Charlie Kaufman is one of Hollywood’s most original thinkers, and his quirky, complex, thought provoking scripts have been the basis for some of the oddest — and most strangely affecting — films of recent years. Now, the wildly inventive screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) turns to directing with Synecdoche, New York.
A complex, aching meditation on aging and the artistic process, Synecdoche stars Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director in upstate New York who, during a period of tension with his wife (Catherine Keener), works to mount a sprawling, wildly ambitious play that encompasses his life and the lives of virtually everyone around him — often with multiple actors and actresses playing or standing in for other characters. Kaufman sat down with RT to discuss the nexus between art and life, the nature of autobiographical storytelling, and the process of staying true to one’s vision.
What was the initial idea you had in creating Synecdoche, New York?
Charlie Kaufman: Spike Jonze and I were approached by Sony to do a horror movie. We talked about things that we thought were really scary in the world, as opposed to horror movie conventions. We talked about things like mortality and illness and time passing and loneliness and regret. We kinda went in with that, and we got assigned to go off and write it, and I spent a couple years trying to explore those notions, and that’s what the movie is.
A lot of your writings deal with the juncture between art and life.
CK: In this case, and maybe in other cases, these are worlds that I know, so I utilize them. I think that people create the world that they live in. Your existence is very subjective, and you tell stories and organize the world outside of you into these stories to help you understand it. I don’t think the world objectively exists the way we think it exists, you know? There’s a constant sort of storytelling process. So in that sense, what Caden is doing in this movie is larger than the issue of the creative process in the arts. It’s the creative process of existence. He’s trying to sort through — like everybody is — his life, and trying to assign meaning to it, and aging in the process, and trying to deal with the issues that come up in his life, and trying to understand them.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York.
How autobiographical are your scripts?
CK: I mean, I think they’re autobiographical in that anything that anybody writes is autobiographical. You can’t get away from it. The things that are of interest in this movie are things that are of interest to me. I’m not Caden Cotard. I’m not that person. But a lot of his concerns are my concerns, and I don’t know how it could be otherwise. The alternative would be to write about things that don’t interest me, which I don’t think any writer does.
You’ve probably heard the whole “meta” label a million times at this point. Are you tired of it? Or is it something you strive for, to create films that work outside the way that other movies operate?
CK: I’m interested in trying to explore what I think is the truth at a given time in my life, and part of the process of being honest is — in my mind — talking about the idea that you’re watching a movie. You’re sitting here watching a movie. And I like that. It appeals to me intellectually, and also in a way I can’t even explain. It tickles me, you know? It’s always tickled me, and they’re ideas I get excited by, and you go toward what you’re excited by, I think, when you’re writing. It’s an intuitive process for me. People say, “Why John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich?” Well, because I thought it was funny, you know? And if you think something is funny, then there’s some resonance there. You hope at some point when it goes out into the world that it resonates with other people, but really, the only gauge that you have is what you think. To not pander. As a writer, or as a filmmaker, you have to present yourself, and part of what yourself is is what you’re interested in, or what you think is funny, or what you think is sad, or what you think is horrible.
CK: …And I put that situation out there to be thought of because obviously I named him after me. On a very surface level, there are many things about what happened in that story that happened. I mean, I did get stuck writing this thing. I struggled in the way that he did. I came up with the idea to put myself in there. I do have, at different times, a certain kind of self-consciousness in the world, an insecurity. [But] once I was there with that world, I was free in my mind to make things up, and to blur the line, because that’s interesting to me. So yeah, there are things, obviously, about the character of Charlie that aren’t true. I don’t have a twin brother, for example. It’s a device. And once I came up with it as a device to give Charlie someone to talk to, because he’s a writer living alone with no friends, then it excited me, because I thought, “Well, what if this opposite version of him decides that he wants to be a writer?” And then all of a sudden, all this other stuff opened up for me that was fun to think about.
What’s the difference between writing and directing? Do you think you can get more of what’s in your head on the screen when you’re directing?
CK: I wanted to try. I think directing and writing are very different jobs, and that is very apparent to me now. It probably was before, but now I understand more so why they’re different. Obviously, directing is a more social and managerial job. The other thing about directing is that it’s a very, very pragmatic job, and writing isn’t. You spend most of your time as a director trying to move forward with the movie. It happens on a daily basis, if not more than once a day, that you are struggling with budgetary constraints. Whereas when you’re writing, the limitation that you have is your imagination. So it’s decidedly non-pragmatic.
Charlie Kaufman (second from left) on the set of Synecdoche, New York.
Synecdoche, New York seems a lot darker than the other stuff you’ve done. That’s not to say your other films were necessarily light-hearted…
CK: Depending on the audience, it seems to get a lot of laughs. But yeah, I think I know what you’re saying. One of the things is that I’m moving — as a person and as a writer — through time. I’m a different age now. I’m thinking about different things. I have different life experiences. I’m trying to get closer to being honest. And by closer I mean that at different ages I have different ideas of what the truth is, and at any point I’m trying to express that at that moment in time. I think one of the things I wanted to do in this movie was not have an out for people. If there are any expectations for things that I write, I think there’s an expectation that there’s going to be some sort of thing that the audience gets at some point that is like a clever thing that is kind of an out, like, “Oh yeah! I get it now. OK, I can go home now. That’s clever,” if they like it. I decided not to do that this time. I wanted to tell the story, and I wanted it — within the realm of realm of the dream logic and the surreal stuff in the movie — I wanted it to be true. And the truth of it was, this man goes through his life, and there isn’t a moment where you go, “Oh! That’s what this is about. Now I feel safe.” This would be a like a free fall until the end of his life, and that’s what I did.
What are you working on now?
CK: I’m trying to write something new, but it’s very early on. I don’t know what it’s gonna be yet.
When I was watching the film, it kind of reminded me of Luis Bunuel‘s That Obscure Object of Desire, in that there was a certain fluidity to some of the characters; some would seem to act as proxies for others.
CK: I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen that movie. I’m getting these things that I’ve never seen. A lot of people say [the film reminds them of] 8 1/2, which I’ve never seen. I’ve heard All That Jazz [as well]. And in fact, if I see another movie, and I see that I’m thinking along the lines of something else, I won’t do it. For example, I really like David Lynch. He deals with dream reality a lot. But my dreams and David Lynch’s dreams are not the same. I didn’t want to incorporate his dreams. As much as I love them, they’re his. I’m trying to find my own. I want to do my own thing, and I’m trying to get closer to realizing that as a filmmaker.