The first thing to know about "Adaptation," the new movie from "Being John Malkovich" writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, is that the character of Donald (one of twin brothers played by Nicolas Cage) is purely fictitious - even though his name is listed as coscreenwriter for the film.
The next thing to know is that the filmmakers are reluctant to admit that Donald isn't real. "Donald co-wrote the script," insists Mr. Jonze. His shaggy beard hides his boyish smirk. "That's all we're going to say."
If this sounds a little bizarre, it's largely by design. "Adaptation" is similar to "Malkovich" in that it blurs the lines between fiction and reality. It's a kind of parlor game for this fiendishly clever duo. But it didn't start out that way.
Three years ago, just as filming of "Malkovich" wrapped up, Mr. Kaufman was facing an acute case of writer's block while trying to adapt Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief" to the screen.
"I was growing desperate trying to get a script done," Kaufman recalls. "For months I'd get up and say, 'I can't do this.' I really thought it was going to be the end of my career."
Part of Kaufman's difficulty came because "The Orchid Thief" combined a journalistic account of John Laroche, a cantankerous Florida man who collects the rare flower (sometimes illegally), with Ms. Orlean's own musings about the nature of obsession. What Kaufman grappled with was how to separate Laroche's story from Orlean's personal reflections and create a straightforward Hollywood script.
For those who have seen "Malkovich," his next move won't seem quite as surprising: Facing deadline, Kaufman inserted himself as the movie's central character. Kaufman's script then intersects his own story with the action from the book, with Meryl Streep playing Orlean and Chris Cooper as the gap-toothed but brilliant Laroche.
"I didn't intend to write it this way," says Kaufman. "But this was what finally made the script come alive for me."
As if that weren't strange enough, in the movie Kaufman has a twin brother (the aforementioned Donald) who aspires to write just the kind of mainstream blockbuster that Charlie refuses to let his screen version of "The Orchid Thief" become. The creation of Donald, both in the movie and in his mind, helped Kaufman find the perspective necessary to complete a script about finding one's true voice.
"Crediting the script to myself and Donald is important to understanding the movie," he continues. "So we don't want to say that Donald is an invention."
Despite the personal digression, Kaufman says, "I wanted to be true to the book because I liked it. I didn't want to just do something weird for its own sake." In fact, Kaufman's insertion of himself into the story is not unlike what Orlean did in turning her original New Yorker article into a book.
If writing such a movie was difficult, bringing it alive on screen may have been even tougher. "Going in and out from one character to another was a little bit frustrating," says Cage, clad in a tan leather jacket and jeans. "Because when I act, I try to really get into that character."
What's more, Cage (who is a cousin of Jonze's wife, Sofia Coppola) had to act alongside himself. "I'd use a tennis ball, imagine that it was Charlie and what I'd done as Charlie while trying to think and feel as Donald," Cage explains. "Then I'd also hear my voice in a little ear piece as Charlie, so I wouldn't overlap dialogue. It was like playing the drums, where you're trying to hit the cymbal and the snare and the bass drum. The first time I tried it was hard, but eventually I got into it."
Cage found the process of tapping into his own insecurity to play the neurotic on-screen version of Kaufman therapeutic. "I'm sure it's no secret that actors are insecure people," says Cage, who won an Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas." "In fact, I don't think I've ever started a movie where I wasn't tormenting myself with the concept that I don't know at all how to act."
"Adaptation" delights in jumping back and forth in time, from numerous jolts between the "Orchid Thief" story and Kaufman's writing it three years earlier, to the beginning of time some four billion years ago. Jonze, who spent three years working with Kaufman on "Malkovich" before shooting began, says a similar timeline was followed with "Adaptation." The editorial process, he says, was much different from just putting together the film that they'd shot.
"It became a lot like Charlie the character's writing process, in terms of the movie constantly evolving into this other thing," says Jonze. "By the end, it'd changed into something different from when we started editing."
"Adaptation" turned out to be a far different movie from what Columbia Pictures was expecting. Kaufman was prepared for the worst. "I didn't hear anything for a few days," Kaufman recalls of turning in his script. "By the time I heard, they seemed to like it. But I heard later that [producer] Ed Saxon, who hired me to write this, was pretty angry at first. He wanted to know who Donald was and why I had farmed out part of my script to somebody else."