Sunday, September 26, 2010

Interview with Charlie Kaufman - May 12th, 2009

Promoting: Synecdoche, New York
Venue: The Mayfair Hotel
Interview type: Round table

ViewLondon (VL): The film has as its main themes mortality and existential angst – are these anxieties which were specific to you at the time of writing it or is it just something that interests you?

Charlie Kaufman (CK): I think that mortality is a concern of everybody, isn’t it, on some level? Or am I just imagining that? But yes, it is. I don’t want to single myself out and say it’s a concern of mine, but it is a concern of mine, yes. I tend to write about the things I’m thinking about at the time. Perhaps I was arriving at an age where it was becoming more of a middle-aged experience where you’re dealing with your body changing and also watching people you know dying. Not to be dramatic about it, [but] as you get older, you’re surrounded by more of it, at least that's my experience. So I thought I'd write about it.

VL: How was your experience of directing your first feature? Do you have plans to direct again?

CK: I enjoyed it, I mean, mostly. It was a lot of work and it was hard but not overwhelming and I will do it again if anyone lets me do it again. It's not entirely up to me, but I would choose to do it again if I can.

VL: Following on from that, you've directed two plays in the past and this film is about a theatre director who is, ultimately, seeking direction. How much of the film stems from self-analysis of being a director?

CK: You know, it's interesting that when I start a project -and it happened in this case too- I sort of know what the character's going to be but I don't necessarily know what his or her job is. So I have to choose a job and in this case, I knew that the couple were both going to be artists of some sort, because it was important that his work not be respected by his wife. So I had to think what kind of artist he would be and I'd used a few different careers before and I couldn't use them, so I thought about a theatre director, not really realising where it was going to lead. But it did lead into a lot of things that were interesting to me. And I think that's how I work, I allow something to sort of, like, be explored. So I didn't set out to make any big pronouncements about myself or about being a theatre director, is what I'm saying.

VL: You’ve said that a big part of directing is about being a grown-up…

CK: (laughs) I did say that. Where did you read that? I haven’t said that recently.

VL: That was on YouTube. I wondered, therefore, do you feel that writing is actually removed from being a grown-up?

CK: Yeah, what I meant when I said that is, as a writer on other movies, I’m a shy person who gets really awkward around actors. I could go off and sulk on the set if I wanted to. It just became clear very quickly that, as a director, I couldn’t do that. I have to be the person whose mood is constant. I have to take care of the problems of the actors who tend to need to go off and sulk. I have to solve those problems, so I felt like it was similar to being a father, which I am, of a young child. You are constantly deciding which of your terrors you should/could reveal. You have to feel safe; the child has to feel safe. And that’s what a director has to provide for the cast. So, I guess that’s what I meant by that. It’s a good exercise for me to do that, because it’s a discipline. There were times, especially late in the day, when I really didn’t want to be the grown-up, but I was.

VL: Is it hard to be a shy director?

CK: No. I don't think it's hard. I think maybe the thing I've decided is that you use the thing that you are. If you're an honest person, then you use your personality, like you would in any endeavour. I mean, I need to be able to talk to people but I don't need to be mean to people or lord it over people like some directors do -and maybe very effectively- but it's not what I do and I don't have to do it.

VL: Now that you've directed -and I know that you've been unhappy with the direction of at least one of your screenplays in the past- do you feel you'll ever be able to give one of your scripts to another director again?

CK: You know, mostly I've been pretty happy. I was unhappy mostly with the George Clooney movie [Confessions of a Dangerous Mind], just basically because he cut me out of the process of making it and he changed my script and stuff. I'm very happy working with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and I would do it again. I think if I was going to write something that someone else was going to direct again, I would probably go to one of those two guys, because I know who they are and I know what I'm going to get by working with them. But right now, I'd prefer to try to do it again myself. So that's what I'll do next, if I can.

VL: Did you always envisage Philip Seymour Hoffman as Cayden or was it something that came to you later on?

CK: No, I didn't. I don't write with actors in mind, at all. For me, it's not an effective way to create a character, because I start to think about what I've seen the actor do and then I'm not really creating a character anymore, I'm writing a role for Philip Seymour Hoffman, so that, added to the fact that I wasn't going to be the director of this movie when I was writing it, makes the answer a resounding no. But as soon I was going to be the director, Philip was the first person I thought of and went to. He was my choice.

VL: Was that because of seeing him in other films or had you worked together before?

CK: No, I'd met him briefly but we hadn't worked together before. Yeah, I remember seeing him in Boogie Nights. That's the first time I was aware of seeing him. It's a very small part but every time he was on screen, that was all I wanted to watch. To me that's always a good quality in an actor. He was great to work with.

VL: Can you say a little about the casting process for everyone else, especially as you have different actors playing the same characters. Particularly in the case of Samantha Morton and Emily Watson?

CK: Well, I cast Samantha – she was my first choice for Hazel. And when I was looking to cast [the character who would play Hazel], Emily is also one of my favourite actors, so, you know. But I think that there's a quality that they both share, or at least, they share the same space in my head. So I went after her to see if she would do it and subsequently found out that they're often confused, by many people. And Sam told me that she was hired by a director, who, at the table reading for the movie that they were doing, he told her how much he liked her in Breaking the Waves. But that's why I cast them. And I cast Tom Noonan to play the Phil Hoffman part because I love Tom Noonan and I thought the idea that Cayden would cast somebody who was so physically wrong for himself because he was trying to look past the physicality and he's trying to be brutally honest and this person, even though he looked nothing like him, he was going to cast him and it ends up being, for me, visually fun.

VL: Oliver Stone was once overheard telling his lead actor that he had to keep it simple because the audience wouldn’t understand. In that respect, I was just wondering what acting notes you gave Philip Seymour Hoffman in this.

CK: I didn’t really give notes on this. The way that Phil and I worked together is that we did a lot of rehearsal beforehand, which consisted mostly of talking. We went through the script and rehearsed it, but mostly it was talking about the character, talking about issues of ageing and children and illness and all these things, so that we could come to an understanding. And once we came to an understanding, he was Caden as far as I was concerned. So working with Phil was kind of like - I don’t want to say it was easy, but he was definitely a self-starter and he’s definitely self-critical and he is definitely completely committed. The biggest thing I tried to do with Phil, as much as I could, was not make him do too many takes. Sometimes it’s so excruciating what he’s going through, I just don’t have the heart to ask him to do it again. And he’s told me that he thinks that the difference between stage acting and film acting is that film acting happens in the first take and it’s not repeatable; it’s got to be fresh. And stage acting is something you have to figure out how to make fresh each time. It’s a different process and knowing that’s what he thought, I tried to be very prepared – not only technically, but so that we understood each other by talking through things.

VL: There’s a perception of you as a cerebral screenwriter and a lot of the critics commented on the fact that this film is quite an uncommercial film. Do you think, firstly, that that’s fair and, secondly, do you think that commercial considerations ever come into play when you’re coming up with a new idea?

CK: I try not to think about commercial considerations, which basically means trying to figure out what people will like. I think that’s the way you have to do it. I feel that if I’m not going to do something honest to myself, then I might as well be selling potato chips because that’s what you’re doing. On the other hand, though, if no one goes to see my movies then I won’t be making them anymore. It’s tricky, especially with this one, because it opened in the United States and it really didn’t do much business. Someone said to me, ‘What I love about you is that you really did a big fuck you to the system; you said, I’m going to make a movie that no-one’s going to go and see’. And I said ‘No I didn’t. I would never do that.’ I’m a nice guy. I would never take somebody’s money thinking that no one’s going to see it. I guess there’s always a chance of that, but I wouldn’t ever set out to do that. It put me into a weird situation, because the other movies I’ve done haven’t been giant box office successes, but they’ve been commercially viable so I could keep doing them. I felt okay about keeping on doing them. But now I’m thinking, you know a movie costs this amount of money, and if there’s only 40 people watching – and those 40 people are really important to me, by the way – then maybe I shouldn’t be making movies. I should be writing books or something that doesn’t cost so much money up front. So it’s put me in a bit of a pickle. We’ll see.

VL: Did you have to cut out anything from the film that you really hated to lose?

CK: Yeah, there were a few things. There were a lot of things. There were things that I loved, there were moments that I loved, but the movie didn't support them. It's a weird thing, you have to find it out when you're editing. It's like, 'Okay, we have to move here' and it's very hard to get to that moment where you're willing to do it. But there were moments and scenes; there were long sequences with some of the actors that I loved. And I feel bad about it – I protected them as long as I could. I feel bad about it for the actors because it's like, 'Oh, no, this is their big scene'. And then there was like a whole little sort of story with Samantha Morton's character where she finds a dog that's been run over by a car and it's completely flattened in the middle but it's not dead and it looks like it's going to die but it doesn't die and she keeps the dog for the next 40 years, she calls him Squishy. And we couldn't keep it – we had to let it go. You can see a little remnant of him behind her at the box office at one point.

VL: Might some of those scenes end up on the DVD?

CK: No. I feel sort of strongly -maybe wrongly- but strongly that this is the movie that we made and that other stuff, as much as I like it, it's not the movie and I don't know what purpose it serves to put it out there.

VL: When I’ve seen your films, I’ve listened to other cinema-goers’ comments and it’s often, “I’m not sure if it’s a work of genius or not.” I’m just wondering why someone would be confused as to whether it’s great. Do you think it’s the surreal nature that might play negatively to people?

CK: Um...I have no idea. I don’t know why people think what they think. Maybe with this movie I’ve seen it more, but I’ve seen it with other things that I’ve written. I think people are really, really afraid of being conned. There’s a thing that I’ve read about; maybe because I get so much attention and people think it’s justified, they talk about me like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I think that if you thought that through, as a human being, that criticism, the idea that I would spend five years of my life trying to trick people…why wouldn’t I spend five years of my life trying to do something that interests me? What type of person would do that? I can understand them thinking that about a movie that aims to go out and make 200 million dollars because then there’s a motivation. That isn’t to say my movies are good; I’m just saying that my motivation is not to con people. People are so afraid of being conned and, I think, kind of rightfully, because so many people are being conned all the time.

Seven: What do you mean by conned?

Kaufman: You know, like movies do. Not that this movie is equivalent to that because it’s a different type of movie, but we’re constantly being sold things and movies are things we’re being sold. Get people into a theatre any way you can, with crap. Or, in my case, get people into the movie because ‘you have to see it because it’s an event and it’s an important cinema milestone’, and, you know, it’s not. They’re like, ‘fuck you; that’s not what this is; I’m not going to believe that.’

It’s almost meaningless anyway to me, to decide whether it’s a work of genius or not. If you don’t like the movie, you don’t like the movie; it’s fine. If you do like the movie, you do like the movie. I’m not suggesting my movies are smarter than anybody else’s. I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just trying to do work that interests me and I guess I have a hope that I can continue to do that and support my family while doing that. It’s a fairly honest thing I’m doing.

But I tell you something. Quite frankly, I have had a much more uniformly good reaction over here than in the United States for anything that I’ve done, so I don’t feel that over here. I’m sure it exists, but people have been very nice to me.

VL: What’s your next project?

CK: I’m writing something that I hope to direct. It’s kind of too early for me to talk about; it’s going to be a comedy of some sort. I spend a lot of time not writing. I walk a lot; I think a lot. The thing I’m working on now, I haven’t written a single page of script yet, but I have 60 pages of notes. I just don’t feel like I know what I’m doing with it yet. I just need to figure out this world. I don’t outline in a conventional way. I get to point where I don’t know where I’m going with it, so then I get stuck and then it takes maybe a few weeks for me to find something in it and I get back into it. I think that’s why it’s taken me so long to write these scripts. This one, for instance, has taken me two and a half years. It’s way too long; I’ve got to work out how to do it differently. If I’ve learned anything from Synecdoche, New York, it’s that I don’t have a lot of time left (laughs).

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