Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Charlie Kaufman to talk about his new film, coming out October 24th, Synecdoche, New York. The film was written and for the first time ever directed by Kaufman himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in the film along with Catherine Keener (read Keener interview here). The film has one of the most amazing casts, and just like in the movie, none of them are extras. The film is by far one of the most imaginative, innovate, and original pieces of work by Kaufman to date. He has a clear vision on screen and one paper.
Kaufman himself was a touch shy, but extremely kind and humble. He sets out to challenge himself in every way he can and does so honestly and without ego.
Without further ado, Charlie Kaufman…
Do you see yourself as a Caden type character or more as the Charlie Kaufman character as in “Adaptation?”
Charlie: I don’t consider myself either of those people, I just use elements of my personality or my interest to sort of form characters but they aren’t me.
Caden never finishes his work and no on ever seems to really mind. It’s as if the work has a life of it’s own. We’re you trying to make any kind of a statement about the importance of there being a commercial aspect to art and the need for an audience to view it?
Charlie: I mean not intentionally, I basically wanted to get rid of that element of the story and I thought this was a fun way to do it. I wanted him to be able to work in this thing for the rest of this life so I just allowed him to. But the MacArthur also doesn’t allow you to do that, it’s a limited amount of money, but this sort of dream like element allowed it to be a unlimited amount of money.
Is the process complete for you just in the creation of it, or does there have to be a connection with the audience?
Charlie: I don’t care if anyone ever sees this movie. No, of course I want people to see this movie. You could write something forever, in fact you have to choose a point to stop, because if your writing something its gonna keep evolving, and your gonna keep learning new things, and keep adjusting it, its and endless process. And Caden who is going for the truth in his mind, has to embrace that.
Do you think the way Caden’s wife reacts negatively to his first play, has an effect on his future work?
Charlie: Yeah it does, and I think it would effect Caden if people that had a less than positive reaction to what he’s working on, he’s a human being and his feelings get hurt, and he feels rejected and questions himself, and those are the qualities that drive him. The reason that he pursues this project is to prove to Adele and her parents.
Does it have any bearing on the future play not being seen?
Charlie: I think it might. I don’t want to state that, I think there’s the elusiveness of truth, which is slippery in this case for him, and he is trying to be truthful because basically Adele told him he isn’t.
What was it about this particular story that made you what to finally get in the directors chair?
Charlie: Just in terms of its availability, it came at a time where I wanted to do this and there was an opportunity to take it on. I felt I understood this better than any Director off the street, and Spike was sort of like “I’m not gonna do it,” I couldn’t think of any one else I’d want to do it or trust with it, so I decided to try to do it.
How was the transition for you into directing, did you receive a lot of encouragement?
Charlie: I don’t think anyone encouraged me to take it on, I just wanted to take it on. I had really good people working on the movie, good actors, producers, all those people who made the experience more comfortable for me.
Would you want to do it again?
Charlie: Yeah, I think so.
Did you write this with certain actors in mind?
Charlie: No, I try not to write with actors in mind because I’m trying to create characters, if I were to think of actors I would be thinking of there past work. Unless its somebody I know, which is usually not the case. So I would be thinking of what they’ve done as opposed to people. I hope that what happens is that it allows the actor to come to the material and meet it halfway.
This was one of the largest casts I’ve ever seen on film, what was it like having to work with so many actors?
Charlie: We did a lot of casting sessions and I got to pick from a lot of people, and I tried to pick the people that were the most interesting to me.
I imagine the productions designers had a lot on their plate?.What was it like dealing with such massive sets and difficult visuals? Were you able to create your vision?
Charlie: Everything was very difficult… and it was all very difficult because of the amount of money we had. That made everything difficult. How do we afford what we need to do, and since we can’t afford what we need to do how do we fake it? That was the discussion in every aspect of the movie. We had only 45 days to shoot over 200 scenes, a lot of them involving really heavy prosthetic make up which took on an average four and a half hours to put on and and hour to take off, in incredible heat. But that’s your day. That’s 5 and a half hours of your day. And with Phil whose in every scene, has to come in 4 hours before call, and so his day is half way over before everyone gets in. So the mechanics of scheduling and cordinating this large group of people was the hardest part. It was a very challenging movie in that regard.
Did you find yourself coming up with really interesting ways to fake it?
Charlie: I’m pretty pleased that we did it. I think people make assumptions about what’s real and what’s not real, and that’s always exciting to me. You know how did you put that roof over NYC. It’s not really a secret, we just didn’t put a roof over NYC.
The film has one central male character and then is supported by a large cast of well-known female actresses. Do you find it more or less difficult to write in a female voice?
Charlie: That’s a very complicated question. I don’t see myself as particularly male, I’m probably as much female as I am male. I’m not really assigning gender to stuff, it’s more like the different personality components that I’m interested in exploring and then there’s this dynamic in relationships, as a male in this world interacting with females, that I experience and I’m interested in.
All of your screenplays are all so different from what everyone else is doing and from what you have done before. Do you set out to challenge yourself when you start something new?
Charlie: I set out to put myself in that position every time I write, I try to put myself in a position of not knowing how to do what I’m setting out to do. I see no reason to do it otherwise.
Do you have a specific writing process?
Charlie: I think I write in a kind of haphazard way, but I spend a lot of time thinking because I can’t stop. I do a lot of writing when I think I look like I’m not writing. I spend a lot of time going over ideas and mulling and stuff, but the idea sitting from 8-12 and then having lunch from 12-1 and then going back, I don’t do that. I probably should do that.
When you first sit down to write, do you know where the story will go, or does it surprise you?
Charlie: I want it to surprise me, my goal is to allow it to surprise me. I give myself enough openness so in the process i can discover things and allow myself to go there, otherwise I’m not doing anything, otherwise I’m kind of painting by numbers.
Film in theaters October 24th.