Cannes Q&A: Charlie Kaufman


Few filmmakers have earned the label "auteur" more quickly than Charlie Kaufman, and even fewer have gained it without having helmed a feature. So all eyes are on his directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York," the story of a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who uses a grant to create the ultimate play: a city within a city within a warehouse. The production extends decades as Hoffman's director deals with a crippling disease and the many women in his life, played by Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest. Kaufman talked to THR's Gregg Goldstein about dreams, death and directing.

The Hollywood Reporter: I heard the script started out as you wanting to write a horror film for Spike Jonze, but then you began discussing some of the dreams you'd been having ...
Kaufman: Um... I don't really write for other people, so I kind of take a little bit of issue with that. Spike and I were approached by Amy Pascal at Sony, who was interested in seeing what a horror movie from us would be like. We had a vague notion of what it would be that we proposed, and she commissioned it. I've never been interested in writing a genre horror movie. I think the impetus was to think about things that were scary to me -- which may always be the impetus for me, I don't know -- not what's marketably scary. Then I just spent a few years writing it and it kind of evolved into what it became. In a general way, it's about the experience of going through life, and heading toward the end of it. The movie follows this character for 40 years, and it's about people's losses and death and fear of death and intimacy and relationships. Romance and regret and struggle and ego and jealousy and confusion and loneliness and sex and loss -- all those things are in the movie. I wanted it to be an all-inclusive experience of a person's life. It's this guy's world.

THR: It has many surreal elements to it. Were there dreams you were having that inspired you?
Kaufman: I'm interested in the structure and logic of dreams as a type of storytelling -- dream logic and images in a non-dream story. It wasn't about my dreams -- it was about the visceral, emotional feeling one gets in them, the idea you can have things happen that are irrational and they just seem perfectly natural. That's a hard thing to translate into a story outside a dream. I was interested in not explaining things, having them just be poetic. There's a character in the movie that buys a house she loves that's on fire, and it's cheaper because the sellers are highly motivated. So she lives in it and it continues to burn for 40 years ... The idea that you wouldn't try to figure a way to put that fire out, you'd just live with it like a maintenance problem, keep it at bay, but its always there ...

THR: Since it's about an artist attempting the most massive undertaking of his life, when in the process did you know you were going to be directing it -- before, during or after you wrote it?
Kaufman: It was after. By the time I finished it, Spike was already immersed in ("Where the Wild Things Are"), so I asked him if it would be OK if I directed it. I knew that it would be OK with the world, but I wanted to get his blessing and he gave it to me.

THR: It almost seems like writing this script and this character was preparation for directing it.
Kaufman: I didn't think of that. It was something I've wanted to do for a long time and the opportunity presented itself. The material is very personal, so in a lot of ways I am the ideal person to do it. All my stuff is that way. I directed a couple plays the previous year and that gave me confidence. I did some movies at NYU film school, but I was making them since I was a little kid so I have a feeling for it. My main interest as a kid was acting. I have the passion for that, and therefore the relationship with actors. That's maybe the most important thing to directing. It felt like, OK, this will work or it won't work. In the initial script there were 204 scenes, about twice as many as a normal movie, and a 45-day shoot and a limited ($20 million-plus) budget. Phil had four different versions of age makeup that took 4 1/2 hours to put on, and five or six variations of wigs. I don't think I could've gone into this with any confidence if I hadn't spent time on a film set.

THR: Why start directing with this script? It seems you could've jumped in with any of your scripts.
Kaufman: I don't think that's true. No one could get "Malkovich" made until Spike came along. I wrote "Adaptation" for the possibility of Jonathan Demme to direct, and when he decided after I'd written it that he didn't want to, Spike came in. At that point it didn't even occur to me to ask for the job -- I didn't feel qualified at the time. I wrote "Eternal Sunshine" for Michel (Gondry) in the nature of something he asked to direct, another script that had gone through a couple of different people along the way who didn't work out. "Confessions" started with P.J. Hogan, who I was working with for a very long time and went through a bunch of directors. But I've been feeling for a while now this is something that I wanted to do.

THR: In "Eternal Sunshine," viewers get caught up in the plot twists and effects and then at the end it has this emotional impact that just hits you. Is "Synecdoche" similar?
Kaufman: I've been told by people who've seen it that it has a similar effect, and that even days or weeks after, things stay with them. I think I can speak for Michel in this as well. You try to tell a true story honestly and then people react to it. I think if you spend any time trying to think about how this is going to affect people or how you can get this to creep up on them ... I don't think Michel and I ever had a conversation in that vein. How do you make this feel honest was the conversation I had a lot.

THR: An extended trailer shown to buyers in Berlin before the effects were added made "Synecdoche" seem like a serious drama.
Kaufman: I dunno. I feel it's got an emotional core and there's funny stuff in it, like the house burning, but it all comes out of characters or situations in a way that feels justified to me. We had limited footage to chose from, but that said, I felt the trailer expressed the truth of the movie.

THR: In the end, what was the experience of directing like for you?
Kaufman: It was hard, but satisfying. Early on I had a hard time even meeting the actors (laughs) when we were doing the other films, I was so nervous. But when you're directing it's very clear: You have to. I can't hide in the back of the room when I'm directing something. The necessity of it makes it doable. I think there's a lot to be said for having to do something.

THR: You obviously have this whole reputation as Mr. Recluse, this Garbo-esque thing, and have avoided the spotlight. Was putting yourself out there in such a prominent way inhibiting?
Kaufman: The first thing people will say to me in interviews is that you don't do interviews and I'll say "Well, I'm sitting here talking to you!" I don't particularly like to be photographed and I don't like to talk about my personal life -- that doesn't make me a recluse. My feeling is that my work speaks about my life in ways that are very generous. I want to protect the privacy of people I know and of myself and I'm not interested in that kind of celebrity. I find it unappealing and scary, but I'm not a recluse. I live a regular mundane life in Los Angeles. Don't know what else to say except I'm not here cowering in a corner. I don't have a veil over my head. I don't say "I vant to be alone."

Nationality: American
Born: Sept. 20, 1958
Festival Entry: "Synecdoche, New York," In Competition
Selected Filmography: Screenwriter, "Being John Malkovich" (1999); "Human Nature" (2001); "Adaptation" (2002); "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002); "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004).
Notable Awards: Original screenplay Oscar, orginal screenplay WGA Award for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2005); adapted screenplay BAFTA for "Adaptation" (2002); Saturn Award, original screenplay BAFTA for "Being John Malkovich" (2000).