Charlie Kaufman started production last week on his first feature as a director, Synecdoche, New York, with a cast led by Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the eve of the shoot, Kaufman and Spike Jonze, one of his producers, talked exclusively to Mike Goodridge.
Oddly, I'm not scared,' Charlie Kaufman says on a break from hair and make-up tests for his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, in early May in Brooklyn. 'Maybe I'm in a state of denial. I'm just so busy I don't have the time to be scared. That doesn't mean I think I'm going to be good at it. I'm just forging ahead.'
Kaufman, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and was previously nominated for both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is considered the consummate screenwriter, yet says that he always had directing ambitions. 'I started being interested in acting and theatre at a young age,' he says. 'I went to film school to be a director. I had always written and I figured that writing was the way to get a directing job. Then it became a thing unto itself.'
Although he did not collaborate with George Clooney on Clooney's film of Kaufman's Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Kaufman said that he had a 'good education working with Spike (Jonze) and Michel (Gondry) on those four movies (the other was Human Nature)'.
'The majority of my involvement was in pre or post. I was there on set but not every day. I would just stand there and there was not an awful lot for me to do. Occasionally something would be needed for the script and I would be available to do that, whether on set or on the phone.'
It was actually Jonze who was set to direct Synecdoche for Columbia Pictures. 'What happens,' says Kaufman, 'is that this script took quite a while for me to write and directors usually have to wait for me because I take a while. Meanwhile Spike was developing Where The Wild Things Are and that came into a definite state of being first. So I asked if he would mind if I could direct this. Very graciously, he let it go. Sony allowed it to go into turnaround about a year ago and we got it financed with Sidney Kimmel.'
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays theatre director Caden Cotard; at a crisis point in his life he decides to mount an epic play so he can contribute something of artistic value. He gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse and builds a replica of New York City inside it. The play never gets finished, it only gets bigger and bigger. The film spans 40 years kicking off in 2005 and, says Kaufman, time starts moving 'almost irrationally fast' as it goes on.
The film also follows the women in his life. His wife who leaves him is played by Catherine Keener, a woman he meets at the box office and falls for is played by Samantha Morton, an actress whom he marries and divorces is played by Michelle Williams, his therapist is played by Hope Davis, his wife's best friend by Jennifer Jason Leigh and his daughter by Robin Weigert. Emily Watson plays the Morton character within the play and Dianne Wiest is an actress hired to play a cleaning woman in the play.
'Charlie wasn't aware of how much he already knew when he was first starting,' says Jonze, who is producing alongside Anthony Bregman and Sidney Kimmel. 'He knows all the answers to the questions. I am a sounding board to bounce things off.' Jonze will not be on the set all the time, leaving hands-on producing duties to Bregman, who was a producer on both Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine.
Kaufman says that he is storyboarding 'all the sequences that are particularly complicated'.
'We have production meetings late at night where we can't figure things out because the story taking place is in so many worlds,' laughs Kaufman. 'I'm trying to be as prepared as possible and do as much rehearsal as we can.'
The New York set is being built partially in the Brooklyn warehouse, but much of its scale will be added in post-production, where many of Kaufman's greatest works have been created.
Kaufman and Jonze smile when recalling the 13-month editing process on Adaptation, from which the two of them created 35 different versions of the film. 'We were writing new drafts of the movie in post,' says Kaufman.
'Although we were bound to what we shot, we did draft after draft after we shot the movie,' says Jonze. 'We had so much voiceover and footage about the history of evolution and of orchid collecting. It was amazing how much we could affect the movie. You feel it getting closer and working more and sometimes you try things along the way that don't work.'
For Synecdoche, Kaufman says he has a specifically budgeted amount of post-time.
As for the title, it is a pun on Caden's hometown of Schenectady, New York, but also refers to the grammatical term 'synecdoche' which is when a part of something is used to characterise the whole. 'I like the way it sounds,' says Kaufman. 'I like moving more in the direction of impossible titles. It started with Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.'
So how is Kaufman coping with the managerial and social aspects of directing' 'It's very different from my normal life, which is very solitary,' he says. 'But I like the more social aspects of doing movies and having a laugh once in a while. It's hard to do that when you're sitting in your office.
'Spike and Michel have been very generous in allowing me to be a part of their movies. Most often, that is not the case. There tends to be a competitiveness between writers and directors on some projects. I must say, I do like the idea of making all the decisions.'