Last week, The Writer’s Guild Association of America bestowed its highest honour on a venerable master of creatively free screenwriting, Charlie Kaufman. He dubbed that honour the “old-man-lifetime-achievement-award”, introduced by a reverent and delightfully awkward Jessie Buckley. His acceptance speech (for what others call the ‘Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement’) ran something like this:


More judicious than ever, Kaufman’s typical nervous energy rears for a moment, as he pauses to explain that he’s having a tough time reading his speech: his shadow has fallen on the page; they’ve changed the lighting. The nerves dissipate, his resolve lowering the tempo of the room from celebratory to absorbed. He begins to recount a familiar event early in his screenwriting journey; a seminar on how to pitch a film headed by a panel of non-writers.

Instead, the class was fronted by a few examples of those suits who you’d have to one day pitch your stories to. “Producers, executives, etc.’s”, Kaufman labels them. He humorously recounts their dismissiveness, their callous behaviour perhaps indicative of a cycle ingrained into them by their memories of being rejected so many times, so many years ago. “Training, I think. We writers are trained by the business. We are trained to believe what we do is secondary to what they do. We are trained to do the bidding of people who are motivated not by curiosity but by protecting their jobs.”

The delivery is measured, but the words are fiery. The audience seems surprised by his audaciously direct address, but in agreement. They rally behind him in cheers and smatterings of applause, likely in recognition, for a moment, as Kaufman explains that this training pushes writers to lose sight of their purpose. That is; to reflect the world, and to say what is true in the face of so much lying. He looks then to the words of Adrienne Rich: “I do know that art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”.

He’s dead right. Putting aside that pronouncing this truth to a room full of writers might’ve made his message a little easier to swallow, Kaufman, always awake to our deeper natures, gets to the heart of every writer. The impulse that pushes them to crawl headfirst into the gnawing, acidic indifference of the ‘business’. Whether you see Kaufman’s advice as idealised and unattainable or not (you’ve got to play the game to get anything made in the first place, some might say), losing sight of your purpose as a writer is an all too common affliction, as you kowtow to incurious bean counters it begins to fade. As Kaufman himself admits, he wasted years of his career trying to placate the powers that be. Do what you must to bring your art to life, but bear his warning in mind, and so too his charge.

“They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them, but the truth is they can’t do anything of value without us.”

Charlie Kaufman’s Acceptance Speech is a Rousing Reminder
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