You Say Synecdoche: Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

By Jonathan Marlow [and his id]

Charlie KaufmanImagine, if you will, a five-act film with each act framed around the so-called "Five Stages of Grief" - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Scratch that. Synecdoche, New York is a relatively traditional-in-structure if unconventional-in-storyline three-acter. Imagine, instead, a representative mirror held up to our existing world that intersects with the world as it is and as it could be, but not necessarily in the ways that you would expect. Then allow a sort of dream-logic to take over, where a house-in-flames can merely be a part that represents the whole. Of course, sometimes a burning house is just a burning house.

Confused? Taking over directing-duties when Spike Jonze was preoccupied elsewhere, Charlie Kaufman's feature-length directorial debut lives in a territory where few American films ever venture. Wildly inventive, stylistically rigorous and rewarding, it is likely the most mentally stimulating picture you'll see all year. Also, arguably the most laugh-inducing film to hit screens in quite some time.

Granted, there are a few fringe benefits to be found in SNY, too. Whatever distaste of Michelle Williams that lingered from Land of Plenty has finally, completely washed away with her performance in this film. There is a moment on an airplane that is - in all sincerity - worthy of, well, Airplane! If, in these final days before the US election, your taste in humor leans toward schadenfreude, you'll find it here in spades. If, as Socrates noted, the "unexamined life is not worth living," here we have the fully examined life, sycosis [not psychosis] and all.

Marlow had the pleasure of sitting down with writer/director Kaufman during his recent tour through San Francisco, a handful of hours before his disappearance for the Sitges International Film Festival of Catalonia to receive a Màquina del Temps award.

[Leading question. You know about his PKD script. Get him to talk about it without really asking him directly…] Over your decade-and-a-half of writing for television and feature films, have you written anything that hasn't been produced?

The only thing that I've written that hasn't been made into a movie was an adaptation of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. It was eventually made into a movie by Richard Linklater but with his script. That one will never be made into a movie! Other than that, I have nothing left. I've got to write a new one now.

When, chronologically, was the Scanner Darkly script written?

Probably after Being John Malkovich. Somewhere in that area, early on. I got it as an assignment. There was a director attached, an Australian woman named Emma(-Kate) Croghan. She had just directed an independent comedy [Strange Planet] and she was attached [to the project] by Jersey Films and then they brought me on. The people at Jersey eventually lost interest in our version of it and dropped the option. Then it got picked-up years later by somebody else.

Will it ever surface? [Outside of living on the Being Charlie Kaufman site, that is.]

What's the point if you're going to read the book? Certainly my version doesn't offer anything that the book doesn't! At the time, I felt like I was trying to do something that was respectful of the Dick book. I felt like the movies coming out based on his books had nothing to do with his books.

[Case in point - Total Recall. The first fifteen minutes only loosely resembles We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the story upon which it is based. The rest of the film is something else entirely. But I digress…]

I was a big admirer of his stuff so I wanted to do the movie version of that book - but you might as well read the book!

[I have.] With the writing process featured heavily as an element in Adaptation and SNY, what is your particular process? [You suspect he doesn't but ask anyway.] Do you use notecards...

I don't. I have an idea of where it's starting and I have an idea of things I'm interested in exploring. By "things" I mean "themes" or "life issues" or a particular character trait and then I write. By "writing" I mean that I take notes and I think about the script for a very long time but, by the time I'm writing the script, I'm writing it without an outline. I try to let it become expansive. In the process of writing, I am open to the process of discovery. If I'm thinking about death and I come up with a concept on page 30 that intrigues me, I want the movie to be open to going there. I don't want to say, "Well, I have an outline and it has to go here." I'll let it be what it wants to be and then I'll go back to the beginning and put in what needs to be put in to allow what happens on page 30 to exist properly in this continuum. In that sense, it takes me quite a while to write but it also makes it about something for me. It's about an exploration. I wouldn't want to go in writing anything knowing what it was going to end up being. What I know at the beginning of a process is very different from what I know at the end of a process.

Specifically, I find the act of writing or creating another world intriguing and I try to analyze why. To a certain extent, it's part of the process of being alive in the world. We do that constantly. It's not just for writers or filmmakers or theater directors. We constantly take this information and organize it. We constantly tell stories about ourselves. We put our lives in the context of a story, which it really isn't. It's really a subjective, human thing to do - to tell stories about the people that we meet and how we fit in with them. To me, it's a larger thing than a thing about writing or about directing or about the artistic process. It's more about what the interior process of being a human being is, for me.

Was there anything that you were reading in your early years that you've found to be particularly influential in your writing?

There was a certain type of comedy that I was really drawn to at a young age. There might be a certain amount of messiness and absurdism to that comedy that has a much larger influence on my stuff than I'm even aware of. Monty Python and National Lampoon were major discoveries for me. Before that, Mad magazine. I'm really interested in chaos. You're often told by writing teachers that you should write from a distance. You're told that you should write about something that happened ten years ago because that's the only way that you can really understand it.

Synecdoche, New YorkTo give it perspective.

But I think that "perspective" is storytelling. It's a lie! The reality, when you're in it, is a very interesting moment. That moment involves confusion. I try to be in the moment when I'm writing rather than at a distance. I think that's the truth. It's life. It always where we are. The other stuff is never where we are. When I'm going through something really serious - some sort of depression or some kind of serious problem - there's always a pre-verbal kind of reaction that I have to it. The way that I know that it's over is when I can start talking about it. I want to be in that moment as a writer. As a film writer, it's especially important. Obviously there is a talking element to movies but there are other elements as well. Things that you can explore that don't involve dialogue - lighting and sets and movement and all of that stuff that can enter into that realm of the non-verbal.

Not enough screenwriters and filmmakers explore unsafe territory. SNY seems closest in spirit to the Buñuel/Carrière collaborations when anything is seemingly possible. They created a self-contained world in each of their pictures that made sense unto itself. Not necessarily realistic but narrative-ly necessary. Was there some self-doubt in following this path yourself?

Not until the very end. What happened in this case is that we originally were making it for Sony. They put it in turn-around and then, almost immediately, the film was picked-up by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment to finance it. I was given final cut and, aside from the limited budget that we had (which was understandable but made it difficult to make), they left me alone. Within that time, the independent movie world fell apart!

When we brought it to Cannes without a distributor and we didn't get distribution there, I started to get a little bit anxious - not only about this movie but also about the future of what I do. What am I going to do? I spent five years on this! I put so much myself into it. There is this feeling of rejection, which, to a certain extent, I took personally because I tend to have my feelings hurt - like most people, I guess - even though there were larger things going on. No American movies sold at Cannes this year! Still, there is this thing that happens. People jump on the fact that it doesn't sell as a springboard. If they hated the movie, they use it as a springboard to talk about how bad the movie is. There were a lot of positive, passionate responses in terms of the reviews out of Cannes but there are also people that hated it! And we didn't sell it. And people are hating it!

Now, at this point, I'm trying to start on a new project because I'm done with this. It was my only job for the last five years and I need to have a job! I need to pay my mortgage and the economy is falling apart! What's the world going to be like in two years when I'm done with my next script? Is anyone going to want it? Is anyone going to buy it? Do I even want to put it out there because people have been so mean? A million stupid things are paralyzing me from writing. But it's what I like to do! I like to put something in the world that I feel is honest from my vantage point. That's the kind of decent thing to do in the world. To give people what you think is honest because, otherwise, you might as well be selling soap. In fact, you are selling soap! I don't want to do that. I'm not in that business. I've got to just jump into something and make it about what I'm interested in again. But there's pause. There's always pause at this point.


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