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

Charlie Kaufman’s feature directing debut, Synecdoche, New York, received its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, in May.

The nucleus and anchor of the film’s verisimilitude is the stark performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

“Everything you see happen to the character is something Phil was going through when we shot it, because thats the way he works,” says Kaufman. “He had to understand what it was that was happening at every point, or he couldn’t do it. He was very serious because this character is really struggling and Phil was really struggling through the performance.”

Spike Jonze agrees: “It was a very hard part for Phil. Some movies it might be intense emotionally a week or two, but this film it was intense emotionally for him every day.”

Even extremely experienced filmmakers might find SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK a formidable challenge, but first-time director Kaufman was philosophical. “What’s the worst thing that can happen” he asks. “I take big risks in my writing, and I choose to do that because that’s what I think makes stuff interesting. The worst thing that can happen is that I’ll be embarrassed and they won’t hire me to direct movies again. If that’s the worst thing that can happen, thats not so bad.”

From Hoffman’s point of view, that seems unlikely. “To me, Charlie might as well have been directing all of his life. There was never any time where I felt he didn’t understand what it meant to converse with the actor or the director of photographer or anyone, in a way that clarified a situation or helped or aided in some way. He always fought for what he thought was the thing that needed to happen, that he always had empathy for the struggles that everyone was going through.”

Knowing his story so well, Kaufman had the ability to create scenes when needed at the spur of the moment. Spike Jonze relates a story: “One scene I was surprised by in dailies was something I hadnt read, the scene of the Pastors sermon at the end. It’s a page-long monologue about life and death, an amazing piece of writing, and Charlie wrote it the night before.”

An actor who had been considered, but not cast for another role (Christopher Evan Welch) was quickly contacted and told to report for work following day. “Charlie faxed him this huge piece of text and the guy learned it that night and came in and did an amazing job,” says Jonze.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is such a cornucopia of a film that it’s more than a challenge to catch everything in one viewing. It’s virtually impossible. The film is jam-packed with jokes and referenceslike Cadens glimpse of Sammy following him in a cartoon, when Caden hasnt been introduced to Sammy yetthat wont pay off for most people on the first go-round.

“Its intentional,” says Kaufman. “I want the film to be different the next time you see it, and not a repeat.” Kaufman explains that he is trying to capture the dynamism that he feel theater has and movies lack: “Every time you see a play it’s alive, the interactions between the actors is going to be different, and the energy of the audience changes the actors’ performances,” he says. “But a movie is dead and unchanging, so what can you do in a movie that can make it more alive My approach is to make films that allow you to discover new things upon multiple viewings. And its my goal to make you feel like its a living thing as opposed to a dead thing.”

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK can be seen as colossal as Cadens warehouse or as small as the closet in Adeles apartment, metaphysically labyrinthine or emotionally simple, an Empire State Building-sized witticism, a prodigious paranormal paronomasia, an existential shaggy dog story, or even a poem, or all these things or none of them, or as its director hopesjust entertaining and the hell with it. “It could read as an epic story of a man who builds everything and finds himself alone,” says Friedberg. “But it could also be read as a man turned in on himself, in his subconscious.”

Kaufman is especially delighted when he hears people express interpretations he didnt intend. “I get no bigger thrill than that,” he says, “because that means its alive.” He is also adamant that he has no intention to make it hard for the audience. “Im not trying to daunt people,” he says. “I want the things I do to be things that Id want to see, and if I went into this movie it would be cool for me.”

While many might place this film in a different box from more traditional movies, there are many examples where sizeable audiences have happily gone to have their minds bent by anything from 2001 to THERE WILL BE BLOOD–emerging somewhat bewildered, but still feeling like they got their money’s worth.

“A challenge doesnt have to be seen as homework,” says Executive Producer William Horberg. “It can also inspire you, and thats exciting.”

Hoffman agrees: “Some people might tag this as an art-house movie, but I think more mainstream filmgoers will respond to this film. I think it’s accessible in a way thats incredibly innovative. I can’t imagine it’s not going to speak to everybody.”

I Wept for 40 Minutes

Producer Anthony Bregman remembers giving the SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK screenplay to casting director Jeannie McCarthy: “She called me up and said she was halfway through it and she felt she didn’t know what was going on. And I said that she should just finish it. About an hour and a half later, she called me back and said, ‘Well, I finished the script. I’m still confused, but when I closed it, I wept for forty minutes.”

Bregman will never forget his own first reading. “It requires a lot and I got in a trancelike state just reading it,” he says. “There was so much thats complicated and bizarre, and yet at the same time very personal. And towards the end of the script I felt like it was talking about events in my own life.”