Charlie Kaufman takes things to a whole new level in Synecdoche, New York, an acutely dour metaphysical mind-fuck of a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an emotionally battered theater director in modern-day Manhattan.
Kaufman’s screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are child’s play by comparison: Reality is fractured beyond recognition as Hoffman (who gives another fearless, fully committed performance) endures a panoply of physical ailments while his character struggles with artistic relevance (his play goes through never-ending revisions in an enormous warehouse) and the ability to find a fulfilling relationship of any kind. Kaufman’s surreal, neurosisinfested, often caustically funny directorial debut fascinates even when one isn’t quite sure what’s happening on screen.
CityBeat shared breakfast with the diminutive 50-year-old at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival in early September. Soft-spoken and measured, Kaufman discussed everything from the organic, self-reflexive nature of his creative process to the challenges of directing for the first time.
CityBeat: For all the complex themes and fractured realities of the film, there always seems to be an emotional authenticity anchoring things. How important is that to you?
Charlie Kaufman: It’s everything. It’s the basis for everything I’m doing. If that isn’t there then there is no point in my doing it. I’m not interested in doing “weird” things. I’m interested in exploring things that I’m thinking about, and that’s what I try to do when I’m writing. I try to explore themes or emotions or characters, and the other stuff (aka narrative hijinks) is a way to express that. It’s the method, not the end.
CB: Do you ever get concerned about whether an audience can follow the narrative?
CK: I’m not really concerned about audiences. I think when you become concerned about audiences you end up making movies that everybody else makes.
I think about things that I’m interested in. My job is to give people something unique and personal and not regurgitate what they already know.
CB: Your screenplays often seem preoccupied with the struggle between art and commerce.
CK: Yeah, I guess you could say it’s there in Adaptation. I tend to write about artists, people who have different creative jobs, and that’s part of the existence of the artist. So when you’re putting the life story of somebody into a narrative, you’re looking at aspects of their lives. I don’t think it’s necessarily the focus of my stories. It’s just that people need to make money, and it’s very hard to make money in those fields, and so it becomes a part of your life.
CB: Which goes back to artists not compromising their original vision yet still trying to make a living…
CK: Yeah, that’s important to me — the idea of trying to be truthful in your work. The commercial versus the non-commercial thing is maybe more peripheral for me. The interest is, “How do you be honest in the world?” which is an issue that’s larger for artists.
CB: The film has the feel of a sprawling, post-modern, David Foster Wallace-esque novel. (Note of context: Wallace committed suicide three days after this interview took place.)
CK: I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace. I have a couple of his books sitting in my apartment, but I haven’t read them, so I wouldn’t say he had an influence. I don’t really feel like — at least consciously — I had any influence when I was writing this. I read a lot of stuff that said I was influenced by 81/2 and by All That Jazz. In all honesty, I have never seen either of those movies. Somebody wrote, “It’s clearly an homage to Pinter.” They said it definitively in some review because there is a reference to Harold Pinter. I only referenced him because he was in the newspaper the day I was writing the scene. I’m sure things influence me, but I don’t consciously say, “This is an homage.” I’m just trying to get closer to something, and each time I write something I try to get closer to jettisoning the craft.
CB: Can you talk about working with the actors, and specifically Phil (Seymour Hoffman), who has to go through myriad physical and psychological hoops in this film?
CK: My feeling is that you find out who they are and what your relationship is with them and then you work with them in that way. I don’t work with all actors the same. What Phil and I did was a lot of talk about life and a lot of the issues in the movie: family and illness and aging and children and regret and sex. Phil is an actor who is very real, and he has to understand what’s going on at any point. He’s not going to fake it, and it’s exhausting because he’s in nearly every scene.
CB: While your films often deal with relationships and other personal issues, you don’t really get into politics in an overt way…
CK: I would tend to disagree with you. I think that this film does deal with politics. It’s trying to find meaning. I think the politics in the movie are pretty apparent: The world is being destroyed. There is a lot of stuff going on outside of this warehouse. As they step outside it becomes more and more apparent that there’s a decay, and I certainly think that has to do with politics.
CB: What was the biggest challenge in directing for the first time?
CK: The schedule. We shot over 200 scenes in 45 days. The interesting thing about directing is that it is very, very pragmatic. It’s kind of the opposite of writing where you don’t have to worry about anything in terms of what it’s going to cost. But that’s an issue in every element of directing: “How do we afford this?” That goes from props to sets to prosthetics to special effects to staff to how many extras we can have. You can never really be prepared for directing until you do it. And this was a really challenging first movie. ©