Q & A: CHARLIE KAUFMAN ON “Synecdoche, New York”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Kaufman

From left to right: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Director/Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

As part of ZAMM.com’s awards season coverage MARTIN GROVE is focusing on films likely to be competing for Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. In today’s Q&A Conversation he talks to screenwriter and first-time director CHARLIE KAUFMAN about “Synecdoche, New York.”

“Synecdoche, New York,” from Sony Pictures Classics and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, is produced by Anthony Bregman, Spike Jonze, Kaufman and Kimmel. It was executive produced by William Horberg, Bruce Toll and Ray Angelic. Starring are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Tom Noonan. “Synecdoche” premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and opened Oct. 24 in New York and Los Angeles.

In 2005 Kaufman won the best original screenplay Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He was previously nominated for co-writing the adapted screenplay for “Adaptation” and for writing the original screenplay “Being John Malkovich.” He also was a Golden Globe nominee for best screenplay for those three films. “Synecdoche” could easily put Kaufman back in the awards competition for best original screenplay.

“Synecdoche’s” stars have done well in the past with Academy voters. Hoffman won the best actor Oscar for “Capote” and has a good shot at getting into this year’s best actor races. Morton was Oscar nominated as best actress for “In America” and received a supporting actress nom for “Sweet and Lowdown.” Williams was a supporting actress Oscar nominee for “Brokeback Mountain.” Keener was a supporting actress Oscar nominee for “Capote” and “Being John Malkovich.” Watson was a best actress Oscar nominee for “Hilary and Jackie” and “Breaking the Waves.” Wiest won supporting actress Oscars for “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

“Synecdoche” is a multi-layered film in which we go in and out of reality as we follow the story of Caden Cotard, played by Hoffman, a theater director obsessed with his own mortality. Caden is able to stop staging local theater productions in Schenectady, New York when he wins a big financial grant that lets his inner creative self blossom. In so doing he assembles a large ensemble group and begins rehearsing in a New York City warehouse that’s so large it can hold a replica of the entire city! Over the next 17 years he works on getting his masterpiece “real life” production just right before finally inviting audiences in to have a look.

Q: How did “Synecdoche, New York” come about?
A: Originally I had written it because Spike Jonze and I had been approached by (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal. She wanted us to do a horror movie and so eventually Spike and I started talking about ideas. We wanted to do something that felt like it was really scary as opposed to horror movie scary. So we had a vague sort of pitch that we went in to her with about a movie with issues of mortality and illness and loneliness and time passing and regret and isolation and those sort of things.

By the time I finished it Spike had started on “Where the Wild Things Are” and felt like he wanted to do that movie first or needed to. So I knew it would be a long time before he could get to this one and I asked if he would mind if I directed it. It was a matter of circumstance as much as anything else. I hadn’t intended to direct this movie, but I’ve wanted to direct for a while and I felt like I understood the script probably better than anyone else would. So I just kind of seized the opportunity.
Q: If you knew you were going to direct it, would you have written the screenplay any differently?
A: I don’t think so. I don’t know why I would have. I write the way I write. I think now, having directed, my big concern is not to write differently because I’ve had this experience and if I want to direct again I have a certain amount of information about what’s entailed in directing. But I don’t want to think that way when I’m writing because I think that that’s kind of a pragmatic way to think and I want to be able to give my imagination as much freedom as I can.
Q: Other writer-directors have told me they’d never write certain things again — like scenes that take place at night in the rain — because they’ve found out the hard way what it’s like to have to shoot them.
A: There’s a lot of things like that that came up that were difficult to shoot or difficult to light and were things that surprised me. Like, for example, hallways are difficult to light. We have a very, very long hallway in this movie and that surprised me. I mean, I see hallways all the time in movies and can’t imagine they’re that difficult to (shoot), but apparently they are. Obviously, you need a certain type of hallway because if you don’t have certain things you can’t hide the lights.
Q: I know that Sony wound up putting your project in turnaround. What happened after that?
A: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment picked it up to finance it. And then it was a matter of getting a cast together and waiting for some cast (members) that we needed or wanted. And then we did it. The whole thing from beginning to end was probably about five years and that includes the writing.
Q: The role of Caden fits Philip Seymour Hoffman like a glove. Did you have him in mind while you were writing?
A: No. I make it a point not to think about what things are going to cost and, also, actors. I don’t really want to think about actors when I’m writing characters because then I’m going to start thinking about the actor and I’m not going to be writing a character with characteristics that exists independently of the actor. And so I don’t — which is another thing that’s going to be more difficult to do now that I’m going to be considering directing things that I write because you do have to eventually have to figure that out and if you don’t have anyone in mind it could be a little scary.
Q: How did you wind up casting Hoffman?
A: Well, once it was done and I was directing it it just seemed pretty easy to me and he was the person I thought of. It seemed like he would be perfect for it so I approached him. We met and we talked about the story and then he read the script and agreed to do it. It was a pretty straight forward (deal). He signed on right away.

We had met each other and spent a little bit of time together because we’d done an evening of plays together the previous year. So I knew him a little bit, but I didn’t know him very well at the time. We met and we talked a lot. I think we liked each other and I think we felt kind of a kinship in terms of our take on things, the way we looked at things. We talked a lot about the issues that are in the movie.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We shot almost entirely in the boroughs of New York. The warehouse that we shot in was an armory in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. That was where we built the largest part of the set.
Q: As Charlie the director how did you treat the screenplay that you’d written as Charlie the writer?
A: It’s hard to be at odds with yourself. So I shot what I wrote for the most part. We had to make certain adjustments in certain scenes. We had a very, very tight schedule. We were shooting over 200 scenes in 45 days. But the movie is shot as the production script was (written). I was pretty familiar with the script at that point and we did a lot of rehearsal — as much as we could — and I knew what it was going to look like. There was the occasional discussion on the set about something that was being said, which I think always comes up, mostly on scenes where we hadn’t rehearsed.
Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced during production?
A: The greatest challenge, I think, was the global challenge of trying to do over 200 scenes in 45 days. Every challenge related to that and they were all pragmatic ones. What can we afford? How can we afford it? And how do we do this in this amount of time? Within that larger issue, the smaller issues were exhaustion and extreme heat. We shot in the middle of the summer in this (warehouse) building and it was very, very uncomfortable, especially if you were three stories up on the structure.

(What made it even worse was that) some of the actors wore very, very heavy prosthetic makeup, which was miserable for them. The hours were very, very long in order to get through these days. Phil Hoffman was in virtually every scene in the movie so it was a big, big exhausting stretch for him. It’s a very emotional part and required a lot. If we had twice as many days to shoot it in and twice as much money, it would have been an easier (shoot). But as it is we got it done and that in itself I feel pretty proud of.
Q: Looking ahead, are you working on anything else?
A: I’m trying to write something new. I’ve been taken up by this for the last several years and have nothing else in the bank, as it were. By that I mean the bank of scripts, not the bank — although that may be true, too! So I’m trying to write something else so I can have something else in the bank — both as a script and in the bank.