Interview: Charlie Kaufman on Synecdoche, New York

By Liz Ohanesian

Interview: Charlie Kaufman on Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman (L) and Charlie Kaufman (R) on the set of Synecdoche, New York.

There will be a moment in Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) when you realize that decades have passed since the opening scene. The moment may differ from viewer to viewer, but at some time, it will hit you, Caden Cotard, the neurotic theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the women who are intrinsically involved in his life, have grown weary with years. And when you reach this point, it will feel like a conversation with a long lost friend where all you want to do is escape to the bathroom to discern if you too are now old.

“It’s something that I felt in editing,” says Kaufman of time’s sly passage throughout the film. “I was really sort of excited because I didn’t want to have 10 years or 15 years later in this movie, title cards. I liked the idea because that’s sort of the idea that I was working with, that time passes in a very creeping way.”

He continues, “The older I get, the more it’s happening. It’s just, boom-boom-boom. It’s my birthday every month. It really is and it’s terrible.” Similar to Adaptation, the self-reflexive elements of Kaufman’s work help to examine a universal feeling.

Synecdoche, New York begins in the town of Schenectedy, where Caden learns that he is slowly losing his autonomic functions. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) takes their daughter and leaves for Berlin with her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He then becomes involved with theater employee Hazel (Samantha Morton) and actress Claire (Michelle Williams), moves to New York City and embarks on his greatest theater project -- a depiction of life in his neighborhood performed inside a full-sized replica of a small portion of the city. All the while, life sneaks past Caden for 40 or 50 years (Kaufman notes that the time frame is never specified in the film) as his fears manifest one after the other.

The project began when Kaufman and sometimes collaborator Spike Jonze were approached by Sony to create a “horror movie.” Jonze, who was initially set to direct, eventually turned down that role due to his work on Where the Wild Things Are (he is, however, listed as a producer). Kaufman then opted to “seize the day” and direct himself. For someone best known for working in tandem with Jonze as well as Michel Gondry, it was an opportunity that could not be refused.

Interview: Charlie Kaufman on Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kauman at work as director.

“I wanted to see what this would be if I took my idea and completed it,” he explains, “as opposed to spreading it out a little bit with other people making those decisions or being involved in those decisions.”

Throughout its production, Synecdoche took on a life similar to Caden’s theatrical work, the piece evolving to highlight the dynamic between certain actors or simply to reflect ideas developed during the course of the shoot.

“My goal is to always look at this thing as an exploration and as I come to different feelings or different understandings through time thinking about these issues, that excites an idea and then I have to come back and figure out how to implement that idea within this world that I started to create, maybe go back and change things,” says Kaufman. “For me, that’s a fun way to work because it allows me to stay interested and feel like I’m learning things as I do it. I’m incorporating these things that I’ve learned into the world.”

Although Synecdoche initially made waves as a purported horror tale, the end result is not frightening so much as it is filled with hand-wringing, cold sweat-inducing anxiety.

“To me it has nightmarish and horror elements to it, but not in a genre sense,” Kaufman says. “It’s closer to a real world sense. It’s dealing with real world fears and mortality and illness and loneliness and isolation and all those things that are the real things that people are scared of. Meaning, lack of meaning.”

Throughout the film, loved ones leave, projects remain incomplete and people become debilitated by either disease or hypochondria. Just as the line is blurred between Caden’s life and the one he created on a stage inside an airplane hangar, so is it never clear if the events in the film are literal or just worst case scenario fascinations.

“I feel that I want to put this out there and let people have their experience and their interpretation be individual moments and the piece as a whole,” says Kaufman. “It’s like a conversation in my mind. This is my part of the conversation and your part is to interact with it.”

Synecdoche, New York opens in theaters Friday October 24.


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