“That’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind yourself the world’s larger than the inside of your own head.” – Jake
In the past few months, I have had extremely vivid dreams – and there have been times when my colleagues have momentarily confused the day of the week. Recently, I skipped an entire day. Last Thursday, I thought it was Friday, perhaps I was anticipating the weekend. Since our new normal started, my mom has dinners with my brother on Friday evenings, and I call then so I can catch up with the entire family. This week, I telephoned on Thursday night – my sister-in-law told me my mother wasn’t there. It wasn’t until Saturday that I realized my false sense of reality. I experienced a sense of isolation and confusion. I felt as if I was in quicksand. Charlie Kaufman’s new film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is so about the now. It explores all those feelings of loneliness and illusory logic that we’ve been swirling in.
Like in his previous screenplays “Adaptation,” the Oscar-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” as well as “Synecdoche, New York” and “Anomalisa” which he directed, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” delves into ideas of individuality, existentialism, mortality and the meaning of life – through a narrative that is abstract and philosophical and self-aware. They’re highly engrossing and entertaining works that are non-linear and challenging. This last work is his most confounding and densest – and his most masterful. It’s definitely one of the best films of the unlike-any-other year 2020. It’s a good thing it premiered on Netflix because it needs repeated viewings to fully grasp its complexities – and appreciate the extraordinary way it has been assembled. It’s Kaufman’s most melancholic work – some critics have called it bleak. I find it a thing of wonder.
It’s an adaptation of Ian Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name. As the story unfolds – we hear the voice of a young woman speaking. As she speaks, we will see the intricate print of a wallpaper that will visually shift into another – and the camera will start moving through the empty rooms of a house. We will see the woman on the street waiting for a car and soon after an older man observing her from a window above saying something unintelligible to us. Another shot of the young woman waiting by the side of the road followed by a similar shot from the window, but now a young man. All of a sudden, that character, Jake, will pull up in a car and pick up the young woman. I describe these opening moments for if you pay careful attention to their details – and their pattern – it helps in uncovering the internal dialectic of the narrative. One thing that is important is to have permission to interpret and not feel the necessity to have things spelled out.
As the movie proceeds the young woman will be referred to by different names – Lucy, Louisa, Lucia. She’s on her way to meet Jake’s parents at their farm despite the fact that she’s only known him for six weeks and she’s thinking of ending the relationship. The dreamlike road trip takes place in the middle of a storm and she reminds Jake she needs to be back that evening to finish a paper for school. On the drive, Dodsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” will be recited and Pauline Kael’s review of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman under the Influence” will be assimilated. We will get glimpses of the janitor we saw at the opening sequences as he cleans a high school and watches students rehearse a musical. He and Jake seem to have a connection – one finishing the other’s thoughts. Eventually, the couple will arrive at the home where the parents’ age keep shifting. It will all culminate into a convergence at the high school where the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” – in particular a poignant usage of “Lonely Room” and an Agnes de Mille-like dream ballet will serve as the climax. Kudos to the entire cast for their fearless commitment.
Kaufman fabricates a cinema you’ve never seen before and a movie like we’ve never experienced before.
Girlfriend: “Who is this?”
Jake: “That’s me.”
Girlfriend: “No, it was me.”
Available to stream on Netflix.
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
Based on the book by Iain Reid
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Bringing “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to the Screen
“[‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’] took place in a car and a farmhouse, and I thought, ‘That sounds easy and inexpensive!’” Kaufman says. As it turned out, it was a very difficult production. The 30-day shoot was whittled down to 24. Kaufman had hoped to build a car and a farmhouse he could disassemble to get creative shots, but budget restrictions prohibited that. And for a movie that plays with time and memory and incorporates magical elements in its storytelling, the most challenging part of filming turned out to be something practical: the weather. Says Bregman, “As with all of Charlie’s movies, this takes place in the physical world but also inside the head, inside the mental stage, so the snow itself is a major character in the movie and has to be treated very precisely. You can’t cut around it.” “The snow was the worst,” Kaufman groans. “We had no control over it, and it delayed the process and made the days long.” There were three night shoots in a row filming the exterior of a Dairy Queen-esque ice cream shop called Tulsey Town, when a torrential downpour hit. “The practical snow turned into slush and then nothing, and we were all exhausted. And we had to shoot that scene that day because there was no time.” (variety.com)
The Making of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
The cast members say they enjoyed the process. “It was intense, a small budget, and we rarely got more than three takes in a scene,” says Buckley. “But from my side, there was so much goodwill toward Charlie from every single department. Everyone was so committed to every bit of the story. They showed up because they were emotionally engaged and thrilled to be genuinely challenged.” Collette calls Kaufman “the best kind of artist” because he has specific ideas but is also open to collaboration. Asked about challenges, she says, “Maybe trying to create a believable throughline for my character in a piece where the ground is constantly moving. But that was also the best thing about it. Here, anything is believable, or rather, acceptable. So the choices were kind of limitless. That can be daunting, but also freeing.” Kaufman has deep respect for his actors, perhaps because he started out as one before giving it up after his freshman year of college at Boston University before transferring to NYU. While he toyed with going back over the years, and tried stand-up comedy for a time, he says he just lost the drive somewhere along the way. “I remember auditioning for summer stock and just feeling embarrassed and humiliated by it,” he admits. “And actors have to go through that for their entire lives.” Kaufman has both empathy for performers and a genuine awe for what they do. “It’s a difficult and vulnerable position to put yourself in, and I respect that,” he says. When it comes to casting, he has one key criterion. He only wants to work with actors who are nice. “I can’t handle it,” he says simply. “My job is difficult enough trying to figure out how to do this thing and construct it. I’m not terribly experienced so I don’t want that drama; I would want to walk off set, which I can’t do. So I try to surround myself with people who aren’t going to force me into that feeling.” Kaufman went into “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” thinking it might be his last directing job. “I’m getting up there” in age, he says. “I haven’t made a movie in 10 years, so I said I’m going to make something I want and not worry if this will lead to another job. If I get to do it again, it’s gravy for me.” (variety.com)
Author Ian Reid on Kaufman’s Adaptation of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Despite Kaufman’s liberties in the adaptation, Reid handed his book over to the director/writer with complete trust. When Charlie Kaufman knocks, and wants to adapt your book, know that it’s going to look very different on the side. (See his spin on Susan Orlean’s nonfiction “The Orchid Thief,” “Adaptation.”) “It essentially touches on the same theme [but] in such a different way,” said Reid. Both the film and the movie share the same grand design: the events of the story are a fabricated, fictional universe the protagonist, a failed man preparing to “end things,” lives inside and has created as a coping mechanism In the movie, that world is built largely from the media Jake has consumed: A speech in the film’s final scene comes from the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” a long monologue from Buckley’s character about John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” is really a word-for-word Pauline Kael review, and so on…Reid said he “loved” the movie’s ending. “With the ending of the book, I’ve never really thought of it as a twist ending. I didn’t write it as a psychological thriller, which is a very particular kind of book [where] some type of events lead to a resolution. That wasn’t really in my mind. I can see why some people read it that way,” he said. The novel, while blatantly marketed as a thriller, is more oozing, dizzying dread than outright horror. Reid is loath to offer up his interpretation of the movie’s end, instead deferring to viewers and how they might read the conclusion. “I found it exhilarating to watch. I really appreciated what Charlie did. It’s ambiguous in a different way that the book, [which] is ambiguous to a certain degree. And I’m just curious how people will interpret the end,” Reid said. (indiewire.com)
About Writer and Director Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman was born in New York, New York. Kaufman earned a B.F.A. from the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at New York University in 1980. Prior to breaking into the film industry, he worked in the circulation department of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, newspaper. Eventually he moved to California and began writing for the quirky television situation comedy “Get a Life” (1990), which starred Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old paperboy. Kaufman continued to write television comedies throughout the early 1990s until he achieved sudden recognition for his screenplay for director Spike Jonze’s unexpectedly successful film “Being John Malkovich” (1999)…Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and it won several other awards, including best original screenplay from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). His screenplay for “Adaptation” (2002), again directed by Jonze, was inspired by the difficulties that he had had in adapting journalist Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” for the screen. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, the film’s dual narrative weaves together scenes from Orlean’s book and from Kaufman’s own life, depicting his writer’s block and lampooning his initial resistance to rendering material flashy enough for Hollywood. Susan Orlean was played by Meryl Streep, while Nicolas Cage played both Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother, Donald Kaufman, who was given a co-writing credit on Adaptation’s screenplay; as a result, both Kaufman and his nonexistent brother were nominated in 2003 for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
Next Kaufman wrote the screenplay for the George Clooney-directed “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), which was based on the supposedly true story of the Central Intelligence Agency career of Chuck Barris, host of television’s “The Gong Show.” Kaufman’s screenplay for the genre-bending “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) employs a disjointed timeline to tell the story of onetime lovers (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) who undergo a scientific process that erases their memories of the relationship. It earned Kaufman his first Academy Award for best original screenplay. In 2008 Kaufman made his directorial debut with the hugely ambitious “Synecdoche, New York,” an atmospheric exploration of mortality and art that is even more self-reflexive than Kaufman’s earlier work…Kaufman wrote and co-directed the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa” (2015). Based on his earlier play, the film centres on a customer-service guru (David Thewlis) and the unique young woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he finds among the intentionally artificial, strangely similar figures populating a conference at a hotel. The film was remarked for its artful deployment of 3-D printed figurines and its eerie existentially significant use of the same actor (Tom Noonan) to voice all of the other characters. (britannica.com) Kaufman’s latest film is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020).