- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

The career of Charlie Kaufman might seem to be the perfect example of that overused phrase “overnight success.”

The writer came seemingly out of nowhere to win an Oscar nomination for his first produced screenplay, 1999’s “Being John Malkovich.” That exuberant, playfully metafictional film, directed by Spike Jonze, heralded the arrival of a singular new talent.

Two films later, he got another Oscar nod for “Adaptation,” in which he pushed the creative envelope even further by putting himself - and a fictional twin brother - into the work.

Two films after that, he won the screenwriting Oscar for the equally impish but ultimately more meaty “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Now, just nine years after his feature-film debut, he has graduated to full writer-director status with his new film, “Synecdoche, New York.”

Behind just about every overnight success is a long story about how much work went into achieving it. That’s true of Mr. Kaufman, though he’s not the typical scribe who has wanted to be a writer since childhood. In fact, he had planned to be an actor since performing in elementary school plays.

“I was a really shy kid, and it just changed my life - this attention, people laughing at things that I did onstage,” Mr. Kaufman says on a recent visit to the District. “Then I went to an acting program at Boston University, and I got embarrassed about it.” He decided to transfer to New York University’s film school and become a director. “I thought that was more masculine, maybe,” he says, laughing. “I think I was having a little issue with that at the time.”

He had always written but only started pursuing it seriously when he thought it could get him into directing. “Because the one guy in my program in school who had become successful, and became successful immediately, was Chris Columbus.” The “Harry Potter” director made his name by writing “Gremlins.”

“I watched his trajectory from my phone-bank job, and it was really upsetting,” Mr. Kaufman says.

That envy seems to have led Mr. Kaufman finally to launch his own career.

“I turned 30, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to stop answering phones for a living,’” he recalls. He thought television offered the best chance for the newcomer, and he started writing for series such as “The Dana Carvey Show” and “Get a Life.”

He has become one of Hollywood’s best-known and critically respected screenwriters, but it doesn’t seem to have dispelled that shyness. Mr. Kaufman, who just turned 50, doesn’t make much eye contact at first, though he warms up soon.

He has often said that he doesn’t like to talk about his personal life, but though he doesn’t give out its details, he still manages to be very revealing of himself. He notes, “What I do in my scripts is so personal, and I’m so generous with my personal life in ways that people have no idea.” It’s there in his interviews, too: He doesn’t hide his opinions and personality behind prefabricated answers to questions about his work and working methods.

In a way, it’s surprising that someone who seems so un-Hollywood has not only pursued a career there, but has thrived there. “I’m more interested in novels than I am in screenplays,” he admits, “and I keep thinking I want to write a novel.” It’s rather difficult to consider, he says, when he has such a secure job as a screenwriter - even if that cliche about writers not being respected in the movie business is true.

“It doesn’t matter if movies are well-written,” he notes. “So, therefore, writers are not valuable. Because you can have a really crappy movie with a really crappy script and it’ll be top of the box office. And it’s the rule rather than the exception.”

He might be a single-minded visionary, but he started his career collaborating with a friend out of college, and he sometimes misses that working camaraderie. In fact, his breakthrough came about as a result of trying to re-create on his own the cross-fertilization that emerges from a successful creative partnership. He wrote “Malkovich” by combining two very different ideas.

“When you’re writing by yourself, sometimes it’s really dull. You know what you’re going to do,” he explains. “What happens if I combine these two stories? I have no idea where it goes, and it’s like collaborating with yourself.”

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