The typical Charlie Kaufman screenplay starts with a fairly simple idea, to which other ideas stick like Velcro. The portal John Cusack discovers in Being John Malkovich leads the film into the mind of Malkovich himself, but also through an unpredictable study of celebrity and identity. In Human Nature (due on video Dec. 17), a wild man (Rhys Ifans), a woman covered in fur (Patricia Arquette), and a prudish professor (Tim Robbins) form a love triangle whose boundaries may contain the definition of humanity. In the new Adaptation, Kaufman adapts The Orchid Thief—New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's study of botanical passion gone wild—in such a way that the adaptation attempt itself becomes the subject of the film. Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman, who struggles to finish his screenplay while competing against his own self-doubt and the screenwriting ambitions of his twin brother Donald. (Donald Kaufman, also played by Cage, received a co-writing credit on Adaptation, in spite of his difficult-to-verify existence.) Meryl Streep plays Orlean, who becomes involved in Kaufman's attempt to translate her book. Adaptation reunites Kaufman with Malkovich director and kindred spirit Spike Jonze, whose deadpan seriousness and bizarre flights of fancy serve as the ideal conduit for Kaufman's sensibility, a strange mix of the profound and the bizarre that's also evinced in Cage's performance. In a recent interview, Cage, Kaufman, and Jonze spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about their film and the process that created it.
The Onion: [to Kaufman] To what degree did this begin as a legitimate attempt to adapt The Orchid Thief? At what point did it give way to Adaptation?
Charlie Kaufman: Kind of as it plays out in the movie. I decided to write an adaptation of this book, and I struggled with it, and maybe four or five months into the process, I hit on this solution.
O: You didn't know going in that it would become what it is?
CK: I didn't know I was going to do this. I was attempting to do a faithful adaptation of the book, and I didn't tell anybody once I decided to do it. I just turned it in.
O: Could the structure have worked for another book?
CK: Once I started thinking about it, I forced myself to find the thematic similarities. I thought about, at other points, how much easier this would be if I had adapted something I chose to do for this particular reason. I could have picked something that would have immediately lent itself to this, and/or make up the book, which would completely lend itself to it. I actually liked the challenge, because the messiness of it for me was in that it wasn't my intention to do this. I was trying to be raw and truthful in that experience. I thought that having a book that didn't immediately lend itself to it supported that. But there are thematic connections between Charlie's story and Susan's story.
O: [to Cage] Did having access to Charlie change the way you shaped your character?
Nicolas Cage: Access to Charlie definitely helped me shape my character. I think there are two Charlies. There's the biological Charlie we have here, and then there's the surrealistic Charlie, which is on the paper and in the movie. Spike and I together decided that we wanted to use the biological Charlie as a resource, in terms of interviews and examining his characteristics and the way he speaks, the way he thinks. It was very exciting for me to listen to him: He's a very passionate guy. So I sort of made a mental sketch from that, but I didn't lock myself into it. [To Jonze] With you on the set, we'd go through different…
Spike Jonze: We would do different takes and try different things. We tried to leave the schedule open so we could try stuff and pursue the character in different ways, as opposed to going in and saying, "This is exactly what we want to get." You have an idea of the general direction you want, but you also try to leave it open for other things to happen outside of that.
NC: So it wasn't totally Charlie as in real life.
O: [to Jonze] Were you going for a style alternating austerity and stylistic bravado, as you did with Being John Malkovich?
SJ: Yeah, but I feel like the look and feel of the film is different for each movie. This movie is set in the real world, and we sort of keep it feeling like that. Also, in editing it, we knew that we would be moving things around a lot, so we sort of shot things so you could cut right into the essence of what the scene was about for the characters, as opposed to having the camera do some interesting move to comment on what was going on. You could sort of [snaps fingers] get into it and move things around that way. And also, just to keep things naturalistic, but also at the same time be able to do anything… Early on in the movie, we set up that the movie could look or feel or do anything based on any direction it was going at any point in time: being behind the scenes of Malkovich, or the history of life on earth, or being in Charlie's bedroom, or being in the swamps, or telling the story of how orchids adapt with insects helping to pollinate them, and why. We wanted to be able to go anywhere.
O: [to Kaufman] Were you present on the set?
CK: I was there a bit. It's probably the place I'm least involved in. I'm more involved in pre-production and post-production.
O: Was there any point where the three of you collaborated together to shape the film?
CK: Spike and I collaborated in pre-production on the script, just in figuring out what to do, and then Nicolas and Spike worked together. Nicolas and I met just so he could get a sense of me.
NC: But I was certainly trying to take Charlie's dialogue and be very respectful of it. In my own process, I wanted to collaborate with the rhythms of his dialogue and make them sort of sing, so to speak. But my collaboration was definitely more hands-on with Spike, as it always is with an actor and a director.
O: Given that the Writer's Guild is famously strict on assigning credit, how did you get Donald Kaufman a writing byline?
SJ: Nic, I think we'll let you answer this one.
NC: Donald was one of the writers of the script, and I guess that's all we're going to say about it.
O: [To Cage] Your directorial debut [Sonny] is coming out soon, and you've all done some combination of writing, directing, and acting. Do any of you have plans to explore roles that you haven't tried yet?
NC: I think Charlie would make a terrific director.
SJ: Yeah, definitely.
CK: No plans, but I've considered it.
O: [to Kaufman] You've worked with Spike Jonze twice, and will have worked with Human Nature director Michel Gondry twice when Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind comes out next year. Do you have a say in who directs your scripts?
CK: Not really. The only case was with Michel on Human Nature, because I was a producer on that. It's not my choice. With Malkovich, I didn't have to give them the material, because I owned it. So in that sense, I had control, but not on this movie. It was not my decision, although I was very happy with the choice.
O: Were you surprised with the reaction to Human Nature?
CK: I don't know. I don't know how to gauge these things. It certainly wasn't the reaction that we preferred, but it was out of my control.
SJ: It comes out on DVD in, like, a month and I feel like it wasn't able to be its own movie. Maybe on DVD, people will… Not many people got to see it.
CK: It was pulled so quickly.
O: [to Cage] Was it nice to get back to comedy with this film?
NC: You know, it's funny, when I see this picture in the audience, I do laugh, and I don't know why I'm laughing sometimes. And I also get emotional, so I have a hard time saying it's a comedy. I don't really know what it is. It seems like one of those movies that raises more questions than it answers, and has a life of its own. I can't say I was excited to get back to comedy, but I can say that I was looking forward to having some laughs with Spike while making the movie. And I did have some laughs. When I could step outside the character and see the absurdity of some of the things I was saying, I couldn't stop cracking up. Especially with Meryl, who's a delight and is a lot of fun and has a great sense of humor. I enjoyed that. She likes to laugh, too.
O: [to Jonze] You said with Malkovich that if people just appreciated it as a good laugh, that was okay. Do you feel that way about this one?
SJ: Yes and no. People are going to have different reactions to it. Maybe it's not so much that they think it's a comedy. It's important for people to have different reactions to it. If that reaction is just being able to laugh at it on a comic level, then I think that's good. We're not telling people how they're supposed to react to it as they walk out of the theater.
O: How involved are you in how the film is packaged? Do you think that's an especially important part of the process for a film that could be difficult to grasp?
SJ: It's important. It's hard to have perspective on it, because you're so close to it, but you don't want to present the movie in a way that's a) embarrassing, or b) just doesn't represent the movie. If they end up making a trailer that's like The Twins Comedy Movie, then people who go to see it expecting Nicolas in a twins comedy are going to be disappointed, and it's not going to work anyway.
CK: You feel somewhat protective of it, because you've spent so much time crafting it.
SJ: And for them to put a poster out that's completely embarrassing and doesn't represent the movie, or whatever it is… Luckily, on this movie, the studio that released it worked on the movie in a very different way than normal studios work. Even though it's Columbia Pictures and a big studio, and Amy Pascal, who runs Columbia Pictures, also made Spider-Man and other big movies… She personally reacted to this movie, and backed it and supported us in terms of getting it made, and taking our time to figure it out as we edited it. Also, at the same time, the woman who did the marketing, Valerie Van Galder, works at a smaller division of Sony called Screen Gems. They're releasing it in a more specialized way. The studio is smart enough to know that they can't just put the movie in 3,000 movie theaters and put ads on TV.
NC: You were in on those meetings?
SJ: Yeah, and on the first movie, too. We were able to really be involved in the poster and the trailer.
NC: That's more of a verbal contract, though. You can't really ever get it in stone.
SJ: Right. You can't get that in the contract.
O: [to Cage] Has there ever been a film where you've regretted not having more control over the way it was presented?
NC: As an actor, I have very little control. I have some control as to how my image is presented, but if they want to… I was very concerned… Well, I had a verbal contract with The Family Man, because one of my conditions was that they weren't going to say "family man" and have me on the poster and here's a pot falling out of the air, and here's a diaper, and me going like that. [Shrugs, makes exasperated expression.] They gave their word that they wouldn't do that.
O: What was it like having Susan Orlean visit the set?
CK: I didn't meet Susan Orlean until the last day of the set, and I was nervous.
SJ: I'd met her a few times previously in pre-production, and talked to her about what we were going to do. So when she visited the set, I was a little nervous, just because it's based on a book she wrote and there's a character playing her. But she came on a day when we weren't shooting with Meryl, so that made it a little easier. I think it would have been uncomfortable had Susan come on a day when Meryl was…
NC: I think it would have been real uncomfortable had she come on a day when I was masturbating to her image on the book cover.
Adaptation opens in New York and L.A. on Dec. 6, and expands to other cities throughout December.