Charlie Kaufman Interview

Synecdoche, New York, was released last year to varying degrees of praise. For every fan of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind who was baffled and frustrated by writer Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, there was a Roger Ebert or Edgar Wright who saw Synecdoche as a work of genius.
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The Russian Doll plot: downtrodden theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) recreating New York City in a giant warehouse, involved befuddling time-shifts, but also an underlying emotion that feels very real indeed. And apart from Kaufman's usual existential angst, comical dread, and dysfunctional romantic relationships, we have people living in burning houses, a play that takes literally decades to rehearse, and quite a bit of off-colour poo. It’s a unique look at mortality and humanity. I spoke to Kaufman in an attempt to find some order in the chaos.

You’ve said this film has a “dreamlike logic”, and it certainly doesn’t use conventional film grammar, it takes some getting used to. The first time I saw it I found it hard-going, but I liked it a lot the second time.  Good. I think there are a few other issues maybe in seeing it more than once. The movie is intentionally pretty dense, and there’s stuff I don’t think you can catch the first time; at least that’s the experience that people have told me they’ve had. When you watch it again you can see things - first of all you aren’t struggling to try to follow the story and understand where you are, and then there’s little details you’ll see the second time, once you know the geography, that tell you where you are.

The film is very much like a dream in that it doesn’t make perfect sense, it’s not quite linear, and although time shifts all over the place, the emotion is very affecting. Do you think that, for you, employing this sort of dream logic in storytelling is almost a clearer, more intuitive way of presenting ideas?  Well I have dreams and I wake up and have such a visceral response that it carries through the entire day. The problem of course, in terms of translating that to a film, is that in your dream you have a lot of personal symbolism that you just immediately recognise. And I think that’s why, when we tell other people our dreams, they’re less interested than we are. But I’m trying to figure out a way to do it. It’s almost like a poem, and it’s another way that people can watch this movie, you can sit back and experience it and let it wash over you, you don’t need to analyse it on an intellectual level. You can, but I don’t think you need to, you can let go of that and have the experience that you might have in a dream, where you react to things and you don’t know exactly why you’re reacting to them. And a lot of that is obviously the same in dreams… you interpret your dreams the next day based on things you’re experiencing in your life. In the same way, I’m hoping this movie allows people to have their own lives interact with the story. If you leave it open for interpretation you can have that experience as an audience member. I’m very fascinated with projective tests, psychological tests – Rorschach tests are an example. There’s another version of that called TAT, thematic apperception tests, which are kind of ambiguous scenarios, a woman standing in a doorway, a person with their head in their hands in a room behind her. A psychologist will ask you what’s happening, and you tell a story. And I love these pictures, they’re really intense for me, and I love the idea that you need to lay your own world onto this thing, which has some emotions, but the specifics are unclear. So that’s what I was trying to do with this movie, possibly more than my other movies, although I always want to leave room for people to bring themselves to it and decide what it’s about. That’s exciting for me. And the other thing is the idea that the conventional storytelling movie thing is representative of reality… it’s not true. We accept it, because the conventions of moviemaking are so ingrained in us, we feel it reflects the real world, but that’s not the way the world works, straightforward and linear. The world works in a way that you as a human being have a very subjective experience of it. You interact with things, the burden of your memories and your guilt and your hopes and all of your experiences create every reality that you go through, and that isn’t what you see. You see a guy being chased by the bad guys… and there’s no burning house that burns forever [as in Synecdoche], so it’s real life. But that’s not the world. I actually think my movie is closer to the world.

I find it incredible that the emotions we experience in dreams can be as powerful, or sometimes even more powerful, than feelings we experience while we’re awake.  Oh I think so too, I agree. I fall in love with people in my dreams.

I’ve had dreams about girls who I’ve never had any positive amorous thoughts about and I’ve woken up obsessed, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Yeah, I’ll go you one further, I’ve had dreams, and this is not uncommon for me, about people who don’t exist, and I’ve fallen in love with them, and there’s nothing more intense and frustrating than waking up to that! But it’s intensely powerful, and it’s speaking to you, and it’s not prophetic in any supernatural way, but it’s telling you something about what your needs are in this point in your life, what’s you’re lacking, what you’re feeling, what you’re wanting.

You’ve said that you write for yourself, to make sense of things you’re thinking about. How much do you think the process of doing this actually helps you to deal with issues, to confront things, to move on? Do you get that, or is it just more of a catharsis?  I don’t know, I think it must, but I’m not really sure that I can pinpoint how. Mostly what I’m doing is trying to write about the things I’m thinking about because I feel like I can present something honest in a movie by doing that, it takes me out of the realm of trying to contrive a story for the sake of trying to sell a movie. This is important because it’s me. I feel what I’m doing is very generous; you don’t do it for an audience, you do it for yourself because that way you’re giving the world something of yourself, rather than trying to second guess what people want, and creating a lifeless thing. I feel there’s an enormous amount of vulnerability in working the way I work. I’m not insulated from it, when people are angry or call me names it hurts me. I’m able to deal with it at times now better than I have been, but… is it cathartic, do I learn anything, I think I must, but I don’t think it’s a concrete thing. What it does is it allows me to think about things, and the world, and maybe in that way my interior life becomes richer, for me. In this movie, I was writing a lot about death, and that’s something that I have been very concerned about, or worried about, in all of its different manifestations. And in some ways maybe I’m less worried now, but it may not be because of the movie; I’m different now, I’m in a different point in my life, I started this thing five years ago, I’m farther into middle-age now and I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and it’s becoming more commonplace for me to see people die or get sick, so that might have happened anyway. On the other hand, when push comes to shove I think I’m still pretty terrified of it, so maybe it didn’t do anything.

A lot of your protagonists are trying to do the same thing, to do something truthful, trying to make sense of life through art. A lot of them seem to have an undercurrent of pretension or self-importance, and… well, before I go on, would you agree with that?  Um… I have to think about that for a second. I know what you’re saying, and I write comedies, I think this is a comedy, and I think maybe when you’re writing comedies you try to figure out a funny way to express the personality. It’s not lost on me, for example, that the John Cusack character in Being John Malkovich is a puppeteer and yet he thinks he’s doing something very important with his life. That’s a joke, and playing it very seriously is also the joke, and obviously Charlie in Adaptation can be seen that way.

Yeah, when I think of him, certainly things like when he says to Donald, “Don’t say pitch”, he’s got his own agenda.  That’s based on me though, when I first came out here I refused to say the word pitch, because it just sounds insane to me. It’s like, who are you, why are we talking like this? I say it now!

Of course, I know where you’re coming from but it seems like at the same time you’re having a comical dig at it.  Well you have to, you know, in the case of Charlie, it was a very conscious decision, for story reasons and for the reasons that I’m portraying someone who has my name, I can’t make him a hero. I’d be embarrassed to do that and I think it wouldn’t go over well. So you look at your flaws or insecurities and you magnify them for comic effect, for fun.

Good, I think that’s probably answered the question I was going to ask, which is if these sort of digs were a way of keeping that fear in check, or acknowledging the fact that sometimes we take ourselves too seriously.  It’s a weird thing. This [Synecdoche] is a comedy, also, but I have really thought about my evolution as a person since Being John Malkovich. I have the same issues and I have the same concerns and I have the same quests in some ways, I was obviously younger then…. But I felt like I’ve tried to remove the mocking in this movie, because I do feel like the mocking was a way to say, “I don’t think I’m important, I don’t think my concerns are important, I’ll talk about them but I’ll make fun of myself in the same moment, and then you’ll all like me.” And I don’t really feel like I care about that any more, and if I have a concern and I’m trying to do something that’s sincere, I don’t wanna be afraid of it. I wanna be willing to be vulnerable in my work. Having said that, I do also like writing comedy and I do want my characters to have some humour to them. But I intentionally in this case didn’t give Caden an art-form that was easily laughable. He’s a theatre director and he’s very serious about it, and he’s really trying to do something, and he’s trying to do it in a sincere way. But there are also complications – when you wanna be a great artist and you wanna search for truth, you can still have those things as part of your mindset, but you can also wanna prove to your wife that you’re worth something, and that’s a large motivating factor in Caden’s work. Those two things can co-exist. I do want to do something that’s truthful in my work. I don’t see any other function for someone that’s trying to create art. I don’t see anything else that’s of any value except putting something in the world that people can feel less alone by experiencing. And I don’t mean that in a saccharine way, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be happy, I think some of these fake happy Hollywood movies are the most alienating things in the world. So yeah, I’m serious about it, but also if I think of a funny idea and it fits, it’s funny because it complicates things for me in the story. For example, at the end of the movie, when she’s doing that monologue for him in his ear, in a sense it’s the voice of God. But it isn’t the voice of God, it’s a woman. So the movie is not saying this is the position of the movie. What she’s saying, there might be a lot of truth to. But also there’s a person saying it, and she has her agenda. What is she trying to accomplish? And people generally don’t talk about this, they’ll either love it because what she’s saying speaks to them, or they’ll hate it because they think I’m being preachy. But the fact of the matter is I would never put that in the voice of God. I do feel very strongly about this, I don’t know anything except my experience, I don’t have anything to tell anybody. I’m not preaching to anybody, I’m just trying to get closer in my reflection of my experience of the world, in my work, each time I do it. How do I solve things that I couldn’t solve last time? And that’s a kind of ongoing process that I’m sure will never be resolved.

Synecdoche, New York is out on DVD now