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Enigmatic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman opens up about his directorial debut to Katrina Onstad.


Before Diablo Cody, there was only one Hollywood screenwriter that lay moviegoers knew by name. Charlie Kaufman is the author of such worshipped brainiac comedy love stories as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. The latter – nominally about a writer named Charlie Kaufman who attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief — turned Kaufman the man into Kaufman the concept: that of the painfully sensitive artist pushing beauty in a corroded world.

This week, Kaufman dropped by the CBC in Toronto to promote his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. The s-word is a literary term that means “a part standing for a whole,” though it sounds a lot like Schenectady, the small town where the lead character, theatre director Caden Cotard, toils in obscurity. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Cotard, whose failing marriage leads him to undertake his most ambitious project: enacting a play about his life on a set that’s an exact, to-scale replica of New York. Dreamlike and labyrinthine, the film — and the play — is another Kaufmanian exploration of artistic narcissism and, as always, the transience of love. In person, Kaufman does little to undo his image. Small, slight and seemingly fragile under a nest of lopsided curls, Kaufman opened up about fearing celebrities, his nose and real horror movies.

Q: How are you?

A: I’m not great; I’m okay. I’m tired. I didn’t sleep very well. I just got in last night, and smashed my nose on a car door. It was bleeding and it was very upsetting to me. I just did a TV spot and I have a bloody gash on my nose. But I’m okay. There’s some lesson in it, some thing I need to practice in my life that I’m dealing with right now.

Q: As long as you don’t look at it as punishment for something else.

A: I look at everything as punishment for something else. I can’t get away from that.

Q: If it’s any consolation, you really can’t see the cut.

A: Makeup. [Smiles.]

Q: So why did you decide to direct after having had so much success as a screenwriter?

A: As a writer, it’s a strange thing to not have your voice carried through to the end. I’ve had good luck in being able to collaborate with most of the directors I work with, but my stuff is very personal, and I want it to remain that way. In a certain sense, directing was an experiment to see what that would be like. Philip Seymour Hoffman, right and Catherine Keener star in Synecdoche, New York. (TIFF)

Q: Was it a successful experiment?

A: I had more control on this movie than I think any of the directors I’ve worked with have had. I had final cut. People [from the studio] were trying to get things changed in post-production, but a) they didn’t know how they wanted things to change, and b), they couldn’t because I didn’t have to listen to them. The only things I didn’t have control over were — and it’s a major issue as a director — the pragmatic things: when you have 45 minutes to shoot a long scene; when you’ve got all these effects that you need to have in the movie, but you’ve got this much money. Those become major definers of the aesthetic of the movie, which is different than writing.

Q: Was there an emotional journey for you from those first days as a neophyte movie director to the film’s completion?

A: If there’s an emotional component to my directing, it was really, in the end, just that I did it. I don’t generally feel pleased with myself, but if I think about it, I feel pleased. I did this. It’s not an easy movie, with all of its emotional and technical issues. I took on this thing, which was massive, and at least completed it. I didn’t buckle under. I didn’t run away. I didn’t have any major breakdowns on set. I did what I had to do. I feel kind of good about that. When people ask me for writing advice, I don’t have any. But I do think getting a screenplay done is a major achievement, even if it’s lousy. The idea that you can do this, you can write 100 pages of material, it’s a big thing.

Q: What was the genesis of the project?

A: [Director] Spike Jonze and I were originally going to do this together. We were approached by Amy Pascal [a producer] at Sony, [the studio] where we did Adaptation. She said it would be great if we could do a horror movie, and so Spike and I talked about what that would mean. We were interested in what’s scary in a real way as opposed to haunted videotapes or ghosts or whatever it is people do in horror movies. So we talked about loneliness, rejection, meaning and all those things that are really scary to people, as well as for us, and we came up with a vague notion. I went off and wrote it for a few years and Spike went away and started to develop Where the Wild Things Are. When I finally finished the script, he was compelled by reasons I don’t really know, perhaps contractually, to do that movie first. It had already been a few years since I had a movie out and I felt like I needed this thing to get made after investing three years of my life in it. I didn’t want it to go on the back burner, and I asked Spike if he would be okay to let me direct it and he agreed.

Q: Does directing change how you write?

A: I’m worried about that, actually, because directing is a very different thing than writing. As a director, many of your concerns are pragmatic things, and as a writer, you don’t think about those things, and you shouldn’t. Now I’m wondering if I’ll start thinking about, How am I going to afford to do this? — which is a really dangerous thing for me. I am writing something else now, and I’m trying not to go down that road. It’s tricky. For instance, I’ve made a point of never thinking about my actors when I’m writing. People have always asked me: Did you think about Jim Carrey for Eternal Sunshine? And I always say no, because I want Jim Carrey to come to the character. If I write for an actor, then I’m writing based on what I’ve seen them do and then I’m not creating a character. But you know, lately I have been thinking about casting. It’s not “Who could do this?” although that is an issue, but also, “Do I want to work with this person? Is this going to be an awful experience, or is it going to be a good experience?” All those things are not an issue when you’re not the director.

Q: You’ve cast some pretty impressive actors for Synecdoche, New York: Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Dianne Wiest. What’s your comfort level with actors?

A: I used to act a long time ago, and I really like acting and I really like actors and I really like conversations that have to do with the psychology of characters. It’s what I do as a writer, anyway. I try to surround myself with actors who are those kinds of actors and not people I’d have to deal with because they’re spoiled. I directed a couple of plays the year before this, and some of those actors are in my movie. But in addition to that, it gave me a confidence, because I worked with really high-level actors. I directed Meryl Streep in a play, and it was such a difference for me to know that I had done that, as opposed to a couple of years earlier, when I had to meet her for Adaptation. I was terrified to meet her, let alone actually give her directions, so something had happened in those years, where I became able to have a conversation with somebody I was in awe of. I’ve always had this feeling about celebrities. Famous people scare me. I’m intimidated by them, or I have been, so it was kind of nice to get past that, which you have to when you’re directing. The thing I found about directing a movie is there’s a kind of equality of having to put away a part of myself that I’m very fond of and attached to, which is my inhibited, introverted, moody self. I can’t do that when I’m directing, even though it’s my nature. But the actors need to do that, and I need to not do that. So being stable became a big part of my job. There are hundreds of people relying on my being able to move forward, and that became a big part of the practice for me. It was okay for about 10 hours a day, but when it got to 11 hours or more, I really got tired, and I really wanted someone to take care of me, and it wasn’t possible.



Brian M Logan