Don't feel bad about mangling the pronunciation of Charlie Kaufman's new film, Synecdoche, New York; page three of the press kit is solely dedicated to the title's pronunciation [Sih-NECK-doh-kee] and various meanings, such as "A Part is used for the Whole, as in The Screen for Movies." Though Kaufman wrote such gems as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is his directorial debut, and he certainly picked an ambitious project to cut his teeth with. The haunting, surreal story spans almost the entire adult life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a regional theater director who moves to NYC from Schenectady after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him.
Using the proceeds from a MacArthur fellowship, Caden secures a warehouse and begins directing a theatrical epic based on his life, which over the decades becomes so obsessively detailed that the hyper-realistic set—a replica of Caden's New York—eventually houses a second New York inside a smaller warehouse constructed within the first warehouse. At once expansive and dizzily nuanced, Kaufman's signature meta-theatrics are enriched here by a stellar ensemble. And though the overall tone is heavier than his previous movies, Synecdoche, New York is the kind of film you'll probably want to see again. It opens tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema.
In the film, Caden spends his life working on an epic theatrical production that is never "finished." You spent over two years writing this screenplay; at any point did you worry that, like Caden, you might never finish? I think there might be a bit of a parallel in that the way I work is to sort of let things in as I’m writing as opposed to having a plan and sitting down and knowing ‘this is where the story goes and this is how it ends.’ I kind of have an open-ended thing and in this case it took two years to write. Over two years a lot of stuff happens in your life outside of the writing, and your understanding of the world shifts. And I try to incorporate the things I learn into the script to keep it alive and to keep it honest. So it creates a kind of complexity, I hope.
And there’s that sense with Caden that you really can never finish anything. The only completion of any work—if you’re trying to be honest about the world—is your death. You can keep building on something to make it closer to the truth because the truth is endlessly complex. By the truth I mean, you know, as a human being, one’s understanding of the world.
So in that sense it’s parallel but I’m also a person who has been hired for a job and I’ve got to finish it and turn it in and I’m not unaware of these things. So even if it does take longer than maybe people who I’m working for would like, I am aware of my place in this system and my responsibility in the world. And I don’t want to work on this movie forever. It’s been five years now and I’m really done with it. I want to think about something else now.
Can you share any of these things that happened that turned the script in a certain direction? You know, there are events in my life. I don’t really want to talk about my personal life. But in a larger sense, and even more accurately, it’s understandings that I come to. If you think about what it means to die or what the passage of time is, if you think about time for two years, you’re going to come to different ideas about it, as opposed to if you think about time for an hour. And your interaction with it becomes more complicated. And those are things I tried to introduce into the story or the script.
Did you write the role of Caden with Phil Hoffman in mind? No, I sort of make it a point not to write with actors in mind. And when I was writing this Spike Jonze was going to direct it, so I wasn’t going to be doing the casting. But I don’t think about actors when I write because I think what I’d do then is write what my understanding of Phil Hoffman is, as opposed to creating a character that maybe some actor can come to and enlarge with their personality. But that being said, he was the first person I thought of and he seems to me the perfect person to play that.
He’s amazing, as usual. I was wondering if you wrote it specifically for him in part because he was in Death of a Salesman as a boy in upstate New York, and in your film Caden is directing it in Schenectady. He did tell me that. He didn’t play Willy, did he?
I think he did. Oh he did? In High School right? That wasn’t why we did it. That was a coincidence.
Caden seems to think theater is the ultimate art form to satisfy all his creative vision. What is it about theater that attracts Caden and, perhaps, you? I think the thing I like about theater is the community of it, personally. I like audiences and I like rehearsals, just on a personal level that appeals to me. Theater is alive and exists in the present tense. Other performing arts do as well but film doesn’t and painting doesn’t. But there is that thing where in order for [theater] to be good you have to be cognizant of that and open to that.
So when you are acting in a play, even though the lines may be written, what you need to do is figure out what’s happening now in the dynamic between you as this character and that actor as that character. And not only that, there’s a whole thing happening with the audience that changes the equation entirely, moment to moment and night to night. And in order for it to be good I think it needs to keep that as part of the process to allow stuff in. And that makes it very exciting to me. And then, in addition to that, there is a kind of ephemeral quality to it, you know? You are there for this experience; you can’t ever have that experience again as an actor, as an audience. It’s gone. It’s a moment in life between people.
Would you ever be satisfied to do as Caden does and make a work of art that no audience ever sees? I mean… audiences are a double-edge sword. It’s a complicated thing for me. I like people to see things that I’ve done and I’m certainly not adverse to positive reactions. It’s helpful to me. But I try to keep the notion of what that’s going to be out of the process of doing it, because I don’t want to be influenced by speculation about whether people are going to like something. That forces a writer into a sort of dishonest relationship with his or her material. So I try to sort of separate myself from that and be as truthful as I can. And once people see it, in the case of the movie, I’m done with it. And so my relationship to whether or not people like it doesn’t affect the piece of work. But if people are moved by things it’s a nice feeling.
As an audience member, I longed for some sort of direct encounter between Caden and Adele (Catherine Keener) toward the end to give me emotional resolution. I really wanted them to have some kind of interaction and I’m wondering why you resisted that. You answered the question yourself. It’s because you wanted it. This is a very subjective movie. It’s completely designed from the point of view of Caden Cotard. Everything that happens in the external world you’re seeing through his eyes and he doesn’t have that resolution. So there was actually a lot of movement within some of the people involved in the movie to shoot scenes with Catherine at the end to give people what they wanted. But you’re with Caden. And Caden doesn’t have that. And that would have been a cheat.
My impression is that Caden believes his work will give him understanding, but that he uses it to avoid intimacy. Do you agree? Yes, I can see that. I think that’s an astute observation but I also sort of hesitate to say whether that’s what I had in mind because what you have in mind is what the movie is. And I want you to have that experience. And what you’re saying makes perfect sense to me. Yes, he does seem to do that, doesn’t he? [Laughs.]
You've long been an admirer of Tom Noonan and worked with him on a sound play. And everyone else in this cast is so top notch. This was your first time directing and it’s such an ambitious project; I’m wondering if it was daunting to be working with so many esteemed actors while also diving into directing a huge movie? Not as much as it would have been had I not done those plays. I think that doing those plays and having them come out well and having these amazing actors seem to respect me and listen to me gave me a certain confidence that I wouldn’t have had.
I mean, I had a very difficult time just a few years ago even meeting people like that. Meeting Meryl Streep before she did Adaptation was terrifying for me. I was terrified. And that’s not an unusual thing for me. So if I imagine myself at that point in my life being able to do this I don’t think I could have done it. But I realized doing the plays that I have ideas these people, my favorite actors, are responding to. So I’d say that was the thing going into this production I felt most confident about. And I was sort of pleased with myself because of that because I overcome some personal obstacle of shyness or insecurity in that regard, which is a big deal for me.
Did you have much time to rehearse? I had some time to rehearse with some of the people; they kind of came in drips and drabs. Phil was available the earliest because he’s New York based and he was here at the time doing a play. And then various people came in and we had rehearsals. But we couldn’t rehearse everything and we couldn’t rehearse with everyone so we did need to do that on the set. But we did a lot with Catherine and Phil and Samantha and Phil and Michelle and Phil to get those main dynamics in our heads.
Did any of the performances bring out aspects of the characters that surprised you? Yeah, all of them. I think that’s inevitable and it’s a big part of what you’re hoping for. You’re hoping these people will bring these words on paper to life and it’s always going to be surprising, not only individually but the dynamics between people. There’s no way I could know what Phil and Samantha were in real life until I saw it. And then you keep moving with that. What is this? What do we have here? What is this chemistry? What is this dynamic? How do we expand on this, how do we work with this? That’s the process of keeping film alive, I think.
How long was the production? 45 days for 204 scenes. It was hard. A very, very hard shoot in every imaginable way. Technically, it was in the middle of a heat wave, shooting in a warehouse three stories up. A lot of prosthetics, which is really difficult under the best circumstances, but in that heat it was very hard for the actors and very time consuming. There were a lot of locations. But we did it! We got through it. And I feel like, even if the movie was done and we realized we shot it with the lens cap on I would still feel like we accomplished something.
Do you want to direct again? I would like to. There were times during the shoot when I thought, “I can’t do this again.” I was so exhausted and there were so many difficulties, just pragmatically, making this thing happen. But, you know, that’s kind of gone away and I’ve realized the parts that I want to do again outweigh the parts that I couldn’t do again. So, I’ll try if I get the opportunity.
Did you face a lot of resistance with the title? No, not really. No one ever asked me to change it. More people have brought up the title outside of the movie than inside the movie. It’s really the press asking, “What does it mean? And who will remember it?” And all that stuff. But no one ever tried to change it during the making of the movie.
I read somewhere you were in The Big Lebowski. Is that true? No, I didn’t even know the Coens at that point. I don’t really know them now. When I did those plays I met them, but no. I’m not in any movies.
And are you writing something new now? I’m trying to but I’m very early on so I don’t really think I can say what it is. It’s not that I can’t say it to you, it’s that I can’t even say to myself what it is.