- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

It seemed prudent to do a little homework before meeting three of the principals involved in the new comedy "Adaptation" star Nicolas Cage, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. So I went to the audiotapes of the October 1999 New York press junket for "Being John Malkovich," the screwball farce about a conspiracy of brain invaders and identity thieves that introduced the Jonze-Kaufman team to moviegoers.

It had been a mob scene. The director and writer had appeared together at round-table interviews for perhaps 15 minutes a round and had been systematically evasive. Mr. Jonze even had tried to delay the session I witnessed by insisting on calling the roll of participating journalists. This preposterous delaying tactic could have exhausted the entire time slot because there were many, many people in the room who had yet to be documented on the list he proposed to read off, before he was laughed off.

In listening again to the abbreviated Jonze-Kaufman rap, I was startled to hear Mr. Jonze mention an acquaintance named Donald Kaufman, identified as Charlie Kaufman's brother. The name wouldn't have rung a bell three years ago. According to the director, one of his friends and Donald had been Army buddies. The connection had led to his meeting with Charlie.

Because it's fairly well known at the moment that Donald Kaufman exists only as a fictional character (and officially credited screenwriter) in "Adaptation" the twin brother and resident nuisance to a fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman himself, with both brothers deftly impersonated by Mr. Cage I had to wonder, "What was that all about?" Were the pranksters laying the groundwork for a Donald Kaufman hoax back in 1999? Why bother?

I brought up the subject as soon as I encountered the "Adaptation" party at a suite in Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel. Some kind of slippery colloquy ensued, the highlights of which I am pleased to share.

"No, no," Mr. Jonze insists upon being reminded of the strange invocation of Donald Kaufman's name. "That was somebody else who introduced us."

Somebody else named Donald?

"No, I met Charlie through reading his script," Mr. Jonze parries.

Why would the name of nonexistent Donald come up in the context of the "Being John Malkovich" promotion?

"I don't know," Mr. Jonze replies. "I honestly don't remember. I'm trying to recall."

Turning to Charlie Kaufman, who clearly does exist, I ask, for the sake of argument, "Can we safely assume that Donald is a figment of your imagination?"

A flurry of giggling unites the filmmakers when Mr. Kaufman quips, "I don't think we can safely assume anything."

To my surprise, a useful fact is acknowledged. The script for "Adaptation," in which Mr. Kaufman plays hide-and-seek games with his honest-to-goodness frustrations while adapting a nonfiction book about horticulture in Florida, Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," had been completed by October 1999.

Mr. Cage now related to the director by marriage since his cousin Sofia Coppola became Mrs. Jonze agreed to play the fanciful Kaufman twins. Meryl Streep was cast as author Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper as the real-life subject of her book, Florida orchid hunter and breeder John Laroche.

Mr. Jonze remains reluctant to admit to a Donald hoax.

"It's hard to talk about," he argues. "The intention isn't for it to be a hoax or prank or anything like that. The intention is for the movie to exist in a reality, the reality of Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean and other characters borrowed from real life. A lot of the episodes are based in reality, and certain things are fiction.

"We're not trying to pull a hoax, but we also don't want a clear-cut line between what's real and what's fiction. Part of the experience of the movie is being unsure of where one stops and the other starts. And trying to keep that experience pure rather than have us supply a checklist of what's real. I totally forgot about the moment you mentioned. I had to take a minute trying to figure out how to have a conversation about it without opening the whole can of worms about what's real and what's not real."

Whatever. Mr. Kaufman finally is lured into the conversation and accentuates the enigmatic.

"I guess my feeling, I mean our feeling," he reflects, "is that the screenplay is co-written by Donald," who doesn't exist apart from the script and Mr. Cage's performance. Mr. Kaufman has a distinction to make. "I mean it's credited to Donald and Charlie."

So? "What I was going to say is that that's part of the story," Mr. Kaufman explains. "It's important in understanding this story, as you're watching the movie, what happens in the movie is informed by that fact."

Come again?

"So for us to say yes, or no, there is or there isn't a Donald, hurts."

I'll drink to that.

Mr. Jonze suggests a new approach: "Nick, can you help us out?"

"No comment," Mr. Cage responds.

Then, mercifully, he takes charge of the conversation, leading it away from thickets of double talk for a while. How close is his Charlie Kaufman to the prototype?

"I think there's a certain essence of Charlie Kaufman in there," Mr. Cage says, "but it's also a surrealistic interpretation of Charlie Kaufman. We don't really look the same. I did a lot of intense interviews with him and tried to appreciate as much as I could what his passions were, his needs as an artist. That was helpful as I played the part. We hung out and had some great conversations, many of which I tape-recorded. Then I burned all the tapes."

That figures.

Mr. Jonze, sounding as if he and Mr. Cage have just met, asks, "When you did that, was it more the physical stuff or how he thought that you were interested in?"

"I think it was more how he thought," Mr. Cage says, "but sometimes I'd ask him to get mad. He's a pretty good actor."

Upping the ante, Mr. Jonze replies, "Charlie's a great actor."

Mr. Cage resumes, "He would start to act it out, and I'd watch it. Any kind of information like that can help. As an actor, I'm something of a vampire. I try to absorb what I can and then shoot it back out. Whatever stays in my head, stays. What doesn't, I don't use. He also made it clear to me that I didn't have to be him."

The typical workday on the set for Mr. Cage was a blend of Charlie scenes and Donald scenes, sometimes with Mr. Jonze feeding him the lines of the other twin.

"I'd go to work in the morning, and Spike would ask, 'How are you feeling? More Charlie or more Donald?'" Mr. Cage recalls. "I might say, 'I think you'd better start with Charlie. I didn't get much sleep. Or, conversely, 'You'd better start with Donald, 'cause I'm feeling pretty good.' Then we'd switch three or four times a day.

"When I act, I really do try to embody the mind-set of whatever character I'm playing. It was new to me to have to shut down and switch over. At one point, I literally screamed because I was so confused and frustrated. When I eat, let me digress, I eat everything separately, you see. I don't mix my food. I do the same thing when acting. It's bad for me to mix characters, so Spike would talk me down during the transition periods.

"On top of that, there was this other weird vortex I got into. Sometimes, early on, Charlie would visit the set, causing me to suspect I was being scrutinized playing him. So I got paranoid."

Mr. Jonze calls attention to the silver lining in this misapprehension. "That feeling was actually probably good when you were playing Charlie," he observes.

Mr. Cage concurs.

Still curious about the inception of the project, I ask Charlie Kaufman if writing himself into a script and then adding a comic tormentor of a twin brother is bound to be a one-shot gambit in the screenwriting trade.

"This just happened," he says. "It's not my intention to do it again.

"I did it out of desperation and can't see doing it again unless I'm that desperate. Even then, I don't think I could pull exactly the same trick another time. What happens in the movie is actually pretty close to what happened in reality. I intended to do a faithful adaptation of Susan Orlean's book. When I found I couldn't, I was very depressed about taking on a project I didn't know how to complete. I came up with this idea of writing myself into the story. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't tell the studio I was doing this. It was my only idea. I was afraid they'd say no."

As luck would have it, Mr. Kaufman got a yes and Mr. Jonze was eager to re-enlist as director.

If writer and director appear at a seminar explicating the mysteries and vagaries of "Adaptation," don't miss it. A mind-boggling encounter should be had by all.

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