Charlie Kaufman's new film: New York state of mind
It has baffled audiences and critics alike. The director and screenwriter gives Gaynor Flynn a few clues to its mysteries
Wednesday 20 May 2009
Talking to Charlie Kaufman is a bit like watching one of his films. He can make you laugh, cry and confound you in the space of a few minutes. It's as you would expect from someone who has dazzled us with his eccentric, unconventional films. Many consider him to be one of the most relentlessly original minds in cinema today. Interestingly enough, what Kaufman won't do is explain himself. For example, if you ask him what his latest film, means (it's called Synecdoche, New York and many have asked the same question), he says, "I think it means whatever you want it to mean. And my feeling is that if you don't get it then it's not speaking to you and therefore my telling you what it means to me is pointless."
It seems odd for someone who admits to having "many fears and obsessions and worries" to not also worry about being misunderstood.
"When I'm writing I'm not interested in trying to figure out how to please people," he says. "I think that gets in the way. I think if you start thinking that way you start making a product as opposed to something that's reflecting something honest about your experience in the world."
Kaufman is big on honesty and he'll mention it several times during the interview. He appreciates that his films are not for everybody. For instance Variety has said, "the film spins into realms that can most charitably be described as ambiguous and more derisively as obscurantist and incomprehensible." The Hollywood Reporter added, 'Synecdoche, New York will mesmerize some and mystify others while many will be bored silly.' But what would really upset him is if someone thought his films dishonest.
"I think that as a person putting something out in the world being honest is important to me. Because I feel there is so much out there screwing with our heads for reasons that are self-serving," he says. "And I think most of it has to do with someone trying to sell us something and I don't want to do that. If I'm doing something in the world I want to feel that I'm doing it responsibly. And the only way I can do that is to give myself with no thought as to is this going to be a box-office bonanza or if will people like this. I'm not going to think about that. I'm going to think do I think that this is true?"
Having said that, Kaufman is feeling a little "worried" about how Synecdoche (pronounced Sin-eck-dock-ee) will be received in the UK. Critics are divided and his intellectual self will say things like, "The fact that there is a divide like that seems to be exciting and not distressing." His emotional self will tell you that negative reviews hurt and you will see him physically wilt when they're mentioned.
"I worry a lot about a lot of things which I think is foolish but it's just something that is part of my chemistry," he says. "To be perfectly frank, I think I have a kind of OCD kind of brain. I have those sorts of issues. I tend to be very circular in my thinking. I tend to get fixated and obsessed about things and go over ideas again in ways that are probably not pleasant. It's not like it's a pleasant thing necessarily being in my brain."
Kaufman's fixations and obsessions have however fuelled his creative juices and turned him into one of the most unique voices in cinema today. It began 10 years ago with Being John Malkovich, (directed by Spike Jonze), which went on to become a worldwide cult hit. Adaptation (in 2002, also helmed by Jonze) was another stunning example of his unique talent. Both films earned him Oscar nominations but it was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004 (directed by Michel Gondry) that won him the golden statute.
Synecdoche (which means a word in which the part of something is used to mean the whole) is another film born from Kaufman's fixations. It's an eccentric sprawling drama about a melancholic playwright called Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is obsessed with the very nature of our existence. (Interestingly enough, Cotard is also the name of a neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person believes himself to be dead).
Caden is a tortured unhappy soul who is plagued by ill health, worried about a career in stasis and in despair over three failed relationships (Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton). When he wins a genius grant he embarks on a "brutally honest" play about his life, which will take a lifetime to complete, require a cast of thousands, and the reconstruction of New York within an abandoned warehouse in Manhattan. Eventually, the line between the world of the play and Caden's actual world disintegrate.
What does it all mean? "I hesitate to reduce something that was a five-year process and a two-hour-long piece of work into what the message is," he says. "But there's a feeling that these are complex and unsettling things that will remain for as long as we are existing on this particular plane. There's no solution to it. You're not going to talk your way out of dying, which a lot of movies suggest that you are. "
Given Kaufman's scripts are full of issues that bother him it was only a matter of time before illness and disease found their way into one of this stories. After all, they are two of his biggest preoccupations. Not that he's a hypochondriac or at least he doesn't think he is.
"I am well," he says when asked. "But what does that mean? I mean being well is a temporary state for everybody.. We know that from a very early age we are going to die so that colours everything. It makes it hard for us to live in the present because we're constantly trying to navigate this very unsafe world."
Caden tries to make sense of his existence by telling stories about his life and clearly Kaufman is doing the same. Not that he's experienced any great epiphany so far. "I don't understand anything," he says. "I think you construct some truths that help you get by but my feeling is that my brain just by its very physiology is infinitely limited. In the same way, you can try as hard as you want but you're not going to be able to teach an ant spelling. It's not capable of it and I don't think in the scheme of things we're that different to ants. So there are just so many things that are just not possible for us to understand."
Kaufman was born in New York in 1958 but grew up on Long Island and then Connecticut. He says he was a "really shy kid" and it's thanks to Sheila Goldberg, his third-grade teacher that he's doing what he's doing today. "She got me to be in a play and that really did at that point change me," he says. "I'd been forced to be in plays before and it was a terrible experience. But I did this thing and I got laughs and it was so exciting for me."
He went to Boston College and studied acting but switched to NYU's directing programme after the first year. "I felt so self-conscious and uncomfortable that the idea of being on stage just wasn't going to happen," he says. He then spent his twenties "worrying" that he'd made a mistake. "Because I couldn't get a job in movies," he says. Eventually he landed a writing gig on TV comedies like Get a Life, Ned and Stacey and The Dana Carvey Show.
Given Kaufman's particular sensibilities, you would imagine that working on a formulaic TV show would have been a torturous experience. "I was so glad that I had a job writing," he laughs. "I was 32 when I got my first writing job and immediately before I got that job I was making $5 an hour answering phones."
Kaufman talks about being glad, rather than happy. To him, happiness is more a theoretical construct than an actual state of being, just as it is for most of his protagonists. So is he saying that he's never been happy? "I haven't," he laughs. "Why do you keep asking me? I'm glad that I have a successful career, I'm glad that I'm able to do work that interests me but I still have my problems and the same kind of life issues that I've always had."
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