Who names a film "Synecdoche"?

Quasi-legendary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman discusses his surreal black-comic directing debut -- and why he's willing to tick people off with an unpronounceable title.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 24, 2008 10:48AM (EDT)

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics

Listen to the interview with Charlie Kaufman

As screenwriters will tell you over and over again, their work is little understood and even less appreciated; they labor in the shadows, creating the bones and fretwork of a movie, and actors and directors get all the credit. Charlie Kaufman's career in movies has been as a bizarre exception to that rule, but even as Kaufman has become a name brand, a fictional character in his own work and almost a mythic figure, the man himself has remained virtually invisible. When he first came to public attention as the writer of Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" in 1999, Kaufman was variously perceived as some kind of postmodern punk wunderkind devoted to undermining conventional storytelling and as an eccentric, artistic loner, not far away from John Cusack's loser puppeteer character in the film.

There's no question that Kaufman has mined his own public image for material, most notoriously in the endlessly self-referential "Adaptation," in which Nicolas Cage plays both a tormented screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman and his unscrupulous twin brother Donald (nonexistent in real life). But that doesn't mean the image ever had much to do with reality. It stemmed instead from a twin miscomprehension: Hollywood professionals generally mistrust and resent writers, on whom their livelihoods all depend, and most of all writers whose work is more cerebral than they're accustomed to, and does not conform to easily identifiable and marketable formulas. Meanwhile, the rest of us assume that someone who writes weird movies must be pretty weird himself.

In reality, Kaufman never bore much resemblance to the agoraphobic, post-collegiate slacker snarkmeister stereotype, even when "Being John Malkovich" was produced. Instead, he was a veteran TV sitcom writer, with a previous career in newspaper circulation and a degree from NYU, where he had written and directed both plays and short films. Today, just past his 50th birthday, he lives in Pasadena, Calif., with his wife and young children, which might be the very definition of upper-middle-class Southern California respectability.

Kaufman's reputation for extreme reticence and for avoiding the press also needs some updating. When I met him recently in New York to talk about "Synecdoche, New York," his first film as a director, he explained that he's been traveling the globe doing interviews since it premiered at Cannes last May. An elfin, charming fellow who looks nothing like Nicolas Cage, Kaufman was friendly, funny and forthcoming; after ritual protestations that he doesn't like to explain his work, he proceeded to do exactly that.

You can read my colleague Stephanie Zacharek's review of the film today, but I'll just say that I think "Synecdoche, New York" finally puts the lie to the premise that Kaufman's writing lacks emotional depth. There's been a mordant, tragic and occasionally even morbid streak to his work since "Malkovich," sometimes at war with Kaufman's intellectual games and sometimes abetting them. In "Synecdoche," a middle-aged theater director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose life, health, career and family seem to be slipping away from him with reckless speed -- anybody over 35 knows that feeling -- undertakes a massively ambitious, literally limitless project in an effort to make his mark and stave off mortality. He begins to build full-scale theatrical sets of the places he has lived and worked and then all of New York City and then, potentially, the entire world, on which the events of his life will be acted out with scrupulous honesty.

Kaufman's fascination with narratives and meta-narratives is still here: Kaufman's movie and Caden's magnum opus, along with Caden's earlier hilarious-pathetic production of "Death of a Salesman" (in his hometown of Schenectady, N.Y.), are all themselves synecdoches, metaphorical ways of engaging the human need for coherent storytelling and the chaotic brevity of actual human life. There's also plenty of dreamlike Kaufmanesque humor in "Synecdoche," but much of it is pitched in the key of agony; this is a film made by a man who has experienced the death of loved ones, and who is confronting the reality of his own mortality.

"Synecdoche" is nothing short of a spectacular directing debut, which presents a marvelously constructed universe and surrounds Hoffman with a cast of amazing women, including Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson and Hope Davis (hilarious as a self-help guru). I can see why Kaufman wanted to direct this one himself, as it's a much more personal and painful work than anything he's written up to now, and never allows the viewer to escape to some higher-order intellectual artifice. That said, it's too difficult and wrenching a film to become the kind of big international hit Kaufman and director Michel Gondry had with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I think he's not kidding when he says he doesn't care about that.

Charlie, I guess we have to talk about the title a little bit. You may be sick of doing that. I was at the press conference in Cannes where somebody accused you of committing commercial suicide with that title.

I remember talking about that. Why would they care? It wasn't the distributor, since I didn't have one yet. Who said that? Do you know who that was?

Yeah, it was Jeff Wells, who writes the blog Hollywood Elsewhere. He's definitely an opinionated guy.

That was his review of the film, too. How much he hated the title. It wasn't about commercial viability, he just hated the title. I think he said that something like "we dumbasses won't go to this movie because of the title."

I don't like to think of people that way. This movie is for people who want to see this movie. I haven't set my sights anywhere, you know? I just tried to explore ideas that are interesting to me in a way that felt honest. I'm willing to let the chips fall where they may.

[Note: For the record, here is Wells' actual quote: "Titles should always convey something that your average dumbass can understand -- this one doesn't. And they sure as shit can't be tongue-twisters on top of this." His review is worth reading, as is the response from producer Anthony Bregman.]

Journalists in the film world sometimes think with two hats, which isn't always comfortable. We're trying to gauge our own honest response to the material, and also think about how distributors will view it, and whether a large public audience is likely to be interested.

Oh, I think filmmakers do that too. If you're writing for Variety that's part of your job. That's a trade paper. But when you're a filmmaker and you think that way, that's called pandering. I don't want to do that.

Well, it's clearly true that you've written movies that were very successful and movies that weren't, and it doesn't seem like you've ever considered the issue of commercial viability.

I wouldn't even know how to do that. The only honest and generous thing for me to do is to give people myself. That's all I've got as an artist, so I want to do that in an unflinching way. I think there's enough of the other stuff.

OK, now let's talk about the word "synecdoche." It's an ancient Greek term of rhetoric, it's a figure of speech. Tell us what it means, and what it means to you.

I was hoping you were going to explain it. You got so close to explaining it! It's when you describe the whole of something by using a part of it, or a part of something by using the whole of it -- the general for the specific, or the specific for the general. Calling your car your "wheels" is a very easy example.

Right. And obviously there's a joke going on too ...

There's a play on the name of the city, Schenectady, N.Y. I found out that many people in the world, outside the United States, don't know about Schenectady. And they don't pronounce "synecdoche" the same way anyway. So it's useless.

See! Jeff Wells was right!

It turns out that Jeff Wells is always right. I'm going to start listening.

But beyond the pun, which will indeed compute in the northeastern United States --

Oh, it's going to be big. It's going to be big in Schenectady.

Beyond the joke, what does the word mean as the title of your film?

I hesitate to describe or explain what things mean, so I don't know how much to say. I think it's kind of self-evident if you know what the word means. But I'll tell you something I thought of recently. I came up with a new understanding of what the title means, and it wasn't intentional. It occurred to me that every work of art is a synecdoche, there's no way around it. Every creative work that someone does can only represent an aspect of the whole of something. I can't think of an exception to that. So that means that this movie is a synecdoche, as an exploration of this man's life. Also, within the movie, there's the facsimile of New York City that's built in a warehouse.

Right. Philip Hoffman's character, Caden, builds this increasingly large set, which threatens to become as big as the world it's depicting.

Yes, and even though it's full size, it's only an aspect of New York. You can't ever create the whole thing. I think he's trying, and he's getting closer and closer. In his understanding of what he needs to do, to be truthful in art, is the feeling that he needs to be literal. He's trying to do something honest and true, and to a large extent he's doing that to prove his worth, to himself and to his wife, who has left. She has left for a bunch of reasons, but partly because she doesn't think he's much of an artist. That's one of the last conversations they have.

You know, five months after I first saw this film, I keep thinking about it. I feel like you're getting close to some amazing insight about the relationship between works of art and the real world, but I'm not quite sure how to explain it.

It is about works of art, but it's also about what we do as people. What Caden is creating in his environment is what we do in our daily lives when we tell stories about what's happening to us. We try to organize the world, which isn't organized the way our brains want to organize it. We tell stories about the people in our lives, we project ideas onto them. We project relationships with people, we make our lives into stories. I don't think we can avoid doing that. There's no way to approach anything in an objective way. We're completely subjective; our view of the world is completely controlled by who we are as human beings, as men or women, by our age, our history, our profession, by the state of the world.

This story is about the creative act, but it's about the creative act of being a human being, not just about what an artist does. It's true that I'm interested in that world, I live in that world. Often I use that world as a metaphor for trying to understand the whole world, as anybody would who has a particular experience in their life. That's how they filter things, that's how they see.

There's a new balance between comedy and pathos in this film. Much of it is funny, but it's also about someone who is growing older, facing the end of his life and experiencing tremendous loss. And those things just aren't laugh riots.

It's weird, I've seen the movie now with a lot of audiences, and it's interesting how they're all different. In Toronto, audiences were laughing the whole way through. What I'd heard before, at all the screenings, was that the beginning of the movie is funny and then it gets really serious for the next hour and a half. At Toronto everyone was laughing through the whole movie, and I'm thinking, "Oh yeah, that was a joke!" So it does vary, and it can be taken in different ways.

But I intended this time not to give people an out, in the form of a high concept or a conceit, which I've had in other movies. In some ways, people are expecting that from me, you know -- when they finally figure out the movie, there's a relief in that. It's a safety net. You've figured it out: Someone's being erased, or someone's going into John Malkovich's head, or whatever the joke is. I intentionally didn't include that in this movie. As surreal and dreamlike as this movie is, it follows a man until the end of his life, and it doesn't say at any point, "I'm just kidding." I like that about it. That's what I wanted to do.

This speaks to people's misperceptions about you, I think. When you wrote "Being John Malkovich" a lot of people assumed you were some young kid just off the college paper or something, and in fact you were a showbiz veteran, and pretty much middle-aged.

Right, I had been writing for TV for about seven years, working on sitcoms. I didn't have any movie experience, but I was already 40 or 41. You know, I was attached to Spike in people's minds, and there was this feeling that we were hipsters, which is so not what I am and have never been. People got mad at me about it, you know? Rex Reed still insists on calling me a "gonzo screenwriter." I don't even know what that means. What does he think? Like, I'm just trying to fuck with people. [Laughter.]

Much more than anything you've ever done, "Synecdoche" feels like a film made by someone who's in the middle of life, and beginning to see what lies ahead on the downward slope.

I think as you get older you start to -- I've always been preoccupied with issues of dying and illness. All that stuff is not new for me, but it does become more a part of my life as I get older and watch people I know die and get sick. It's a real thing and it's a universal thing. No matter where you are in your life, it dictates your decisions.

I know that as a very young child, I was afraid of death. Many children become aware of the notion of death early and it can be a very troubling thing. We're all in this continuum: I'm this age now, and if I live long enough I'll be that age. I was 20 once, I was 10, I was 4. People who are 20 now will be 50 one day. They don't know that! They know it in the abstract, but they don't know it. I'd like them to know it, because I think it gives you compassion.

"Synecdoche, New York" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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