About ten years ago I had an idea for a film. It was set in Thatcher’s Britain (the early 80s) where two young lads are trying to raise money for a science fiction film that they want to make and begin to claim the pension of an old neighbour who they find dead.
Everything was going well: I had synopsis, a smart line in witty dialogue and a contact in the film world who was interested in taking the idea to some people in the industry. I then bought Robert McKee’s STORY: STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING to help develop the mechanics of the screenplay.
Somehow, the formulas and references that McKee makes in his book, based on his popular workshops, managed to kill the idea dead in its tracks.
A similar fate besets Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) who is persuaded by his alter ego, twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage) to attend McKee’s workshop to find inspiration as he struggles to adapt the non-fiction book THE ORCHID THIEF, by New Yorker journalist, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep at her most enchanting). Following the success of Kaufman and Jonze’s previous collaboration BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), he was commissioned by Columbia to write an adaptation of the book. He wrestled with writers-block as he realised that there is no narrative thread, and this film came out of his experience of trying to create a story about creating a story from The Orchid Thief.
Cage is great as the twins: the easy-going Donald who is a first time screenwriter and the ideas are flowing for him, while Charlie struggles with self-doubt and prevarication. Robert McKee is played by Brian Cox, and Charlie visits his workshop to break through the block:
Charlie Kaufman: (voice-over) I have failed, I am panicked. I’ve sold out. I am worthless, I… what the fuck am I doing here? Fuck. Its my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers used to shortcut to success. And here I am because my jump into the abysmal well – isn’t that just a risk one takes when attempting something new? I should leave here right now. I’ll start over. I need to face this project head on, and …
Robert McKee: … and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of your character.
The genius of Kaufman is his willingness to push at the conventions of narrative by celebrating the formulas used in Hollywood writing while at the same time deflating them. It seems that he is using the idea of ‘adaptation’ in its evolutionary sense: just as the orchid has developed and changed into a thing of beauty, so must writing.
As for my idea for a film, well SON OF RAMBOW (2007) and SUPER 8 (2011) have shown that there is no millage in films about kids making films.