, the fear of failure can become an insurmountable obstacle, but Kaufman sees it completely opposite:

Failure is a badge of honor. It means you risked failure. And if you don't risk failure, you're never going to do anything that's different from what you've already done or what somebody else has done.

The speech is rich with much more content plus a Q&A at the end, so find an hour to spare and listen to it in its entirety for the full impact. And if merely listening to Kaufman isn't enough, check out this 72-minute video master class with the man himself.

Kaufman's approach to screenwriting and storytelling certainly garners much discussion and debate. In fact, you can hear John August and Craig Mazin dissect this very speech by Kaufman in their Scriptnotes podcast, Episode 18, and how it relates to their own work as Hollywood screenwriters.

Does Kaufman's recursive speech and storytelling inspire you or frustrate you to no end? Tell us what you think.

Links:

[via Ted Hope on Twitter]

Your Comment

20 Comments

I love this guy's body of work, thanks for the head's up on the podcast!

May 23, 2012

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Darius

Hmmm. Only read the article so Kaufman may not be arguing against this but I believe that the story "formula" is embedded into our very being as people and whether we write within or outside of the guidelines actually has little impact because our stories will have that "formula" anyway.

May 23, 2012

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Sebastian

The only thing I think is embedded is emotional grounds for reaction. Not story or formula by any means.

May 29, 2012

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YEA YEA NO

I disagree. Concepts of genre and history (the main sources from which we draw our concepts of narrative) are clearly artificial. We find ourselves contorting into vapid and inauthentic shapes to adhere to these principles and that's where I think Kaufman is leveling most of his criticism. We certainly have fundamental emotional compulsions, reactions, and the like, and in cataloging and analyzing these, we may find ourselves tending towards manufactured convention, but that seems like it's more of a child of our learned techniques of analysis, rather than the emotions which are actually being examined. Just my opinion, though.

August 21, 2012

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Michael

Thank you for posting this. I just listened and want to listen to it all again right away.

May 23, 2012

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Ben

Fantastic lecture. Since finding it a few days ago I've already listened to it three times! The Guillermo Arriaga talk is just as good.

After listening to a few more of these screenwriting talks, one thing is certain: none of these writers picked up a book on screenwriting nor went to a lecture on screenwriting formula and adhering to a 3-act structure. It might come about naturally in their writing, but they aren't slaves to the kind of plotting/plugging-in put forth by Syd Field, Blake Snyder, etc. Though I suppose that the goal of those books/lectures is to provide a formula for crafting the kinds of films that Hollywood studios buy. However, that's tied more to commerce and less to art. What these screenwriters are discussing at these lectures is art.

May 24, 2012

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Unfortunately, it doesn't matter that real writers don't read Syd Field, because non-writing producers and funders *have* read Syd Field et al., or they picked it up through the usual gossip and telepathy. And that received wisdom has conditioned the expectations of what a screenplay should deliver -- the character arc nonsense, the 3-actor structure idiocy, the conflict/resolution foolishness, the whole pile of it.

It may have little or nothing to do with movies, either popular or art-house, but it's taken to be keen insight by people who don't and can't write but who do write the checks.

May 24, 2012

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samDEE

Yeah...... Kaufman rules. Watched Adaptation and Spotless Mind so many times. Argh... envy his talent. Thanks for posting.

May 24, 2012

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joe

now thats 70 minutes i'll be spending for sure - cheers Chris!

May 24, 2012

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jay

This is the most inspiring speech I have ever heard. Listened to it twice and spread it to many friends. Thank you so much for posting this.

May 25, 2012

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Ed

exceptionally honest...

May 25, 2012

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raj Singh Verma

Sigmund Freud was disproven on 98% of his theories within 50 years. The reason is that Freud engaged on a type of ego inflation called "Projection". In short, he assumed everyone thought, acted & were exactly like himself. He truly believed that because he was attracted to his mother sexually, that every man was attracted to his mother. He refused to accept that other men were not attracted to their mothers. He assumed hundreds of other things as well, but this is a well known belief of his.

Kaufman obviously suffers from the same projection problem. He lacks confidence, and assumes that every confident person is putting on an act because he believes that every person is at their core, like him.

This is made easier for people like him because he surrounds himself with people that ARE like him. People with the same basic backgrounds and the same lack of self esteem. This is called "Confirmation Bias". It means that you surround yourself with people saying things and acting exactly like you do. This makes it easy to believe that every person in the world has the same world view as you do.

I stopped listening to this when he accused everyone in the business of wanting to sell their product. That is offensive. Some want their characters to be loved for generations (and have an income to support their families), some want to make money from selling other peoples goods (NOT their own work), some want to entertain, some want to try to make childhood magical for a generation of children. SOME want to make money off selling their shows, but to claim that EVERYONE is out to make a fortune on their own show is childish (not in a magical way).

Why are there so many people who idolise people that so obviously have serious personality flaws and flawed theories?

May 27, 2012

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boybunny

I think you're projecting.

May 29, 2012

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John Wheaties

I'm sorry you feel that way--about both of them. I wish you'd reassess. The last thing Kaufman is proposing is that everyone is "like him," and Freud expressed multiple times that he was working from limited research and limited understanding. Everyone loves to skip over those paragraphs though, and it's sad.

November 19, 2012

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Adam

Why are you generalizing, being condescending and so judgmental?

December 11, 2012

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Chris

I think Kaufman brings up valid points, at least from the quotes from the article. We often get too worked up in adhering to a formula. We ground our ideas in a box that disallows expression and creativity. The best films often break from the typical structure and benefit from it. With that said it does not mean that breaking from the formulas set up do you produce a good script or film. I think that there is a balance, but the formulas that have become the norm were developed by Hollywood in order to mass produce films easier. It is just that we have kept them because they are a useful guideline. Kaufman's point to his lecture is screenwriting is not the same for all because our ideas are different. In order to produce something great in other people's eyes is by following your own path. Kaufman does not think you should write like him in the sense of his style or process, but write like him in the way that he chooses to be free from the constraints of formulas and structures because ideas do not come from them,.

November 13, 2012

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Jim

Now you can pitch your movie scripts and ideas with this new project Check it out.

December 17, 2012

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May 16, 2014

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Agree, gems in a salad of words, at least to this listener.

July 26, 2014

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Gul Ramani

Thank you BAFTA for making this talk available. such a wonderful, seductive and honest material.
I don't know why but I feel this resonate with Chris Marker from Sans soleil. Thank you.

August 1, 2014

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Geta Mekonnen