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Kaufman and Jonze blur fact and fiction in Adaptation

Director Spike Jonze, 33, and writer Charlie Kaufman, 44 -- both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their first film, 1999's bizarre Being John Malkovich -- have done it again with the equally idiosyncratic Adaptation.

The movie's partly about a neurotic nebbish named Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who has parlayed his clout from writing a little indie movie called Being John Malkovich into a big studio assignment to adapt a best-selling novel, The Orchid Thief, for film. (Factual.) It's also partly about a pronounced case of sibling rivalry between Charlie and his flaky twin brother Donald (also Cage), a struggling screenwriter in his own right. (Fictional.) It's partly about the reporter Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and all the research that went into writing her book about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the so-called Orchid Thief. (Factual.) And it's partly about the relationship that develops between them. (Fictional.)

Just don't look to the filmmakers for much illumination.

Creative Loafing: What is this movie about? Who's it for? Is it too offbeat for its own commercial good?

Spike Jonze: I don't know. I guess those are all good questions, but maybe they're not for us to answer. Maybe one of the producers could cover those better than us.

It isn't for you to answer what your own movie is about?

SJ: It's hard for us to talk about it, because we're just trying to make something that we'll like. Our decisions are based on what we think is right for the story and the material. It's about doing things that feel true to us, as opposed to doing things for other motivations. Thinking about anything else doesn't really help us in making the movie.

But now that the movie is made ...

Charlie Kaufman: We're just making something that we find interesting, that we care about. That's what our job is.

If all that matters is what you find interesting or what you like or care about, though, then how do you avoid making a movie that's simply self-indulgent?

SJ: There's always the risk of that, but that's not our hope or intention. Without being vague or cagey, part of our hope is to let the experience of watching the movie happen and having that sense of not knowing where the line is drawn between reality and fiction.

CK: There are a lot of things in the movie that are true, and a lot of things that aren't true. We're of the mind that we want to keep that line blurred rather than do a checklist, because we think that adds to the experience of the movie.

What gave you so much trouble adapting The Orchid Thief to begin with?

CK: It's a book of essays. There's a little bit of a story about John Laroche, but it's mostly about orchid hunting and the history of orchids. I loved it, which is why I took the job, because it was a good book and I was learning something in the process. It's beautifully written, with a feeling of sadness about it, which I'm always attracted to. I wanted to be true to that, but I didn't want to turn it into something that was cheap. That was my struggle, but that was my interest, too. I wasn't able to make the story work in any conventional way that felt successful.

Were either of you surprised by the attention generated by Being John Malkovich?

CK: There was certainly no way to anticipate it. Neither of us had ever made a movie before.

Had you written Adaptation after the success of Being John Malkovich instead of during the making of it, would your view of Hollywood have been any less cynical or hopeless?

CK: I'm not sure I was writing about the hopelessness of Hollywood. I don't think I've changed since writing Being John Malkovich or since that movie came out, so I don't know whether any of my viewpoints have changed or not.

SJ: It goes back to what we were talking about before, about what's real and not real in the movie. We're trying to avoid telling people what this movie's about or what they should walk out of the theater thinking, because our hope is that different people will have different reactions to it.


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