Charlie Kaufman is the rarest of Hollywood commodities — a brand-name writer. He’s branching out, though; his directorial debut is Synecdoche, New York. The film is a sprawling think piece that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director who crafts an equally sprawling “living play” against a decades-long backdrop of personal turmoil and heartache. In a Los Angeles hotel suite, in advance of the film’s release, Kaufman spoke with Vulture about what his unusual film most assuredly isn’t titled and how Spike Jonze has to sometimes remind him of his own ideas.
Given that we’ve had over the last eight years a president who has worn as a badge of honor his total lack of inward reflection, and Synecdoche’s Caden is very much the opposite of that — a character in many ways obsessed by reflection — is there, in your mind, an aspect of political commentary to the film?
I don’t really talk about what the movie’s about, because it’s about what it’s about to you. So it’s hard for me to say yes or no, because then it becomes like, “Well, I was wrong, it’s not that.” But if it’s causing you to reflect on something or interact with the movie in a certain way that’s interesting for you, then I’m gonna support it.
When did you decide on the film’s title?
As soon as I finished the script and sent it to Sony and Spike, I came up with a bunch of titles and this was the one that I liked the best. People say things online that just aren’t true, and yet they say them with such authority that they become true. Everyone thinks that the movie was originally called Schenectady, New York, and then I decided to call it Synecdoche, New York because somehow there was a stolen copy of the script that was put online, and that someone took the title page off of it, since that would maybe indicate where it came from, and typed up their own title page, but mis-titled it. But why would I call something Schenectady? It’s not even a title, you know? It’s got nothing going for it. It was always, as soon as I submitted it for people to read, Synecdoche, New York.
How do you feel your own background in theater and as an actor informed your work as a director?
I’ve had to deal, a lot, with my own sense of intimidation at meeting famous people — especially actors, but really any famous people. I directed these plays a couple years ago, and these really good, well-known actors agreed to do it, and I had an opportunity to work through that process of being scared. Once I got past that, I realized that I really like actors and the idea of acting, because I really like talking about things that actors frequently like to talk about, which is psychology. I can talk endlessly about characters, or why someone did this or that, and what that dynamic and interaction is. I really love it, and I think that actors really respond positively to the fact that I like to talk about that stuff, because I’m not sure that all directors do. I was very into the idea of how to embody somebody else.
Because Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have directed your other screenplays, your films are associated with not only your writing, but also some remarkably creative visual storytelling as well. How challenging was it, for your directorial debut, to translate your script into images for your creative team?
What can we afford to do, how many sets can we afford to build? I had those kinds of conversations with our production designer and DP. Initially, in the [script], the Sammy character jumps off a replica of the Empire State Building to kill himself. The Empire State Building would not let us do that for reasons that I guess were obvious, so we tried every other monument in New York. We were this close — and this would have been a beautiful thing! — to getting the inside of the Guggenheim. We had stunt people signed up to do that jump. The head of the museum said we could do it! And then the lawyers said no. We had a location with a balcony that we were going to use for something else but we ended up never using, and we just decided that we had to use it for that. I think those kinds of seat-of-your-pants decisions are more common on movies than most people know.
You’ve talked before about always wanting to be surprised by what you’re writing. But what’s necessary to start really doing the heavy lifting of a focused screenplay — is it a central conflict, a theme, or just a set of characters?
It varies from movie to movie. Sometimes I’ll start out with a theme or an aspect of human existence that I want to explore. For Being John Malkovich, I was trying to think of what it would feel like to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, and then I had the idea of it being John Malkovich, and it seemed funny to me. I combined that with an idea that I had about a guy having an affair with somebody he worked with. I put together these two disparate things that were going to be separate and sort of allowed myself to be confounded.
Do you have, then, an actual idea box, or are these just things bouncing around in your head?
I have ideas written down some places, but usually I can’t find them. I’m not very organized. I just spoke to Spike [Jonze] yesterday, and he told me that I should really put my ideas somewhere, because he said, “Sometimes I remind you of ideas that you’ve had that you don’t even remember.” Spike was, I think, concerned.
Get a safety deposit box or at least a shoe box!
Or something, I know. I do throw out a lot of ideas, and I forget completely about them. Sometimes I don’t even have a very organized system on my computer. Even if I’ve typed it up, I would never know where to find, what the document is called. So I should be better about that, because they could be valuable to me. I don’t mean financially, but valuable … when I’m stuck.