Commentary: Oscar pedigree should help 'Synecdoche'

Charlie Kaufman, Philip Seymour Hoffman could see noms

"Synechdoche" story: In handicapping a film's awards potential it always makes sense to pay attention to the Oscar pedigree its filmmakers and stars bring to the table.

While past success is not necessarily a guarantee of future achievements, it's still a valuable barometer of how Oscar voters regard directors, writers, actors and actresses. When people whose work has previously resonated with Academy members turn up in new projects it's typically very helpful that voters feel they should make time to see their films. Since people rarely vote for films they haven't seen, this is an important advantage in a highly competitive game.

A case in point is the drama "Synecdoche, New York" from Sony Pictures Classics and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which marks the feature directorial debut for Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote its original screenplay. Produced by Anthony Bregman, Spike Jonze, Kaufman and Kimmel, it was executive produced by William Horberg, Bruce Toll and Ray Angelic. Starring are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Tom Noonan. "Synecdoche," which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, opens Oct. 24 in New York and Los Angeles.

Kaufman's one of Hollywood's best regarded screenwriters and there's understandably a lot of interest in his maiden effort as a writer-director. In 2005 he won the best original screenplay Oscar for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." He was previously nominated for co-writing the adapted screenplay for "Adaptation" and for writing the original screenplay "Being John Malkovich." He also was a Golden Globe nominee for best screenplay for those three films. "Synecdoche" could bring Kaufman new nods for original screenplay.

Besides Kaufman's wins and noms, most of the principal actors in "Synecdoche" have achieved their own Oscar recognition over the years. Hoffman won the best actor Oscar for "Capote" and could easily be back in this year's best actor races. Morton was a best actress Oscar nominee for "In America" and received a supporting actress nod for "Sweet and Lowdown." Williams was a supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Brokeback Mountain." Keener was a supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Capote" and "Being John Malkovich." Watson was a best actress Oscar nominee for "Hilary and Jackie" and "Breaking the Waves." Wiest won supporting actress Oscars for "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Hannah and Her Sisters."

"Synecdoche" is a film with so many layers of reality interwoven over the course of two hours that one viewing really isn't enough to totally digest what Kaufman has in mind here. It's the story of Caden Cotard (Hoffman), a mortality obsessed stage director who escapes from directing local theater productions in Schenectady, New York after winning a major financial grant that now enables him to indulge his inner creative self. Caden winds up putting together an extensive ensemble group to rehearse in a vast warehouse in New York City that supposedly is so large it contains a replica of the city. He spends the next 17 years working on getting his masterpiece "real life" production just right before actually bringing in an audience to see it.

Having enjoyed my first look at "Synecdoche" enough to want to find another two hours to devote to seeing it again, I was happy to be able to focus on it with Kaufman when he called from Boston last Sunday morning. "Originally I had written it because Spike Jonze and I had been approached by (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal," he explained. "She wanted us to do a horror movie and so eventually Spike and I started talking about ideas. We wanted to do something that felt like it was really scary as opposed to horror movie scary. So we had a vague sort of pitch that we went in to her with about a movie with issues of mortality and illness and loneliness and time passing and regret and isolation and those sort of things."

Pascal hired him to write it, Kaufman said, "and by the time I finished it Spike had started on 'Where the Wild Things Are' and felt like he wanted to do that movie first or needed to. So I knew it would be a long time before he could get to this one and I asked if he would mind if I directed it. It was a matter of circumstance as much as anything else. I hadn't intended to direct this movie, but I've wanted to direct for a while and I felt like I understood the script probably better than anyone else would. So I just kind of seized the opportunity."

Would he have written this multi-layered screenplay any differently had he known then that he'd be directing it? "I don't think so. I don't know why I would have," he replied. "I write the way I write. I think now, having directed, my big concern is not to write differently because I've had this experience and if I want to direct again I have a certain amount of information about what's entailed in directing. But I don't want to think that way when I'm writing because I think that that's kind of a pragmatic way to think and I want to be able to give my imagination as much freedom as I can."

The question came to mind because I've heard many writers turned directors swear they'll never again write a scene that takes place on a rainy night after having had to suffer through shooting under those horrible conditions. "There's a lot of things like that that came up that were difficult to shoot or difficult to light and were things that surprised me," he acknowledged.

"Like, for example, hallways are difficult to light. We have a very, very long hallway in this movie and that surprised me. I mean, I see hallways all the time in movies and can't imagine they're that difficult to (shoot), but apparently they are. Obviously, you need a certain type of hallway because if you don't have certain things you can't hide the lights."

The project got going pretty quickly, he told me, but was put in turnaround by Sony: "Sidney Kimmel Entertainment picked it up to finance it. And then it was a matter of getting a cast together and waiting for some cast (members) that we needed or wanted. And then we did it. The whole thing from beginning to end was probably about five years and that includes the writing."

The role of Caden is so perfect for Hoffman that it had me wondering if Kaufman had him in mind while writing. "No. I make it a point not to think about what things are going to cost and, also, actors," he pointed out. "I don't really want to think about actors when I'm writing characters because then I'm going to start thinking about the actor and I'm not going to be writing a character with characteristics that exists independently of the actor. And so I don't -- which is another thing that's going to be more difficult to do now that I'm going to be considering directing things that I write because you do have to eventually have to figure that out and if you don't have anyone in mind it could be a little scary."

So how did he wind up casting Hoffman? "Well, once it was done and I was directing it it just seemed pretty easy to me and he was the person I thought of," Kaufman replied. "It seemed like he would be perfect for it so I approached him. We met and we talked about the story and then he read the script and agreed to do it. It was a pretty straight forward (deal). He signed on right away.

"We had met each other and spent a little bit of time together because we'd done an evening of plays together the previous year. So I knew him a little bit, but I didn't know him very well at the time. We met and we talked a lot. I think we liked each other and I think we felt kind of a kinship in terms of our take on things, the way we looked at things. We talked a lot about the issues that are in the movie."

Shooting took place over a tight 45 day schedule. "We shot almost entirely in the boroughs of New York," he said. "The warehouse that we shot in was an armory in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. That was where we built the largest part of the set."

While wearing his director's hat, how did Kaufman treat the script he'd written while wearing his writer's hat? "It's hard to be at odds with yourself," he observed. "So I shot what I wrote for the most part. We had to make certain adjustments in certain scenes. We had a very, very tight schedule. We were shooting over 200 scenes in those 45 days. But the movie is shot as the production script was (written). I was pretty familiar with the script at that point and we did a lot of rehearsal -- as much as we could -- and I knew what it was going to look like. There was the occasional discussion on the set about something that was being said, which I think always comes up, mostly on scenes where we hadn't rehearsed."

Looking back at production, Kaufman recalled, "The greatest challenge, I think, was the global challenge of trying to do over 200 scenes in 45 days. Every challenge related to that and they were all pragmatic ones. What can we afford? How can we afford it? And how do we do this in this amount of time? Within that larger issue, the smaller issues were exhaustion and extreme heat. We shot in the middle of the summer in this (warehouse) building and it was very, very uncomfortable, especially if you were three stories up on the structure."

Compounding the discomfort from the heat, he added, was the fact that "some of the actors wore very, very heavy prosthetic makeup, which was miserable for them. The hours were very, very long in order to get through these days. Phil Hoffman was in virtually every scene in the movie so it was a big, big exhausting stretch for him. It's a very emotional part and required a lot. If we had twice as many days to shoot it in and twice as much money, it would have been an easier (shoot). But as it is we got it done and that in itself I feel pretty proud of."

As for the future, Kaufman definitely wants to direct again. "I'm trying to write something new," he explained. "I've been taken up by this for the last several years and have nothing else in the bank, as it were. By that I mean the bank of scripts, not 'the bank' -- although that may be true, too! So I'm trying to write something else so I can have something else in the bank -- both as a script and in 'the bank.'"

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