Without a doubt, the most perplexing part of Charlie Kaufman’s surreal, sad and frequently nightmarish new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is the thought anyone—anyone!—would fail to finish a delicious Tulsey Town sweet treat. The second most perplexing part? Well, take your pick: swooning, self-annihilating dream ballets; fashion tips from a cartoon pig leaking blood and maggots from its abdomen; a blurry farmhouse photograph that could be of you or me or both of us; Pauline Kael cosplay; Oklahoma! Typical Charlie Kaufman, basically.
Having debuted on Netflix to great reviews—and, according to the filmmaker, great viewership totals—Things is just the latest chapter in Kaufman’s long and imaginative career as auteur storyteller, following a string of celebrated screenplays (Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and two previous directorial efforts—2008’s Synecdoche, New York and the stop-motion animated Anomalisa in 2015.
His third feature as director, Kaufman adapted I’m Thinking of Ending Things from Canadian author Iain Reid’s 2016 novel. The films marks Kaufman’s first collaboration with Jesse Plemmons (Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad)—one of the most critically acclaimed young actors of his generation.
On September 17, Kaufman and Plemons joined Film Independent’s Jenn Wilson for a special live Members-only Q&A as part of our ongoing Film Independent Presents programming series. Watch the full panel and read highlights below:
‘I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS’
Being Charlie Kaufman. Wilson asked how the two collaborators broke into showbiz. “I beat my head into the wall for a really long time,” said Kaufman. “I worked in a couple places that had rolodexes of famous people—I would steal their addresses and send them screenplays, to no avail.” Eventually, he turned his efforts towards spec sitcom scripts, which eventually landed him an agent and a seven-year career writing for television before he finally gained traction in features. For Plemons, “I feel like I slowly snuck in over a 15-year period,” he said. A Texas native, Plemons put in time as an extra for local film productions. He eventually landed a commercial agent out of Dallas and began commuting to LA for auditions, eventually landing his breakthrough, Friday Night Lights.
Dream a little dream. Of I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ phantasmagorical tone, Kaufman said: “I’m very interest in dreams and dream imagery and how they [dreams] seem to effortlessly create the kind of metaphors that I struggle with when I’m awake.” Though his stories typically involve magical realism and non-narrative storytelling, he says it’s not important to him to justify how such situations work, eschewing in his plots any sort of pseudo-scientific explanation for such devices. He likes using dreams, he says, because they allow him “to not have to worry about what people will think—I don’t care, I just want to get to it.”
The beginning of the end. So, what led Kaufman to Reid’s book? The reasons were practical. “I didn’t know that it would make a great film. I was looking for something to pitch that would maybe allow me to get financing. The book was small, and I liked it. I thought since it was a bestseller and than it was in a genre, that someone might want to make it.” That someone, it turned out, was Netflix.
The subconscious and unspoken. Asked about the film’s extensive use of first-person narration, Kaufman said that voiceover is something he’s long been fascinated with. With his directorial debut—2008’s Synecdoche, NY—he said, “I decided I was going to make a movie about voiceover. I’ve spent a lot of time in people’s heads.” Of Things’ discursive, stream-of-consciousness approach to dialogue and how it reconciles with the concept of dreams, Plemons said: “[In dreams] there’s no escaping or hiding, which is an aspect of it that’s fascinating and scary—there’s always so much information buried in your conscious mind.”
Streaming. I’m Thinking of Ending Things was initially scheduled to open with a brief theatrical run before premiering on Netflix, but those plans were scuttled when COVID-19 hit. Nevertheless, said Kaufman, “It’s already been seen by more people than anything I’ve ever done, so it’s already got a different life,” though he quickly added that he “doesn’t care” how many people see his movies as long as he gets to keep making them. “I’m happy Netflix financed it and gave it a home.”
Weird all over. Of the shoot, Plemons said: “It was obviously unlike anything I’d ever done before. The possibilities of this really felt infinite. You’re always hoping to discover something you couldn’t find [in the script] before when you were working on it by yourself.” He said that the version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things that they wound up with is the product of a specific moment in time. “If we had had two weeks of rehearsal or more time [for the shoot], it would have been a completely different movie,” he said.
Said Plemons: “When you watch a film like this, it conjures all sorts of memories and past experiences—that’s what it was like making it.” I’m Thinking of Ending Things is currently streaming on Netflix.
Film Independent Presents is supported by Lead Sponsor the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Official Partner Vision Media, Media Partner The Los Angeles Times and Promotional Partner KCRW.
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