Despite his prestige as an Oscar-winning writer and the cult status of his directorial efforts, Kaufman has been open about how challenging it is for him to make movies given his singular approach to storytelling. He spoke with The Atlantic about the process of adapting Reid’s novel, his discomfort with the tropes of horror filmmaking, his love of high-school theater, and what’s really going on in his strange and wonderful new movie. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
David Sims: How are you doing?
Charlie Kaufman: I’m doing okay, all things considered. I’ve been in New York for all of this. It’s not too fun, but what are you gonna do?
Sims: The film is based on a novel by Iain Reid—what piqued your interest in the book?
Kaufman: I was looking for something to adapt, because I thought I might have a better chance with preexisting material, and something that was within a genre. This was both of those things. It had four characters, more or less, and a lot of it took place in a car. That was an interesting challenge—how do you make that work? And I liked its irrational dreaminess.
I’ve found things over the years where I said, “Oh my God,” called my agent to see if it was available, and invariably got cold feet. But I committed to [this one], and Iain Reid and I developed an over-the-phone friendship. That initial contact with him, before the buyer’s remorse kicked in, made it happen.
Sims: You’ve done adaptations in the past [including the film Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze]. Was your approach here any different?
Kaufman: You have your initial reading. Then, once you decide you’re going to do the thing, [you] start reading it more carefully, and you start seeing things you don’t quite understand, or that don’t fit with your sense of the world. And [you] have to start making adjustments.
Sims: Sections of the movie are quite close to the novel, down to the dialogue, and others are not. What parts of it drew you in?
Kaufman: Thinking more deeply about certain things within the book made me realize I couldn’t do them that way [on-screen]. For example, the narrator of the book is a woman who’s intentionally very ill-defined and vague. You can do that on the page, but I wanted the actors to have something they could relate to. So I gave the main character more specificity, more agency.
Sims: She’s more opinionated. In the novel, she bounces dialogue back a lot.
Kaufman: I wanted her to not be a slave to this thing that’s happening to her. I wanted her to resist. That’s what was interesting to me, the idea of projection in relationships, especially early on, where you have this thing you want to believe the other person is, and there’s a tendency for the other party to accept it, because that’s where the love is coming from. So you embody something that isn’t you. Over time, it becomes untenable. People have to be themselves. This movie was a good way to explore that. Jake is constantly trying to put ideas on her—she’s this, she’s that, she thinks this, she thinks that—and she’s confused by it, and then accepting of it, and ultimately she pushes it away. That’s where she becomes a real person in the [film], that she isn’t in the book.