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GOATed Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman Tells Hollywood To Knock Themselves Out With AI If They're Just Going To Keep Making "Garbage"

The "GOAT" moniker gets thrown around far too often nowadays, but Charlie Kaufman is at least in the conversation.

Kaufman won an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He willed his way out of writer's block with an Academy Award nomination before that for Adaptation with his fictitious brother Donald getting IRL screenwriter credit. AND he made one of the most ambitious directorial debuts of all-time with the Philip Seymour Hoffman-starring Synecdoche, New York. Which of course Kaufman also wrote. That's not to mention his unbelievable breakout hit Being John Malkovich that launched his career in earnest.

Back when Synecdoche released in 2008, Kaufman was saying that "movies are dead." I feel like he has a pretty high bar for quality cinema given how much of a genius he is. Summarizing the quintessence of his genius would be an unsatisfactory synecdochical anecdote in and of itself.

But anyway, with all the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes happening right now and AI being a prevalent issue among both unions, it's pretty cool to see Kaufman step up to the plate at the Sarajevo Film Festival and lay waste to the ignoramuses who keep churning out shitty movies (via Deadline):

"At this point, the only thing that makes money is garbage. It’s just fascinating. It makes a fortune, and that’s the bottom line. It’s very seductive to the studios but also to the people who engage and become the makers of that garbage, especially if they’re lauded for the garbage because they don’t have to look inward or think long about what they’re doing. 

"[...] As long as they are in that arena making that shit, then you might as well have AI do it. Once you give that up and allow the studios to use AI to write their screenplay, there’s no going back. Then there’s no hope because AI can’t create a moment of humanity. As long as people are doing it and there’s that struggle, then there’s always a chance that something will come out of it that will be worth something to human beings."

The speech Kaufman gave earlier this year at the WGA Awards did so well to encapsulate the struggle it is for a screenwriter to pitch an original idea nowadays. It's well worth watching in all its Kaufman idiosyncratic glory.

I think the strikes might actually lead to a proliferation in original storytelling. And we're not talking about the overabundance of content being smashed out on streaming services where the premises of two or three preexisting movies are hodge-podged together in a sort of half-baked pastiche that's instantly forgettable. Suppose you could argue ALL films fit that description to some degree, but some hide it better or execute at such a higher level than others. 

Point being, there's a difference between green lighting projects for the sake of "original" stories and green lighting based on actual quality. That utopia of creative freedom on streaming services is only as good as what is ultimately delivered. Quentin Tarantino put it best a while back:

And to be clear, I dig Ryan Reynolds and don't think Tarantino was necessarily taking a shot at him as an individual. More just the idea of what's happening at Netflix and other streamers as I've outlined above. It's kind of what Kaufman is hinting at with big-budget tentpoles and what he deems "garbage" that turns a profit.

Kaufman said the audience is somewhat at fault for not demanding more.

"They don’t seem to see past the cynical sales pitch. Even though the sales pitch is presented in a way that suggests they are being fed something of value, they’re not. The diet is so corrupted and has been for so long. It’s like if you eat shit all your life, you want shit. If you eat processed food, you crave it. And you wouldn’t if you hadn’t been fed it all your life. That’s what the movie machine does and I find it really offensive. It makes me angry."

Now the good news is, we've recently seen Barbie and Oppenheimer crush at the box office. Barbie is based on IP, yet it's not, like, a superhero movie or something. Although Oppenheimer is based on the eponymous character's life, it's still an original piece of storytelling by Christopher Nolan. Steven Cheah's movie of the summer Talk To Me (very good, by the way) is emerging as a surprise horror hit. Totally original idea. Well, a twist on the typical exorcism trope but still. Original screenplay and all.


But yeah…the mindless sequels, the unwillingness to take risks on mid-budget character studies that defined the second golden age of Hollywood in the 1970s, and the obsession with the bottom line…it takes its toll on storytellers. Even on someone as singularly brilliant as Charlie Kaufman.

Dehumanization of artistic expression is at the center of the AI issue. It's like an exponentially extrapolated version of the watered-down stories we're getting from the latest slate of middling superhero/big IP slates.

Everything starts with the writing. If writers aren't under such ridiculous working conditions and so adherent to churning out the next big-budget blockbuster, a whole new wave of awesome movies and TV series likely await. That'll be refreshing as hell for the actors, too, who won't have to feel as  to take a big-paycheck job. It won't make the vast majority of actors who struggle for work quite as cynical if there are more compelling characters and stories out there to chase down.

Or at least that's the dream. I hope something resembling such a resolution whenever the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) decide to return to the negotiating table in good faith with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. Until then, we wait. And once again, we see the decades-ahead-of-his-time Charlie Kaufman warning us about the perils of a passive audience and a purely profit-driven studio system. Let's hope better days are ahead, where the awesome franchises and far more quality, original stories with a broad range of representation can coexist!

Yeah I really don't know how to end this. Feeling Caden Cotard-ish. The reach to tie everything together exceeds my grasp.

Twitter @MattFitz_gerald/TikTok

If you'd like to go further down the Charlie Kaufman rabbit hole, I highly recommend Synecdoche, New York, with Your Movie Sucks' video series on YouTube as viewing afterwards. Not going to pretend like I grasped 30% of what this guy dug up on the movie on first watch. Or second.

Also, Meryl Streep reading an absent Kaufman's BAFTA acceptance speech for Adaptation is delightful: