Nicolas Cage takes the big chair. His legs and arms spill out of it, jutting grey pinstripe in four directions. He's bigger than life-size, like the gold rocks that spring from his cuffs and right ring finger.On the couch to his left sit Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Jonze waits and watches, while Kaufman blends ever so slightly into the beige damask. Adaptive training, no doubt.
These three men -- the body, the brain and the pop-cultural pulse -- sit here in a tricky situation. They're in Toronto to promote a movie about a man so frustrated with movies that he writes himself into his own script.
Adaptation is like catnip for smartasses. It provokes dizzying questions about art and identity and sprays meta-narrative sparks straight off the screen. But how do you sell it?
Kaufman wrote Adaptation. Cage plays "Charlie Kaufman" in the film, as well as Kaufman's fictional twin brother, Donald. Jonze directs Cage's two Kaufmans. He also directed Kaufman's Being John Malkovich script, which, in Adaptation, he is shooting. Offscreen, if there is still such a thing, Jonze is married to Sophia Coppola, Cage's cousin.
Adaptation is the product of this peculiar Hollywood family, but if it appears to throw a spanner in the glamour factory, that would be a presumption.
Is this film such a hilarious thrill to watch because most conventional movies suck?
"I don't even know how to answer that," Jonze says quickly, "because it's not really.... There's no there's no that wasn't our motivation."
He spins a pen furiously inside his fist. "There's definitely jokes."
Kaufman fades in. "Everything is set somewhere," he adds. "This happens to be set in this person's world, and he's a screenwriter. But the people who populate this world can be found in any other arena. So I think when people are laughing, they're laughing maybe more about his circumstances."
So it's not actually making fun of Hollywood. But the jokes, at the expense of cringing writers, vacant executives and screenwriting guru Robert McKee, sure help the trick plot go down easier.
"I know Charlie doesn't think about it in terms of making it mainstream," Jonze says. "Charlie's writing from what's personal to him, and I think as a reader that's what I relate to. These scripts are wildly original and imaginative, but they also have heart."
"I try not to make it funny at the expense of characters," Kaufman adds. "I'm not really writing jokes."
Now Cage leans in. "I never get that feeling when I'm reading his writing," he says, "that there's that repartee you get sometimes in a situation comedy that has to move and be witty because it's the style. I feel like I'm really reading organic people, true people feeling things and thinking things in a very believable, truthful way."
Cage gives an astounding performance in Adaptation, alive both to Charlie's magnificent cringing and to the loopy confidence of his twin brother, Donald. To prepare, he interviewed Kaufman on Kaufman, then spent three weeks rehearsing with Jonze.
"Yeah, it was a luxury in the truest sense of the word to have that kind of time," Cage says. "I've known Spike peripherally over the years just as family and friend, but I'd never had that kind of quality time with him where I could get to know his process.
"Charlie is a true original," he continues, "and a free thinker, even a wild thinker in my own impression of him. I found it very stimulating in the interview process when I would question him and try to capture some mental sketch of who Charlie is.
"Having said that, the Charlie I play is a surrealistic Charlie with some essence of Charlie the man."
In the film, Cage's "Charlie Kaufman" is a fat, balding man prone to hunched shoulders and nervous sweat. In person, Kaufman is a small, thin man with a shock of reddish-brown hair. He may sweat on the inside, but he projects a calm diffidence. So calm he could be Jonze's Ritalin.
When Jonze explains what he calls his "socialist" relationship with his crew versus the personal rigours of Cage's work in Adaptation, he practically vibrates.
"Two characters to create and embody, two. Two, double the amount of dialogue to learn every night and then all the technical ramifications of play-
ing two characters, in terms of working with green
screen. And ear, having an ear, acting opposite your own voice in your ear, against an X on the wall that you're looking at, and all of those things."
Cage picks up the thread.
"It's a very vulnerable thing to be an actor, because you're asked to go on a set with a lot of people watching while you can't hide behind a guitar, or, with all due respect, even a typewriter.
"It's your image right there. And you're expected to break yourself down to get to the emotional content, whatever it is you're trying to create in the role. So you're vulnerable, because you're baring your soul in front of everybody."
Jonze, Cage says, can have a socialist, family collaboration with
"But I would feel that would be overstepping my bounds. And conversely, whether or not he accepts points of view about the performance from other people, I don't know about it. I have one director and I don't really want to get comments about my work from the wardrobe person.
"Not that that happened," he rushes to add. "It didn't. But I have to focus it down to the captain."
Today, the captain is being very cagey on the subject of Adaptation's ending. The film makes a huge tonal swerve in its third act -- this is a film that invites talk of third acts -- and leaves some viewers baffled. Did this movie suddenly get sincere, or even more ironic?
Jonze turns the tables. "For me," he says, "it's more interesting to know what you thought."
Cage takes a different tack.
"It's important for me to have my own secret relationship with a movie," he says. "If the filmmakers say too much about what their intention was, they're stealing my own secret, my relationship with the film."
"I don't think we're being ironic," Kaufman interjects. "We had a lot of conversations about the tonal shifts in the movie and how it was important to us that there be a consistency, that in the earlier parts there's a basis for what happens to them at the end of the movie, even if there's some kind of shift."
"But if you thought it was ironic," Cage pipes up, "that's your interpretation. Which you're entitled to."
Jonze is clearly uncomfortable with this line of talk. He spins his pen again, a match for any math student.
"We tried very hard to juggle a lot of things," Kaufman says finally, "and we want to keep them juggled." email@example.com Adaptation