Charlie Kaufman’s first new movie in five years is a horror film. In some ways, the same could be said of every feature he’s made. Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa were eerie tales of existential dread and loneliness. The earlier scripts that made his name as a writer—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—all had touches of the macabre despite being ostensible comedies. But I’m Thinking of Ending Things is straightforwardly frightening, and follows an unnamed young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) as she drives through the frozen countryside with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents.
From early on, the central couple seem trapped; they appear to be enjoying their new relationship, but their conversations feel recursive and loaded with menace. When they arrive at Jake’s family farm, things get creepier. The plot spins off in wild directions, touching on subjects such as the film criticism of Pauline Kael, the cheerfulness of 1930s cartoons, and the musical Oklahoma. The confounding film, based on a 2016 novel by Iain Reid and recently released on Netflix, deserves to baffle as wide an audience as it can.
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.
Sims: The book also has interstitial chapters that set up the big reveal of the ending.
Kaufman: I took those away, and I replaced them with these scenes of a janitor working [at night]. There’s enough information when you’re watching this movie for someone to understand, early on, what the circumstances [of the ending] are. And I wanted it that way. I wanted to offer something more than a twist ending.
Sims: I want to talk about the musical Oklahoma. When did you decide to incorporate that into the action?
Kaufman: Once I replaced the interstitial sections with this night janitor, I was thinking of things that could exist in the school while he’s working, and I thought of a play rehearsal. I actually was in a production of Oklahoma when I was in junior high school. I know the play very well, and there are some perfect parallels, particularly with the character of Jud and the dream ballet. It was challenging to get Rodgers and Hammerstein’s estate to give us the rights to use those songs. But they did ultimately.
Sims: For such a sunny musical, it is very much about loneliness. Not just with the character of Jud, but also with the leads Curly and Laurey, or Will, who’s so full of bravado. They’re all trying to figure out the best way to not be lonely. Who did you play in your production?
Kaufman: I did a lot of plays when I was a kid, but I couldn’t sing, so I would always get nonsinging roles in the musicals. I played Slim, who has two lines—one is, “You can’t talk that way about our womenfolk,” and then something about taking Curly up to the station.
Sims: But you were in the thick of it all.
Kaufman: I was there, and I loved every minute of it. I loved doing those plays.
Sims: Have you ever thought of mounting a full film musical?
Kaufman: I wrote one! Called Frank or Francis, which has about 50 songs in it. We tried for years to get it made.
Sims: So much of the action in I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes place in a cramped car. How much time did you devote to shooting that?
Kaufman: It was a very, very short shooting schedule. We had 24 days, and we were in the car for about five. Each of those scenes runs about 11 minutes, give or take. [We] performed [them] like a play, which neither [actor] had ever done—Jesse Plemons has never been in a play at all. They both really loved it. It gave a sense of continuity and tension, because they barely left the car, and spent the lion’s share of each day in there.
Sims: How did you direct them to be mindful of that tension while they’re having these ostensibly mundane conversations?
Kaufman: I had a few days to work with them. But I have to give credit where credit is due, to them. I hired really good actors. There’s some stuff that you do in editing in terms of rhythm and pauses, but it wasn’t difficult to edit those things. Łukasz [Żal], the director of photography, and I were concerned about the car, and later the dinner table, because it’s so limited in terms of angles. We were afraid it would be tedious, and it just wasn’t. I do credit the actors for that.
Sims: There are character shifts as the action goes on, though. The tension gets more extreme; their personalities start to shift.
Kaufman: There’s a progression. And that goes back to the idea that I talked to you about before, [the young woman’s] growing resistance to this person, and this prison that she’s in.
Sims: It’s a horror movie—all the films you’ve directed brush against that genre, but the horror is quite mundane. It’s time, it’s death, it’s other people.
Kaufman: When I come up against the genre directly, which I did with Iain’s book, I can’t do it. I’m not going to have a cat jump out; I’m not going to have [scary] music or editing unless I can subvert them into something else. I bring it back to the things you said I find scary. Which are aging, loneliness, losing your mind, and falling apart.
Sims: Being in a relationship demands that you think about the future. And when Buckley’s character is in the house with Jake’s parents, she’s seeing all kinds of futures. What happens when his parents get old, what happens when she gets old.
Kaufman: Right. When one thinks about one’s parents, one thinks about them at all different ages. And you take things you know about them, and create scenarios. You’re living in your head so much, and your ideas and expectations and regret are a stew that you’re soaking in. Even in Jake’s fantasies, he can’t have what he wants. [His dreams are] always going to be dashed.
Sims: There’s also that sense of your parents’ house as something that becomes frozen in time. That semisweet, semi-creepy idea of your childhood bedroom being kept as it is.
Kaufman: And the stuff that you know so intimately. When I was a kid, I knew every stain on the carpet in the living room, in a way that I don’t anymore. That’s what we were trying to do [by keeping] the wallpaper and the little knickknacks—all of the stuff that defines Jake’s childhood, when there were possibilities that there are no longer.