Synecdoche, New York: Charlie Kaufman’s Risky Directing Debut–Part One of Two

Cannes Film Fest 2008: Charlie Kaufman, the artist who has penned ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a movie whose title even he had trouble remembering, has now written and directed SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.
It’s a film with a title that only English teachers understand and almost no one can pronounce.

Movie Title

“When I named ETERNAL SUNSHINE everybody said nobody would ever remember it,” he recalls. “But what’s cool is that the title is really easy to remember now. Everybody who knows that movie knows the title. And if this movie gets the proper amount of response, then people will be able to pronounce it and everyone will be able to know the word ‘synecdoche,’ which is a good word to know.”

Thrill of Connection

Still, the movie itself never mentions the word, and Kaufman doesn’t want to spell it out for people. “One of the things I think is really exciting and joyful about the experience of being an audience member is figuring things out,” he says. “When you make a connection, its yours, and there’s a thrill to that. So people can look up ‘synecdoche,’ if they want. And if they do, maybe they’ll think about some things it might correspond to in the movie, and if it opens up another understanding of the film for them, that would be great.”

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is one of those rare films that deals with death, excruciating illness, gross bodily fluids, despair, heartbreak and bad sex that can still bring a twinkle to the eye. “I think the movie is fun,” says Kaufman. “It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean’ Who cares. It’s a burning house that someone lives in, and its funny. You can get more than that if you want to. Hopefully the movie will work on a lot of levels and people can read different things from it depending on who they are.”

A unique aspect of Kaufman’s work (which also includes BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and HUMAN NATURE) is his blend of the whimsically fantastic with deeply felt emotion. “I’m interested in dreams and how we tell stories to ourselves in dreams,” he says. “Let me make it very clear that this film is not a dream, but it does have a dreamlike logic. You can start to fly in a dream and in the dream it’s just, ‘Oh yeah, I can fly.’ Its not like what your reaction would be in the real world. So everything that happens in this movie is to be taken at face value, it’s what’s happening. It’s okay that it doesnt happen in real life. It’s a movie.”

Using Intellect for Feeling

Still, as playful as Kaufman’s storytelling is, he doesn’t create weird situations arbitrarily. “Charlie has these absurd and hilarious ideas, but they are always serving something emotional,” says Spike Jonze, who directed Kaufmans scripts for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. “Hes always using his intellect to serve something that hes feeling or that means something to him.”

The original impetus of the film was for Kaufman to write a horror film screenplay for Jonze to direct. Of course, there was never any possibility that a Charlie Kaufman ‘horror film’ would become anything like a conventional scary movie.

Anxiety Dreams

“Towards the beginning, I was talking to Charlie about some anxiety dreams I was having,” says Jonze, “and Charlie said that it would be amazing to be able to make a movie that captured those kinds of feelings.” So Kaufman opened his imagination to things that were truly terrifying to him. “My process is to start by thinking about something and see what comes,” says Kaufman. “I’m not very interested in things like writing towards an end.”

“Charlie would call and say I want to put this idea in the film and that idea in the film,” says Jonze. “And suddenly there were dozens and dozens of ideas. Charlie has a real desire to put everything he’s thinking and feeling into the thing hes working on at the time.”

It took two years for Kaufman to fully realize the script, and over that time it evolved to a place that had very little to do with the original concept. During this process, Jonze was writing his own screenplay for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and by the time Kaufman’s script was ready, Jonze was already in pre-production on the other film.

Not wanting to wait, and having long planned to move into directing (he has an acting and theater background and studied at NYU Film School), Kaufman asked Jonze if he could direct it, and he readily agreed. “It seemed not only natural, but inevitable that Charlie was going to direct at some point,” says Jonze.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK explores nightmares that are all too realistic and human. Its hero, Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 40-year-old local theater director in Schnectady whose life is collapsing around him: his marriage to his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is on its last legs at the same time as he is stricken with a series of increasingly catastrophic illnesses.

While time flies past him, he is afraid he will die any moment, and never have the chance to accomplish anything important with his life. When he receives a MacArthur Grant, he decides to use the windfall to create a massive theater piece in New York City. “He wants to create The Great Piece of Art,” says Hoffman. “He thinks his life will end, and he has all this heartbreak and death and separation around him, and he wants to leave something true and honest and heartbreaking and just like life is.”

Compelling Female Characters

While many decry the scarcity of good film roles for women, Kaufman’s script includes at least eight compelling female characters, not to mention that nearly all of them exist in multiple incarnations, and some are seen over many decades. The stories of these women, which round out aspects of Caden’s romantic, emotional and artistic life, attracted some of the world’s most talented actresses including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis.

Caden’s relationship with Adele plays out the sadness of two people, neither of which are able to satisfy each other’s needs. Her loss of her respect and approval for his work is perhaps the most important motivation for Cadens tackling his monumental and ambitious play. Counseling sessions with the ultra-untherapeutic therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) are no help for the troubled couple and eventually Adele departs for Berlin with their four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In Germany, Maria covers Olive’s body with tattoos and her mind with lies until Olive (now played by Robin Weigert and speaking in a German accent) spurns him.

After Adele leaves, Caden becomes involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a refreshingly uncomplicated woman who adores him, and Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), a beautiful young actress moony over Cadens artistic brilliance, who he ultimately marries and has a second daughter, with. But Caden is never able to fully connect with either woman, because his mind is always lingering on the one before: he can’t be with Hazel because he’s thinking about Adele; he cant be with Claire because hes thinking about Hazel; and when he can’t be with Hazel, he turns to Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress who plays Hazel in his play. “He has a difficult time being present in any situation,” says Kaufman. “He misses opportunities, he misses moments, and he misses connections. And I think thats a very common human condition.”

Entering the story near the end is the inscrutable Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), the veteran thespian who plays the cleaning lady Ellen Bascomb (who may or may not exist), until she slips into Cadens role as director when Caden is too aesthetically depleted to carry on.
Caden begins his theater project by renting an airport terminal sized warehouse in New York, where he gathers a large cast and begins to build full-sized replicas of New York Streets.

Unsure at first where this will lead him, he simply gives each of the actors notes that tell them about what happened to them that dayhoping that something profound and true will emerge from the aggregate struggles of people’s ordinary lives. Eventually he turns inward, and sets upon the idea of restaging his own life, with Claire playing herself and another actor playing himself. At an open audition he finds Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who is a perfect match for the role as he has followed Caden around for twenty years.

But in order for Sammy to play Caden properly, he must not only act the role of Claire’s husband, he also needs to direct. Sammy suggests that Hazel (who is now Cadens assistant) should also be a character, and so Tammy (Emily Watson) joins the cast of the play as “Hazel.” It doesnt take long before a host of doppelgangers (and triplegangers and quadruplegangers) overrun the production.

Taking things to their logical extremities, and blasting off to the wild blue yonder beyond them, is plain sailing for Kaufman. “If Claire is playing herself in the warehouse, living in this fake Claire apartment,” says Kaufman, “then where she would go from there is to a rehearsal in the warehouse-within-the-warehouse, in which shed be playing herself with another Sammy playing Caden. Even though shes already at rehearsal, then she would be playing herself at another rehearsal. And that goes on in smaller and smaller warehouses.”

Script supervisor Mary Cybulski (who deserves to be in the Continuity Hall of Fame for doing this and ETERNAL SUNSHINE) created a chart to clarify the Russian Nesting Doll-style proliferation of the story. “There are scene numbers that take place in the real warehouse,” she explains. “And then there’s an exterior warehouse set that they built inside the warehouse, and then the scenes that take place on the street set that’s inside the warehouse set, but outside the warehouse set number two. It goes on like that.”

Production Designer Mark Friedberg was tasked with finding the requisite plywood and coherence to realize Kaufman’s intricate vision: “There was always an underlying structure that was not arbitrary,” says Friedberg. “As confusing as it could be, there was security for all of us in knowing that we could always turn to Charlie or Mary to clarify.”

No matter how outlandish the film’s style and story gets, the behavior and emotions of the characters are always palpably real. “There was nothing intellectual about creating the performances,” says Kaufman. “All of those things were discussed with and co-created by the actors.” Catherine Keener explains that it fell into place intuitively for her: “You just kind of step into the reality and before you know it you really kind of understand. And you don’t even know what you understand, but if Charlie’s not questioning it and it’s working for him, then it works for you.”