Screenplay by: Charlie Kaufman, based on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized biography by Chuck Barris
A screenwriter’s characters are meant to have flaws. It’s these flaws that create the obstacles that must be overcome in the world of the screenplay. A gifted screenwriter makes the flawed characters likeable too. In fact, all screenwriters should make their flawed characters likeable, or at the very least empathetic. If you are unsure how to pull it off pick up a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Charlie Kaufman understands how to take a flawed (really flawed) character and turn him into the audience’s best friend. And Kaufman’s characters aren’t just flawed, they are strange. Yet, we like them. We empathize. Kaufman has an uncanny ability to honestly define his main characters by simultaneously showcasing their immorality and their sincerity in a single scene, as he does with Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is based on the the “unauthorized biography” of Chuck Barris…written by Chuck Barris. Strange? There’s more.
Barris was an innovator who never could never direct his talents in the right way. He was able to see the value of reality television in the 1970s, but his vehicle was the insipid, “Gong Show” that he hosted. Barris also claims in his book to have also been a murderous spy for the C.I.A. when not hosting. Strange? Yes. The pairing of the absurd fits perfectly into Kaufman’s oeuvre. It also showcases his ability to establish this absurd world of the story, and his talent for making the audience root for his repugnant and unholy characters.
Note: The following analysis is taken from the 3rd draft of the screenplay, dated May 5, 1998
WORLD OF THE STORY
Confessions of Dangerous Mind is a fragmented world of ridiculousness and spastic truths, where everyone and everything has more than one side. Reality is questioned, but best left alone. It is safer to play along (willing suspension of disbelief) with the fantasies.
Kaufman tells us on page 1 that this film is not totally the truth, but instead:
“a reenactment of actual events.”
The bellhop arrives at Barris’s hotel room with all the items he requested (except the DH-10 directional fragmentation mine.) He says nothing about Barris being stark naked, and evenly mentions that Barris ought to stop shooting out his televisions after seeing the smoking TV set. The other guests are complaining, and, oh yes, a bullet was found in the wall of an adjacent room. But the bellhop remains polite and never exposes the absurd.
BELLHOP: (re: exploded tv)Um, another Gong Show rerun, sir?
The naked Barris approaches the bellhop, drapes his arm over the young man's shoulder and walks with him.
BARRIS: (conspiratorially) You know what I'd do? — And don't tellanybody — I'd rub… I'd rub Alpo branddog food on my dick so the dogs wouldstick their noses into my… dick.Guaranteed big laugh, right? That was mytrick, my great contribution to theworld. How wouldn't I degrade myself, Iask you.
There is a silence.
BARRIS: (screaming)I ask you!
BELLHOP: I… I… I don't know, sir.
Suddenly Barris punches himself in the head, flops down on the unmade bed. The bellhop glances at Barris's bare ass, looks away.
Chuck Burris writes his “unauthorized biography” in attempts to bring meaning to a life he feels he squandered. The Man vs. Himself struggle is apparent from childhood…and carried more heavily into adult life. While writing his memoir, flashbacks recreate his words. A scene of pleasantry is immediately followed by cruelty, showing the dichotomy at play within Barris.
EXT. PHILADELPHIA STREET – DAY
It's sepia. Three year old Chuck, dressed somewhat girlishlyand sporting a blonde pageboy haircut is being posed on apony by a photographer. His mother stands by anxiously asthe boy totters on the animal.
BARRIS (V.O.): Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in1931, my early childhood remainsaccessible to me only as a series ofelliptical, enigmatic memories.
INT. BUTCHER SHOP – DAY
A smiling butcher hands a slice of bologna to young Barris,who puts it in his mouth.
BARRIS (V.O.): The taste of bologna fresh from the butcher.
EXT. CEMENT YARD – DAY
A baby doll is set afire. Young Barris dances around it.
BARRIS (V.O.): The sickly sweet smell of a burningbabydoll on a crisp autumn day.
INT. CHILDHOOD BEDROOM – DAY
Young Barris is being dressed by his mother. We're close onthe velvet material being slipped over his head.
BARRIS (V.O.): Velvet brushing against my tender youngskin, as my mother dressed me.
EXT. SCHOOL YARD – DAY
Young Barris rolling on the ground in battle with anotherboy, as a crowd of children look on.
BARRIS (V.O.): A constant, inarticulate rage leading tofist fight after fist fight.
TONE & GENRE
Confessions of Dangerous Mind plays to three different genres: biography, crime, and comedy. All three are established on page 1 of the screenplay. Kaufman begins with the title card about being “a reenactment of actual events,” then bright, lighthearted scenes of Barris on The Gong Show are paralleled with scenes of Barris carrying out seedy business in dark alleys.
INT. TAXI CAB – NIGHT
The cab sloshes to a stop in front of a liquor store. Theyoung man gets out, jogs through the rain toward thefluorescent storefront. The cab driver waits, listens tostaticky reports in a foreign language on his radio. Themeter is running. The back seat is piled high with bags.
Chuck Barris spastically dances on the screen along with Gene
Gene the Dancing Machine. Barris turns to the camera, pointsat it.
BARRIS: We'll be right back with more stuff.
INT. TAXI CAB – NIGHT
The back of the cab is filled with even more bags and boxes.
The cab stops. The young man gets out and confers with ashady looking guy on the corner. The young man pulls out abig wad of cash. Money and a small package change hands.
The meter in the cab is at thirty-five dollars and change.
Adapting a book into a screenplay can be daunting. When does the screenwriter take over and when does he stay at distance? Kaufman encountered these struggles a few years later in Adaptation. But here, Kaufman does not interfere and allows Barris’s actual words to deliver the dramatic situation.
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
Barris, now in a hotel terrycloth bathrobe and a porkpie hat,sits at a desk and types manically.
BARRIS (V.O.): My name is Charles Prescott Barris. Ihave written pop songs, I have been atelevision producer. I am responsiblefor polluting the airwaves with mindnumbing,puerile entertainment. Inaddition, I have murdered thirty-threehuman beings. I am damned to hell.
Pop songs and television are easily muddled with murder and damnation. Barris is a complex, sordid man, and we are about to delve deep into his filthy world, knowing that our mothers would not be happy with our choices.
Barris is a flawed character battling inner demons through his only means: creation. He is unsound, but he is still somehow likeable. We tag along on his twisted journey with a morbid curiosity, even when we know we shouldn’t. Kaufman shows us that from an early age, the willingness people show to believe and to dismiss Barris’s lies even when they know he is lying.
In the first 10 pages Kaufman introduces five different depictions of Barris, continuing the fragmented theme of the film. We see him as a child, as carefree TV host, agent of the underworld, dismantled soul, and in this scene, a teenage Barris manipulates his sister’s friend, Tuvia.
Tuvia sees Barris fiddling with something under the afghan. She gets quiet.
BARRIS: You wanna lick it?
Tuvia snorts, goes back to playing with the dog.
TUVIA: No. Why should I?
BARRIS: Well, for one thing it tastes likestrawberry. My sister tells me you lovestrawberries.
TUVIA: Yeah, well… I hate strawberries.
BARRIS: Honestly, a man's penis tastes exactlylike a strawberry lollipop.
TUVIA: Look, I know that's not true, so –
BARRIS: It is true. It's weird but it's true. I just read a research paper on it.
Tuvia looks at the afghan.
Kaufman also introduces us to the actual Barris himself as he sits with an interviewer, displaying yet another layer – pensive and intellectual:
ACTUAL BARRIS: When you're young, your potential isinfinite. You might do anything, really.You might be great. You might beEinstein. You might be Goethe. Then youget to an age where what you might begives way to what you have been. Youweren't Einstein. You weren't anything.That's a bad moment. But I rememberedsomething Carlyle wrote: "… there is nolife of a man, faithfully recorded, butis a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed orunrhymed." I realized my salvation mightbe in recording my wasted life,unflinchingly. Maybe it would serve as acautionary tale. Maybe it would help meunderstand why.