Charlie Kaufman is no fan of conventional storytelling, and his latest film is another brilliant foray into the bizarre. Synecdoche, New York was originally—and erroneously—billed as a “horror movie.” That’s not to say that Kaufman hasn’t heaped on a thick layer of doom and gloom; the film is, in his own words, about “death, time passage, illness, regret, isolation and loneliness.” But cheer up! It’s also full of the madcap humor and intricate absurdities we’re used to from the screenwriter of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We caught up with Kaufman when he was in New York to ask him about insanity, the logic of time, and why the notion of cinematic realism is a total sham.
I know you’ve said before the movie’s supposed to be taken at face value, it’s not a dream—
Face value meaning what? Meaning: it’s not a dream. I think that there are different levels of experiencing the movie.
The protagonist’s name, Caden Cotard—is that a reference to Cotard’s Syndrome [a disorder in which one believes one is already dead] or Capgrass Syndrome [in which one thinks family member’s have been replaced by imposters or "doubles"]?
That’s also in the movie. When he goes to Adele’s apartment, the sublet, and he presses the buzzer, that’s the name [Capgrass]. The answer is that [those references are] there. Do with them what you will.
Is what we’re seeing from the point of view of someone who’s losing his mind?
It doesn’t need to be answered by me. I’m just putting this out there. This is the story that I’m telling.
How would you say time works, or doesn’t work, in the movie?
The movie follows a man from about the age of 40 to the age of 90. Time—as it is in real life, and represented in the movie—is a very subjective thing. I don’t know what time is outside of my experience of it—I don’t know if it even exists. Time moves at different rates, for me, and in the movie it does that as well: it speeds up as he gets older, there’s confused chronologies. But for the most part it’s following a man to the end of his life, and that’s the passage of time.
I don’t know if, outside of human experience, if time exists. I don’t know how to know that.
You’ve said before that this was your take on a horror film…
It isn’t, really. When Spike and I were originally going to do this together, when we first went to Sony, we were thinking about things that were scary. They asked us to do a horror movie. We were thinking things [from] the real world as opposed to horror movie conventions. That was what was interesting to us. When Sony accepted the notion, as far as I was concerned, it was no longer a horror movie. The movie was dealing with issues of death, time passage, illness, regret, isolation and loneliness. Because that was how it was presented to the press when we sold the idea, Variety said JONES / KAUFMAN HORROR MOVIE SOLD TO SONY. I don’t see it as a horror movie. I was writing about things that were scary time, and in some ways still are. It’s not designed for thrills and chills, I don’t think.
I came away from the film feeling that you thought there was something tragic about artists in general—even ridiculous at times. Do you think it’s tragic that an artist is always aiming for something ambitious that you’re probably not going to achieve, fully?
I think that is true, that people can never get to what it is they’re trying to get to—it can never be realized. I don’t find that tragic. I find it, in a way, noble. To keep trying. You can get closer, you can get more honest with your work. Obviously there [are] millions of examples of beautiful, moving pieces of art that come very close. I don’t feel like the movie is as much about artists as people might think. I think it’s more about people and how you try to understand and organize the world, and I think in this case it’s using this person’s passion and this person’s job to illustrate or explore that.
We all create the world outside of us. Parallel to the thing I was saying about time—this is a very subjective experience, being alive. You’re constantly interpreting and reinterpreting and trying to figure out “The Story.” You’re trying to figure out the story of me, and I’m trying to figure out the story of you and somehow incorporate that into my understanding of the world. We tell stories, as people. [But] I don’t think, if you stepped back from people, there are any stories. I don’t think the world really exists that way. It’s the way our brains work, it’s the way we try to organize input. That’s what Caden is doing—it represents what we all do.
Could that be one of the impetuses for his project [creating a giant warehouse in which he has actors re-enact scenes from his own life]? He’s got his life and his marriage—the story of that is running away from him, dissolving. The impulse is to have some control…
That could be an element of it. I think he’s trying to justify his existence, and make himself meaningful by doing something meaningful, whatever that means. In this world, people want to be meaningful—and he’s been told that he’s not. He’s trying to understand what happened to him: his wife left with his daughter; she doesn’t find him meaningful. He accepts that and trying to prove to her, prove to himself, to the world, that he isn’t meaningless.
Do you see any similarities with how you direct a project to how Caden directs his grand project in the warehouse? Do you need to be that ego that calls all the shots?
That’s probably a better question to ask somebody I’ve worked with. I feel like this is collaboration, I really welcome and enjoy that from other people. The picture gets much larger if you allow that in, much more lively and exciting. I intentionally surround myself with very talented, passionate people. It would be foolish for me not to utilize that.
Caden is trying to get to the heart of his own life by recreating these events as they happen—and failing. In this movie, are you approaching realism by using the opposite technique? Are you trying to tell a realist story?
I don’t think I’m trying to do the exact opposite. I recognize what you’re saying. Caden is trying to tell the truth, and feels like he needs to do it in a literal way. And I think that there are problems with that. I do want to tell the truth and I do utilize surrealism, symbolism and dream logic to try to do that. But I also feel like it’s kind of important to state: the notion of realism in movies is fallacious. I think we have this convention in film that we all understand as “reality” that has nothing to do with realism. I don’t think my stuff is far afield. My stuff is based on real human emotions, real human dynamics. And then there’s a sort of—I don’t know what it is, “gritty cop drama,” whatever the hell it is, or a movie where there isn’t that kind of symbolism—somehow that’s seen as realism. But if you break it down, they’re all movie conventions. We’ve been trained to see that as the real world, but it’s a very limited view of the real world.
I found a lot of similarities between Synecdoche and this novel, Remainder, by Tom McCarthy…
This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it.
It’s interesting to know that you haven’t read it.
It’s an idea that…that idea is not new to me, in my work. This particular version of it…What I’m saying is, it’s an attractive idea. I would look at that novel and think, Oh, cool. But I couldn’t in this case.
It’s got a similar kind of self-contained illogic.
He builds an apartment house and hires actors?
[Sarcastically] I wonder if McCarthy read the script…
As far as P.S. Hoffman—what qualities made him the right fit for this part, this desperate man?
There’s a few things. I think he’s such a good actor. He’s in virtually every scene in this movie. I need someone who can do that, can be subtle enough, complex enough to do that. But I think the other thing about Phil is he’s a really honest actor. There’s a lot of emotional stuff that needs to be presented in a believable and moving way.
I find him enormously captivating. The first time I kind of noticed him was in Boogie Nights. I didn’t know who he was. I was watching this guy, he wasn’t in the movie that much, but every time Phil was on the screen—you can’t look at anything else.
Would you say, as far as his main downfall, if there is one—what is it? Obviously it’s probably his…I don’t want to answer the question…
You should answer the question, actually.
…his desire to control everything, I would say. That he could be the director who calls all the shots, has a self-contained world that he literally is in charge of. Is that a common impulse as someone who’s creative, who creates things?
I see that element completely. I hope that when I do something there are more contradictions in the piece. I don’t really have a moral, or a point, that I’m making. I think that his major downfall, if he has one, is that he’s alive and he’s a human being. But I don’t see that as a downfall, because that’s what we all have to contend with. He’s trying to figure out his life. He has a very difficult time living in the present; I think that that’s also a common thing for people. The converse is enormously difficult to accomplish. He’s a person trying to figure out what he is and where he is in the world, and how to find some peace or solace.
I guess the thing that I just want to say is that I don’t see this movie as a cautionary tale. It is a sort of exploration of a person’s life, and hopefully there’s some kind of universality to that exploration that allows other people to see elements of their own existence.