Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. Yes, I am totally in the bag for Charlie Kaufman, and I don’t care who knows it. Why wouldn’t I be? Here’s a guy who survived the sitcom jungle and has emerged as a truly original voice in modern screenwriting, working with some of the most innovative directors of the moment to craft a series of burnished gems that I think have genuinely helped push the art of film forward at a time when studios have retreated into an infantile haze of remakes and comic books and video games and 20-years-later sequels. I haven’t loved everything he’s done equally, and I think I may actually admire one of the films based on his scripts more than he does... coughconfessionsofadangerousmindcough... but I think he is absolutely a vital part of the film community right now, and the idea of him writing and directing for the first time... that’s had me on the hook since I first heard about SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. It’s a jokey title, but it’s grown on me. The first time I read it, I had to look it up to see what “synecdoche” meant. “A figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made.” Well, that is an accurate description of the alternate reality that Kaufman weaves like a cloud of heavily-laced smoke around the viewer with this truly oppressive vision. As I’m working on this piece, I’m also watching SPLINTER, a horror film that’s coming out theatrically. So far, so good. Strong young cast, likeable writing and fairly clean, effecting directing. And very much what you think of when you hear someone say “horror movie.” That’s not a slam... just an observation. Specifically, it’s a monster movie, but it’s a horror movie in a very classic, familiar way. When most people watch horror films, they watch them because they want that particular definition of a horror movie... something thrilling and fun more than painful or honestly unnerving. In the interview I did with Kaufman, he referred to this movie as a horror film, and in doing so, I think he laid claim to some fascinating and fertile cinematic real estate. I just read Owen Glieberman’s dismissal of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. And what strikes me is how irritated he is with the film. He’s pissed about having sat through it. I’ve certainly felt that way after films before. I’ve come storming out as soon as the credits hit, frustrated at having chosen this over some other film I could have been seeing at that time, angry at choices made or things said in the film or at whatever. If you don’t have a passionate response to film, I would imagine the mechanical act of writing about them would be fairly awful. So I guess I know how Glieberman feels, but it always strikes me as odd when someone gets really angry or dismissive of a David Lynch or a Terry Gilliam or, yes, a Charlie Kaufman. They get mad that there are viewers who enjoy the films. When I told one friend that I quite liked TIDELAND, Gilliam’s last movie, he almost spit at me. It was like an involuntary thing. He was that instantly apoplectic about what a waste of time TIDELAND had been and how “fucking shitugly” the film was. Another friend opined a similar disdain for Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, but there was also convinced that people saying they liked it were somehow making fun of him, setting him up for a joke. “No one really likes a film like that, do they?” Sure they do. People like films for a million different reasons. Some people only want to be entertained, and there are plenty of movies that are out there for that. Some people don’t like things that are too visceral, too scratch-and-sniff, and one thing’s certain about the world of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK... it smells bad. It’s a film that seems to be decaying around the edges as you watch it. There’s real artistry on display here. Kaufman’s obviously been watching how Gondry and Jonze work, and he’s been thinking about his own ideas and how free he can be, and what it means to practically shoot something. He’s created this big crazy idea, this SF-level alternate reality, and he sells it with absolute confidence. I think this is one of the most assured directorial debuts I’ve seen in a while. He’s got this amazing cast he’s working with, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Weist, all names who most first-time directors would love to get. But to get all of them? At once? A bit daunting. And Kaufman appears to have very ably set the precise tone he wants, because I buy the consistency of the crazy idea of his. And the tone he’s gone for is funereal. Depressive. Suicidally painful. And I don’t use that word casually or in a douchey hipster context, either. I mean that this is one punishing movie about someone in the grips of decay, someone whose body is failing them in slow-motion, one indignity at a time, one pain at a time, one ruined day at a time. It’s an exercise in empathy, but what you’re being asked to carry with Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is more than may be reasonable. For him as well as for the viewer. And beyond the viscerally unpleasant aspects of what Caden goes through, the film paints a sort of sliding, liquid reality that dares you to sort out exactly what you’re watching at any given point. Caden’s a theater director who is given a genius grant, and as he faces down the ruins of his personal life, he decides that the only way he can make sense of the miseries that have befallen him is by creating a theatrical piece that somehow sums it up, that somehow uncovers the truth so that he can understand it and impart it to an audience. He rents an enormous warehouse space, builds a reproduction of New York, and then starts to people it with actors who are told to pick a real person and to study that person with the intention of playing them. He workshops with them for weeks, then months, then years, asking them to live and work on the “stage” he’s created on a permanent basis, always in character, in an effort to create something that is just as real as “real life.” After a while, Caden realizes that he needs to add another layer to the piece, casting an actor to play him, casting more actors to play the actors who are playing the real people, allowing his art to comment on the act of art commenting on life, even as he pushes his art towards life with each new layer he adds. Or is he pushing his art further away from life, trapping it under each new bit of artifice until it’s like a funhouse mirror, distorting and twisting and bending the truth to absurd extreme? Such is the game that Kaufman’s laid out for audiences, and when I got a chance to sit down with him at the Four Seasons a few weeks ago, I prepped for it the night before: MORIARTY: So before I sat down to watch SYNECDOCHE, I did a run of your films leading up to it, all in one day. I watched BEING JOHN MALKOVICH for the first time since it came out on DVD, and the same for ETERNAL SUNSHINE and ADAPTATION. It’s interesting the way they bump up against each other. There is a continuity of thought to these films. To me, film is like an out-of-body experience, a chance to see what someone else’s life is like. When I watch a Satyajit Ray film, I don’t have any practical knowledge of growing up poor in India, but for the time of the movie, I can imagine that I know. I can experience it. Your films seem to wrestle with that at their core... how we share and process experience, especially through art. Do you consciously build these same themes and ideas into your films? What drives you to explore this idea repeatedly?
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: You know, I wonder about that when I’m writing because I finish something and then I start something else, and there’s still a million things going on in my head from the last one, and so... that’s where I am. It’s not like I go in and get my... you know, my brain cleaned, and then start fresh. I mean, I am who I am, and I think about the things I think about. Um, and that changes over time, but I think it changes gradually, rather than, you know... like... just... poof, I’m someone else now. I think that, I... what happened was that Spike [Jonze] and I originally were approached by Sony to do… to do a horror movie, and we talked about ideas and we wanted to do something that sort of wasn’t attached to the genre notion of horror, and so we were talking about things that are scary in the real world, and in our lives, and anxieties and, and, and the sort of notion of being in a kind of a dream. Being in that dream state. Even though the movie’s not a dream, but to be able to use that sort of imagery, and to express... um, to express an inner world externally... the way dreams do that. And so, um, we talked about mortality and illness and relationships and, um, um... regret, and, and loneliness and all that sort of stuff, and, um that was kind of the palette. Which I guess... I’m not sure... I mean, you’re talking about the notion of expressing life through... the art thing. Like, I think that probably some of that... may come from that’s the world I live in, and so that’s what I kind of know, and therefore I gravitate towards it, and, um... but I am interested in how... I’m trying to think how to phrase this... how we work things out. How people work things out. And everybody... creates a story about what’s going on in the world and in their lives, whether or not the do that for a living. That’s how we organize things as a species.
CK: We create metaphors. We create analogies. We tell stories about the Universe and how things work. You know, what someone thinks of us... all that stuff becomes... it’s an organizational tool. That’s... I think that’s just how the human brain works, and so... to be able to... to sort of use that... the specific thing of being an artist is a way to explore the larger thing of what people do with their brains. It’s probably closest to what I... if I were going to try to... you know, articulate it. Which I don’t know if I have or I should. That’s probably closest to what I’m doing.
M: When this started, I remember the rumors that you and Spike were working on a horror film. And there’s definitely a paralyzing feeling of existential dread to this one. I’d call it a horror film the same way I’d call Lynch’s films horror films. Your film certainly unsettled me, and it got to me over things that actually matter. It’s not just about some dude with a knife or a possessed DVD player or whatever. The genre is more elastic than people seem to know, and it’s rare to see someone really push that definition. The deterioration of the body in this film...
M: It’s so awful, and it starts right at the start of the film, where it’s almost funny when the little girl’s talking about the color of her poop. And because of the span of time your film covers, you really push the make-ups to an extreme in the second half with everyone playing much older. I love how you even comment on that within the movie, where you have Caden’s production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN with very young actors playing older.
CK: Thank you, Drew, for hearing that. I’m not sure anybody else has heard that. That’s weird, too, because I’ve been waiting for somebody to write that into a review. And no one’s mentioned it.
M: But you always build in the keys to decoding your films.
M: There’s that great moment in ADAPTATION where Charlie asks Donald, “If both characters are one person, how do you...” and he never quite says, “how do you show it onscreen?” but you have them having this conversation about it while these two halves of one person are onscreen together, answering the question he’s not asking.
CK: (laughs) For me, that thing that you just expressed... it would be fun for me as an audience member to go, “Oh, wait! Phil Hoffman’s in old-age makeup, so he’s a young actor playing old, just like in the play! Isn’t that what he said at the beginning? Wht does that say about this whole thing that we’re watching? How does that take us out of it, and put us somewhere else as, as, as, as a moviegoer?” I love that stuff.
M: This feels like the most deliberate puzzle or game of all your films. Even ADAPTATION feels more... ummm... I can’t believe I’m describing that film this way, but more conventional in a sense.
CK: You know what’s unconventional and that I’m sort of pleased with about ADAPTATION is that it really... the screenplay is the main character in that movie that you’re watching. When you look at the character arc, that is what is being transformed. And that is what is losing its innocence in that movie. Um, which I think is kind of a neat idea, and I like that idea. So you’re always sort of left with the question if you watch it that way, “What does the happy ending in ADAPTATION mean? Is it really a happy ending? It’s really a sour ending, you know? And it allows you to take what you want from it, which I also like to do. But it does have that, um, that kind of, for me, that kind of fun sort of... ambiguity.
M: So many people strike one note per film. Like every film can only be about one thing or have one tone or discuss one idea. Like if it’s a comedy, it has to be shiny and plastic and happy. But your films seem designed to illuminate the way these moments coexist. Like when Charlie drops off Amelia in ADAPTATION and he just can’t kiss her, and it’s just brutally painful, and then in the same movie, to have a moment like the description to Susan of the relationship between bees and flowers, which is uplifting and beautiful and damn near a religious epiphany. So how, man? How do you get films like your through the system intact?
CK: I’ve been really lucky. And I went through a long period of being really unlucky. And then I got lucky and I got sort of kind of this freedom, which is a great thing to have. And I’ve been able to have it for a few years now, and I’m really appreciative of that. And there’s another thing in ADAPTATION that’s sort of that way. People really respond to Donald and Charlie at the log, you know? Which is something that I... the sentiment that Donald expresses to Charlie is kind of something that I... that I believe in certain ways or that I believe at certain times. As Charlie, I couldn’t really ever put that in a movie. I would feel that that’s not Charlie, you know? That’s kind of, like, sentimental. So it wasn’t a lie. In fact it’s true that I feel that way, but I needed to put it in what was at that point the crappy screenplay written by Donald to have this thing that I see as true. So it’s fine to have these sort of philosophical digressions but they have to be placed in the proper context in order for it to be acceptable in the various, you know, sort of styles. I don’t know. It gave me sort of a charge that I could do that. And it also kind of made me... I don’t know. I think before that, I sort of felt like... I did want to remove myself a little bit from, uh... from being... uhhh... vulnerable.
M: So if Donald says it, it’s not you on the line.
CK: And it was even before that. In BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, I think that there was a kind of a thing like, “This is going to be heavily philosophical, but I’m going to be making fun of it constantly so no one thinks I’m serious.” Because if I’m serious, then maybe all this stuff I’m saying is just cliché. But if I’m making fun of it, then I’m making fun of it. In this movie, in SYNECDOCHE, I think I’ve thrown away any concern and I’m, just, I’m going to explore different things and I’m going to say the things I really think. And, I mean, there’s going to be some... you know, hopefully some funny stuff and that, but it’s not me defending myself from being criticized.
M: Our whole culture does that now, though, that sort of ironic distance.
M: Everyone’s got this remove from any emotion. Anything that makes you really feel.
CK: The internet has done that a lot.
M: But your films to me seem to be riddled with very raw emotion and raw experience, even amidst absurdity.
CK: Well, I certainly feel like I want them to be.
M: Woody Allen, over the years, has used various people as sort of surrogates for him in his films, and sometimes you can catch an actor in his films sort of “doing Woody”...
CK: (laughs) Uhhhh, yeah.
M: In your films, it can be argued there’s always a character who is your surrogate, or people playing very heightened parts of your persona, like Cusack’s puppeteer in MALKOVICH, or, most obviously, Nic Cage playing your better and worse natures in ADAPTATION. Now Caden’s a dramatist whose work has become reflexive and post-modern and who has literally written himself into the piece. And they each have certain similarities that overlap, but also each go in different directions... like, Hoffman’s this sort of stripped raw nerve...
CK: He’s great in the movie, and he’s just great to work with. I, I, I, you know... I take a little issue... and I don’t know how much issue I can take since I did put a character in a movie named Charlie Kaufman, but I do... I don’t feel like... I know everyone thinks it’s me. I don’t feel like it’s me, though, not even that one. Of course, I’ve written those characters and they, and they somehow are... you know, you look at a painting by a certain artist, and there’s gonna be stuff that is... recognizable by that certain artist, but I... you know, but I, I’m not Caden. I do feel like people assume... and I get it in interviews all the time... that I’m… that this is a stand-in for me. Even though I’ll say...
M: I don’t mean it literally. I just mean that there’s a way these characters give voice to these ideas that you’ve been wrestling with. More like they’re playing pieces of you.
CK: Right. With Woody Allen, you’ve got a performer who’s got a particular cadence. Imitatable. And it’s so much a part of our culture now, what Woody Allen did as an actor, that people just find... especially what he did in that cadence of his. The way he writes his characters. I don’t know. I’m... ummm... certainly Phil was not trying to do me, as far as I know. And as far as he says. Ummm, not in any kind of external way. But, uh, you know, we talked a lot about our lives and our, our relationships and our families and our fears and, you know... we kind of... came together, I think.
M:My kids are very young right now, but, man, I worry about letting them down. Watching that scene where Caden tracks down the girl he thinks is Olive, his daughter, his long-lost daughter, and he goes to that strip club to see her... horrifying. The idea of not knowing your kids, of being a stranger to them, losing all control in their lives...
CK: I, I, I... we shot that scene at 3:00 in the morning, and... I just... I knew it. I got the feeling like that scene was perfect. Watching Phil through that glass with the reflection on it... it was like... it was beautiful.
M: And my favorite meta film joke of the year is the idea that when Caden finally casts someone to “play” Samantha Morton in his production, it’s Emily Watson who gets hired. I know people who confuse the two of them anyway...
CK: Yeah! That’s why I did it. I didn’t know it was an industry-wide thing, but I did sort of feel that way myself, like there’s some sort of connection between them. And since people have seen the movie, lots of people have been saying that they thought they were the same...
M: It’s great.
CK: Actually, Samantha got hired for a movie, and at the, uh, the table read, she got complimented by the director for her part in BREAKING THE WAVES.
M: (laughs) Ohhhhhh, man...
CK: I know. The director. And she had to tell him at that point, “It wasn’t me.”
M: I don’t doubt that they’ve both been plagued by that a little bit. And they’re both so gifted.
CK: And they’ve never been in a movie together.
M: I hope to see the film again soon. I want to watch the first parts again in particular, since there’s so much going on right from the start, the way Tom Noonan’s sort of skulking about at the edge of things.
CK: I think you really do need to see it twice. At least. Because there’s stuff that I... it’s dense, and there’s stuff I don’t think you’ll be able to see the first time, just in terms of the passage of time. I don’t know how much of that you were able to catch, but there’s something happening in the first scene that... uhhh... that’s very unusual.
M: Now I definitely have to go look again.
CK: Yeah. Look at the first scene. The kitchen scene.
M: Okay. It’s strange the way reality gets so slippery. Your films always make you feel like the protagonist, in a way that’s more active than passive, and that alone is worth seeing. Always.
CK: Thank you. That’s great to hear. It was good to meet you.
And then we were done. There were other reporters waiting to sit and talk to him. Honestly, though, if you want the full effect to the above interview, go back and read it out loud, both parts, so fast it’s like there’s no punctuation. I was actually a little nervous to sit down with a guy I admire as much as Kaufman right now, and I hope that comes across in the transcription.
Thanks to everyone who helped coordinate and get me my first face-to-face with the guy, and I strongly encourage you, if you’re at all interested in his work, to brace yourself for a tough ride and check out SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK as soon as possible.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles