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The Screenwriting of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Updated: May 9

Our first installment of this series examined filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s unique writing style and what screenwriters can learn from her work.

This week, we’ll be taking a look at another favorite–Charlie Kaufman. You’ll know Kaufman’s writing from Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and he wrote and directed his newest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

Kaufman began his writing journey in Television, writing for a variety of sitcoms before making the switch to film, where he would find greater success and acclaim. He wrote Being John Malkovich on spec, which eventually found its way to Spike Jonez through Francis Ford Coppola.

Let’s take a look through some scenes from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to begin to unravel Kaufman’s voice and what sets his writing apart.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindScreenplay | Coffee Class

Eternal Sunshine is a film that carved itself a spot in the zeitgeist for having a unique concept as well as great characters and stunning visuals, and is a personal favorite. The non-linear structure allows the story to unravel in a way that feels organic, poignant, and encapsulates the theme of memory just by the way it exists. This choice allows the theme of the story to be present in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or expository.

In the film, protagonist Joel discovers his ex-girlfriend Clementine has had him completely erased from her memory using a service from company Lacuna, and decides to retaliate by having her erased. During the process, however, he rediscovers why he fell in love with her, and works with her construct to try to stop the inevitable.

Looking through the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine, it becomes clear that one of the main hallmarks of Kaufman’s writing is a focus on strong dialog. Even though the film has a lot of visual elements, the pages are fairly sparse. This allowed the actors–Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet–to really dig in to the characters and make them feel authentic and memorable.

In this scene on page 43, there’s a quick action line about the world, but the focus is on Joel and Clementine’s back and forth. We can feel the degradation of both the scene and, more importantly, their relationship, from the way they verbally attack each other.

As readers, we can tell this is a relationship on its last legs, and that we have two people so frustrated that they’re intentionally trying to hurt each other. This is an interesting way to showcase the relationship at the beginning of the film, moving backward from their worst moments through to their best. The romance itself becomes embedded into the conflict: is it worth it to fight for love?

Another element Kaufman is known for is creating bizarre and sometimes surrealistic scenes which really allow the theme of the story to shine through. A good example of this is on page 68, when Joel escapes to his childhood to try to save Clem.

Superimposing Clementine into a memory she was not part of creates a visually interesting image, combined with Joel being presented as a child under the table. His emotional desperation for his mother as a child is spliced with his need to save Clementine, and this elevates both emotions in an almost visceral way.

But Kaufman doesn’t just focus this screenplay on the romance, he establishes a subplot of the employees of Lacuna running the procedure in the background, which is fantastic exposition with great characterization. We see a great example of a pay-off on page 110.

In receptionist Mary’s subplot, we’ve explored her seemingly one-sided crush on Doctor Howard as technician Stan works on the procedure. This all comes together when she finally kisses Howard, and his wife Hollis arrives and reveals this has all happened before. We realize that Mary and Howard had a relationship previously, and Mary was given the procedure to forget once they were caught.

This adds another layer of conflict and tension to the story, and feels particularly gut-wrenching when we see the devastation as Mary realizes she has been promoting a lie all this time. We also see the polar opposite emotional reaction from what Joel is experiencing. While he is fighting for his love for Clementine, we’re presented with a relationship that was erased because it was too painful to exist.

Back into the main storyline, part of what makes Eternal Sunshine such a gorgeous film is the blending of timelines. In this scene late in the film, we see Joel in the past, but also experience Joel in his own memory, participating both actively and making observations. This is something that looks beautiful on the page, and does the rare job of feeling like a movie while reading with very little description. The repetition of the joke about Clementine’s name is also a great callback to the beginning of the film, when Joel and Clem meet again, not knowing they have just erased each other.

I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a favorite for many of us because it blends a cool science fiction idea with a poignant and authentic love story, as well as having great characters that feel real. This stems from a screenplay with so much deliberate thought behind why every element exists, and deeply developed characters that jump off the page.

What Screenwriters Can Learn From This

One of the first lessons we can learn from Charlie Kaufman’s writing is that it’s okay to be unapologetically yourself, as long as it serves the story. One of the reasons Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is such a popular film is that it’s so unique, and so visually stimulating. The image of Joel and Clementine lying on the ice, her bright blue hair splayed out, is immediately evocative of the film.

There is also a lot of work done by the dialog, which might be surprising, given the concept of the story. The exposition is done through the story, the dialog, and the events of the plot, which allow everything to unfold dynamically. It’s important, as screenwriters, to consider what can be established through the characters, whether it’s through dialog, or simply by the role the characters play. Including the perspective of the Lacuna employees, for example, was a great way to showcase the procedure without it feeling heavy-handed.

There’s also a lot of thematic elements at play in this film, which can be important to think about during the writing process. What do you want your movie to say? What is the thematic question of the film, and how does each character answer that question differently? We don’t want to be heavy-handed or over the top, but something as simple as adjusting the order of the story to reflect the central theme can make a big difference, as we see by experiencing Joel and Clementine’s love story from end to beginning.

Hungry for more screenwriting education? Young Screenwriters has a range of courses for every writer on each step of their journey! Get started with our FREE Writing the Short and Writing the Scene courses to learn the basics.

When you’re ready to take the next step, sign up for Writing the Feature and learn NYU Professor John Warren’s complete writing process, including generating powerful film ideas, forming dynamic character arcs, creating beat sheets and outlines, and finishing that screenplay with proper formatting and a plan for what’s next. Writing the Feature is the perfect way to work on that screenplay from start to finish, and our Discord community will lift you up every step of the way!

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