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Being Charlie Kaufman

The writer talks about directing his first film

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Interviewing Charlie Kaufman is like sprinkling salt on a slug. Each question seems to lay a psychic burden on the 49-year-old writer-director's soul; answers emerge painstakingly from some dark well within. Often he'll scrunch his eyes tightly shut as he speaks, as though trying to read his thoughts on the back of his eyelids.

And this is one of his good days. Kaufman is in town to promote "Synecdoche, New York," - actually, that sentence is unusual in a number of ways. The film, which opens in Boston on Friday, is the acclaimed screenwriter's first foray behind the camera, after having penned head-spinning meta-dramas like "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the last earning him a best original screenplay Oscar.

Second, the movie actively resists promoting - indeed, it's almost impossible to describe other than as a feature-length M.C. Escher drawing. Set in Schenectady, N.Y., "Synecdoche" stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as another of Kaufman's cosmically miserable artist heroes, this one a theater director who re-stages his own life in a downtown warehouse. The film is jammed with great actresses doing remarkable work - Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson - and features one character named Ellen Bascomb who may not exist at all. "Synecdoche" might be Kaufman's definitive word on creativity, the mystery of women, and the larger mystery of life itself. Not exactly a talking Chihuahua movie.

Third, Kaufman hates to be interviewed and has mostly resisted the promotional dog-and-pony show on his other films. This time, though, there's no Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry to take the heat, and Kaufman does want to get the word out about the movie. Well, some of the words. And maybe he doesn't want you to see the movie. It's up to you, really. Welcome to Charlie Kaufman's Bizarro Hollywood, where movies stand or fall on their merits and the filmmaker's a self-effacing mensch.

Q: What's the one question everyone's asking so I don't have to ask it again?

A: 'What does the burning house mean?' Every Q&A, I get that one. I say I don't explain what happens in my movies because I want the audience to have their experience of it, and if I say 'this is what it means,' then you can't have that. I'm giving them permission to have their own experience.

Q: Most moviegoers resist that, though. They're afraid of making a mistake.

A: But you can't make a mistake, and that's what I try to tell people. This is your movie now. I'm done with it. Take it, leave it, interact with it. It's yours to do what you want with, and you can't possibly be wrong.

Q: In a way, subjectivity is the subject of the film.

A: It's the subject of the film, but the film's also a metaphor for how people live their lives - how people project onto the world a story about this very messy, confusing non-story world. Because of how the human mind works, we organize life into these stories and cast people as characters and understand their motives and tell ourselves why they're doing this or why they're doing that. It becomes this kind of fiction, being a person.

Q: Can you talk about the difference between writing, which is a solitary endeavor, and going on a set and directing, which is the opposite of solitary?

A: I think you've just said it all. (laughs)

Q: How does it feel in practice?

A: I like writing but it's very lonely sometimes, and it requires a lot of discipline. It's the opposite of pragmatic, and directing is enormously pragmatic. It's also very structured. I mean, [as a director] every moment I know exactly where I'm supposed to be, and if I forget there's someone there to tell me. And it's managerial, so I have to figure out how to talk to people on an individual basis. It's not like there's one way to talk to actors; they're all different. I also have to let go of my natural personality traits, which are sulking and moodiness, and kind of become an adult, because that's required.

Q: You have to be the designated adult in the room.

A: I do, and I'm not allowed not to be. In some ways it's like being a parent. I don't mean that in a condescending way, but simply that if you have a child you have to hold it together. So that was my responsibility and I did it. It was easier in the mornings. The days which ran very, very long, for the first ten hours I could do it very well, and then once I started to get tired, I wanted to go somewhere and have a fit. And I couldn't. That was sort of a regular occurrence.

Q: What were the filmmaking areas you were unfamiliar with from your earlier

collaborations?

A: The thing that I was most nervous about was the photographic element. Going in and feeling I knew what I needed to know to do this. But it didn't end up being a problem, and I had a very good DP [director of photography], Fred Elmes. It was a big learning experience. I was OK working with the actors. I'd done a couple of plays the previous year and felt I'd gotten over my fear of working with high-level professionals.

Q: I know you did one radio play, "Hope Leaves the Theater."

A: They weren't really radio plays, they were called sound plays. We did it at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and at the Royal Academy in London, and then we did it in Royce Hall in LA. I did two of them: "Hope Leaves the Theater" and another one called "Anomalisa," with David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan. So I worked with people I really admire and they came out well.

Q: Are those available anywhere?

A: "Hope Leaves the Theater" is available as an . . . MP3, is that what it's called? It's owned by that satellite company, Sirius. But it really needs to be seen. To me it was designed to be a visual thing. I feel like it's fine as a radio play, but the element you're missing is so significant that I never recommend it.

Q: So it wasn't read?

A: It was read, but the whole idea of the play was that nothing that you saw happening onstage was really happening, and there was a lot of stuff that you hear is happening if you close your eyes. One of the people on the stage is supposed to be in the audience, watching the play that the other two people on the stage are supposedly performing. And then there's an interaction between one of the actors in the play and the woman in the audience when her cellphone goes off. And the woman gets so embarrassed that she leaves the theater and we leave with her. And the two other actors become everybody she meets on her way home, but they're still all sitting there.

Q: A set inside a set . . .

A: Yeah. Plus we had a Foley artist doing everything visually and then Carter Burwell was conducting a seven-piece orchestra onstage as well, so there was a lot of stuff involved in this fake world we were creating. Like, for example, the play starts out in the woman in the audience's head - who's played by Hope Davis - and it's before the play starts. But they're all three sitting onstage, the house lights are up, the people are coming back in to the theater - the real people - and you start to hear this voiceover inside someone's head, and you start to hear her thinking about, oh, look, there's Meryl Streep onstage. She starts thinking things about Meryl Streep, she even starts thinking things about Hope Davis. And then the real audience starts to hear it, and they start to listen and they start to get it. That's very palpable; the moment you feel people in the audience start to get what's going on is very exciting, and all of that is lost on radio.

Q: How far back have you been interested in writing these nonlinear boxes within boxes? When did you start writing, for lack of a better word, recognizably Charlie Kaufmanesque works?

A: I remember reading "Six Characters in Search of an Author" in high school and being amazed that this had been written. At the same time there was stuff like Monty Python and National Lampoon in the '70s, Ionesco, stuff that questioned what we accept as reality, sometimes in a very comic way. At the time I was mostly thinking about comedic things.

Q: You were at Boston University for a while.

A: I was in the acting program at BU. I had grown up wanting to be an actor, and I decided suddenly, during my freshman year, that it embarrassed me. I left and went to NYU film school to study production. It was basically a giant workshop. I wrote this script which took place over one night about an insomniac trying to go to sleep. It's actually not that different from some of the things I would write now. It was fairly experimental in terms of structure, and the professor really loved it. I remember my classmate was Chris Columbus, and the professor held up our two scripts as shining examples of really great writing, but at the same time recognizing they were polar opposites. And of course Chris went off to become enormously successful immediately, and I couldn't get a job for eleven years after graduating. I answered phones that whole time.

Q: What was the connection that finally brought you out west?

A: When I turned 30, I was living in Minnesota and I realized this wasn't going anywhere and that I'd better figure out something or give it up. I didn't know how to get to be a screenwriter, which was what I was trying to do, but I saw that if you can write a spec TV show and get an agent interested, then you can get a job out of nowhere, especially at that time, because there were a lot of sitcoms. This was in 1990. So I thought, OK, I'm going to do this. I wrote a TV spec, and I had a friend who had an agent, who said that he was willing to read my script.

I sent it to him, and he never read it. But he said he was willing to, so I called him every week for a year, which is also something that I never had the tenacity or the courage to do before - when people rejected me in the past I just went away, because I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself. But I was at my wit's end, and eventually he read it about a year and a half later. And he invited me to come down to LA during hiring season, and he tried to get me interviews. And I got one. And I got the job. And then I just worked in TV until "Being John Malkovich" came out.

The first show I worked on was called "Get a Life," which was the closest I ever came to my sense of humor. After that, it was on pretty conventional stuff. I really wanted to get on "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons" or these shows I liked, and I couldn't get close to them. "Larry Sanders" I tried, and I got close enough to get an interview with Garry Shandling, but they didn't hire me.

Q: But all this time you were writing your film scripts?

A: Yes, I wrote "Malkovich" and "Human Nature" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." At least the first two were written while I was writing for TV. And then I was on a show called "Ned and Stacey," which was my last TV show, at a point when it looked like "Malkovich" was going to get made. I just decided to take my chances as a screenwriter.

Q: I'm assuming you wrote "Malkovich" on spec. How much resistance was there to it?

A: No one wanted to make it. I didn't write it to be made, I wrote it thinking maybe it would get me assignment work. But I was told that it would never be made.

Q: By whom?

A: By everybody. People would tell me they loved it, they thought it was hysterical, they had it on their bedside table and read it a lot, but it'll never be made. And for a couple of years that seemed to be the case, and then Spike Jonze read it and wanted to make it, and he was in a position to be able to.

Q: Why did you set the new film in Schenectady? Because of the wordplay with "synecdoche"?

A: No, I don't think so. [Pause] I don't know why.

Q: As you're writing all these different female characters, are you consciously creating aspects of women or are they popping up more organically?

A: They're based on people that I know, or parts of people that I know, or ideas about relationships that I wanted to explore. And then as it evolves, they start to make sense to me and I like them, so I continue in that direction. It's more of an intuitive process than a calculated process.

Q: Do some of the characters take on lives of their own?

A: Well, I think that they always do. You don't know how to write dialogue for Claire at first, and then you start to realize what she sounds like and it becomes easier to write her. That happens with everybody. It becomes so that you can actually have a conversation almost in real time between characters.

Q: Who is Ellen Bascomb?

A: What do you mean?

Q: Who is Ellen Bascomb?

A: . . . What do you mean?

Q: Isn't she the cleaning lady?

A: Yeah.

Q: We never see her, do we?

A: Uh-uh.

Q: Okay. So who is she?

A: What do you mean? (laughter) I don't know who she is! She's someone who may or may not exist. Obviously she never comes to do her job, so I guess that brings her existence into question. But I don't know if she exists.

Q: Sorry, that's my one "what does it all mean" question.

A: I read this anecdote about a classical composer who played a piano piece and somebody asked him, 'What does it mean?' And he sat down and played it again. That's what people do - they want to impose a meaning or a structure onto what is what it is.

Q: Well, it's also that "Synechdoche, New York" comes to us in the form of a commercial movie, with movie stars. It's not like it's hanging in a museum, where an average museumgoer would bring different expectations to bear on it.

A: But that's exactly the example that I use. It is to me like the interaction that I have with a painting at a museum. Most of the time there's no verbal thing going on but it can be incredibly moving. I do consider this an art form and my goal is to treat it that way. I don't know if there's a market for that. I guess we'll find out. I'll talk about the movie but I'm not going to tell people to go see it and I'm not going to tell them what it's about. I don't want to trick people into going to see it.

Q: That's my job.

A: Well, I'll leave you to it, then.

Q: Do you cast in your head?

A: I intentionally don't ever do that. I don't want to think about actors, because then I'm going to start writing what I know about Samantha Morton. As opposed to: I finish and think, 'Oh, Samantha Morton could bring something to this,' and then she comes and it isn't designed for her. That creates a better, more exciting dynamic.

Q: And then the actors start to take it off in their own direction.

A: Yeah. And not only do they take it off in their own directions, but you start to see what a dynamic between Phil Hoffman and Samantha Morton looks like, and you have to adjust for that. You don't know before you start working with these people how it's going to be. It's exciting, and it's fun.

Q: How did you explain this to the cast and crew? How'd you keep everything straight?

A: You don't really have to. The actors are - and should only be - concerned with what is immediately in front of them, which is this scene between two people. So what you talk about with them is the emotions of the scene, what the character wants, what the character doesn't want. As surreal and as abstract as the story is, those things are very basic and very grounded. And as far as understanding where we are at any given time, we had a script supervisor named Mary Cybulski who drew a chart which showed us where everything was geographically: Warehouses within warehouses within warehouses. It's a beautiful, beautiful map, and it's really complicated. She was the script supervisor on "Eternal Sunshine" and she's just great at this kind of organization.

Q: If anybody has to keep the whole thing in his head, it's Hoffman.

A: Yeah, but it's very present tense with Phil, and I think it should be. We get to a scene and if he doesn't understand something, he and I go off and talk about it. But we're not talking about the philosophy of the movie or what it means for a warehouse to be in a warehouse. We're saying, you know, 'Your character is directing this scene, this is a re-creation of your marriage, what does it mean for you to sit there and watch it? As a person, what would it mean?' And Phil's got a great imagination. If he's not clear on something, he'll tell me, and if he is clear on something, he'll explain to me what he thinks. It's always interesting and often it's a nice different take on it, and we'll do it.

Q: Your literary roots are plain to see, but are there film directors that have influenced you?

A: I'm probably not as up on that as I should be. I like people who are working. I like David Lynch a lot, I like the Coens, but I'm not interested in emulating them.

Q: But did you bring any models to this project?

A: No, I didn't. I don't like when people do that. I think it's always weird when people say, 'Yeah, I stole that from Scorsese.' I don't understand that. I don't even understand why people love it when someone does that. You know, critics write 'This is his influence and this is what he's doing with this style, borrowing from the Hong Kong directors or whatever. I guess I don't love film enough for that to be my interest. My interest is trying to be a human being and creating this world that reflects something that I feel, not to emulate someone else's style. If I copied David Lynch, who I love, then everybody would say 'He's copying David Lynch.' And they'd be right. I do dream stuff, he does dream stuff. But my dream stuff is not like his dream stuff, and I do think about the difference. What are my dreams like? That's what I'm thinking about. I don't have femme fatale dreams, I don't have women in 1940s make-up dreams. My dreams don't look like that.

Q: What do your dreams look like?

A: I don't know, but I was trying to get close to it with this movie. When I was trying to construct visually what this movie would look like, that was what I used as my model. And I think if I do this again and I get better at it, I might get more sophisticated in what I can visually create.

Q: Are you going to be doing it again?

A: I want to. I like doing it and it's nice to have this control.

Q: Are you planning your next film?

A: I have no script, so I don't really have any plans. I've got to write something first. I'm at the end of the line here, so it could be bad. It's a little scary, because I've been working on this movie for five years, and I need a job. I don't want to do a job because I need a job - that's a bad motive for me - but I may have to.

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