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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

September 9, 2020
5 min read time

Let’s begin with this: until you have watched I’m Thinking of Ending Things, do not read this. In fact, if you can, read no articles about the new drama-thriller before you watch it. The beauty of the film is you get an unfettered glimpse into Charlie Kaufman’s brain, and that is a treat unto itself. The movie is such a journey on its own terms that its screenwriting merits, perhaps, should not be too deeply analyzed. Instead, the following takeaways are born of the writer’s own curiosity to do a deep dive into the filmic references to which this movie pays tribute.

If you have seen it, you probably already know the basic “premise” (and yes, that term is used loosely) is that “Lucy” (if that’s really her name at all) agrees to meet Jake’s parents for a family meal after the pair have only been dating briefly. But, “Lucy” is thinking of ending things. On the way there and back, Lucy and Jake have a heady conversation full of cultural references that both exist and were created specifically for the film. The car conversations drop a myriad of hints on who these people really are—and if they themselves exist in the first place—and despite these two very long scenes simply being two souls talking, they are undeniably captivating. So, what did all these cultural references actually mean? Charlie Kaufman told IndieWire on the film’s release that he is truly open to anyone’s interpretation. But he did confess that the meat of the movie is, “Dealing with somebody’s experience of absorbing things that they see and how they become part of his psyche.”

Every artist or art appreciator has been deeply affected by a film, TV show, book, or painting that they absolutely adore. It likely touched them to their core in a way they cannot explain. Perhaps it even shaped their life view to the point that they’ve devoted their life to something (full confession: This writer has devoted their life to screenwriting partially because of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so do with that information what you will.) That said, the following analysis of the cultural references that both fleetingly and deeply affect Jake and Lucy is just one screenwriter’s guess. But that's the beauty of love and art, isn’t it? Everyone gets to decide the weight these pieces have in their lives; and likely the artist was driven to create them to make sense of being human in the first place. It then follows that a film that attempts to analyze art would put the brain in a plane that is all at once familiar and foreign, comforting and disorienting, affecting and disaffecting. I guess one could say that’s the very reason why Kaufman is an artist.

  1. The Real Robert Zemekis and a Fake Piece of Work Called Order Up. Part of I’m Thinking of Ending Things follows one lonely day and night of a janitor at work at a local high school. When the janitor takes a food break, he watches what seems like a cheesy rom-com on an old-school television set, and the end credit very prominently states: Directed by Robert Zemekis. The fact that the janitor is pretty into this movie is, to this writer at least, a huge clue to the conceit of the film. Watch the cuts carefully between the janitor’s life and Jake’s life, and eventually, “Lucy’s” life upon a second viewing of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Additionally, what do rom-coms tell us about love? Do each of us get a rom-com of a life? As far as real-life director Zemekis, of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, and Romancing the Stone fame goes, he is almost an antithesis to Kaufman. A perfect choice for a director who would have a movie playing on basic cable at any hour of the day. This choice of Zemekis is not necessarily a symbolic thinker. Kaufman told IndieWire he chose to use Zemekis’ name when his A.D. suggested it, thinking it just an inherently funny choice.
  1. The Tulsey Town Ice Cream Jingle. Perhaps one of the more unsettling scenes (of many) in the film is the one that occurs at the Tulsey Town Ice Cream stand. It’s in the middle of nowhere and is inexplicably open in the middle of a blizzard. Both “Lucy” and Jake know the Tulsey Town jingle by heart, or at least part of it, and it seems Tulsey Town is ruled by a benevolent and tolerant ice cream clown queen...until Jake and “Lucy” finally arrive at the ice cream stand and it’s revealed that it is instead manned by two very beautiful and seductive women, and one lonely and afraid woman. Our lonely and afraid ice cream server hits on the theme of this film. In every scene of life (and this movie) there is the undesirable character, especially when next to their more attractive, more intelligent, or more popular counterparts. Our undesirable ice cream maiden with scratches on her arm and desperation in her voice warns “Lucy,” “I’m worried about you. And be careful.” This unsettles "Lucy," who simply wants to go home after the encounter at Tulsey Town, where the ice cream they were served was far too sweet. By the by, Kaufman desperately wanted this to be a Dairy Queen, but could not secure the rights.
  1. A Woman Under the Influence and Pauline Kael. When “Lucy” wanders into Jake’s room she finds a treasure trove of books and films that have influenced him, including For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, a collection of essays by film critic Pauline Kael. Later in their car ride home, “Lucy” does a killer impression of Kael as she takes down A Woman Under the Influence. If you are not a fan, or are new to the ‘70s Cassavetes classic, the movie deals with a woman trapped inside herself trying to please and live for others in a society where no man or woman is truly liberated. An excellent reference for I’m Thinking of Ending Things that may or may not be about a man trapped inside his own subconscious. More could be said on this, but like Kaufman wants, it’s best to draw your own conclusions.
  1. Oklahoma! No other piece of pop culture is as influential on I’m Thinking of Ending Things as the musical Oklahoma! The janitor of the film is surrounded by students preparing to put on the classic musical. He likes to watch their rehearsals, and seems profoundly affected by them. Also, an apt reference for a film about a man who is invisible and shunned by those around them is the antagonist of Oklahoma!, “Jud”. An anti-hero, Jud deals with much the same dilemma. He is an outcast, his community often turns a blind eye to his struggles, and he suffers from an unrequited love so strong it eventually does him in. Our janitor, who is sneered at by students and only given the time of day by his own imagination, knows what it feels like to be a Jud.
  1. A Beautiful Mind. At the close of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Jake is on a fancier version of the high school auditorium stage accepting a Nobel Prize, and “Lucy” is in the audience. Everyone is done up in high-school level old age make-up, and Jake recites a monologue from A Beautiful Mind: “This award comes at the end of a long, fruitful life… the work I did took me from a physical delusion and back…It is only in mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found.” As an audience, we are conditioned to happy endings. We want Jake and “Lucy” to be together. We are so often spoon fed the expected, but of course, this film does not ultimately conclude here. No, instead we get Jake singing a number from Oklahoma! leaving us with the sentiment that life much more often ends with dreams within your head as the floor creaks and the door squeaks and you feel as nothing more but a cobweb upon a shelf.

Final Takeaways: It is difficult to decode the mind of Charlie Kaufman, but his films often reward repeat viewings. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things intrigued you enough upon a first watch, a second watch makes many connections to some random events and moments that might have previously felt disconnected. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a puzzle of the mind for good reason, as no one’s subconscious is perfectly clear. Ultimately, this flick reminded the writer of why a filmic experience is worth creating in the first place—none of us are experiencing one thing the same way, and that’s what makes the pursuit of this insane medium all the more worthwhile.

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