After plying his trade as a TV writer throughout the 90s, Charlie Kaufman closed the last century with the filmic bang that is Being John Malkovich. He then went on to pen some of the most thought-provoking films to come out of Hollywood in the last ten years, including Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his recent directorial debut Synechdoche, New York.
Despite the proliferation of multi-layered meanings and visual metaphors in his films, Kaufman insists he’s not philosophically grandstanding. Rather, by following his instincts, he claims he’s staying faithful to reality.
Interview by Alex Fitch
Illustration by Alex Naylor
There's a short, short story by Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science, about an Emperor who recreates his city on a map, which is the same size as the city itself. Synecdoche, New York with this conceit of a director building a set that's life-sized and recreating his own life on that set, it seems Borgesian. I haven't read that story, but I've since read about it in reference to this movie. The stuff of his I have read I love and respond to intellectually, but I don’t think it was an influence. I’ve always had the ambition to build an entire fake reality, so I gave that to my character and then, I guess, by association, to myself.
Would you be happy to be called a magical realist? I don’t think of myself as anything. I don’t even think of myself as a writer and I’m not even kidding! I don’t want to tether myself to some philosophy of writing or philosophy in general. I’m just trying to understand the things I’m thinking about. You have instinctive notions that are fascinating for reasons you don’t even know. It starts spinning in directions that are interesting and I just go with that.
The moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy meets the Great and Terrible Oz, pulls back the curtain and it’s just a man operating some machines... Your worlds seem the reverse of that: you look behind reality, inside the characters' heads and their fantasy, their interior worlds are somehow greater than the world outside. I feel fairly certain that if there were any way to experience the world objectively, it would look nothing like how it does to us. Nothing. I'm not trying to make any statement about people's interior worlds. When I sit down to write, the only things I know are the things I subjectively experience.
I write from a human point of view and then sometimes that gets called postmodernist or meta or I get called a Magic Realist or an Existentialist. Someone I was talking to earlier said there’s now even Kaufmanesque, I guess to describe other people, but me as well.
I mean, it's fine if people want to see connections between mine and other people’s work, but I'm not setting out to do that. I'm sure I'm influenced by stuff I’ve read and movies I've seen over the years in ways I can't articulate, but it's never intentional homage I'm doing.
The way Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, Caden, casts actors as versions of people from his life and then casts actors to play those actors, is similar to the way scientists talk about how our brains work regarding memories. For example, if we access a memory after, say, ten years, it's filtered through our experiences from these years, and we re-save those memories and each time we revisit them, they get slightly different. Every time you recall a memory your brain is recreating it, it's not like playing a tape. A book I read called The End of the Story by Lydia Davis deals with a woman remembering her relationship and she makes that very point in the book, which is the first time I heard this idea and thought about it in that way.
The book takes place after a relationship is over – she's remembering their first date and her memory is now controlled by her sadness and what she's known about the guy since then. It's no longer the memory she had the day after the first date. That's pretty profound, because I don't think we generally think that. That book has been a big influence on me.
The movie's called Synecdoche, New York, but it starts in the actual place of Schenectady, New York. Was the homophone the starting point? It's hard to know, and it’s funny because people have told me that nobody outside the United States has ever heard of Schenectady, so the title is meaningless. I didn't realise it, it's a fairly big city in New York State…
...“home of trains and electricity”… Exactly. GE comes from Schenectady! I had those two words in my head, Schenectady and Synecdoche, and it seemed to apply to all the other things Caden is trying to do in the movie; creating a work of art and also a reflection of a sliver of his life as opposed to the whole thing.
There are a lot of word confusions in this movie and they’ve been pointed out to me – I mean, I know I wrote them, but I don’t think I was do so consciously. People have written about how this movie is about miscommunication… Maybe it is, I don’t know.
People always look for triggers in difficult screenplays to try to find out what represents ‘reality’ and what represents ‘fantasy’. This movie does not make any distinction between those things. This is the world that Caden inhabits – he’s not fantasising or dreaming. This world was created this way because I was trying to take an interior existence and put it in the exterior.
I’m always trying to figure out ways to present someone’s interior life and I didn’t want to do a voiceover, so I thought “why don’t I do what happens in dreams?” Things happen, you just accept them and they’re usually symbolic of something. I don’t believe in dream interpretation books, I believe the interpretation of a dream happens the moment you realise the thing that was vital about it to you.
I thought a movie would be a really good place to do this kind of thing. Movies are made for this. Often they’re not used this way, there’s got to be a justification if it’s going to veer from reality, but the thing is, movies aren’t real! People say things like: “why does Caden win a MacArthur grant? He’s not a genius” and then once he's won it, they say: “It’s only $500,000, it’s not like he could spend the rest of his life funding a play like that.” But in this movie he does. It’s not real life. In this movie it’s what happens to this character.
Somebody said something like: “Kaufman’s so mean to his characters.” Well, first of all, I don’t think I am and second of all, I’m not hurting anybody; it’s an actor in make-up! What are people talking about? I don’t know what anyone’s talking about anymore. It’s a very strange world we live in, I’m lost in it. I find my world that I write easier to understand.
The intensity of the film makes it feel like it took quite a long time to write. Well, it took two and a half years to write, but it took quite a while to write Eternal Sunshine too, much to Michel [Gondry]’s chagrin. It’s hard to figure them out, especially when you don’t have a form. When you’re starting you’re trying to invent a form and then there’re lots of issues that are important to me, so I don’t want to give them short shrift. I’d like to figure out a way to work more quickly because I don’t want to wait another five years to come out with something.
Having written five screenplays before directed by other people, did you have a burning desire to get behind the camera this time? Maybe there’s a trade off because I've never done it before, so I can’t get at something as well as Spike [Jonze] or Michel would have, but because it’s mine I know what my intention is and so I thought: no one understands this script better than I do. I’m convinced of that.
The other thing that happens when you have another director—and this isn’t a criticism, it’s a fact whenever you’re collaborating—is you can’t be as personal because they might not be interested, so you have to talk about changing it. Synecdoche, New York is very personal. Everything I wanted to put in the movie, I did. It’s a little unfiltered me.
Listen to an extended version of this interview at Panel Borders & Reality Check
Synecdoche, New York is available on DVD for your home viewing pleasure.
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