Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a damn near perfect film. A film that has, and will, stand the test of time and should not be tinkered with or remade ever. But if—for one night only—you cast different famous actors in the roles and they read the script out loud for a live audience, that might be a nice way to pay tribute to the film. Which, as you’ve probably guessed, is exactly what happened last week in Los Angeles, California.
On March 4 at the Director’s Guild of America, Film Independent presented a live-read of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The read was directed by Brett Haley and starred Tessa Thompson, Martin Starr, Kelly Marie Tran, Nick Kroll, Kiersey Clemons, Jay Duplass, and others in the roles originated by Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson, respectively. Which, yes, means Clemons played Elijah Wood’s role. Which was wonderful.
In case you don’t remember, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released in 2004, directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, who won an Oscar. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as Joel and Clementine, two former lovers who use new technology to remove one another from their memories after a bad break-up. Clementine goes first and Joel goes second, with the majority of the movie taking place inside Joel’s mind as he races against doctors who are picking through his memories to erase them.
Haley, who ran the event and is best known for films like Hearts Beat Loud and All the Bright Places, explained early in the evening that the version of Kaufman’s script he was using wasn’t exactly like the film. It had several scenes and characters that didn’t make the final cut and omitted several of the film’s most famous lines because Kaufman reportedly came up with them on the set. While Haley promised to let the audience in on those moments of inspiration, he never got around to it. One possible example is Clementine’s famous line “Meet me in Montauk,” which basically explains the entire structure of the movie. That line was not in the script that was read, which leads us to believe it was added during production.
As the evening began two things immediately sprang to the forefront. The first was the importance of director Michel Gondry. As entertaining as the event was, and as genius as Kaufman’s script is on its own, it became blatantly obvious that Gondry’s restructuring or streamlining of scenes truly elevated the final product. For instance, the film begins with Joel waking up, which we later realise takes place after everything we’re about to see, giving the scene an added power. The script skips that part, beginning a little later on the train platform, robbing the audience of a reveal. Little examples like that were scattered all throughout the performance.
It was also easy to see that this group of actors was going to be amazing. Starr, best known for his dry humour in the Spider-Man movies and Freaks and Geeks, tweaked that ever so slightly to bring a warm humanity to Joel. It also didn’t hurt that his counterpart, Thompson, was absolutely magnificent. From the very first scene, the Thor: Ragnarok actress wasn’t merely reading, she was acting. Often she’d touch Starr, turn her chair toward him, look at him angrily when a scene called for it or lovingly when it called for that instead. While many of the other actors stayed more or less stationary, Thompson’s near-constant motion gave Clementine energy that made us believe Joel would go through all of this for her.
Once the script introduced Joel and Clementine, we began to meet the rest of the characters—mainly, the employees of the memory removal service Lacuna Inc. As technical engineer Stan, Nick Kroll put his wry sense of humour in his back pocket, using it only occasionally to create a more direct, straightforward performance. The choice worked well because it helped elevate his two counterparts, Mary (Tran) and Patrick (Clemons). Which, by design of the film, they should be, because they both have more complex and crucial roles than Stan does.
In the case of Clemons as Patrick, the person who tries to seduce a post-Joel Clementine using Joel’s old memories, the Sweetheart actress made the character more charming than creepy. Clemons’s Patrick had some stalker vibes, but at least made them warm and goofy. Then there was Tran as Mary, who was possibly the highlight of the night. Throughout the read, the character’s adoration and flirting with Howard (played perfectly straight with just a dash of humour by Duplass) steadily built. Tran was the perfectly innocent, madly in love young woman with an intense crush, smiling and giggly one minute, nervous and embarrassed the next. Eventually, we find out those emotions are because she’d had her memory wiped of a previous relationship and, in this script, pregnancy, with Howard. By the time Tran got to deliver some of those longer monologues from the end of the script, everyone on stage had stopped flipping pages and just watched her work, as she painfully yet beautifully brought Mary’s complex journey to life.
Probably the biggest change between the script and the film was that Joel’s ex, Naomi, plays a rather large role in the script. She’s not in the film at all, though scenes were reportedly filmed with Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo. So here, actor Bridget Regan read the part and gave it a grounded sweetness that made you realise both why Joel loved Naomi, but also why they could never be together. Regan and actor Ryan Hunter each played multiple, smaller roles during the read as well, helping round out the cast.
Their shining moment came near the end of the story when Joel and Clementine are sent their Lacuna tapes. The script requires the two characters, who in the present don’t know each other, to listen to one another’s voices from the past, when they knew each other very well. How do you do that without overdubbing or recording? Well, Hunter and Regan read the taped dialogue as Starr and Thompson reacted to them, staying in character. It was a powerful, funny, and smart choice by Haley, whose every decision was absolutely spot on.
The one problem with a live-read of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind though is reading visuals can’t compare to seeing them. Kaufman’s script regularly states that dreams close in around Joel and Clementine and things of that nature are difficult to picture on their own. It’s only in the final film, with Gondry’s visual and special effects on full display, that Kaufman’s words are given true gravitas. Plus, Gondry clearly reigned in Kaufman a bit, tightening up his words and streamlining his thoughts. He turned what took almost three hours to read into a tight, unforgettable, 100-minute movie. Both versions have the same messages and emotions but the wonder and pacing of the movie cannot be beaten.
Which, ultimately, is ok. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the movie, will always be there. It’s not changing. It’s only ageing. For one night only in Los Angeles though, it was recast and reimagined with great success, creating a memory I’ll never scrub from my brain.
For info on future live reads and more, check out FilmIndependent.com.