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Director Charlie Kaufman on Challenges of Making a Movie in Hollywood – The Hollywood Reporter

Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman and Boots Riley joined Ed Solomon on Aug. 28 for the ninth installment of Word by Word, the weekly Zoom workshop for aspiring screenwriters. Presented by The Black List and raising funds for the Union Solidarity Coalition, the Entertainment Community Fund and the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund amid Hollywood’s dual strikes, the “Flights of Fancy”-themed episode found Kaufman and Riley walking down memory lane to revisit how they broke into the business and opening up on their respective writing processes and best practices for pitching original ideas.

When the conversation made its way to the challenges facing creatives, Oscar winner Kaufman got candid about the state of affairs and seemed exasperated in the process.

“I think that the business is in a very, very bad place, and it needs to change into something where people who have idiosyncratic voices can make movies because I think we need that, as a society and as a culture. And I think it is a very difficult road for people who are trying to do that,” explained the writer-director known for such films as Synecdoche, New York; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Adaptation; Being John Malkovich; Anomalisa; and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “In no way am I trying to dissuade people from doing it. I think people should do it. I want to figure out how those people can be supported and movies can be made so we don’t get sort of this cookie cutter version of reality that we’re presented by people who are trying to make fortunes.”

Franklin Leonard, who moderated the Q&A portion of the event, asked the pair to open up on how they navigate a business that is increasingly risk-averse while trying to make original works. Riley, who followed up his Spirit Award-winning Sorry to Bother You with the Prime Video series I’m a Virgo, offered, “If I’m talking to somebody that’s only trying to be risk-averse, [that’s] probably not somebody I want to be in collaboration with anyway. I’m not just trying to make a movie. I’m trying to make the thing I want to make, and if I can’t make it, I don’t want to make the thing.”

Kaufman attempted to sidestep the question by saying, “I don’t have much luck getting things made, so I don’t know how to answer that question. It doesn’t really seem to be a marketplace that is welcoming to me, and I do think that saying that it’s risk-averse is the understatement of the year, but it is.”

Leonard and Riley pushed back on that comment by complimenting Kaufman’s résumé and the amount of work that he’s churned out over the years. However, Kaufman said that since his feature directorial debut, 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, he’s wanted to work as a director, and that hasn’t been easy.

Synecdoche was made in a very different time,” he said of the film starring Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Catherine Keener and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. “That’s when the market collapsed and the movie business changed into what it is now. The movie didn’t do well commercially. It was the first movie I directed and it did very poorly commercially. Nobody wanted me to direct anymore. I wanted to direct, so it made things very difficult for me.”

He tried to get a feature made and went so far as to attach eight movie stars because that’s what he was told to do “in order to get any budget for it.” He added: “I couldn’t get it made, and it was very frustrating for me.” Though he didn’t mention the title of the project during the conversation, Kaufman was referring to the meta movie musical Frank or Francis that at one time had Keener, Jack Black, Nicolas Cage, Steve Carell, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Kline, Paul Reubens and Jacki Weaver on board. To prove his point, he also said that his Oscar-nominated animated film Anomalisa had to be crowd-funded to secure financing.

Solomon then stepped in to provide a positive spin for the Zoom audience, which, per Leonard, set a record as the most well-attended Word by Word, with more than 1,000 tuned in to catch the conversation. In a follow-up email sent to attendees on Tuesday, Word by Word said it was only $900 short of a $20,000 fundraising goal for the Entertainment Community Fund and nearing a $15,000 goal for the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund. (Attendance is free, while guests are encouraged to donate if they can.)

Word by Word guests so far have included Lena Dunham, Susanna Fogel, Danny Strong, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Kemp Powers, Liz Hannah, Lucy Prebble, Sharon Horgan, Craig Mazin, Lindsay Doran, Hansol Jung, Neil Gaiman, Adele Lim, Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Eric Roth, Jesse Armstrong, Tracy Oliver, Amy Schumer and Christopher McQuarrie.

Back to Solomon, who said that “there’s an incredible amount of hope” out there for writers. “New writers I come across feel that they have to write something that looks like all the other movies in the world to get it sold, set up or get representation. The truth is not one showrunner I know is looking for someone who knows how to structure their show perfectly well. What everyone I know is looking for is an original voice. It may not be a script that sells for a new writer, but what everyone I know is looking for is, does this feel like a person who has something interesting to say, someone who has a unique quality to what they’re writing and the way they write it? Your script doesn’t have to be a perfect example of what a risk-averse business is looking for.”

At one point, Riley teased some news by revealing that he’s aware of conversations that are happening in the industry between individuals about creating a new form of independent studios that could give more power to creators. “Maybe it’s time for collectively run studios. I’m not really an expert on how that would work. There are a number of people talking about those sorts of things. They don’t exist right now, but there are discussions happening about them,” said Riley. “I don’t know how they would be distributed or anything like that, but those are talks that are happening. People are looking for new ways to make these things happen.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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