BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, 1999
A puppeteer discovers a door in his office that allows him to enter the mind and life of John Malkovich for 15 minutes. The puppeteer then tries to turn the portal into a small business
First a Background
Being John Malkovich was a script that was passed around Hollywood for the latter part of the ’90s. Written by then-virtual unknown sitcom writer Charlie Kaufman, it was said by all to be a clever but an unfilmable script. But like a lot of classic films, a lot of stars were aligned to make this landmark movie:
-Sony Classics wanted to work with music video director Spike Jonze, who had never worked in film before. They gave him a group of scripts to read, and Jonze loved Malkovich and wanted to meet the writer.
-Jonze and Kaufman got along instantly. Perhaps because they were total opposites. Kaufman was an NYU-educated, six-paper-a-day reader, and very well informed. Perhaps too informed by most Hollywood standards. Jonze was a high school dropout who was raised on dirt bikes, sports magazines and music videos. He was shockingly not well-read and not versed at all in the history of his craft. But they were both shy and felt like outsiders in the system. And they were determined to make this script.
-Sony was in a midst of a corporate takeover and everything was in disarray. No one really wanted to make this film, but with a studio chief who believed in Jonze, a few phone calls asking for favors from Jonze’s father-in-law Francis Ford Coppola (he married Sophia Coppola), and getting Cameron Diaz/John Cusask on board, the tiny budget of 15 million was given for a project greenlight.
-Getting John Malkovich was the final step. Jonze convinced him to do it because it was a career-ending role if the film boomed, and a forever mocking of himself if it succeeded. The brash Malkovich loved the no-win odds and signed on. Who was Malkovich’s backup? No one. If he wouldn’t do it, then they wouldn’t do the film.
-After filming, Jonze and his editor spent almost a year editing the movie, something that never happens because of studio deadlines to open the film, and especially never for a film with virually no post-production special effects. But the studio was in the midst of being taken over by new owners who avoided the film as they had other things to take care of. They kept cashing the checks, so they kept editing and tweaking to try to make the mess of the coverage they shot into an actual film.
-The first cut of this final 1 hour and 45-minute film was four hours. Jonze kept on bringing in people off the street each week to watch their recent cut. They took their advice, did some reshoots and kept editing. They changed a lot of the original script and basically cut out one of the main characters, Mr. Lester, and made the film more of a relationship story.
-A year later, they had their cut, it got shown at some film festivals, and then the film become the classic that it was, making Kaufman and Jonze’s careers. They worked together again on their next project, the film Adaptation, which was another hit (this time Jonze and his editor took 18 months to edit that film).
Now the review
What makes this film great is that this is a film that totally plays like it’s a regular drama. The plot is extremely out there when Craig Swartz (John Cusask), the creatively frustrated puppeteer-turned-office filer finds a porthole that leads to actor John Malkovich’s head, where you can be inside of his brain for 15 minutes.
Jonze shoots this film on the nose, never letting the audience think this is nothing more than a relationship film between the married Craig and Lottie (the almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), and their mutual obsession with Maxine – the sexy vamp who is also Craig’s business partner when they start a company to let people off the street be inside Malkovich’s head.
This very funny film is perhaps one of the most realistic films in terms of the characters. We all know these types of people. Craig is a frustrated artist who feels very unloved and unsupported, as his craft is just not being recognized. Lottie is the animal-loving nice girl who just shows love in everyone she meets but never really gets it in return (you only can get so much love from an animal). And Maxine, the woman who knows how to take advantage with the skills she was given, and fit it into the world she’s currently living. The type of person who is confident because the world has been easy for her so far.
Together these characters face conflict because of the porthole to Malkovich that was found. Craig and Lottie become addicted to the fact that they can become someone else, something many people would love to do. And Maxine takes full advantage of this weakness of both of them. Maxine is not the type of person who is even the slightest bit interested in going into the porthole. She just loves herself too much.
Other than that, if you haven’t seen this spectacular film, please do. And if you’ve seen if before, watch it again because there are so many other insights that you probably missed the first time. This is one of those films with so much going on, you have to watch it twice. And it all starts with Charlie Kaufman’s original script. This is a man who has a complete understand of the three keys of storytelling: plot, theme and character. He juggles these tools in every scene and shows us the world most us knows, while telling us a whole lot about humanity.
One final note is that I have to honor the performance of John Malkovich himself. He is spectacular playing a version of himself and the version of the people inside his head playing themselves within himself. I can’t think of another actor in that time who could of played this role better than him. It could be one of the best performances of the ’90s.