The cold sweats and crazed imaginings of Charlie Kaufman have given us Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Now, with his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, things have got really weird. Damon Wise takes him on.
Charlie Kaufman has changed a lot since the year 2000. Back then, he was a shy, frizzy-headed man of 41, and the most noticeable thing about him was his height. He was sitting down, perched on a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel, but even then it was obvious he was tiny: his shoes barely touched the floor. After a string of non-encounters with journalists, his publicists were at their wits’ end, hoping for a miracle, praying he’d open up. He didn’t, and they finally gave up on him altogether, combining his interviews with those of Spike Jonze, the director of the film he was supposed to be promoting: his first produced screenplay, Being John Malkovich. That didn’t work either. After just one sensible interview, Jonze became bored and went gonzo, electing to answer questions with awkward pauses and a blank stare.
Those thirty minutes with Kaufman were bizarre. Not because he was bizarre, particularly, but because, when I played back the tape, it was barely useable. Where had all the words gone? What was frustrating was that I knew we had communicated. He’d talked about the trippy, strange Malkovich. And, more fascinatingly, he’d talked of the films to come. Like a new script he’d written, based on the outrageous autobiography of Chuck Barry, host of The Gong Show, in which Barry claimed to have been a hitman. And another, which was about to filmed. Kaufman, I remember, was unhappy with rumours that it was about a man with the world’s smallest penis and the world’s hairiest woman (even though it was). There was a third screenplay, this one still at the treatment stage, which even he thought was ludicrous – he’d been asked to adapt a book about an orchid thief, but since it had no story, he’d added one, with himself and his fictional twin brother as its heroes. And, finally, there was the script he was in the middle of writing: a romantic comedy set almost entirely in a man’s memory.
His ideas seemed wonderful but unworkable, yet one by one they have materialised. First came Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, then Human Nature, then Adaptation. And when I saw The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind it dawned on me that this must have been the film keeping him awake at nights when we first met. I realised then that Charlie Kaufman was not to be underestimated. He didn’t talk in riddles, just a very abstract form of the truth. Which explains why he’s really not joking when he says that his directing debut, Synecdoche, New York, began life as a horror movie. Because, although it deals with art, mortality and relationships rather than axe-wielding psycho killers, it does in fact tap into some of the same primal fears.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Synechdoche (pronounced sin-ek-docky, it means ‘the subsititution of the part for the whole’, as in when threads mean clothes or plastic means credit card) tells the story of Caden Cotard, a small-time theatre director whose world is in freefall after his wife leaves him. Things pick up when he receives an arts grant, but Cotard’s plan is quite insane – wonderful but unworkable. He creates a life-size replica of New York and fills it with actors who play ordinary people, to no discernible end, for an audience that never arrives.
If it seems like a fever dream, it is. It could even be the death dream of a suicidal man, a suggestion Kaufman takes in his stride when we meet again, this time at London’s Charlotte Street Hotel. “It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard that,” he grins amicably, “and it’s certainly not something I haven’t considered. But your interpretation is what I want – you could tell me that it’s about anything and I would be happy to hear it!” Which is just as well, because, I say, the film also seems to be about writing: Caden can’t figure out how to finish his spectacular art project, a problem Kaufman has surely encountered while crafting his kaleidoscopic fantasies? “Well, again, it can be about the writing process,” he admits, “but it’s also about constructing your view of the world, which we all do, even if we’re not writers. And I think there isn’t really any ending that isn’t artificial. Except your death. That’s the ending. Every other ending for every story is not an ending. It’s an artificial stopping point. How do you finish something? You can’t. That’s why Caden can’t finish his play, because it doesn’t end.
“Death is the only end,” he continues. “Just look at a very concrete example in film: the romantic love story that ends at the beginning of the relationship, that ends when the obstacles are overcome and the couple gets together. But that’s not the ending. Even if it takes them through the first ten years of the marriage, that’s not the ending. Even if they separate and go their different ways, that’s not the ending. There’s no ending! There’s only an ending when they die!”
Caden – whose surname is a taken from a delusion called Cotard Syndrome, which causes sufferers to believe they are already dead – is a hypochondriac, afraid of being alone, afraid of dying and, worst of all, of dying alone. With such a specific set of neuroses, it would be tempting to see Synecdoche as a personal exorcism of some private fears. Kaufman, however, denies this. “I think Caden’s fears are everybody’s fears,” he says. “Maybe with a few extraordinary exceptions, I think everyone’s afraid of time passing and loneliness and getting ill and dying. We’re the animal that knows it’s going to die. That’s our speciality. But it’s really important when you’re trying to do something like this to not get immersed in the ego of it – because then I think you’re in danger of writing crap.”
Looking at Kaufman now, it’s hard to reconcile him with the shifty, inarticulate novice of 2000. He still looks at the floor when he’s speaking, but he’s better dressed (in black) these days, his body language is less guarded and the conversation much more fluid and confident. Nevertheless, he bristles slightly at the suggestion that he’s changed. “It’s hard to say,” he shrugs. “I don’t feel like I’ve changed. I feel like there’s a continuum. I’m the same person I was when I was nine. But if you say that I’m different in this interview, I’ll take your word for it. I don’t feel that, but I do know it’s probably true. I couldn’t meet actors nine years ago without being really nervous, and the fact that I can direct them now obviously means there has been a change.”
One thing he will agree on, however, is that he is no longer crippled by nerves: “Something I think has served me in doing interviews is: if you’re nervous, you’re nervous. Be nervous. Don’t try to pretend you’re not. And it’s actually really helpful. It goes away once you acknowledge it.” To illustrate the point, he mentions the scene in Adaptation where Nicolas Cage is having lunch with his publisher, sweating and twitching like an idiot. “Afterwards, when everyone had seen that movie,” he explains, “I realised, ‘Everyone knows I sweat a lot.’ And suddenly I didn’t sweat a lot. Once it was, like, out of the bag, it stopped. Which is bizarre, and curious, and I don’t know what it means. But there’s a life lesson there somewhere!”
By time the sweating stopped, Charlie Kaufman had become a phenomenon. In the course of those four screenplays, the word “Kaufmanesque” was coined, usually as an unimaginative way to describe the over-imaginative. “You know what’s funny?” he grins. “I just did a radio show in the US. They used a clip from Adaptation, the scene between the Charlie Kaufman character and the executive who’s hiring him to do this screenplay, and she says, ‘Boy, I’d like to find a portal into your brain!’ I used to get that all the time. All the time. So I was listening to it, thinking, ‘God, I haven’t heard that in years.’ And I always say exactly the same thing that Nic Cage says in the movie, which is, ‘Believe me, it’s no fun in here.’ Y’know, that self-deprecating bullshit thing! Because… what do you say?” He laughs. “So that was this little Abbott and Costello routine I did with everyone who said that to me.”
If Kaufman feels insulted or trivialised by this, he hides it well. “Yeah, people think everything I do represents me in the world,” he chuckles, “and of course naming a character after myself probably contributed to that! I guess there are elements of me in everything I write, but it’s not me. Otherwise I’d be writing my autobiography and I’d be calling it that. I like using fiction because it gives me the freedom to move away from myself.”
So what’s next? “I dunno,” he sighs. “Trying to write something new. I got nothing.” Which, in a sense, is truly Kaufmanesque: the bathetic drama of a writer whose brilliant career is based on the new, trying to think up something new… and failing. It’s a worrying thought that Synecdoche, New York took five years to make, and after the amazing 1999-2004 run from Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine, there’s now nothing left unproduced lying in the drawer back at Kaufman’s home in Pasadena. “I wanna write something that’s challenging,” he muses, “that gets me to think about things I haven’t thought about. I’m a little concerned about the world of film, and how it’s closing up. There might not be a place any more for what I like to do. So that keeps me anxious. I don’t really want to embark on something that I’m not gonna be able to sell.” He lightens up, realising that the conversation is getting a little bleak. “But I’m trying to put that out of my head a little bit.” He shrugs, because, after all, even the woolliest, most berserk ideas have come through for him in the past. “I have to trust that the work will provide.”
Words: Damon Wise
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #18, Apr/May 2009