As research for his new film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman recorded a dinner conversation with his wife. The next day, each of them separately wrote about the evening. "Our notes were completely different from each other's," says Kaufman, "and the tape was completely different from both of us. And that was just the night before."
It led him to some conclusions about the way memory, or at least his memory, works.
"It's not a video playback, as you instinctively think it is," Kaufman says, speaking by phone from Pasadena, Calif., in long, loopy sentences. "It's very hard for me to reconstruct a conversation I had with someone yesterday as dialogue. I can't do it. And you interact with your memory. You comment on it as you're remembering it.... And that allowed me to come up with the way [the main character] is able to interact with his memory."
Creative and romantic frustrations were intertwined in Kaufman's last film, "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine" follows suit. The film, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as an ill-fated pair who have erased each other from their memories, opens Friday. The script was inspired by a conceptual art piece by Pierre Bismuth, a friend of director Michel Gondry, in which a card is sent to someone saying he or she has been erased from the sender's memory. "Using this conceit of memory erasing to tell the story of a relationship intrigued me," says Kaufman. Once the procedure starts, though, each image of Clementine (Winslet) presented for erasure makes Joel (Carrey) fall in love with her all over again. He fights back by sneaking her away into parts of his memory where she doesn't belong.
The clients wear a metal helmet for the memory-erasing procedure, which takes place at Lacuna Inc. in Rockville Centre on Long Island (where Kaufman went to summer camp as a boy). "We wanted [the procedure] to be as realistic, mundane, and anonymous as possible," Kaufman says. "We didn't want big futuristic machines."
Unlike the abstract titles "Human Nature" and "Adaptation," Kaufman chose a romantic title for his latest movie, a line from poet Alexander Pope. "I was looking for quotes about memory," he says, "and I found this one. I really liked the poem. The funny thing is I could never remember the title myself."
In contrast to Jim Carrey's scary central predicament fighting memory erasure, Kaufman's subplot is a satirical portrait of Lacuna Inc. and the shenanigans of the Eraser Team, Patrick (Elijah Wood), Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Stan (Mark Ruffalo). To write these scenes, Kaufman drew on his own experiences doing customer service work at the Metropolitan Opera, prior to becoming a professional screenwriter.
"It was a good 11 years of my life before I could get my foot in the door," says Kaufman, who now lives in Pasadena. "What's so funny and startling is that the person you hate the most when you're doing customer service is the customer. And you're not allowed to express that.... [In the movie] there was a great opportunity for the personnel to be as careless as they would normally be without having to worry about it, because the customer's unconscious.
"That seemed really horrifying to me but also very human," he says. "I also like the idea that there's something really big and traumatic and tragic going on in Joel's head that's completely invisible. And they [the Eraser team], like everybody, have their own little personal dramas. Stan's got his unrequited love for Mary. Patrick's got his relationship confusions and his duplicity. Mary's got her crush....The rest is blips on a screen to them."
With his brilliant and convoluted spoofs of pop culture clichés, Kaufman has developed quite a reputation as a contrarian. "Eternal Sunshine" shows he hasn't lost his edge.
"Most relationship movies are about how people meet, the obstacles in getting together," he says. "You can't find a movie about marriage or a long-term relationship. Because they're a struggle, and it's not necessarily an enjoyable thing to watch. But I didn't want to hit people over the head with a sledgehammer and tell them, 'It's important to love.' "