The first question to be asked after the screening of “Synecdoche, New York” was a bit murky, but it seemed to be about whether the screenwriter-turned-director knew where he was going from the outset or found his way there during the cutting process.
Charlie Kaufman’s answer was: “Why do you want to know that?” After there was no answer from the audience member, he went on to say that he often found direction during the editing process.
Question Number Two was from a film student and asked about the 200 short scenes in Kaufman’s first directorial effort, as compared to a normal movie average of 100 scenes. Kaufman responded that it took him 45 days to shoot the entire movie and that he knew he had a lot of scenes.
Question Number Three: The third question referenced Seattle critic N.P. Thomson who apparently called the movie “A dream about outliving your dreams,” and said that it had “a sense of melancholy.” Kaufman responded, “Everyone has something they feel regretful about” (or words to that effect) and went on to say, “I’m kind of dogged about not imposing my opinion on others. Yeah. That sounds good.”
Question Number Four: Kaufman was asked whether he had a theatrical background, since the main character in his movie, Cayden Cotard, is a director in the film. He responded that he “did a lot when I was a kid. I did direct a couple of plays before I did this,” mentioning 2 plays he directed in New York City, one in Los Angeles and one in London. The cast there? Meryl Streep, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, etc. Kaufman said he was able to get his first choices for the film and they were all his favorite actors.
Question Number Five: Kaufman was asked if he had had trouble getting funding to make the film. He answered that, originally, Spike Jonze was to have helmed the film but the combination of the script and Kaufman taking over the reins led Sony to put the film in turnaround (shelve it). But, very quickly after that, said Kaufman, he was able to secure financing with final cut, but he noted: “The landscape has changed a lot in the past couple of years. It wasn’t hard at the time. I don’t know why.” (Yes, the landscape very definitely has changed a lot, financially, hasn’t it, Kids? Our 401K’s are becoming 201K’s and it is unlikely that anyone willing to put up the money to make a movie would be quite as cavalier about backing a film this blatantly uncommercial.)
Question Number Six: This question was about whether he makes things up as he goes along and whether his lead characters are his alter egos. A: “I make things up as I go along, but, there was a lot of back-and-forth until I had something I liked. There are similarities between me and the people I write about. I don’t know how it could be otherwise.” Kaufman went on to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor whose work he admired immensely and who represents his voice in the film. In fact, Hoffman was largely responsible for Kaufman’s decision to retain the film’s ending, rather than capitulate to those who advised against such a bleak “ending.”
Question Number Seven: Kaufman was asked whether his previous work with other filmmakers, such as Spike Jonze, informed his work. He said, “I don’t know how to answer that. I didn’t move away from things; I just tried to figure out what worked for me.”
Question Number Eight: One of the aspiring filmmakers in the audience asked how Kaufman kept the film’s plot straight, since it was not linear. Kaufman said he once thought he’d use cards, but he found that that did not work for him. “I write a lot of ideas, spend a lot of time thinking. I take notes. I get to a point where I’m ready to start writing dialogue.” Kaufman called dialogue, for him as a filmmaker, “a more comfortable situation,” and noted, “I am able to do it quickly.” At this point, there was some reference to Mr. Kaufman’s having written for “Mr. Show,” the television comedy show, but he quickly responded that he had never written for the show. He did acknowledge that Louis C.K., the stand-up comic, had brought him in to do one skit, a Weird Al Yankovich skit, where there were 3 Weird Als: Weird Al, Weirder Al and Normal Al. He described the skit as “parody/parody of parody/back to normal.”
Question Number Nine: Kaufman was asked whether he preferred to write or direct, since he has now done both. His answer was, “Since I have now done directing, I think I want to do more of it. I like having the control. I like being able to pick the final directions.” He noted, though, that, “I’m kind of a moody, sulky person, and you’re not allowed to be that when you’re the director. ” Kaufman said he could remain cheerful and encouraging for 10 hours of the 17 they worked, “but not for the last 7 hours.”
Question Number Ten: Kaufman was asked about collaborating with others. He responded, “You collaborate with people and it’s 60/40 %. A lot of the aesthetic was informed by how much we could afford.” Kaufman called directing “an extremely pragmatic business as opposed to writing.” He commented that set director Marc Freedman came in with sketches that were appropriate for a low budget movie, such as a whole block on an Armory. He also noted that, “The Zeppelin is fake” and that, “We could have had more of the Zeppelin, but we didn’t.”
Question Number Eleven: Kaufman was asked about influences on his work. He rephrased the question, “What am I influenced by?” And Kaufman answered, “I try to find what I’m thinking about. The reality is the chaos and confusion of your current existence…what seems true…what seems honest.”
Question Number Twelve: Kaufman was asked about the cast and whether he was surprised to get such a stellar group for his first film. He said, “I cast them, so I wasn’t surprised. It was a thrill for me to get to work with these people. Most of them are my favorite actors.”
Question Number Thirteen: Kaufman was asked about the meaning of the film and said, “I want people to interpret it their own way.” He talked about how his own feelings are sometimes hurt by criticism, noting, “I’m a sensitive guy.” He said, “People put a lot of shit into the world. I want to put something honest out there.”
Question Number Fourteen: Asked about the use of “Death of a Salesman” within his film. He said he was definitely “not making fun of the play at all,” and that, originally, the film he wanted to use was “Equus” but that he could only get the rights to use “Death of a Salesman,” which, he noted, had actually worked out well. He said, “There’s something heartbreaking about kids doing ‘Death of a Salesman.’ (when they’re in high school). I like that play a lot. I’m not making fun of it.” Kaufman also mused about the different ways that casting one person in one part might change the film saying, “What if I cast Michelle as Adele?” ( actually thought he said “Linda” here, but did not remember a character called “Linda” in the film, so I may be misquoting, and, if so, I apologize to the director and ask for a better seat or a microphone that works, next time.)
Question Number Fifteen: Someone asked a long drawn-out question about whether the film was “semi-neurotic, semi-adolescent” and Kaufman responded, “Well, not if you put it that way!” He continued talking about his creative process, saying, “When I start something, I don’t know where it’s going to go. I write stuff from the inside. It is what it is.” Kaufman made me( as a fellow writer) feel better by saying that he does not have a “routine” where he writes “X” number of hours a day at a certain time, etc. (Thanks for that, Charlie! I mean it!) “What I wanted to do when I started out was to try to externalize the internal world of this character. The dream imagery (house burning, etc.) just came. I found it kind of fascinating.” Charlie talked about how “the end is built into the beginning” (i.e., we are born to die…”in the midst of life we are in death”) and used the idea of choices that inform our lives, especially in regards to the character of Hazel, who buys and lives in a constantly burning house. “She didn’t have to buy that house and live in that house, but she chose to. It’s all about decisions. The funny things are funny because they resonate.”
Question Number Sixteen: “Why did you use John Malkovich as the main character in ‘Being John Malkovich?'” A: “At the time, it was because I thought it was funny.” The question then became why Kaufman named the film “Synecdoche, New York” and he responded, “I don’t know why. I liked the way it sounded. I didn’t have it as the only title. It’s so long ago that I don’t know exactly why. I just knew I wanted it to start out somewhere where little theater is done, like Poughkeepsie or somewhere and then end up in New York City, so the town had to be outside of New York City.” He added that he had found new things in the title as recently as two weeks ago.
Question Number Seventeen: “Why view life like this?” This question came from a young man in my row who seemed rather discontented with what he viewed as the pessimistic tone of the film. Kaufman’s answer: A – “How do I view it? I don’t think of it as pessimistic. I think we are all on a continuum. Everyone is on the same path. I think it informs our life that we’re the only animals that know we’re going to die. I want, as a reader or a viewer, ‘Eureka!’ moments that speak to me/him. I think of myself as enormously optimistic. Take happiness. Fake happiness is meaningless and alienating. I’m not creating a product. I’m not trying to get you to come see my movie. That’s kind of the end of it, for me. Do with it what you will. I think you can really only offer us yourself. The rest is a lie, and the rest is a gamble.” [*I remember thinking, at this point, that it was a rather self-indulgent thing to take the money of investors (and the talents of a top-notch cast) and care only about articulating one’s own angst. I wondered how the people who gave Kaufman the money to make the film would view his comment about not trying to convince audiences to come see the film in today’s economic climate? It’s one thing to have something to say and to want to say it well, and to realize that not all of life is “happy” and “uplifting” and “joyous,” but it’s another thing, entirely, to have a film that meanders off-topic a great deal and is so “down” and depressing that people will be driven from the theater…or never get there at all. Maybe collaborations with others on films have been good to and for Charlie Kaufman in the past? Certainly any of his previous films were more entertaining and more commercial, if not more profound. But that’s just my opinion, and the only one I’m qualified to express, so see it at your own speed and make your own judgments; he does have impressive talent in the writing department, and watching someone who may be slowly dying is sure upbeat and gives you that little bit of extra verve in your step as you exit the theater. For some actual quotes from the film, please see my review on www.associatedcontent.com]
Question Number Eighteen: Kaufman was asked whether he finds interviews like this one “enjoyable” or not, as they continue during additional screenings of his film. He responded, “I find it more or less enjoyable. I really enjoyed it. I’m happy. It’s not a burden.”
Question Number Nineteen: When asked about any advice or arguments that arose during the filming, Kaufman acknowledged that there were some who cautioned him against retaining the bleak ending. “There was a lot of anxiety about the end of the movie.” Kaufman confessed that he actually wrote another different ending for the film, but that he listened to Philip Seymour Hoffman the most and Hoffman did not see how the film could end any other way than the way it did and urged him not to shoot it and/or not to use it.
Many wanted Catherine Keener’s character (Adele Lack) to come back for some sort of “resolution,” said Kaufman, but he did not see it that way. He went on to say, “Your confidence gets kind of shaky, but I had final cut.” He remarked, “I wasn’t going to change the movie to say something that would bring more people to it.
Kaufman repeated his “final cut” comment at least three times during the Question and Answer session. Woody Allen was always held up as the director who had the ideal situation of “final cut” and that having “final cut” was a director’s dream.
Question Number Twenty: “What do you like (in movies) that is mainstream?” Kaufman responded, “I like to sit home and watch crap on a Friday night, too. I like a lot of movies. I’m not, like, a weirdo or anything.” After the tittering died down, the questioner asked Kaufman if he had seen “The Dark Knight” and Charlie responded, “I haven’t actually seen any Super Hero movies this year. I like the Coen Brothers. I liked ‘Dumb & dumber. There are some really funny lines and situations in that movie.” [*This is where I agree to disagree with you, Charlie, but, then again, I saw it while in Portugal and it probably plays better if you know what-the-hell they’re saying. Or not.]
The questioner went on to ask if Kaufman had seen “A Scanner Darkly.” He responded, “It seemed weird, to me, that he wanted to do it (“A Scanner Darkly”) that way (using rotogravure). I wouldn’t have done that.” [*I have a theory that using this method allowed him to use the younger, thinner, more hirsute Woody Harrelson. All that was required from the leads: voices. They could look like they had looked 20 years earlier, if the director chose to have them drawn that way. I liked the film.]
Question Number Twenty-One: “In your films, does character inform plot, or does plot inform character?” He answered, “I honestly don’t know what that means. They’re all sort of combined. I feel like I want to make it (the film) organic. It’s all up for grabs. Structure really is important to me. I actually think about it (structure) a lot.”
When pushed further about the film’s bleak view of life (as perceived by many viewers), Charlie Kaufman responded, “You’re asking me something that you feel and then asking me why YOU feel it. I’m not going to venture a guess. I don’t know you. I think being a person is hard. The grocery clerk looks like she hates you. Other people are mean to you. There’s only one end to any project that you do, and that’s your death.”
When asked why he ended the film, finally, he said: “I ended it because I got bored, I had a deadline I had to meet to get paid. I spent a lot of time not writing but thinking.”
One of the many meanings of the title is “simultaneous understanding.” There are many, many others, just as there are many, many other interpretations of this interesting, experimental, but ultimately joyless film.