The following piece contains separate interviews with Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaughman, and Nicholas Cage. Scroll down to see each under the appropriate label.
In the midst of genius one expects to go cold. I stared across the table as three sets of eyes fixed upon me. These are eyes that have seen all of the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, and have glimpsed its highest accolades. I should have gone cold, but I didn’t. Sitting with Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaughman and Nicholas Cage, I found that they all maintained a cool demeanor. They were unimposing in their dialogue and friendly in their tones.
The three maintain a dynamic conversation, expressive of the kind of connection one gains by trudging with others in battle on a sports team. Director Jonze and writer Kaughman have worked together before on the infamous Being John Malkovich, and now team up again on Adaptation. They come across as the veterans. Cage, joining the team for the new film, is a seasoned player whose performance is truly dynamic because he’s finally found a coach who knows how to use him.
Kaughman is a coach, a silent genius. He puts his game plans out in front of the team and watches as they execute them expertly. Jonze is a jovial team captain, meshing Kaughman’s vision with his image of the winning game. So maybe I’m belaboring the metaphor, but come on, these guys really are a cool bunch.
In Adaptation, Cage plays the character of Charlie Kaughman, struggling to write the script for Adaptation. This circular form of storytelling serves the characters and indeed the writer/director team well, forcing them to push themselves beyond the bounds of mainstream filmmaking.
Though the group clearly worked well together in creating Adaptation, they responded separately to questions, giving deference to one another, at all times showing a thorough respect for each other. Following are some highlights from my conversation with each of these individuals as we discussed their personal ambitions, fears and how those things came across in the creation of Adaptation.
So maybe you’re thinking Spike Lee, but this is a totally different guy. Spike Jonze is a wiry white dude who just happened to get the chance to direct some pretty amazing videos. Jonze got his mainstream start as the director of the Beastie Boys’ video for “Sabotage” and another little Weezer video called “Buddy Holly.” He’s known now for his integration of stylistic forms of film with somewhat absurd scripts. He might be seen as a genius now but as Jonze admitted, he’s not what you’d call conventionally smart.
“I wanted to get out right after high school,” Jonze said. “I found things that were more exciting to me outside of school. In school I very rarely had the experience where something would excite me.”
Jonze’s creativity is undeniable, permeating and distorting every aspect of the movie-making process. He got his start, though, on a smaller scale, directing commercials and music videos. Jonze admits making the transition to film was an intimidating prospect.
“I’d been lucky working with bands that are comfortable,” he said. “I think I knew it was going to be different going to the first movie.”
It’s true, film was a new realm entirely for Jonze, but that doesn’t mean he left his past behind. In the making of Being John Malkovich, Jonze, who also worked extensively on skateboarding videos and magazines, said it was impossible for him to escape that aesthetic.
“Every time you do something, as much as you try to do something new, you pull some of what you’ve done in the past with you,” he said.
Certainly Jonze’s stylized form of filmography reappears in his newest film Adaptation. For this one Jonze got to team back up with Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaughman, a man whose scripts hold a kind of depth that Jonze admires.
“It’s coming from somewhere really personal. It has an emotional base to it,” Jonze said.
In addressing the absurd nature of Kaughman’s work, Jonze said simply that he never knows what to expect from the writer.
In the creation of Adaptation Jonze said that, “No one knew what Charlie was going to write until he handed it in.”
Despite these communication issues Jonze said his work with Kaughman has been purely enjoyable. Once again expressing his meek side, however, Jonze said his only hope is that the much sought after writer doesn’t get too big to throw a few bones his way.
Not a scathing comment, but rather tinged with admiration Jonze admitted that he would, “love to work together more.”
“I haven’t done a movie without Charlie but Charlie has certainly done movies without me,” he said.
Interview with Charlie Kaughman
Charlie Kaughman, the real life one, is the warped mind behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. He is a thoroughly reserved individual, using his words for only the most important of responses. He’s a screenwriter of great renown, but he’s still a man consumed by self-doubt. He might doubt his ability, but he understands all too well the role of a scriptwriter.
“I think writers don’t matter in a lot of cases,” Kaughman said. “Certainly there are a lot of box-office movies that don’t have scripts. I’m not sure if that’s how you judge success. I don’t.”
In an attempt to create a truly driving script out of Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief,” Kaughman nearly drove himself over the edge.
“I took this job thinking I was gonna do something with it, not knowing exactly what,” he said. “Then I couldn’t figure it out. Then several months after a lot of depression and panic I finally came up with this idea because that’s what I was thinking about every day, how I couldn’t do it.”
The idea Kaughman came up with was to weave himself into the script. This was not an act of self-indulgence as much as it was a desperate attempt to depict the plight of a writer struggling to be original.
“People have told me it reflects their experience,” Kaughman said. “It reflected a specific experience of mine. It’s about struggling to be truthful, and then failing, and the figuring a way out.”
Kaughman, even after successfully managing this assignment, remains unassuming and modest. But his name is out there on the screen, displayed as a tragic, often hateful vision of the tortured writer. As far as having the on-screen character compared to the real life one, Kaughman has little fear.
“We’ve been working on it for so long that I’m kind of numb to it now. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens because of it. It’s the one thing in my life I don’t feel too much anxiety about right now,” he said.
Interview with Nicholas Cage
Nicholas Cage is not so much quiet as he is sedate, sitting next to two arguably less-acclaimed individuals. His eyes scratch the table and his head finds its way into his hands after more than one uncomfortable question. He’s not pretentious, rather simple and solemn. He radiates in Adaptation, but as a born loser, unable to accomplish his modest goals. Perhaps it is this character that has seeped into his demeanor and caused him to adopt a detached tone when speaking with me.
“I think at one point or another I started to adopt the paranoid mindset of Charlie Kaughman (as the character in the movie),” Cage said.
Cage is currently caught in the aftershock of this phenomenal representation, a fact that reminds him that even a star can doubt himself. He said that playing the self-loathing Kaughman character was not necessarily a complete stretch.
“I go through my days where I do that,” Cage said, referring to a scene in which he looks in the mirror and derides his personal attributes. “I would venture to guess that we all do it. It wasn’t that far from my own personal truth.”
While Cage may be he big man now, it seems he has not always been on the top rung of the social ladder. He admitted his decision to drop out of high school was largely motivated by a desire to escape social pressure.
“I took the GEDs because I could, and I got out,” Cage said. “I didn’t respond very well to the social issues that occur in school.”
Cage said he also felt a lot of pressure with the ladies.
“Being in a situation where you have to have a certain amount of this or a certain amount of that to date girls or blah blah blah. It wasn’t a fun experience for me. I felt very much on the outside,” he said.
Of course Cage does get a few ladies in Adaptation. As the Kaughman character he is sexually ambiguous, but he also plays his twin brother Donald. Donald is something of a playboy, courting scores of beautiful women. Cage said his demeanor for the day was often the deciding factor in which character he would perform.
“Each day we’d see which side of the bed I came out on,” said Cage. “If I got out of the Charlie side of the bed, we’d record Charlie. Then I would change clothes and turn into Donald. I’d come back and there’d be an X or a tennis ball that I would look at that would be Charlie’s space.”
Cage said he felt uniquely challenged when acting out scenes in which he played two characters. In the end, however, he mastered it by falling back on solid performing techniques.
“By some definition all acting is imagination,” Cage said. “It is make-believe. If you’re able to imagine that you’re really a character, you’re able to imagine that this tennis ball is really your twin brother.”
Another challenge for Cage was playing a character whose name and demeanor resembled his real-life buddy Charlie Kaughman. While Cage did not completely base the character off its real-life counterpart, he said he and the real Kaughman did have some discussions, or rather incidents, in the creation of the character.
“I would go to lunch with (the real) Charlie and he would take a menu and start flapping it under his arms like wings,” Cage said.
Cage said that Kaughman had a way of toying with him, offering absurdities to match his actual emotional characteristics. Cage did, however, express his sadness in the fact that he never got to perform a menu-flapping scene in the film.