‘Our Common Humanity and Vulnerability’: Charlie Kaufman’s BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture

By January 5, 2018 One Comment

This is a lecture from someone I hold in high regard and recommend listening to for those in search of truth and honesty in art and beyond.


Film seems to bring out the fanboy in me. I have two well known film-based fascination. One is with cult Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, who have crafted cinematic masterpieces such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke- the latter to which I based a suite of music off for my final recital (which an excerpt of can be found on this site). It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve sung praise of Studio Ghibli on this site but man, their films are so real, warm and transportive and still wrapped up in this package of overwhelming auditory and visual beauty. All their best characters transcend the good/evil polarity and are all flawed humans, just like all of us, with wilful and honest sides to their stories. There are no baddies, only people.

My other film fascination is with against-the-mould L.A. screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, penman of films such as Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaption as well as writer and director of my (tied) favourite film Synecdoche, New York. 

In my mind, directors Mizyaki and Takahata of Studio Ghibli and Charlie Kaufman are both artists in the truest sense of the word. Their finest work are some of the most engrossing, transportive, inspiring, thought-provoking and honest pieces of art I’ve had the pleasure to lay eyes and ears on. I am always pondering how to translate what I love most in their films into the music I want to make and the way I improvise.

Man, I remember the first time I watched Synecdoche, New York. As the film faded out to grey this existential wash took hold of me. I remember staring at my screen in a complete daze as the credits rolled questioning everything I knew. It truly scrambled my brain. It’s still one of the most potent reactions to a piece of art I’ve had.

After watching the rest of Kaufman’s oeuvre, as well as smacking out to S.N.Y. another half a dozen times, I came to find that what I enjoyed in his screenplays were thematic in all his writing: that is, his honest portrayal of the human condition with all it’s nasty Jungian shadow-of-the-self-style flaws. Akin to my description of Ghibli above.

Having watched all his films and wanting to delve deeper still into Kaufman’s mind, I hunted down some podcasts he’s been featured on and came across a ‘screenwriter’s lecture’ he gave for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 2011. Listening to it I was pretty blown away. It’s pretty much his scripts filtered into a personal exposition. His opening line being a case in point:

“Thank you very much. I’m actually really happy to be here; at least that’s what I’m telling myself. I’ve never delivered a speech before, which is why I decided to do this tonight. I wanted to do something that I don’t know how to do, and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that’s what art should offer. An opportunity to recognise our common humanity and vulnerability.”

And well, that sets the tone for the lecture: him selling the idea (to both himself and the audience) of the quest to become reflexive of our individual and collective vulnerabilities and to create art that muses and reflects them. The first half of the lecture is littered with gems in that general vicinity.

As so much as giving a synopsis of the speech, I implore you to sample the first 10-15 minutes. Heaps of nuggety goodness right from the start. I will say that it ends with a Q&A which I didn’t find quite as insightful but hey, worth a listen nonetheless.

In recent posts there seems to have become a trend of me selling the value of honesty and truth in art. Vulnerability too. I feel this lecture focuses in on those things and sells that idea in a far greater way than I can at this point in my life.



There is also a transcript for those who prefer to read but in this case I would suggest listening to experience his inflection and tone.


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One Comment

  • Fanaswell says:

    You are the first person in the world that I found who also likes Hayao Miyazaki and Charlie Kaufman the best, and most impressed by S.N.Y among all Charlie’ works. And I read this speech over and over again when I first read it last year. I happen to be working on my research proposal which uses the concept of vulnerability to capture the spirit the two. It is surely not an easy thing to do, but so happy to know that you feel the same way. That keeps me more motivated somehow:)

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