SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK—Interview With Charlie Kaufman
by Michael Guillen, October 23, 2008 9:40 PM
Topping the childhood tongue-twister of saying "unique New York" 10 times in a row, Charlie Kaufman's titular pun on Schenectady, New York arrived fraught with the hazard of mispronunciation (and just when I finally got Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to trill liltingly off my tongue). While waiting for Jonathan Marlow to finish up his interview with Kaufman for Greencine, I practiced Synecdoche, New York (SNY) over and over underneath my breath, telling myself that if I could say it right even once, then I could thereafter refer to it as "your film" or "this film."
Straight off, I advised Charlie Kaufman that there were some things I simply did not want to talk about and I put those right out on the table. I didn't want to talk about his alleged reclusivity—because it's a browbeaten mistruth—and, despite his being Synecdoche, New York's producer, as well as writer-director, I wasn't particularly interested in discussing the film's commercial viability. He was okay with that.
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Michael Guillén: I want to talk about the nature of your creative intuition and your narrative usage of dream logic. For 20 years I was a full scholar with the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute. I love dreams. I'm still not completely convinced that my dream life is not my real life and this waking one the illusion. I appreciate films where that oneiric conundrum is massaged. As a filmmaker, what do you consider to be the difference between movies that try to be a dream and movies—like yours—that employ dream logic?
Charlie Kaufman: Well, my goal was the latter. I think the difference is that a movie that tries to be a dream has a punchline and the punchline is: it was a dream. I tend to want to explore people's interior lives and in movies it's hard to do. I've often done it with voiceover. But it was my goal this time to do it without voiceover, to take the interior life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and put it outside of him in the actual landscape of his existence, in his interactions with other people, the way things happen, the more dream-like elements of the story, and try to create an emotional landscape.
Guillén: I was amused by the opening radio talk show where the German literary guest was talking about the melancholic feelings of September. In watching SNY, I felt like I was watching an autumn leaf that had fallen off its tree, spiraling down in ever-tightening circles, which then landed on a calm pool of water sending out concentric rings in ever-expanding circles.
Kaufman: I love that!
Guillén: By film's end I was emotionally ravished, which led me to consider how you structure the build-up of multiple ideas and philosophical enquiries to such an emotional pitch. You've done this in earlier films and repeat the technique here. It must be an intuitive process?
Kaufman: The basis is always the emotions. I try to always keep sight of that. The ideas are in service of that. So, yeah, it is an intuitive process. In this case I thought of images or events that felt emotionally moving to me and I trusted that. It took a very long time to write, longer than two years. So it's had a lot of time to brew. I don't start out with an outline. I don't know where it's going to end. I start out with things I'm interested in exploring and then I allow them to be explored. If I find something 50 pages in that excites me, the story is free to go in that direction. That makes it an expansive experience for me that, hopefully, is reflected in the movie at the end. That's probably an unconventional way to write a screenplay because I think people tend to think of these things as products—"This would be a cool place to go. This would be a cool ending. This is going to sell the movie."—whereas, I trust that I'm going to come to something over time that's going to be interesting.
Guillén: Well, that is intuition, right? That's your creative strength. The audiences who appreciate what you're creating probably practice the same kind of intuitive exploration and are picking up the cues of your own. Especially at the end of this film, as I said, the emotion was so overpowering. It was like the swell of music. It shattered the governance of intellect and plunged me into deep feeling, which is what I love in films; sudden emotional recognition of deep embodied truths. That's the knowledge dreams possess as well. Just as I've said that I'm not convinced that dream life is not the real life, by comparison cinematic life often expresses the real life more than the day-to-day dross, reminding me that it's the creative life that is the authentic life.
Kaufman: I find that I wake up from dreams profoundly affected, in ways that I don't usually experience in my waking life. Sometimes I'm so despairing after a dream, or sometimes I'm so joyful in the morning, and I don't necessarily remember all the details of the dream. I just wake up with a feeling of a hole in my heart, for example, which is a really common thing for me and it follows me throughout the day. As a writer, I'm so interested in whatever that creative process is that goes on at night because I think in some ways I'm so much better at it when I'm not awake than when I am awake, so I try to find a way to access that in my conscious life when I'm writing. Movies are an ideal medium to present that world. I can't think of a better one. It seems like a natural to me. The whole idea of literal realism—which I think is all make-believe anyway that we're sold in movies—it's all a contrivance and a convention that we accept—"This movie is real life. This movie looks like real life."—but, when you break them down, they don't look like real life, even those that are pretending to. So why not explore it? [Chuckles.] Why not explore the larger realm?
Guillén: If we may—not that I want to interpret images in the film….
Kaufman: You're welcome to interpret. I'd love for you to interpret. I won't tell you if you're right or wrong.
Guillén: In shamanic dream theory there is the interesting premise that the goal—if there is a goal—of dreaming is to become conscious in your dreams; to somehow be aware that the dream life is real experience; to have a waking consciousness in dream life.
Kaufman: Sort of like lucid dreaming?
Guillén: Not quite. I don't much trust popular conceptions of lucid dreaming because they attempt to consciously control dream life; I'm speaking more of just a conscious awareness while dreaming. Let me be more specific. In shamanic theory there is the notion of the "scout." A dream can be immensely detailed and complex, all sorts of phantasmagorical things can be happening, but the dream's essence is known in a moment or by the awareness of a presence in the dream—the "scout"—when you know you are in the reality of the dream and not just being entertained by the dream. In the presence of the scout is when you're to wake up in the dream to recognize the potential of the dream as authentic alternate life expression.
Kaufman: I see.
Guillén: In SNY, for me, the scout appeared when Caden is walking with his daughter and they're distinguishing between "psychosis" and "sycosis". That was the moment in the film where sitting in the audience I suddenly thought, "What is happening here? Something's wrong!!" [Kaufman and I both laugh.] That's when I snapped to. How do you structure that when you're writing the script? Where do you choose to reveal that appearances are not what they seem?
Kaufman: In this movie it starts slowly, but it is really from almost the very beginning of the movie. There are clues. My goal is to leave it open. It isn't a calculated thing that you would see it there. There are things that are happening before that, which are probably hard to see; but, if you see the movie again—you've seen it twice, right?
Kaufman: Well, if you see it again, you'll see there's a confusion in time passage from the very first scene. The dates you hear on the radio don't relate to the dates you see in the newspaper Caden's reading. As he keeps reading the newspaper, the dates keep changing in the newspaper. It starts out on the first day of Fall on the radio and then, later in the scene, it's Halloween. Things like that are going on. And then outside there's the man standing in the street, who you see again in the scene where he talks about psychosis/sycosis with his daughter. That character's name is maybe something someone will pick up on, maybe someone won't; but, I don't think that I was scientific in it. I was trying to keep the cues subtle and—like anything in the movie—it's open to the individual having their experience when they have their experience. I think there are things people will relate to in terms of metaphor and things some people won't relate to. Issues with the burning house, for example.
Guillén: I loved the burning house! It made me laugh outloud.
Kaufman: But other people are really frustrated with it. Even after the movie, when I do Q&As and people ask, "Why the burning house? What is the burning house?", I have to say, "Well, it doesn't speak to you. It speaks to other people. There are other things in the film that maybe, hopefully, will speak to you"; but, I'm trying to let this interaction be personal, in the same way that a dream is personal. A dream is for the dreamer when—as you say—the dreamer wakes up within it. I love that something happened there that clicked for you.
Guillén: Truthfully, I love to be confused by a film. I distrust if I know too much what's happening. I measure creativity by the amount of confusion it inspires in me, if that makes any sense, because it heralds new ground, new territory. Since you brought up the burning house, any good Jungian steeped in Jungian theory would see houses in dreams as efforts at self-understanding, constructions of self if you will, the self's architecture. You've had two wonderful dream houses. You had the house being swallowed by the sea in your previous film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—which is a house I have dreamt of—and now the burning house. I've never dreamt of the burning house but I have dreamt of the house being swallowed by the sea. For me, the poignancy of the burning house was that Hazel (Samantha Morton) dies of smoke asphyxiation just when she and Caden finally achieve emotional connection. How profoundly tragic!
Kaufman: Well, she made the choice to live there. In fact, she says in the scene just before she dies that the end is built into the beginning. That's exactly what happens there. She chooses to live in this house. She's afraid it's going to kill her but she stays there and it does. That is the truth about any choice that we make. We make choices that resonate throughout our lives.
Guillén: As you mentioned earlier, films that are allegedly realistic are actually quite false, whereas dreams—though seemingly incoherent—do tell the truth and do point towards what is authentic. The end is built into the beginning and when Hazel was thinking about buying the burning house and the realtor encouraged her to do so because the buyers were eager to sell, she expressed her concern that she might die there. Perhaps dreams remind us that we should be trusting what we feel more than what we think? Another dream device that intrigues me is replication, which Michel Gondry plays with a lot too.
Kaufman: I think that's why we found each other really.
Guillén: Exactly. I love his Kylie Minogue video where she keeps replicating herself loop after loop and we touched upon the replicative nature of dreams when he and I spoke for The Science of Sleep. You employ much replication in SNY. It's enough to have a doppelganger; but, you chose to have triplegangers and quadruplegangers, and you pulled it off astonishingly! Where did that come from?
Kaufman: I don't know where that stuff comes from. It is something that I've come to be interested in and—back to intuition—I trust my interest in it. I used it in my first screenplay Being John Malkovich when he goes into his own portal and finds a world filled with himself. I don't know why I like the feeling of it. In this case, it refers to the projection—again outside of oneself—of one's interior life. It's an exploration of the inner world through trying to understand what's happening outside of yourself, which is what I think we do. We constantly put the exterior world into stories that come from inside us. That's how we organize things. That's what we try to do to make sense of this very confusing existence we have. Again, we think this is reality: the projection of ourselves onto the outside world, all of it in fact, down to what we see. I think it's really interesting that visually the world doesn't exist. It only exists as our brain's interpretation. I sometimes try to imagine what this world looks like without people in it and I don't think it looks like anything. It certainly doesn't look like this.
Guillén: I can remember as a child that I would put myself to sleep pondering the morass of subjectivities. I'd be in my bed thinking, "Okay, I'm thinking my thoughts. And my brother's thinking his thoughts. And my sister's thinking her thoughts. And my parents are thinking their thoughts. And the neighbors are thinking their thoughts." And on and on. Millions and millions of people were thinking millions and millions of thoughts and the immensity of that, the morass of it, was almost more than my little body could handle so that I would pass out.
Kaufman: That's what Caden says at the end of the movie. "Look at all those apartments. There are all those dreams in there that we'll never know. That's the truth of it." Yeah. If you try to think of the world objectively, it is all those dreams that people have, all those thoughts that people have; but, it's also, again, that movies present the world very much like eyes, they're visually one point of view, literally one point of view, as opposed to trying to imagine the reality of this room from every point of view. From your point of view, from my point of view, from the floor's point of view, from inside our bodies looking out. If you were to imagine the way that God sees the world, what would it look like? I love the impossibility of that. I love how it tells me that I don't have a clue what's going on. That's an important thing for me to realize in navigating the world. It tells me that there's something so mysterious about this that I need to be respectful of, that's bigger than this day that I'm having.
Guillén: Your writing is reminiscent of the skirmishes of guerrilla warfare. Novelist Lawrence Durrell described writing as being like "raids on the inarticulate." You lunge forward towards something mysterious, you grasp it, then you rush back to safety to savor your momentary victory. The ultimate victory is always something a little beyond most of us but the better writers—and I truly consider you one of our better writers—approximate those mysteries.
Kaufman: Even the word "inarticulate" is inexact; once you articulate something you've reduced it. The question is how do you keep the inarticulate profound? You're told when you begin to write that you need to write about something in the distant past because that's the only way you can really put it in perspective; but, my interest is not in the perspective. My interest is in what is happening in the moment with all of its confusion and my inarticulation, my inability to put it into words. When I'm having a profound experience—and I'm thinking mostly of profound depression because that's when I realize it the most—I can't articulate it. Once I'm able to articulate it, I realize I'm no longer in it and that's not as interesting because then I'm telling a story about it, as opposed to this movement that's going on that's so much bigger than I am, that's so scary, that's so confusing, that leaves me feeling so alone. How do you present that as a work of art? That is the challenge that excites me.
Guillén: I would suggest that one of the ways you have maintained that profundity is that you practice a recursive aesthetic. One of the falsehoods of perspective, let's say, is precisely chronological; the presumption that our lives are a straight temporal line. Dream logic tells us, just like good cinema tells us, that authentic lives are curvilinear. There are no straight lines. There is no point A to point B. All that amounts to is, as a friend of mine once said, the plot of a telephone book. I think that's why when I first saw SNY I had the image of the spiraling leaf and the concentric rings; the film felt curvilinear. I want to believe or—truthfully—do believe that the straight line is a lie or at the very least as Hundertwasser has said, godless. Life is recursive. It doubles back on itself. It repeats itself into layered meaning. I am a person who is haunted by memory and continually informed by the past. Memory constantly textures, recontextualizes and reconfigures my every waking moment. And not enough cinema does that, though it should. I love that SNY keeps coming to my mind as I'm walking around in San Francisco.
Kaufman: I love that.
Guillén: I keep thinking of my childhood preoccupation with the morass of subjectivities. I'm walking down Market Street still marveling at how all these people are creating the world through their own thoughts, memories and dreams. And if they're half-way intelligent, they're creating half-way intelligent worlds. I find that profound and also quite sad.
Kaufman: It is sad. But feeling a connectedness with that can be joyful. You feel that, okay, there is a community of some sort if we allow for it.
Guillén: Absolutely. When I was a full scholar for the C.G. Jung Institute, one of my favorite mentors was Joseph Campbell with whom I interacted whenever he taught there. His definition of compassion as a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world has stayed with me all these years. One should want to joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world. It's not about overcoming the sorrows of the world. It's about being conscious of them and participating with them and remaining joyful even if life is arduous and sorrowful.
Kaufman: The idea that we will be joyful by ignoring what's going on around us is a lie. Such a lie is a painful place to be and an isolated place to be because you know in your heart that you're not really present. Some people say SNY is depressing and my reaction to that is: when I read something that speaks to me or makes me feel connected to other beings like, "Oh yes! I feel that or I've felt that!" and often—when I'm reading something that was written 300 years ago, 500 years ago, that someone wrote that I'm relating to now, through time, they're dead for many years but it speaks to me, even if it's sad, maybe even especially if it's sad—I feel a connectedness to human beings that I don't normally feel because of the culture that we live in, which commodifies everything and makes things about selling to us, about abusing us, manipulating us, so that other people can make profits. I'm speaking about movies. If it's a funny movie, you can laugh but at the end of it you don't feel connected to anything because that's not really true. That's what I tried to do with Eternal Sunshine. I tried to make a movie that was truthful to me about relationships because I've seen so many movies that have been so damaging to me. They're lovely but then you go into your real existence and they're not recognizable so you feel less than. You long for something that isn't even really true. It's always been my goal to be honest in my way that maybe would give someone else solace. This movie is intended to do that. So I don't consider this movie depressing. I think it's sad but not depressing.
Guillén: With regard to relationships, can we talk about scale? I was intrigued by the relationship between Caden and Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) as inflected through their respective creativities. Adele was an artist who painted miniatures to express her vision and Caden was an artist who needed an immense warehouse to construct his vision. What was the magnetism that drew these two completely different visionaries together, even into a failed relationship?
Kaufman: My understanding of those two was that this was the end of their relationship and, in my mind, they were probably less fully-formed as artists at the beginning of their relationship and—as I think people do in relationships—from there they went into different directions. You try to find out what your common ground is even as you move further and further apart. We caught them at that point. If you look at the progression of Adele's work in the movie, it gets smaller and smaller. In her studio at the beginning of the movie you can see some small but regular-sized paintings that you could see without a magnifying glass. The painting we first see her working on when Caden comes into her studio to pee in the sink is about an inch. By the time he goes to the gallery to look at her work, which is many years later, you can't see them at all. They're getting really tiny. Part of it for me is the impossibility of both of those things, which again goes to the dream reality. The type of paintings that she does is not possible. I know people do tiny paintings and there's even a sculptor who does tiny sculptures; but, to do something painterly—which is what these things look like when you see them with the magnifying glasses—at that scale is impossible. As a dream image it appeals to me. Her work is in a way much more effective than Caden's work. Caden's goal in his attempt to do his sprawling theater piece is to impress Adele because he feels so lacking next to her in terms of his work. She's gone on to become….
Guillén: "I can't talk to you now. I'm famous." [Laughter.]
Kaufman: Yeah, she's famous. I intentionally picked an artist whose work I really love to stand in for Adele's work. Caden's work is so literal. The only way he can reflect reality in his mind is by imitating it full-size. He's building a life-size replica of New York City in a warehouse, which again is impossible, obviously, especially when you've got the smaller and smaller versions of the warehouse within the warehouse within the warehouse, which are all full-sized too. It's a dream image but he's not interacting with it successfully.
Guillén: It speaks a bit to the limitations of performativity. Adele's work is expressive; his is performative. It becomes sprawling, unwieldy, and loses focus because it's trying to replicate life, not creatively interpret life.
Kaufman: Yeah. It's like photorealism in painting. What is it doing? Is it commenting on the impossibility of replicating reality? I don't know what photorealists are trying to do, but when I look at their work it doesn't move me, except maybe intellectually or technologically, "They can really copy something." Caden never gets there. Although he might at the end of the movie, you never know. He's got a new idea and you don't know what that new idea is going to be. He spends his time up until the last second trying to reconfigure this thing and not really getting closer. It tends to get more subjective, more about his own life that starts to come through towards the end. But I feel like there's something that happens in that last scene that encourages an idea. I feel there's a connection in that last scene that happens that may not have happened anywhere else in the movie; but, again, it's with someone who doesn't really exist. It's an actress playing the mother of a person he's not playing. And the person she's playing the mother of may not really exist either. In fact, I don't think she does. Ellen doesn't exist except as a figment of Caden's imagination or at least as projected through the voiceover of Millicent Weems (Diane Wiest), who's telling us who this person is. But Ellen never really shows up to clean this apartment that she's supposed to be cleaning. It's just Caden.
Guillén: And we could get into the possibilities of that if the publicist weren't looming over my shoulder telling me to conclude this interview. [Laughter.] That is the quickest half hour I have ever experienced!
Kaufman: It was a real pleasure.
Guillén: Likewise. I hope we have a chance in the future to further our conversation over your next film.
Kaufman: I would love to.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.