Dream weaver: Q & A with Charlie Kaufman

How Charlie Kaufman drew on the subconscious to create "Synecdoche"

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 (Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest). Kaufman recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about dreams, death and directing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ("Eternal" director) Michel (Gondry) 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.

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.

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. (partialdiff)