Walking out my interview with Charlie Kaufman I had that scene from Annie Hall playing in my head, where Marshall McLuhan appears to tell the obnoxious guy in line ‘You know nothing of my work!’ Listening to the interview while transcribing I softened a bit on that neurotic point of view. Kaufman definitely disagrees with my interpretation of the ending of his brilliant new film, Synecdoche, New York, but I think his disagreement (which is pretty gentle, really) creates an interesting exchange that gives real insight into what it is that he’s trying to do in his movies.
Synecdoche is Kaufman’s directorial debut, and it’s remarkable. It’s not a movie for everybody, but those willing to dig in and do some work, to engage the film, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. As was this interview for me; I’ve been a fan of Kaufman for years now, and getting a chance to sit with him, even just for twenty minutes, was a thrill. And while he may not agree with my take on the end of his film, I think this interview ends up being really fascinating and revealing.
Synecdoche, New York opens in limited release this weekend. Be aware that this interview includes some mild, vague spoilers about the end of the film.
It was a little bit intimidating walking out of the movie knowing I was going to talk to you because there was so much in it that I feel unprepared only having seen the movie once.
It’s designed to be that. It’s designed to be something that, if people are interested, they can see more than once and see something different the second time. And I certainly won’t hodl you to that. [laughs] I’ll be very nice.
In the beginning of the film there’s so much that’s obsessed with communication and miscommunication and the lack of communication, and yet you’ve also made a pretty difficult film. You’re obsessed with the lack of communication and yet you’ve made a movie that won’t always be communicating on the easiest level. At any point were you worried that people would walk out of the film confused and not getting it, since I’m assuming this fear of miscommunication, misunderstanding, comes from you personally.
The truth is that I don’t think about what people are going to think of a movie when I’m working on it, when I’m writing it. The only thing I can do with any accuracy is worry about what I think of it, which is deciding if something is interesting to me. That goes through the entire process of making it and cutting it. Occasionally in the editing process there are issues of clarity that come up when you show it to audiences, and that’s helpful. But my goal while writing and throughout the process is not to obfuscate… I don’t see it as confusing, and if something is confusing to me I see it as something that’s interesting and helpful in the experience, and not something that’s going to alienate people in the experience because they’re not in my head. People are not in my head at the moment.
What are you more interested in communicating: ideas or feelings?
I’m always more interested in communicating on a visceral level, which is feelings. Although I think you can use, and I do use ideas to assist in that and to be the root of the visceral feeling. I think a lot of times we swim in ideas and they’re confusing and we’re trying to find meaning and we’re trying to organize the world in our heads. There’s a visceral frustration and anxiety that comes from that. The two are not mutually exclusive in my mind. But my goal is that there’s an emotional experience when watching the movie, that there’s a reaction. It’s like putting something out in the world and hoping that, but not working towards, people interacting with it.
Does that make sense? I’m trying to use myself as the audience. I feel like that’s the honest way to do it as opposed to demographics, or figuring out what people want, because there’s a lot of that going on in the film business and I’m not interested in it.
As an artist working in film, this is the first time we’ve seen you without being filtered through someone else’s vision. For you is it more liberating to not have the director between your script and the final work, or do you miss that back and forth?
It’s both, I guess. I love having conversations with anybody who’ll talk to me, and the director is usually the person most intimately involved with the bigger picture in the way that I am. But it’s liberating to not have to defer to someone else’s vision and to be able to be as specific as I want in my world view. I used to write with a partner a long time ago, and as nice as that was and as fun as that was – there’s a lot of fun in working with other people, and a lot of value – but ultimately you can only get so personal when you’re doing that. You say something and the other person goes, ‘I don’t know, that doesn’t interest me.’ So you can’t do it! You go in another direction. I found that limiting in writing, and I found it frustrating in collaborating with directors. As much as I liked the directors I worked with, and as much as I valued the collaboration with them, and as much as it may have made the movies better, I don’t care.
The interesting thing with film is that, even with a very strong vision, you’re still collaborating throughout the entire process, every step of the way.
You’re going very personal this time, but when you’re working with Phillip Seymour Hoffman you can’t just tell him to go do something, he has to be on the same page with you -
And no, I wouldn’t tell him to do something, and I wouldn’t want to. Collaboration is a great thing, and it has been a great thing with Spike and with Michel, both. It has enormous value. The thing that you do when you collaborate is that you try to be open to all the different voices, and I absolutely do that when that’s the situation I’m in. I’d be foolish not to want to collaborate with Phil or Catherine or any of the people that worked on this movie when they have so much creativity and so much skill and there’s so much for me to learn from them. So collaboration is a great thing, and it’s one of the great things about filmmaking. But here I was looking forward to the idea that this was my thing to fuck up. That I would be able to make eccentric choices or that I would be able to go out on a limb with in ways that I hadn’t been able to do before.
Walking out of the theater I felt that this could be your grimmest ending to anything you’ve done so far. And maybe it’s because of my own personal nueroses I’ve brought in with me, and the way the film’s neurotic elements resonated with me, but at the end, when he’s never really lived his life because of the way he has become consumed by the work, it’s so sad and so grim. Is that coming from a grim place in you, or do you not agree that it has a grim ending?
Before I answer I want to say that you say ‘Maybe I’m bringing my own neuroses into this,’ and I think that is the other element that is the collaboration in this movie or anything that I think is a real work of art, and that’s the collaboration between the person who starts the conversation, which in this case is me, and the person who interacts with it. It’s always been my goal to have that collaboration at the end of this process. You can’t be wrong. It’s designed so that you can have your conversation with it. So the fact that you think it’s grim at the end is not something that I feel I want to argue with. I think that there are things that happen at the end of the movie that might be seen as other than grim, if that’s how you saw it. I think that there’s a moment of kindness at the end, which is not a grim thing, and it’s a very small thing in the world, but it’s maybe an important thing. And I also think that if I see something expressed… something that’s sad in a work of art is not necessarily grim to me if I relate to it. Because that’s when I connect with it. I say, ‘Oh my god, there’s somebody else in the world that I’m related to, the people who made this movie.’ I find that all the time when I read books, and it’s irrelevant – you can read the happiest book in the world and it can make you so depressed if it makes you feel isolated. This is the community we’re in; we’re in a community of people who die. Who go through their lives, who try different things, who try to connect to people, who struggle and fail and die. And that’s just the truth. We all know it, and that’s sort of the definition of being a human being. On a certain level I guess you could say that’s grim, but it’s also the truth. If you come out of the movie understanding that somebody else feels that way, it’s not a happy sort of bullshit that makes you lonely.
I don’t know. That’s kind of a convoluted answer, maybe. It wasn’t my goal to be grim and say it’s all meaningless. I think there’s a grimness in our existence, obviously, but there’s a lot of other colors in our existence.
You talk about the conversation between the filmmaker and the audience and listening to you talk right now the more and more I realize that the elements at the end echo my own existential terrors of what’s going to happen as I get older. That reaches back to the fact that I read that this had begun as a horror film, and to me that ending approaches existential horror movie territory. These are the things I’m afraid of.
Those are the elements I started working with, the things I was afraid. But exploring the things you’re afraid of doesn’t make it a horror. I really want to reiterate the fact that you see it as a horror or grim is not something I’m taking issue with at all. I really applaud you having a reaction to it. Any reaction you have is really great to me. And there’s all of that in there – there’s struggle and sadness and loneliness and fear in the movie. There’s no denying it. But when I was writing it, it was important to not pile that stuff on in a way intended to make people scared, which would be just as dishonest as pretending there aren’t these things in the world.
Again, I’m not saying that this was a negative experience -
I know you’re not, and I’m not saying you are! In no way am I saying there’s anything invalid in your experience, but what I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to leave things open about the confusion I feel about the experience, because maybe that gives people something to think about. It’s fun for me to go to a movie and think about it afterwards and talk to my friends about it afterwards. I think that’s maybe the best part of a movie is that, afterwards.
This is a movie that demands you block out two hours after the movie to go out with your friends and talk about it. You can’t just go right home and call it a night. It has to be digested.
I hope people have that experience. That would make me feel good. That they wanted to talk about it would be a great thing.
You talk about the idea that talking about these things mitigates the sense of loneliness, in that it shows people that someone else is feeling these things.
I think it can work that way, in that it’s something you can offer as a writer or an artist is to offer your truth. But without thinking about the people, because when you think about them you play towards them. Offer yourself in a generous, vulnerable way, and then you’re giving people something. You’re giving people something that’s not a product, that’s not cynical, tha’s not marketed and tested. You’re saying ‘Here, I’m trying to express myself.’ That, to me, is art. And I value it when I see it.
And I don’t respond to everything out there, which doesn’t mean everything out there isn’t art. There are different people, and there are different things you respond to. But when I go to a museum and see a painting that was painted 200 years ago, or read a passage from a book that was written 200 years ago where the person is describing my life in the future, that’s like holy shit! It’s so gorgeous. That makes me feel a chill. I want to try that. I want to try to do that. Maybe it’s a skill and it’s a talent and it’s a commitment, maybe it doesn’t come together this time, maybe it comes together next time, maybe it doesn’t ever come together for certain people, but it’s something I want to try.
Again, the communication thing is the breaching of loneliness. That’s a theme that comes up again and again in your work, lonely people trying to breach that loneliness. Do you feel like that’s an essential part of our humanity, that we’re these lonely, disconnected beings?
I think we do a lot of things in this culture that alienate each other. I think this society is built on alienation and cynicism and confrontation and all this stuff that hurts people. It closes them. It doesn’t allow them to be open to experience. I think it’s a very hard thing growing up; you grow up and what starts happening is that you close down piece by piece because you’re constantly being hurt. You don’t have the equipment or experience when you’re a child to understand what’s happening, but you know that felt bad or that person made you feel stupid and they’re calling me a fag. Whatever it is that happens to you that makes you feel tight and scared and lonely. I think that it’s sort of an important thing to try to get through that as a person and then to be available to other people in a way that counters it.
As you get more and successful, as you become celebrated and accepted and you’re not the outsider anymore… is it a weird position to be, where Charlie Kaufman has almost become a brand, and where people hear a new movie from you is coming and have these expectations and get excited -
People get excited but they also get pissy. I hear a lot of stuff that isn’t excited. ‘Charlie Kaufman bullshit, the same old shit.’ Whatever the criticism is, I think that comes with people saying the other thing. But is it difficult for me to… work?
You’re talking about a society that’s built on alienation and confrontation. Is it harder to break through that alienation because of your position? Are you in a more alienated position?
Alienated from other people?
From other people, from the audience, in general.
I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as struggling to figure out how to keep working and exploring ideas. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity, and I shake off things like that I’m a brand or anything, because that’s detrimental to any work process. I don’t say ‘What can I do now that will remind people of the brand?’
Or ‘How will I break out of the brand?’
No, although you do read this stuff and go, ‘Fuck, they’re saying I’m doing the same thing!’ Someone wrote, ‘Why doesn’t he do a Western?’ Out of nowhere! Well, why don’t you do a Western? But then I hear that and think, ‘Wait, should I do a Western?’ But I’m trying to be honest in my work, and this is where it’s leading me, and there’s no cynicism in my process. I feel like I’m really trying to offer something, and if the same devices and themes keep cropping up in my work, it’s because I’m the same person. Like I said, you see a painting by some artists no one criticizes it because it’s recognizable as being by that artist. But I’m always challenging myself to take on new things and to set out to do something I don’t know how to do. I really do struggle to go deeper, to use what it is that I feel I’ve learned now when I’m this age as opposed to when I wrote Malkovich, which was over ten years ago now. I’m not the same person in any way. I’m related, but I’m older and I have a different life and I have different life experiences and I have different things that have happened to me and that I’m thinking about and that I’m interested in. But they bear a resemblance. But the idea that I will now just do a genre noir movie because I want to prove to people that I’m not just a one-trick pony is a bad way of working.
Is this the start of a new phase in your career? Will you from now on direct your own stuff or will you still write for other directors?
I’ve never written for other directors, and I don’t think I will. I do think I’ll write and have other people direct it, but I’m not writing for them, I’m writing for me – always. But I’d like to continue directing, but you know, I’ll see where this goes. If this situation allows me to get other work. I think the climate now is scary for the kind of work I do.
You’ve made a really different, really smart, really odd, really deep film in a time that does not reward that.
We’ll see, but I think you might be right. It’s hard not just emotionally, but it’s hard because I have to figure out what I have to do to get a job.