One of the most clever, creative people I know used to tell me he could never be an artist because “it takes too long to be famous enough that you can sell out”.
That wasn’t entirely true, but he was looking for a reaction. He knew that people like me – students of the arts (in my case, writing and film) who believed business was second to purpose in the industry – thought of selling out as some kind of heinous atrocity that demeaned everything the craft stood for.
I didn’t bite, but I could have. I believed art was personal, powerful, and valuable. For every dollar I might have made by perverting my work for the sake of commercialism, I would lose just as much integrity and respect in myself in response.
My peers were with me, and so were my idols.
Charlie Kaufman was the kind of screenwriter in whose steps I wanted to follow. The films built on his screenplays avoided the tropes of both Hollywood and arthouse cinema to create something human. They didn’t end cleanly, but the casual viewer could still leave as the credits rolled and feel like they understood the experience. Look a little further though, and you’d come to realise the profundity of the concepts Kaufman was exploring so deftly: identity, connection, creativity, attraction, mortality, and regret.
In 2011, Kaufman gave his first ever speech as part of BAFTA’s Guru Screenwriters’ Lecture series. In it, he impressed upon the importance of staying true to your vision, comparing a screenplay to a dream; a conversation with our inner-selves.
“Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.”
He goes on to address the inherent risks of being unique, of being you, in an industry fixated with trends, celebrity, and bottom lines.
“Do not simplify. Let’s not worry about what it looks like, let’s not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honour; it means you risked failure. If you don’t risk failure you’re never going to do anything that’s different than what you’ve already done, or what somebody else has done.”
Coming three years after his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, a polarising film that was rudely and viciously insulted by its detractors, those words rang with authenticity.
In the five years since, something has changed in Kaufman. Or, perhaps more specifically, the perception of Kaufman has changed, and he’s taken it to heart.
“I feel like I fucking blew it,” he confessed to IndieWire after the release of his latest film, the spectacular, Academy Award nominated Anomalisa. A desire to direct the last two of his screenplays, believing them to be too personal to place in the hands of another, and the subsequent box office failure of each, had left him feeling like his passion for his craft was so red hot that it had burnt all the bridges he’d built with classics like Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It’s a difficult interview to read. Personally, I’m over my resentment of selling out – my years in the industry have taught me it’s never so black and white – but seeing how Kaufman was struggling to face his failures made me feel like the issue was bigger than one suffering screenwriter. It felt like one of the foundations of the cinematic world was buckling, and could topple at any minute.
The truth is though, Kaufman doesn’t need to ‘sell’ to get back in the industry good books. He doesn’t need to reject his artistic legacy in order to pay the bills.
Nor does any artist, or any other member of The 8 Percent, even if it does feel sometimes feel like it. Whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran, it takes courage, flexibility, and perseverance to succeed. Film especially is a tough business, growing increasingly tougher, and we can’t have it all until we prove we can handle it. For Kaufman, all it will take is another Being John Malkovich; another moderate box office hit that reminds audiences what they love about his writing, and I’m willing to bet he’ll regret regretting his choice not to sell out.