Sporting a grey WGA-branded “strike” t-shirt, writer-director Charlie Kaufman led a packed-out masterclass this morning in the main hall of the Bosnian Cultural Center at the Sarajevo Film Festival.
The Being John Malkovich writer is in town to receive the Bosnian festival’s career achievement award, and during his masterclass, he offered a strong condemnation of the current Hollywood studio system and urged filmmakers to find new ways to create work.
“At this point, the only thing that makes money is garbage. It’s just fascinating. It makes a fortune, and that’s the bottom line,” Kaufman said. “It’s very seductive to the studios but also to the people who engage and become the makers of that garbage, especially if they’re lauded for the garbage because they don’t have to look inward or think long about what they’re doing.”
Kaufman, who has writing credits on pics like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and has directed cult features such as Synecdoche, New York, and Anomalisa, continued to tell the audience full of local and international industry professionals to“make movies outside of the studio system as much as possible and think of ways to do that.”
“I have this pipedream of creating an organization of artists to figure out how to finance and support filmmakers who make things that have value,” he added.
With these strong declarations, Kaufman promptly moved on to the grey elephant in the room: the current WGA strike, telling the audience that the wider discussion around the WGA’s “AI issue” is that “writers have been trained to eat and make the garbage too,” meaning writers indulge in and create work that he described as lacking creative ambition and humanity.
“As long as they are in that arena making that shit, then you might as well have AI do it,” Kaufman said.
He added that writers are and should be “better” than the circumstances they are handed by the industry, before concluding that the WGA must stay resolute in its opposition to the use of AI.
“Once you give that up and allow the studios to use AI to write their screenplay, there’s no going back,” he said. “Then there’s no hope because AI can’t create a moment of humanity. As long as people are doing it and there’s that struggle, then there’s always a chance that something will come out of it that will be worth something to human beings.”
Later in the talk, Kaufman also lent his critical eye to audiences, who he said have become careless consumers of what he described as the shallow work they are presented by the Hollywood “movie machine.”
“They don’t seem to see past the cynical sales pitch,” he said of audiences. “Even though the sales pitch is presented in a way that suggests they are being fed something of value, they’re not.”
He added: “The diet is so corrupted and has been for so long. It’s like if you eat shit all your life, you want shit. If you eat processed food, you crave it. And you wouldn’t if you hadn’t been fed it all your life. That’s what the movie machine does and I find it really offensive. It makes me angry.”
The dividing line between actual art and entertainment described as conventional Hollywood fare, Kaufman said, is the “difference between truth and bullshit.”
“If the agenda is to sell a product and if that product is the movie or something within the movie, it can’t be art,” the Oscar-winner concluded.
Elsewhere this morning, Kaufman screened his recently completed, cellphone-shot short film Jackals and Fireflies, created in collaboration with poet Eva HD. The little-seen film was commissioned by Samsung and follows a woman who contemplates her life and loneliness while wandering the streets of New York City.
Kaufman will pick up Sarajevo’s lifetime achievement this evening before a screening of Adaptation, the second film he wrote for director Spike Jonze, starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, and Jay Tavare.
The Sarajevo Film Festival runs until Aug 18.