Connect with us


Interview: Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York)

Well initially Spike Jonze was going to direct it but he wanted to do it after “Where the Wild Things are” and I didn’t want to wait five years and I asked if I could do it and he said ok.

With a double-dose of Charlie Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, we had come to terms with the notion that we couldn’t get any closer into the mindset of one of the most brilliant screenwriters of our time, but with Synecdoche, New York we are pleasantly reminded that there is more to what makes Charlie Kaufman tick when he also happens to find his way behind the camera. This is 100% Kaufman – a film where you get an uncompromising look into the blue print of the human condition — this comes across as a distinguishable classic and it has yet to make its theatrical run in the public domain. Watching it five months later, I’ve had time to think about the film and this time out, focused on the richness of its details and the accompanying multiple layers of the key characters. Kaufman did not set himself up for an easy task when he opted to direct his most ambitious script for himself, and in the same measure this thankfully never had the chance at getting lost in the hands of another. A superb cast helps him to achieve his vision about art and life and how this notion feeds off one another leading to dire circumstances, filled with hope and destruction. Kaufman‘s deadpan humor is full on and Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Caden Cotard is a neurotic on steroids not that far off from what we have come to admire in the genius that is an integral part of a creator such as Woody Allen.

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman Synecdoche, New York Interview

Yama Rahimi: First of all congratulations on your film which I think is 100% Charlie Kaufman.
Charlie Kaufman: So it seems for better or worse.
YR: I saw the film first in Cannes, then again last week. I think it pays off well the second time around.
CK: Yeah it works. You need to see it more than once. The trick is to get people to watch it more than once.
YR: Tell us about your Cannes and post Cannes experience.
CK: It was hard because the producers decided to screen the film for distributors a week before the official screening for the critics and the public. So when the film didn’t sell, it became a stigma of the film that didn’t sell and that really hurt us. Even though none of the US films got sold but it got stuck on us. There was a lot of speculation as far as why it didn’t sell. So by the time it got to the screening, we had this negative press about us which is upsetting. I don’t like Cannes in generally, the whole idea of that sort of pomp, red carpet, tuxedo and photographers and celebrity stuff that goes on there. It’s all sort of embarrassing to me and not my favorite place to be but it was nice and flattering for us to be selected. I’m glad it’s over.

Charlie Kaufman Synecdoche, New York Interview

YR: Tell us about you decided to direct this film.
CK: Well initially Spike Jonze was going to direct it but he wanted to do it after “Where the Wild Things are” and I didn’t want to wait five years and I asked if I could do it and he said ok. Suddenly I was doing it. I guess was at the point where I was ready to take the plunge. So I was ready to do it and thought if the film finished on schedule I would turn 50. So I wanted get over my fears and do it. Also I thought this was a personal thing and if Spike wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t trust anybody else with it. You know I didn’t want to go out and hire directors since I knew the script better than anybody. I was ready and I did it.
YR: Great. I’m glad you did.
CK: I’m tired of being afraid. I learned a lot from Spike. He does things without being afraid. He directed without having the experience and David O. Russell offered him an acting job and he did it. So it’s a cool way to be in the world.
YR: Tell us about your relationship with Spike?
CK: He read Being John Malkovich and wanted to do it. At that point the project was around for a couple of years and nobody wanted to do it. People liked it but thought it was too weird to be a movie. So Spike did it and we became friends.
YR: It seems the role was written for Philip Seymour Hoffman.
CK: Well it wasn’t since I thought Spike was going to do that. I never write for any specific actor because otherwise I would write what I have seen them done before instead of a real character. But when I was at the position of casting, I felt Phil was the appropriate actor for it. I couldn’t think of anybody else. So I was very fortunate that he agreed to do it.
YR: While Nicolas Cage and Cameron did well on your previous scripts, in this film which’s your most ambitious script and you went the whole nine yards to stay true to your vision. Was there any pressure from the producers on your casting?
CK: Kimmel Entertainment was financing the film and they were fine with it so there was never an issue. Even for Nicolas and Cameron, Spike thought they were right for the film. He initially didn’t want Cameron but she really wanted to do it and she was good friends with Catherine Keener who was cast in the film and she wanted Cameron to do it. Cameron offered to read which someone in her position normally doesn’t do. She was great and he loved her. I don’t think she was cast because she was a movie star.

Charlie Kaufman Synecdoche, New York Interview

YR: The story structure is fascinating, is there a term for it? I refer it to the Bjork’s “Bachelorette” video by Gondry which uses a similar structure in a simple way.
CK: Yeah I heard that comparison before. The reason Michel and I found each other is because we have similar sort of ideas. I’m not aware of any term but maybe recursive.

YR: Tell us about working with Catherine Keener. Is she your muse?
CK: No but I tell you we shot with her and Phil first. After the first day, I went and told her that I want her in every movie I make. She’s amazing actress and person to work with. So generous with everybody and specially the actors.
YR: Did you write the child’s song at the beginning of the film?
CK: Yes I did and Jon Brion did the melody for it.
YR: Tell us about the actresses in your film which includes some of the best actresses around…
CK: It was great to have them and they all agreed to do the film. I cast Emily Watson because I already had Samantha Morton and both of them occupy the same space in my head. So subsequently the whole casting took place like that. Samantha told me that she was cast in a movie where the director told her how much he loved her in Breaking the Waves and she had to tell him that it was Emily Watson. I guess it’s a common mistake but it was fun to have them together in the film.

Sony Pictures Classics releases Synecdoche, New York in theaters, this Friday, October 24th.

Continue Reading
You may also like...'s award guru Yama Rahimi is a San Francisco-based Afghan-American artist and filmmaker. Apart from being a contributing special feature writer for the site, he directed the short films Object of Affection ('03), Chori Foroosh ('06) and the feature length documentary film Afghanistan ('10). His top three of 2019 include: Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, Todd Phillips' Joker and Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse.

Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top