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THE PLAY'S THE THING
For Charlie Kaufman, the whole world fits into Synecdoche, New York.

BY JAMES PONSOLDT

(LEFT-RIGHT) SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK's CATHERINE KEENER, WRITER-DIRECTOR CHARLIE KAUFMAN AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN. PHOTO BY: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

...If we are interested with human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other onto leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create. We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of. It‘s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On the Road, or William T. Vollman‘s 3,300-page Rising Up and Rising Down, or Michael Apted‘s 7-Up, 28-Up, 42-Up series of films, or...well, the list goes on.” —Dave Eggers, in the foreword to the 10th-anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace‘s magnum opus Infinite Jest.

It speaks to Charlie Kaufman‘s influence as a screenwriter that his name functions as its own genre.

Like Robert Altman, Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino — other filmmakers whose last names are commonly used as adjectives — the term Kaufmanesque conjures narratives that reconfigure the way we perceive time, consequence and even reality. These stories (which include Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are hilarious and gut-wrenching, surprising yet fated, and traditional notions of structure — safely paced in three, neat acts — are obliterated. Charlie Kaufman‘s screenplays bring to mind bleak, absurdist and wacked-out playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, as well as authors like David Foster Wallace, William Gaddis and John Barth. These writers all share an obsession with love and pain and loss and blind hope and brutal truth and the way we tell and listen to stories.

And now Kaufman, the Richard Feynman of Hollywood screenwriters, has directed a film.

Synecdoche, New York is the story of the latter half of theater director Caden Cotard‘s life.

In the film, Caden (played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, at his most entropic) attempts to mount a theatrical production about...the latter half of his own life.

Caden is insistent that the play achieves a level of honesty that requires constant upkeep: With each new illness (real or imagined) or relationship (mostly real), a plot twist in his life evolves and another actor or set is needed to depict these developments. Soon, the midtown Manhattan warehouse where the behemoth play is being mounted becomes its own zip code — no, its own universe.

Caden may be the one man who is an island; he uniquely possesses the ability to cast a menagerie of actors to represent his life, while they in turn become his life. Decades pass, but still no opening night.

The cast of Synecdoche, New York is universally fantastic, from Caden‘s cadre of women — Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson — to the smaller players who inhabit more distant but still compelling orbits of influence (like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, and a heartbreaking, one-of-a-kind stalker, Tom Noonan). In this world, designed by the obsessive Caden, populated with his obsessions — a mix of family, friends, lovers, and their barely off-book doppelgangers — each person feels deserving of his or her own miniature epic.

Caden Cotard may be a solipsist, but Charlie Kaufman is a generous storyteller, curious about the life of every character he creates, and Synecdoche, New York is an important film for many reasons, the most obvious being... it is ambitious!

The film clocks in at just a hair over two hours, but it has the feel of an entire lifetime, crushed like a snowball, stuffed into a glass globe and shaken madly, the bits of life allowed to gently float and drift and settle.

When directors make films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, Inland Empire or Synecdoche, New York, they are demanding that the audience engage, reflect and be open to the idea of transformation. These are ambitious films. They are challenging. We need films like these.

Synecdoche, New York runs mental laps around most films, never predictable, refusing to slow down. Caden‘s observed life, rendered gorgeously with Mark Friedberg‘s burbs-to-apocalypse production design and Fred Elmes‘s lens, is a vision of a man‘s mind as a theater set as a universe, and it functions alternately as a declaration of purpose, a cry for help, and a dizzy, dreamy fugue.

But please, do not be intimidated: This film is humane, life-affirming and yes, funny, funny, laughing-and-crying funny.

A film of big ideas and enormous heart, Synecdoche, New York feels like it could have been Charlie Kaufman‘s 20th feature as a director, not his first. By the movie‘s ending, Caden is aged (perhaps sage), exhausted, stretched thin for ideas, and having loved and lost his share of strong women, they now strut through his memory like Guido‘s harem in 8½. Caden, the consummate director, his heart haunted and sated by every life he‘s known or tried to know, just desires some simple, straightforward direction.

Synecdoche, New York, the latest offering for the cult of Kaufman, and hopefully his first of many as a director, premiered at the 61st Cannes Film Festival and is a bold American film about a man trying to live and love better through his art, failing forward and upward, teetering on the brink, and the film‘s sad hopefulness brings to my mind the final lines from one of the most epic poems of another impossibly ambitious writer, T.S. Elliot, whose “Burnt Norton” from “Four Quartets” ends with the knowing, resigned, yet still-smiling verse: “Ridiculous the waste sad time/ Stretching before and after.”

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN AND CHARLIE KAUFMAN ON THE SET OF SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Someone sent me an article today from the London Times about Kafka and this huge pornography collection of his that has just been discovered. Supposedly it‘s pretty hardcore. Anyway, there are two factions: the purists, who want to maintain his image as a literary saint and who don‘t want this side of him known to the public, and then those who say that this should be known by everyone, because how else are we going to realize that these stories were written by a human? How much do you think the public should know about artists in order to appreciate their art? Do you think we should know about things like Kafka‘s pornography collection? It‘s a complicated question because I make it a point not to talk about my personal life — or my pornography collection. I guess my answer would be that it is not important but he‘s been dead a long time, so I don‘t think it matters. I guess I‘m trying to figure out what you are asking me, if this is about Kafka specifically...

No. I mean, for me it‘s a privacy issue, I guess. What does the person want you to know and what does the person not want you to know? But I feel like I‘m not answering the question exactly. I‘m a little perplexed by it. I am not sure that there is going to be any conclusive revelation that comes out of the fact that this man had pornography.

I was more curious about the life of Caden than the life of Charlie Kaufman. He is someone who is seeking brutal truth, brutal honesty, and who doesn‘t obscure his personal life. He puts every aspect of his personal life into his art and then has to cope with the repercussions in his private life. That was the train of thought. Well, I do believe in putting one‘s personal life in one‘s work, certainly, but [with me] it‘s not literal in the way that it is with Caden, who seems to have a problem separating literal truth from his interpretation of the world. He thinks that he‘s going to be truthful by absolutely recreating things, and I‘m not sure if that‘s a correct [approach]. But I live by this: I work what I have experienced in one form or another into my work because you don‘t have anything else to offer. I think about what I‘ve experienced, what I fantasize about, and all of that is where I feel like my stuff comes from. In that sense I have an obligation to not reveal anything about my private life because I feel that I am being enormously generous in my work. Caden and I aren‘t the same. He‘s got this idea that to reveal something honestly is some kind of penance. He‘s going to humiliate himself by being truthful in his work.

He treats his art like a hair shirt. Oh yeah, I think so.

Camus wrote in one of his notebooks, “Art is the distance that time gives to suffering.” Do you think that Caden is simply too close to his? I don‘t know if I agree with what Camus wrote because I like to do things that I‘m in the middle of. I‘ve always heard that you need distance to write something, that you need time to filter it, and I kind of think, “Well, why?” I like the chaos of being in the middle of something and then working through it. I think then it is more truthful because the filter of time gives you a lie — it gives you the story to tell about it as opposed to what‘s really happening.

In the press notes you talk about the house that Hazal lives in, which is always on fire, and you said that you don‘t feel it needs an explanation. Do you think audiences have a problem with things that are oblique or purposefully mysterious? I like to leave things open for interpretation because it allows people to have their own experience. Really, concrete meaning is dishonest: the world isn‘t a story, the world is interpreted by us, and if you put things [in a movie] that have kind of an emotion, they resonate and people can experience them. This guy who I work with had this amazing experience with the burning house. He told me it represented his life. He understood it in a very profound way. And his way of understanding it was his, you know? There are reasons why the burning house is in the movie, but it‘s hard for me to talk about things because when you talk about them you reduce them. I‘ll give you a simple example. Hazal, towards the end of the movie before she dies, says to Caden: “The end is built into the beginning,” which is true and it‘s also very, very specific to the house. For example, she made a choice about her death by moving into that house; she died because of that house. It took a long time but she planted the seeds. The Realtor even says to her, “You know it‘s an important decision how one wants to die.” At the very beginning of the movie Hazal decides this thing that is going to affect her 40 years later in her death. That‘s sort of like when the preacher says, “You make these choices and you may not know what‘s going to happen because of these choices for 20 years. You may never know, you may never be able to trace it back to their source.” [Catherine Keener‘s character] Adele is suffering at the very beginning of the movie from some kind of lung problem and she dies at the end of the movie from lung cancer. Those things are put there intentionally. But that‘s not what this guy reacted to about that burning house. He reacted to the idea that you make choices in your life and in some cases you know that they are the wrong choices but you just don‘t know how to get yourself out of them, so you make them your home. You live this thing that‘s obviously a hindrance, whether it‘s a relationship or whatever, and you work around it and find yourself there. That was sort of my understanding of what he reacted to. There are other things [about the burning house]: there‘s the silliness of putting yourself in that situation because the sellers are motivated. Also it‘s about Hazal making a decision because she feels that in her life she is not going to have someone to buy a house with. She has to settle for something that‘s not great because she‘s decided that this thing isn‘t going to happen with [Caden].

I was thinking about Synecdoche, New York versus a classical Hollywood film, with its proper hero entrances and hero exits. I don‘t even know what that means.

CADEN'S NEW YORK CITY. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Like in a John Ford movie where John Wayne gets out of a stagecoach in the beginning and the camera pushes into him, and then at the end he either walks into the sunset or is shot dead. In your film Adele is so present and then she is literally gone and we feel her absence throughout the rest of the film. It leaves such a longing. It‘s like a hangnail or a dangling thread. The movie shifts after she leaves; the style of the movie and the world that [Caden] inhabits changes. There were pushes by people to bring her back because Catherine is so good in the movie and her character is so strong that you do desperately want to see her again. Sometimes people who work for movies want to give the audience what they want regardless of the significance. I had final cut, and it wasn‘t like anyone could force me to do anything I didn‘t want to do, so the discussions weren‘t, “You need to do this” — they were more [like] pleas. I think that there was some lack of appreciation or understanding of the ending of the movie among some people. They didn‘t get it, they wanted to change it, and I think they sort of thought the way to change it was to bring Catherine back in the end for some sort of conclusion. I wrote something that they loved. We would have had to reshoot in order to do this new ending and the Sidney Kimmel Entertainment people were willing to give us the money, or allocate what we had left in the budget, and then I showed the movie to Phil Hoffman, who would have to be in [the reshoot]. He loved the ending of the movie so much, he was so affected by it, and he disagreed completely with the [new ending that I wrote]. He said, “I‘ll do it if you want to do it, but you shouldn‘t.” Phil in some sense, I think, is my closest collaborator on this. He‘s virtually in every scene of this movie and we had to talk about so much in terms of emotions, life, characters, aging, mortality and illness. I really respect him — he‘s a great actor and a very serious person. He gave me the confidence to say, “I‘m not going to do it,” and they were very unhappy. But this is a movie that I wrote and this is the movie that we made and this is the thing I wanted to say. I didn‘t want to say this other thing. Phil brought me back to the truth of that. They said, “Well, do it anyway and if you decide not to use it then you don‘t have to because it‘s your choice.” I thought, “No, if I do that then I‘m going to be forced into the movie the audience is going to respond [better] to.” I‘m going to get confused, you know? I‘m like, “No, this is the decision. We‘re going to spend our money, the rest of our budget, on things that I‘ve decided we need.” So, that‘s what we did. I feel like it‘s the right ending for this movie, regardless of what the critics or anybody says. It‘s the real ending for the movie.

I have some mild curiosity of what the other ending is. I don‘t think I should talk about it.

There‘s a moment in all your films when, as an audience member, you realize the person whom you‘re perceiving the story through is not reliable. With regards to Caden, I thought about John Cheever‘s story, The Swimmer. It‘s one of my favorite short stories, and it [deals with the] fallibility of our perception of time. Time is something that we approximate, that we think is an absolute thing and yet the story points out there is an emotional time that is completely different than the minutes and hours as we measure them. I think that‘s true, but I think it‘s also even true about actual time. When you get down to sort of thinking about what time is, you cannot. It cannot be defined. I don‘t know what time is. There‘s the question of whether time even exists or is a complete illusion. I‘ve been reading a lot about it lately, actually. I‘ve been looking at this theory of the blocked universe. Do you know this theory?

No. There‘s a different kind of theory about what time is in physics and in the universe. There‘s the one theory, the blocked universe theory, which is that there‘s no movement in time. The universe is a block and it exists, metaphorically, as a solid block with past, present and future coexisting. As a human animal, our perception is limited to seeing one moment at a time, which raises all sorts of questions about predestination and free will. But to get back to your [question], yes, there is definitely a difference between emotional time — or maybe there is only emotional time. One of the things that I do in the movie is have time move more quickly as the character gets older. I‘ve had that experience in my life. Summer vacation lasted for 30 years when I was 9. My years go by in days now, which is kind of terrifying once you realize what is at the end of that. There are two reasons for this. One is the aspect of [life] running away, and the other is how interchangeable our days are, the habitual existence that we live in. If you asked me to tell you the difference between breakfast yesterday and breakfast the day before and breakfast a month before, I wouldn‘t be able to do it. It all blurs together.

The concept of blocked time raising the issue of free will, to me, that‘s something that becomes central in the last third of the film. I‘m making an assumption that you are discussing free will when Caden is receiving orders in his ear. He seems to find some comfort or liberation from his neuroses when he doesn‘t have free will. When he doesn‘t have to make all these tiny decisions, when someone is simply giving him orders, he finds something approaching a sublime state. It‘s interesting because [those orders he hears in his ear is] the only voiceover in the movie and it‘s not his. There is no interior existence in the movie — it‘s all externalized. Caden‘s interior is an exterior in this movie. He sees this other person in his mind, and [that person‘s] childhood becomes his childhood. Their unhappy marriage is now his unhappy marriage. Before he gets this assignment to be Ellen, he says he‘s out of ideas. “I‘m dead,” is what he says. Then there‘s also this question of who exactly is this person who is giving him these directions? There‘s some oddness to this person who keeps insinuating herself more and more into his existence until she‘s basically controlling him. I don‘t know who she is, why she‘s doing this, what her motives are, or if her motives are the motives she‘s presenting. In some ways it seems somewhat sinister to me. The first time we see [Dianne Weist‘s character] Millicent is when she comes in to audition for the part of Ellen, and she‘s odd.

You talked about one person‘s unhappy marriage becoming another person‘s unhappy marriage. Caden is so obsessed with finding this brutal honesty and brutal truth and separating what really happened versus what he thought happened. Maybe childhood memories are actually something we saw on television or remembered from someone else‘s experience? Or coping mechanisms to deal with, maybe, an abusive father. Do you think at the end of a life it even matters what actually happened from what didn‘t actually happen? There‘s a sameness to our lives. There‘s a continuum we‘re all on: You are born, there are events, there are sadness-es, there are frustrations, there‘s happiness, there‘s illness, there‘s loss and there‘s death. I think understanding that there is that continuum is more important than reflecting on the specifics of your life. There is this correlation between Caden‘s life and Ellen‘s life, between his unhappiness and her unhappiness, between his loss of his daughter and her not ever having her daughter, between all those elements to the point where [Caden and Ellen] become the same person at the end of the movie. He apologizes to the actress who plays her mother for disappointing her and is in the process getting comfort and being told by this person who isn‘t his mother that she‘s so proud of him, and this gives him inspiration to move forward, and he gets a new idea for how he‘s going to do his play. It‘s actually his first new idea since Hazal dies, and it never gets realized.

Do you consider yourself a fearful person? Yes, often. But, like I said, I also have other elements to me. There are things that I‘m not fearful about, and there are times that I‘m not fearful about the things that I am fearful about. I get fearful about dying and I get fearful about illness. I get fearful about doing the wrong thing in the world and being with a lot of guilt.

(LEFT-RIGHT) PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, MICHELLE WILLIAMS AND TOM NOONAN IN SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Something in the movie that made me quite sad is its portrayal of how you relate to things that are just inevitabilities. For example, you deal with doppelgangers. Obviously, Caden is creating doppelgangers in the play, but the women in his life may also be doppelgangers — different iterations of the same relationship dynamic. The sadness for me is the idea that people in your life may very well be replaceable. Do you think we‘re always going to be haunted by past relationships? That‘s a fairly vague question, and it‘s hard for me to answer. You can approach it from another direction: You‘re always bringing yourself to your relationships. But it‘s tricky because at the same time I‘m really different with different people. I‘m not sure if consciously I‘ve ever tried to recreate a relationship in another relationship although earlier on, I tried to create things in real relationships that I saw in movies, and I was completely heartbroken that I couldn‘t.

Was there a specific movie? No, but I just remember when I was really young I went to pick up my girlfriend at the airport and I decided that I was going to grab her and spin her around. It was so not our relationship. I don‘t even think that I had any feelings like that for her, but I wanted the experience of feeling that kind of magnetism and chemistry. Spinning someone around looks so cool in movies but it was horrible. I was hoping that maybe this would elevate the relationship to another place but she didn‘t know what the fuck I was doing. I was probably mad at her for not knowing what the fuck I was doing, for not knowing that I was doing a silly movie convention that you could still have fun with.

I love the editing of the film. Sometimes it‘s jarring, and the rhythms of it are obviously unconventional, but once I got used to it I really loved it. Was the editing style discovered in post, or was it very faithful to the rhythms of the script? No, we played with that a lot. We tried to have a lot of scenes in the movie. We shot over 200 scenes, and I don‘t know how many we wound up with but it was way more than a normal movie of this length. I think we were trying throughout the editing process to figure out a rhythm where there was a dynamic, and then there are pieces that are borrowed from scenes or parts of scenes we didn‘t use. We used the scene with Hazal crying in a car as a reaction to the previous scene, but [it came from] a whole other part of that storyline that we cut out which involved finding a dog that was run over. But my major concern in editing was to play to the emotional reality of the characters in the scenes. I hired Rob Frazen who edits Nicole Holofcener‘s movies because I think that‘s one of the great strengths of Nicole‘s movies — the believability of the relationships of the characters. The rhythms were certainly discovered and all of them changed and were played with. Stuff moved around a lot during the editing process to find what we hoped was a dynamic way of moving the storyline.

Are you eager to direct again? Yeah, I want to. I don‘t know how to proceed right now because for a while I wasn‘t going to. There was enough hardship during this production that I sort of vowed that I wasn‘t going to do this again. But I want to now. I don‘t know how I could go back to giving [one of my scripts] to another director unless I have to. Although I‘ve worked with three directors and enjoyed working with two of them a lot, I feel like this is my stuff and I‘ve got a taste for doing it and controlling it and not having to answer to people. Plus I think that I learned an enormous amount. This was probably the most concentrated learning experience of my life and I want to try it again knowing the things that I learned and seeing what I can come up with next time.



THE PLAY'S THE THING
For Charlie Kaufman, the whole world fits into Synecdoche, New York.

BY JAMES PONSOLDT

(LEFT-RIGHT) SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK's CATHERINE KEENER, WRITER-DIRECTOR CHARLIE KAUFMAN AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN. PHOTO BY: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

...If we are interested with human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other onto leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create. We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of. It‘s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On the Road, or William T. Vollman‘s 3,300-page Rising Up and Rising Down, or Michael Apted‘s 7-Up, 28-Up, 42-Up series of films, or...well, the list goes on.” —Dave Eggers, in the foreword to the 10th-anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace‘s magnum opus Infinite Jest.

It speaks to Charlie Kaufman‘s influence as a screenwriter that his name functions as its own genre.

Like Robert Altman, Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino — other filmmakers whose last names are commonly used as adjectives — the term Kaufmanesque conjures narratives that reconfigure the way we perceive time, consequence and even reality. These stories (which include Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are hilarious and gut-wrenching, surprising yet fated, and traditional notions of structure — safely paced in three, neat acts — are obliterated. Charlie Kaufman‘s screenplays bring to mind bleak, absurdist and wacked-out playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, as well as authors like David Foster Wallace, William Gaddis and John Barth. These writers all share an obsession with love and pain and loss and blind hope and brutal truth and the way we tell and listen to stories.

And now Kaufman, the Richard Feynman of Hollywood screenwriters, has directed a film.

Synecdoche, New York is the story of the latter half of theater director Caden Cotard‘s life.

In the film, Caden (played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, at his most entropic) attempts to mount a theatrical production about...the latter half of his own life.

Caden is insistent that the play achieves a level of honesty that requires constant upkeep: With each new illness (real or imagined) or relationship (mostly real), a plot twist in his life evolves and another actor or set is needed to depict these developments. Soon, the midtown Manhattan warehouse where the behemoth play is being mounted becomes its own zip code — no, its own universe.

Caden may be the one man who is an island; he uniquely possesses the ability to cast a menagerie of actors to represent his life, while they in turn become his life. Decades pass, but still no opening night.

The cast of Synecdoche, New York is universally fantastic, from Caden‘s cadre of women — Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson — to the smaller players who inhabit more distant but still compelling orbits of influence (like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, and a heartbreaking, one-of-a-kind stalker, Tom Noonan). In this world, designed by the obsessive Caden, populated with his obsessions — a mix of family, friends, lovers, and their barely off-book doppelgangers — each person feels deserving of his or her own miniature epic.

Caden Cotard may be a solipsist, but Charlie Kaufman is a generous storyteller, curious about the life of every character he creates, and Synecdoche, New York is an important film for many reasons, the most obvious being... it is ambitious!

The film clocks in at just a hair over two hours, but it has the feel of an entire lifetime, crushed like a snowball, stuffed into a glass globe and shaken madly, the bits of life allowed to gently float and drift and settle.

When directors make films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, Inland Empire or Synecdoche, New York, they are demanding that the audience engage, reflect and be open to the idea of transformation. These are ambitious films. They are challenging. We need films like these.

Synecdoche, New York runs mental laps around most films, never predictable, refusing to slow down. Caden‘s observed life, rendered gorgeously with Mark Friedberg‘s burbs-to-apocalypse production design and Fred Elmes‘s lens, is a vision of a man‘s mind as a theater set as a universe, and it functions alternately as a declaration of purpose, a cry for help, and a dizzy, dreamy fugue.

But please, do not be intimidated: This film is humane, life-affirming and yes, funny, funny, laughing-and-crying funny.

A film of big ideas and enormous heart, Synecdoche, New York feels like it could have been Charlie Kaufman‘s 20th feature as a director, not his first. By the movie‘s ending, Caden is aged (perhaps sage), exhausted, stretched thin for ideas, and having loved and lost his share of strong women, they now strut through his memory like Guido‘s harem in 8½. Caden, the consummate director, his heart haunted and sated by every life he‘s known or tried to know, just desires some simple, straightforward direction.

Synecdoche, New York, the latest offering for the cult of Kaufman, and hopefully his first of many as a director, premiered at the 61st Cannes Film Festival and is a bold American film about a man trying to live and love better through his art, failing forward and upward, teetering on the brink, and the film‘s sad hopefulness brings to my mind the final lines from one of the most epic poems of another impossibly ambitious writer, T.S. Elliot, whose “Burnt Norton” from “Four Quartets” ends with the knowing, resigned, yet still-smiling verse: “Ridiculous the waste sad time/ Stretching before and after.”

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN AND CHARLIE KAUFMAN ON THE SET OF SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Someone sent me an article today from the London Times about Kafka and this huge pornography collection of his that has just been discovered. Supposedly it‘s pretty hardcore. Anyway, there are two factions: the purists, who want to maintain his image as a literary saint and who don‘t want this side of him known to the public, and then those who say that this should be known by everyone, because how else are we going to realize that these stories were written by a human? How much do you think the public should know about artists in order to appreciate their art? Do you think we should know about things like Kafka‘s pornography collection? It‘s a complicated question because I make it a point not to talk about my personal life — or my pornography collection. I guess my answer would be that it is not important but he‘s been dead a long time, so I don‘t think it matters. I guess I‘m trying to figure out what you are asking me, if this is about Kafka specifically...

No. I mean, for me it‘s a privacy issue, I guess. What does the person want you to know and what does the person not want you to know? But I feel like I‘m not answering the question exactly. I‘m a little perplexed by it. I am not sure that there is going to be any conclusive revelation that comes out of the fact that this man had pornography.

I was more curious about the life of Caden than the life of Charlie Kaufman. He is someone who is seeking brutal truth, brutal honesty, and who doesn‘t obscure his personal life. He puts every aspect of his personal life into his art and then has to cope with the repercussions in his private life. That was the train of thought. Well, I do believe in putting one‘s personal life in one‘s work, certainly, but [with me] it‘s not literal in the way that it is with Caden, who seems to have a problem separating literal truth from his interpretation of the world. He thinks that he‘s going to be truthful by absolutely recreating things, and I‘m not sure if that‘s a correct [approach]. But I live by this: I work what I have experienced in one form or another into my work because you don‘t have anything else to offer. I think about what I‘ve experienced, what I fantasize about, and all of that is where I feel like my stuff comes from. In that sense I have an obligation to not reveal anything about my private life because I feel that I am being enormously generous in my work. Caden and I aren‘t the same. He‘s got this idea that to reveal something honestly is some kind of penance. He‘s going to humiliate himself by being truthful in his work.

He treats his art like a hair shirt. Oh yeah, I think so.

Camus wrote in one of his notebooks, “Art is the distance that time gives to suffering.” Do you think that Caden is simply too close to his? I don‘t know if I agree with what Camus wrote because I like to do things that I‘m in the middle of. I‘ve always heard that you need distance to write something, that you need time to filter it, and I kind of think, “Well, why?” I like the chaos of being in the middle of something and then working through it. I think then it is more truthful because the filter of time gives you a lie — it gives you the story to tell about it as opposed to what‘s really happening.

In the press notes you talk about the house that Hazal lives in, which is always on fire, and you said that you don‘t feel it needs an explanation. Do you think audiences have a problem with things that are oblique or purposefully mysterious? I like to leave things open for interpretation because it allows people to have their own experience. Really, concrete meaning is dishonest: the world isn‘t a story, the world is interpreted by us, and if you put things [in a movie] that have kind of an emotion, they resonate and people can experience them. This guy who I work with had this amazing experience with the burning house. He told me it represented his life. He understood it in a very profound way. And his way of understanding it was his, you know? There are reasons why the burning house is in the movie, but it‘s hard for me to talk about things because when you talk about them you reduce them. I‘ll give you a simple example. Hazal, towards the end of the movie before she dies, says to Caden: “The end is built into the beginning,” which is true and it‘s also very, very specific to the house. For example, she made a choice about her death by moving into that house; she died because of that house. It took a long time but she planted the seeds. The Realtor even says to her, “You know it‘s an important decision how one wants to die.” At the very beginning of the movie Hazal decides this thing that is going to affect her 40 years later in her death. That‘s sort of like when the preacher says, “You make these choices and you may not know what‘s going to happen because of these choices for 20 years. You may never know, you may never be able to trace it back to their source.” [Catherine Keener‘s character] Adele is suffering at the very beginning of the movie from some kind of lung problem and she dies at the end of the movie from lung cancer. Those things are put there intentionally. But that‘s not what this guy reacted to about that burning house. He reacted to the idea that you make choices in your life and in some cases you know that they are the wrong choices but you just don‘t know how to get yourself out of them, so you make them your home. You live this thing that‘s obviously a hindrance, whether it‘s a relationship or whatever, and you work around it and find yourself there. That was sort of my understanding of what he reacted to. There are other things [about the burning house]: there‘s the silliness of putting yourself in that situation because the sellers are motivated. Also it‘s about Hazal making a decision because she feels that in her life she is not going to have someone to buy a house with. She has to settle for something that‘s not great because she‘s decided that this thing isn‘t going to happen with [Caden].

I was thinking about Synecdoche, New York versus a classical Hollywood film, with its proper hero entrances and hero exits. I don‘t even know what that means.

CADEN'S NEW YORK CITY. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Like in a John Ford movie where John Wayne gets out of a stagecoach in the beginning and the camera pushes into him, and then at the end he either walks into the sunset or is shot dead. In your film Adele is so present and then she is literally gone and we feel her absence throughout the rest of the film. It leaves such a longing. It‘s like a hangnail or a dangling thread. The movie shifts after she leaves; the style of the movie and the world that [Caden] inhabits changes. There were pushes by people to bring her back because Catherine is so good in the movie and her character is so strong that you do desperately want to see her again. Sometimes people who work for movies want to give the audience what they want regardless of the significance. I had final cut, and it wasn‘t like anyone could force me to do anything I didn‘t want to do, so the discussions weren‘t, “You need to do this” — they were more [like] pleas. I think that there was some lack of appreciation or understanding of the ending of the movie among some people. They didn‘t get it, they wanted to change it, and I think they sort of thought the way to change it was to bring Catherine back in the end for some sort of conclusion. I wrote something that they loved. We would have had to reshoot in order to do this new ending and the Sidney Kimmel Entertainment people were willing to give us the money, or allocate what we had left in the budget, and then I showed the movie to Phil Hoffman, who would have to be in [the reshoot]. He loved the ending of the movie so much, he was so affected by it, and he disagreed completely with the [new ending that I wrote]. He said, “I‘ll do it if you want to do it, but you shouldn‘t.” Phil in some sense, I think, is my closest collaborator on this. He‘s virtually in every scene of this movie and we had to talk about so much in terms of emotions, life, characters, aging, mortality and illness. I really respect him — he‘s a great actor and a very serious person. He gave me the confidence to say, “I‘m not going to do it,” and they were very unhappy. But this is a movie that I wrote and this is the movie that we made and this is the thing I wanted to say. I didn‘t want to say this other thing. Phil brought me back to the truth of that. They said, “Well, do it anyway and if you decide not to use it then you don‘t have to because it‘s your choice.” I thought, “No, if I do that then I‘m going to be forced into the movie the audience is going to respond [better] to.” I‘m going to get confused, you know? I‘m like, “No, this is the decision. We‘re going to spend our money, the rest of our budget, on things that I‘ve decided we need.” So, that‘s what we did. I feel like it‘s the right ending for this movie, regardless of what the critics or anybody says. It‘s the real ending for the movie.

I have some mild curiosity of what the other ending is. I don‘t think I should talk about it.

There‘s a moment in all your films when, as an audience member, you realize the person whom you‘re perceiving the story through is not reliable. With regards to Caden, I thought about John Cheever‘s story, The Swimmer. It‘s one of my favorite short stories, and it [deals with the] fallibility of our perception of time. Time is something that we approximate, that we think is an absolute thing and yet the story points out there is an emotional time that is completely different than the minutes and hours as we measure them. I think that‘s true, but I think it‘s also even true about actual time. When you get down to sort of thinking about what time is, you cannot. It cannot be defined. I don‘t know what time is. There‘s the question of whether time even exists or is a complete illusion. I‘ve been reading a lot about it lately, actually. I‘ve been looking at this theory of the blocked universe. Do you know this theory?

No. There‘s a different kind of theory about what time is in physics and in the universe. There‘s the one theory, the blocked universe theory, which is that there‘s no movement in time. The universe is a block and it exists, metaphorically, as a solid block with past, present and future coexisting. As a human animal, our perception is limited to seeing one moment at a time, which raises all sorts of questions about predestination and free will. But to get back to your [question], yes, there is definitely a difference between emotional time — or maybe there is only emotional time. One of the things that I do in the movie is have time move more quickly as the character gets older. I‘ve had that experience in my life. Summer vacation lasted for 30 years when I was 9. My years go by in days now, which is kind of terrifying once you realize what is at the end of that. There are two reasons for this. One is the aspect of [life] running away, and the other is how interchangeable our days are, the habitual existence that we live in. If you asked me to tell you the difference between breakfast yesterday and breakfast the day before and breakfast a month before, I wouldn‘t be able to do it. It all blurs together.

The concept of blocked time raising the issue of free will, to me, that‘s something that becomes central in the last third of the film. I‘m making an assumption that you are discussing free will when Caden is receiving orders in his ear. He seems to find some comfort or liberation from his neuroses when he doesn‘t have free will. When he doesn‘t have to make all these tiny decisions, when someone is simply giving him orders, he finds something approaching a sublime state. It‘s interesting because [those orders he hears in his ear is] the only voiceover in the movie and it‘s not his. There is no interior existence in the movie — it‘s all externalized. Caden‘s interior is an exterior in this movie. He sees this other person in his mind, and [that person‘s] childhood becomes his childhood. Their unhappy marriage is now his unhappy marriage. Before he gets this assignment to be Ellen, he says he‘s out of ideas. “I‘m dead,” is what he says. Then there‘s also this question of who exactly is this person who is giving him these directions? There‘s some oddness to this person who keeps insinuating herself more and more into his existence until she‘s basically controlling him. I don‘t know who she is, why she‘s doing this, what her motives are, or if her motives are the motives she‘s presenting. In some ways it seems somewhat sinister to me. The first time we see [Dianne Weist‘s character] Millicent is when she comes in to audition for the part of Ellen, and she‘s odd.

You talked about one person‘s unhappy marriage becoming another person‘s unhappy marriage. Caden is so obsessed with finding this brutal honesty and brutal truth and separating what really happened versus what he thought happened. Maybe childhood memories are actually something we saw on television or remembered from someone else‘s experience? Or coping mechanisms to deal with, maybe, an abusive father. Do you think at the end of a life it even matters what actually happened from what didn‘t actually happen? There‘s a sameness to our lives. There‘s a continuum we‘re all on: You are born, there are events, there are sadness-es, there are frustrations, there‘s happiness, there‘s illness, there‘s loss and there‘s death. I think understanding that there is that continuum is more important than reflecting on the specifics of your life. There is this correlation between Caden‘s life and Ellen‘s life, between his unhappiness and her unhappiness, between his loss of his daughter and her not ever having her daughter, between all those elements to the point where [Caden and Ellen] become the same person at the end of the movie. He apologizes to the actress who plays her mother for disappointing her and is in the process getting comfort and being told by this person who isn‘t his mother that she‘s so proud of him, and this gives him inspiration to move forward, and he gets a new idea for how he‘s going to do his play. It‘s actually his first new idea since Hazal dies, and it never gets realized.

Do you consider yourself a fearful person? Yes, often. But, like I said, I also have other elements to me. There are things that I‘m not fearful about, and there are times that I‘m not fearful about the things that I am fearful about. I get fearful about dying and I get fearful about illness. I get fearful about doing the wrong thing in the world and being with a lot of guilt.

(LEFT-RIGHT) PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, MICHELLE WILLIAMS AND TOM NOONAN IN SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSLER

Something in the movie that made me quite sad is its portrayal of how you relate to things that are just inevitabilities. For example, you deal with doppelgangers. Obviously, Caden is creating doppelgangers in the play, but the women in his life may also be doppelgangers — different iterations of the same relationship dynamic. The sadness for me is the idea that people in your life may very well be replaceable. Do you think we‘re always going to be haunted by past relationships? That‘s a fairly vague question, and it‘s hard for me to answer. You can approach it from another direction: You‘re always bringing yourself to your relationships. But it‘s tricky because at the same time I‘m really different with different people. I‘m not sure if consciously I‘ve ever tried to recreate a relationship in another relationship although earlier on, I tried to create things in real relationships that I saw in movies, and I was completely heartbroken that I couldn‘t.

Was there a specific movie? No, but I just remember when I was really young I went to pick up my girlfriend at the airport and I decided that I was going to grab her and spin her around. It was so not our relationship. I don‘t even think that I had any feelings like that for her, but I wanted the experience of feeling that kind of magnetism and chemistry. Spinning someone around looks so cool in movies but it was horrible. I was hoping that maybe this would elevate the relationship to another place but she didn‘t know what the fuck I was doing. I was probably mad at her for not knowing what the fuck I was doing, for not knowing that I was doing a silly movie convention that you could still have fun with.

I love the editing of the film. Sometimes it‘s jarring, and the rhythms of it are obviously unconventional, but once I got used to it I really loved it. Was the editing style discovered in post, or was it very faithful to the rhythms of the script? No, we played with that a lot. We tried to have a lot of scenes in the movie. We shot over 200 scenes, and I don‘t know how many we wound up with but it was way more than a normal movie of this length. I think we were trying throughout the editing process to figure out a rhythm where there was a dynamic, and then there are pieces that are borrowed from scenes or parts of scenes we didn‘t use. We used the scene with Hazal crying in a car as a reaction to the previous scene, but [it came from] a whole other part of that storyline that we cut out which involved finding a dog that was run over. But my major concern in editing was to play to the emotional reality of the characters in the scenes. I hired Rob Frazen who edits Nicole Holofcener‘s movies because I think that‘s one of the great strengths of Nicole‘s movies — the believability of the relationships of the characters. The rhythms were certainly discovered and all of them changed and were played with. Stuff moved around a lot during the editing process to find what we hoped was a dynamic way of moving the storyline.

Are you eager to direct again? Yeah, I want to. I don‘t know how to proceed right now because for a while I wasn‘t going to. There was enough hardship during this production that I sort of vowed that I wasn‘t going to do this again. But I want to now. I don‘t know how I could go back to giving [one of my scripts] to another director unless I have to. Although I‘ve worked with three directors and enjoyed working with two of them a lot, I feel like this is my stuff and I‘ve got a taste for doing it and controlling it and not having to answer to people. Plus I think that I learned an enormous amount. This was probably the most concentrated learning experience of my life and I want to try it again knowing the things that I learned and seeing what I can come up with next time.



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