Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Charlie Kaufman makes an auspicious directorial debut in “Synecdoche, New York,” which receives its world premiere in competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest. Spanning decades, the story centers on a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar-winner for “Capote”), who uses a genius grant to create the “ultimate” play. In the saga, the Hoffman character is forced to deal with a crippling disease, various dreams and anxieties–and the many women in his life. The superlative, femme-driven cast is headed by Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, and Dianne Wiest. With the exception of Davis, all the other actresses have received (and some have won) Oscar nominations.

Origins of the Project

Kaufman: Spike Jonze and I were approached by Amy Pascal at Sony Pictures, who was interested in seeing what a horror movie from us would be like. We had a vague notion of what it would be, and she commissioned it. I've never been interested in writing a genre horror movie. I thought about things that were scary to me, not what's marketably scary.

Then I just spent a few years writing it and it kind of evolved into this film, which deals with the experience of going through life, and heading toward the end of it. The movie follows this character for 40 years, and it's about people's losses and death and fear of death and intimacy and relationships. Romance and regret and struggle and ego and jealousy and confusion and loneliness and sex and loss. I wanted it to be an all-inclusive experience of a person's life.

Surreal Narrative

K: I'm interested in the structure and logic of dreams as a type of storytelling– dream logic and images in a non-dream story. It wasn't about my dreams, it was about the visceral, emotional feeling one gets in them, the idea you can have things happen that are irrational and they just seem perfectly natural. That's a hard thing to translate into a story outside a dream. I was not interested in explaining things, in letting them be more poetic.

There's a character in the movie that buys a house she loves that's on fire, and it's cheaper because the sellers are highly motivated. So she lives in it and it continues to burn for 40 years. The idea that you wouldn't try to figure a way to put that fire out, you'd just live with it like a maintenance problem, keep it at bay.

Obscure Hard to pronounce Title

K: I write what I'm thinking about at the time when I'm writing. How it turned out is how it turned out.

The Lead Character

K: I am not ever writing a movie full of Charlie Kaufmans, even if a character is named Charlie Kaufman. It's not me. It's a character. That's very serious and important to me.

Writing Without Goals

K: The way I write is very much without a goal. I have something I'm interested in and then I decide I'm going to explore it.

Directing Debut

K: When I finished the script, Spike Jonze was already committed to doing “Where the Wild Things Are,” so I asked him if it would be OK if I directed it. I wanted to get his blessing and he gave it to me. It was something I've wanted to do for a long time and the opportunity presented itself. The material is very personal, so in a lot of ways I am the ideal person to do it. I directed a couple plays the previous year and that gave me confidence. I did some movies at NYU film school, but I was making them since I was a little kid so I have a feeling for it.

Massive Script

K: In the initial script there were 204 scenes, about twice as many as a normal movie, and a 45-day shoot and a limited budget. Philip Seymour Hoffman had four different versions of age makeup that took four hours a day to put on, and six variations of wigs. I don't think I could've gone into this with any confidence if I hadn't spent time on movie sets.

No one could get “Being Malkovich” made until Spike Jonze came along. I wrote “Adaptation” for Jonathan Demme to direct, and when he decided that he didn't want to, Spike came in. I wrote “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” for Michel Gondry. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” began with P.J. Hogan, who I was working with for a very long time and went through a bunch of directors.

Plot Twists

K: I've been told by people who've seen my new movie that it has a strong effect, and that days or weeks after, things stay with them. You try to tell a true story honestly and then people react to it. You can't spend time trying to think about how this is going to affect people. The question is how do you make a story feel honest.

Emotional Core

K: “Synecdoche, New York” has an emotional core and there's funny stuff in it, like the house burning, but it all comes out of characters or situations in a way that feels justified to me.

Passion for Actors

K: My main interest as a kid was acting. I Like Woody Allen and aspired to be like him. I have the passion for that, and therefore the relationship with actors is crucial to me. That's maybe the most important thing to directing.

Challenges as Director

K: I direct the same way that I write. We have a script, we have the actors, we want to discover what it is. Directing is hard but satisfying. Early on I had a hard time even meeting the actors when we were doing the other films, I was so nervous. But when you're directing it's very clear: You have to. I can't hide in the back of the room when I'm directing something. The necessity of it makes it doable.