A Defiant Charlie Kaufman Talks WGA Strike and Losing ‘an Essential, Primal Part of Human Experience’ to AI

A Defiant Charlie Kaufman Talks WGA Strike and Losing ‘an Essential, Primal Part of Human Experience’ to AI

The Sarajevo Film Festival may unfold over 6,000 miles away from L.A., but the WGA strike was very much on the mind — and the clothing — of writer-director Charlie Kaufman when he was in the Bosnian capital to receive the festival’s prestigious Heart of Sarajevo award.

Kaufman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was also nominated for his screenplays for Spike Jonze’s films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” as well as picking up a Best Animated Feature nod for “Anomalisa,” which he also directed. That pedigree, coupled with a reputation for a writing style so singular that the adjective “Kaufmanesque” needed to be coined as a descriptor, makes him something of the ultimate Hollywood outsider-insider. So he’s well placed to speak to the concerns of his WGA brethren, who right now seem to be living out the very commerce vs. creativity conundrum that informs so much of his work.

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Speaking in the Variety Lounge at Sarajevo, Kaufman did not mince his words in outlining the dire threat posed by AI, which he sees as nothing less than “the end of creativity for human beings.” He related it back to the plot of his unproduced screenplay “Frank or Francis,” in which “a robotic head…was employed to write a screenplay that would appeal to every demographic, and make the most successful movie in the world. And it did, and.. became so famous that it got elected President. Which is kind of close to where we are now.” He went on to highlight the “disgusting” disparity between the pay of most writers and the executives who “don’t do anything – well, no, what they do is damage.”

But it wasn’t all yikes and strikes. Kaufman spoke warmly about making his newest film, “Jackals and Fireflies,” a short set to a poem by Eva H.D, a collaborator whose work is also featured in a pivotal scene in his last feature, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” In fact, he used that long dreamlike monologue to audition actresses for the lead role, which went to Jessie Buckley, largely because she “committed it to memory, like overnight, it was crazy. And the very next day, she sent this beautiful interpretation of it.”

The transfer of those lyrical phrases, from poet to screenwriter to performer and finally to audience, is a good example of precisely the kind of human-to-human connection that art can make, and that Kaufman believes AI can never fully replicate. “If I read a poem, and that poem moves me, I’m in love with the person who wrote it,” he says, “And I can’t be in love with a computer program. I can’t, because it isn’t anything.”

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