Synecdoche, New York is a masterpiece of filmmaking. In his ambitious debut as director, Charlie Kaufman, who made his name writing such groundbreaking films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has crafted a film that can only be described as sublime – a piece of work so beautiful, yet so incredibly terrifying that it becomes even more beautiful. It follows the life of Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a distraught theatre director who is willing to sacrifice everything to create a truly great work of art that is, beyond all else, true. As his world falls apart and his body begins to shut down, he writes a play that slowly expands throughout the interior of a New York City warehouse whose scale and grandeur rival any work by Boullée or Piranesi. I recently had the chance to sit down and speak with Charlie Kaufman, who generously answered this excited-yet-slightly-nervous interviewer’s questions about film-making, the search for truth, and the role of architecture in his movies. Discussed: Synecdoche, Paul Auster, the lost art of wood carving, and the infinite potential of Las Vegas. Some minor spoilers follow.
Charlie Kaufman: I’m kind of curious why an architecture writer wanted to talk with me.
Life Without Buildings: Well I think part of the reason I enjoy your films is that they often raise these abstract spatial questions — from the consequences of what happens when someone climbs through a tunnel into their own subconscious to the dream-logic of Synecdoche’s theatre. But before we dive into that, I wanted to ask you about making the film. This is the first movie you’ve directed and in a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose you said “I’m curious to see what something I write will look like if I direct it.” So…what did you think? Were you at all surprised by the final result?
It’s so weird, and this is true of any movie I’ve worked on. It’s really hard to see a movie for several years after you finish it. Because you…you don’t have distance from it. It’s hard for me right now to know what this movie looks like.
Woody Allen says something similar. He doesn’t watch his movies after they’re complete.
Yeah. I don’t watch them either. You don’t want to. Because you’ve spent so many months going over and over it in editing. But I will occasionally, several years later, catch something on television. I feel I get a cleaner view of it after a few years. There are so many mistakes, so many glaring problems. I remember watching Being John Malkovich. We had this one scene, scene 100, which was so difficult for us. It was a scene where Dr. Lester explains how the portal works and it was a bear. We did so many different versions, so many different angles and voice overs. But when I watched it, it goes by pretty quickly. You don’t really think about it. It serves its purpose and it works in a way that for an audience, I think… I don’t have anything like that in this movie — you know, glaring problems that I had to work around. It’s hard for me to sort of feel it .
When you’re writing, do you have animage in your mind of what it’s going to look like on screen?
In a vague way… I mean, I think that as the director you come at in a very different, very concrete way. You know, you have to actually build the sets and think about what you can build and what you can afford to build and what effects you can afford to build. So that became a major determining factor in the aesthetic of the movie.
Part of what made this movie so interesting was that the aesthetic—both visually and aurally—evolved throughout the course of the movie from something very…tense and closed-in and overwhelming to something colossal, completely quiet and serene.
Yeah. There’s a lot of information in those early moments. There’s an unnatural time passage in the first few scenes that you may not see because there’s so much going on: the radio is saying what day it is, but it doesn’t relate to what the newspaper date is; the milk is expired; it’s the first day of fall but you hear the radio saying it’s October 20th; the cartoon is telling you what’s going to happen later on; after he gets injured, at the hospital, there’s Christmas music in the background, then when he gets to the ophthalmologist he thanks him for getting him in right away but the calendar says March 2006, which means it’s 3 months after. But at the same time, there is a real intent for this naturalism in the beginning of the movie— for very mundane breakfast conversation, but as the movie spirals out it gets more…surreal, I guess.
The scale of the the play, and the film as well, becomes incredibly vast, but it also gets muted. By the end of the movie, it feels like the film is set in a completely different world from where it started.
There’s an almost monochromatic palette at that point in the movie but at the beginning of the movie is really colorful. The bathroom is bright green and the basement is orange and Hazel is so bright a character, both figuratively and literally.
While Caden is staging the play, it’s clear that some pretty big changes are happening outside the theatre as the years go by. Did you have a narrative for this sort of reverse play-within-a-play?
Well, I had as much a narrative in mind as we saw. There’s somethign happening to the economy, clearly. They’re giving out government cheese and there’s a lot of homeless people and urban unrest and slowly that starts seeping into the theatre.
At the same time that Caden’s personal life is seaping into the play, the urban decay begins to enter the theatre too and everything starts to fall apart. Some of those scenes actually sort of reminded me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Around Halloween, it was this strange surreal time with military vehicles still on the streets and soldiers on the corner. So outside a bar you’d see this surreal scene where sexy nurses and vampires are chit-chatting with soldiers.
Yeah…then during the movie, I thought “what if there was a ‘backup’ New Orleans in a warehouse somewhere…”
…Yeah. I do really like the idea that there is this fake city that’s become more inhabitable that the real city — which is why people are on the line outside.
In your movies, but especially in this one I think, there are these broader architectural and spatial ideas but then you also have these smaller set pieces—the burning house in Synecdoche, the 7 1/2 floor in Malkovich, the Montauk house in Eternal Sunshine. Are these just designed to convey a sense of place, or a mood, or do you always intend them to have deeper, metaphorical meaning?
Yeah. It’s all of that. I find myself really interested in spaces, actually. I tend to think about environment early on in writing. I’m doing it now, actually. I find myself going back to houses or buildings as environments environments for my stories — you know, odd buildings or very specific types of spaces. I don’t know why… a Jungian scholar was in here talking about houses being representations of the self. I think that’s what it was, anyway… you know, I tend to write intuitively and I don’t really know why I do certain things, but they resonate or they feel funny or they feel sad. Um, you know, I have my ideas about why Hazel lives in that house but I don’t really explain that because I want people to be able to bring their own metaphor to the experience. That’s kind of the biggest goal I have — to put something out there and let people individually interact with it. So I try not to say “this is what it means” or “this is not what it means” or “this is what it means to me.”
And sometimes a burning house can just be enjoyed as a burning house.
Exactly. It can just be a burning house. They can enjoy it—or not enjoy it—just for what it is.
It seems like a very personal movie — most of your movies do actually. Is it difficult to repeatedly put that out there into the world?
Everything I do is personal. I don’t know how to write except to write for myself. So even when I take on a subject like someone else’s book like I did in Adaptation, I couldn’t really figure out a way around the subjectivity, so I just included it. You know, otherwise I don’t think it’s real. That was a very specific way to include it but I did feel the need to put my world into it. Otherwise, I felt like I was being dishonest or unethical because I’m not Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief, the subject of Adaptation). These are real people, so how can I say “this is what Susan Orlean said,” when she didn’t say it. I’m writing it without saying to people Susan Orlean didn’t really say this, you know?
I’ve was curious if you’ve read much Paul Auster.
A little bit. I think I’ve only read Oracle Night.
Well, I ask because In his book, The Music of Chance, this eccentric millionaire hobbyist builds a model of what he calls ‘The City of the World.’ It’s a condensed depiction of his entire life that includes all the important places and pivotal events that made him the man he is— including the construction of the model. So in the model, he’s building himself building the model…
Wow. That sounds great, but I haven’t read that. It does remind me of an idea I had though. I wanted to build a casino in Las Vegas called Las Vegas, Las Vegas. Like the idea of Paris, Las Vegas (the real life casino) is that you don’t have to actually go there — their campaign is something like ‘all the best of Paris without the French people.’ So then (with Las Vegas, Las Vegas,) there’s the idea that you don’t actually have to go to Paris, Las Vegas either because there’s a replica of all of Vegas—including Paris, Las Vegas—within this other casino. So you get even more safe by not having to go out into the strip at all. I thought that would be a pretty successful resort.
(laughs) I think you’re probably right. But of course there’s a darker side to that. There’s someone who actually has to build it!
…Because they’d have to keep going. Within Las Vegas, Las Vegas, there would have to be a replica of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, and it would just continue. But I think even one might just make money!.
Both the millionaire in the Auster book and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Synecdoche were strangely comfortable with the fact that creating this true thing—whatever it is—would take them their entire lives.
Here’s what happens when you look for truth: it’s never ending. I find this when I’m writing a screenplay. Because I allow myself the freedom to explore an idea rather than write towards an end. You’re always learning new things, and eventually, if you want to finish something, if you want to complete something, you have to just stop and say “Ok. This is as far as this one goes.” But you could work on it forever.
That’s one of the things I found so satisfying about this movie — seeing an artist give themselves so completely to one thing.
You know, I remember once I went to the cloisters when I was younger, there was a wood carving, kind of a relief that was about this big (holds up hands about 18” x 12”) and it was so intricate and it was a scene with people in it…that was astounding. I think the guy worked on it for 25 years. This thing, that was this big.
Yeah. And I had this thought at the time that the only reason that this exists is because somebody lived in a culture at that time where you could work on something for 25 years and it was acceptable, you know? It was like, this is your work. He wasn’t trying to be famous, he wasn’t trying to put a lot of stuff into the world, and he was comfortable with the idea although I’m sure it was partly because he was a monk. It was just “this is what i’m going to do.” And we don’t really have anything like that now in the world. It feels like…it feels like we’re lacking because we have this model of work which is almost like industrial production where you have to keep doing new things. You’re only as good as the last thing you did and you have to come out with new work. A lot of it is by what our culture suggests is important but you also need to make a living so you need to keep working. Um, this idea of resting on our laurels is such an odious idea. But I loved this thing and it really stuck with me over the years. The world that this guy lived in was just so different…
It allowed him to make something like that…
…And at point when 25 years was his entire adult life, probably.
Not only can someone not do that now, but the idea of craft is missing form our culture. It’s sad.
It really is sad. You go to Europe and you look at some old building that took centuries to build. And you can’t do anything like that anymore. Even stuff from the 30’s here, the detail on these old buildings, it seems like we can’t do it.
I’ve lived in some very old, historic houses where you often see these hinges that were designed and there were all these personal, crafted details throughout the house. So much thought and time went into it. When done well, they really reinforce the entire stucture and it becomes something more that its parts. It becomes a work of art.
And there’s this sense of being spoken to through time. When something like that exists. These people who are no longer alive are there with you through their work.
And you can continue that. You contribute to it and it becomes alive.
Right. That’s really touching to me, that sort of connection to other people and to their work through time. It’s like reading an old book and feeling touched by it – that this person who has been dead for so long is able to communicate with me after hundreds of years. It says so much about the human community that I often don’t experience. We’re such a fractured world now. So I think you get that with literature and I try to do that with movies in that I’m hopefully opening it up to interpreation, to personal experience which will change over time. You know, when you read Catcher In The Rye when you’re 13 and when you’re 45, it’s a totally different experience.
Your work has a pretty big following now but this is a very different movie from any of your previous films. Are you at all worried about how it’s going to be received?
I have been. I’ve been dealing with reactions since Cannes, which was in May. So I know there’s going to be a divide and I know some people seem to be passionately engaged with it and some people seem to get mad about it. I’ve had my period of being hurt by the negative reactions but I think I’m letting go. The multiple reactions are ok.
There’s no tricky reveal here. There’s no real ‘a ha’ moment.
I think some of the negative reaction to the movie might be for that reason. That was one of the things that Jon Brion, the composer, suggested to me early on before the movie came out, that he thought people were expecting a Charlie Kaufman reveal. You feel a safety in that and I wanted intentionally not to do that. This is a movie about a man’s life. It takes you from a certain point to his death and I’m not giving you an out. My intention is to leave you with the raw experience of that and I think that there will be some negative reaction but I have to accept that that’s the movie I made and I have to live with it.
Many thanks to Charlie Kaufman for taking the time to speak with me and for always striving to explore the full potential of film and expand the limits of the medium. It was true pleasure to talk with him. I just can’t say enough about this film. It’s so dense, so engaging, and so damn compelling, it demands multiple viewings. Anyone who has ever labored over creating something true, something that matters, will find Synecdoche, New York both inspiring and heartbreaking; beautiful, yet terrible. In a word, sublime.