Charlie Kaufman interview, part I

More so than a lot of filmmakers, Charlie Kaufman really cares what you think. I got a chance to interview him the day after his new film "Synecdoche New York" played at the Harvard Square Cinema the crowd there seemed to really love him when I saw him the next morning sitting in a meeting room in the Ritz Carlton I thought he looked kind of glum and full of doubt, kind of like the character Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who may be his onscreen persona. He looked like he needed a hug (maybe without the beard he looks more fragile). I didn’t give him one, and, as you’ll see later, I think I might have made him feel worse.

Peter Keough: How’s it going?

Charlie Kaufman: Its going ok, hows it going for you?

PK: On the subway coming in I was looking at my notes and it started  suddenly and fell onto this woman who was very nice about it.  Kind of like the [omitted: spoiler] in the beginning of your film. Has that actually happened to you?

CK: No.

PK: I think that catches everybody by surprise.

CK: That was intentional, that it would catch everyone by surprise, although I think you can’t have a scene with someone shaving without creating a certain tension. Just the idea of someone shaving feels like something bad is going to happen, but not the bad thing that you assume.

PK: It’s never the bad thing you assume.

CK: No. Speaking about the train and the shaving, I went to Yaddo, the arts colony, I had an opportunity to go there and I couldn’t finish this script and I wanted to go away and be able to concentrate, I took the opportunity, and one of the things I learned was that the guy whose estate this is, the family who donated this estate for this purpose, died shaving on a train. The train lurched and he slit his throat.

PK: Straight edge?

CK: Yeah, it was in the earlier part of the twentieth century, I guess when people used straight edge. So there is a shaving accident you don’t want to happen.

PK: You used to have a beard, did you stop shaving because of that?

CK:  No no, [laughs], I stopped shaving every once in a while because I can’t stand shaving and then its like, it just gets harder and harder to start again, so I don’t and then I get sick of it and then I shave it, and then I go through the process again and again and that’s the way it goes until you die.

PK: So you’re going to let it grow out?

CK: I let it grow out, I’m doing a month of this, I’m going around the country, so I’ll probably keep shaving until this is over, so it doesn’t look to bad.

PK:  Kind of like a baseball player, the superstition?

CK: No, its not superstition, it’s more like I just kind of want to try to look somewhat presentable, which is always difficult, I’ll shave.

PK: Beard growing -- that’s one of those involuntary activities that were shutting down for your character, like with the salivating...

CK: Yeah, the ergonomic functions.

PK: But his beard kept growing. So go figure. I saw the film for a second time last night at the Harvard Square Theatre. How did you think the film was received?

CK:  Well, I stayed for the beginning and then I left maybe 20, 25 minutes into it and then I came back at the end and did the Q&A.  Judging from the reception at the Q&A and from the very beginning when people seemed to be laughing, I though it did well but I can’t speak to anything other than the 25 minutes I saw.

PK: People were very into the comedy part, which I suppose you appreciate?

CK: I appreciate whatever people want to take from it, if they’re into anything in it, I don’t care.

PK: The first time I saw it I was unable to speak to people for half an hour.

CK:  Good.

PK: Is that the kind of reaction you were looking for?

CK: I’m not looking for anything in particular, although I’ve heard that reaction and I think that is pleasing, if there is some kind of effect that it has, but its not a calculated or scientific thing to write this so that people will be silent for half an hour afterwards.

PK: It was like being trapped inside somebody’s mind for their entire life, at its good moments and bad moments,

CK: I guess it is.

PK: The audience at the Q & A,  some people got testy when you didn’t give them a certain interpretation of the movie.  But basically, I think they were worshipping you. Is that uncomfortable for you?

CK:  The worshipping part, I don’t know what it means exactly, so its hard for me to – you were there for the Q&A last night, the thing that the guy said at the end last night – it was nice.

PK: You seemed to be touched by it.

CK:  Well it’s a nice thing to have someone say that, especially because I was really depressed last night and I was not looking forward to coming and doing that thing last night.  It’s hard for me to be traveling by myself, doing this for a month and I’m exhausted.The reaction to the movie has been - I never know what people will come in and say, people have been really angry with me, or if they’ll be responsive like that guy.

PK: Sometimes it’s the same person.

CK: No, that hasn’t happened, not that I’ve been aware of.  I’ve had people actually, I’ve heard, that people can sometimes hate the movie and then can’t get it out of their head, I’ve heard people say that, or they see it again, this is critics, who have seen it at festivals and then they start to feel something about it that they didn’t before.

PK:  I have to admit, as much as I admired the movie I didn’t look forward to seeing it for a second time because it is so exhausting, but the second time it’s actually easier because its less exhausting because you’ve already processed a lot of what’s gone on.

CK:  I think that’s maybe the reaction that people have, that they’re afraid that they will not understand it, or miss something, there’s a lot of stuff coming at you, you feel you can’t just sort of  sit back and relax. I think you can, but people feel that they can’t and that’s what makes it trying to people, if it is trying.

PK:  I noticed you didn’t go into the Cotard syndrome  [Hoffman’s character shares the name of this psychological syndrome ] question?

CK:  It’s a delusion that you’re already dead and your body, in some cases, you feel like your body is actually decaying, it looks to you like your skin is falling of and that sort of thing.

PK:  So is he dead?

CK: Don’t know.

PK:  Do you know the Borges story, “The Secret Miracle?”

CK:  Tell me what its about and I’ll tell you if I’ve read it.

PK:  This guy is a playwright, he’s sentenced to die, he spends the night praying to God that he’ll let him finish this play which is his masterpiece that he hasn’t been able to finish, he’s taken out to be executed and it seems like God has let him down [omitted: spoiler].

CK: Oh! That’s cool. I don’t know the story, but it is like that.  And you know what it is like, that I read in junior high school that I loved, “Pincher Martin” the William Golding book, do you know that book? 

PK: I can’t remember it very well.

CK:  Well, I mean when I first read it, it was like, oh God, this is so cool.  A guy is shipwrecked, his boat sinks and he is a sailor, he finds a little rock island and he spends the entire book surviving on it, fishing and figuring out how to live, like Robinson Crusoe, at the end [omitted: spoiler] In junior high school, when I read that, I thought it was the most amazing thing, the idea.

PK: It might describe the human condition in a way.

CK:  It might.

PK:  Did you like  “Lord of the Flies?”

CK: I did! I haven’t read Golding as an adult so I don’t know, but I mean when I was a kid, I loved that. I remember my father’s paperback copy of it, with the little red squiggly drawing of a person’s kid, and I carried it around a lot. I mean I loved that book.

PK:  So you had good English teachers in junior high and high school?

CK:  You mean because they assigned these books?

PK: Yeah.

CK: I read “Lord of the Flies” before I was in junior high school, it was one of those things that was in my parent’s library and I read it.  But I think I had the standard, I think I read - I don’t even remember, “Fahrenheit 451” and stuff like that.

PK:  I read a number of responses to the film and not everyone seems to pick up on the fact that while this is going on the world is falling apart outside. A bit of a doomsday movie.

CK:  Some people have. Well maybe. There’s things that are going on, I think there is a confusion of the interior and the exterior, often, literally.  In that this is taking place inside a building, but also the world outside is existing and falling apart, but also that, that destruction starts to enter into the warehouse city, which at first seems like a sanctuary because the guy in the street says, “when can we get in? its bad out here,” but it’s also metaphorically, inside his brain and outside his brain and his life.  What’s happening inside Caden or through Caden’s life is also happening in the world outside of him. So I’m, playing with a lot of stuff like that, but yeah, the world is falling apart.

PK: Yeah, just look at my 401k.

CK: I can’t look at mine.

PK:  Well you’ve got a family too, you have responsibilities.

CK:  I do have responsibilities,

PK: You just had your fiftieth birthday, is that correct?

CK: That is correct.

PK:  Did you have a party?

CK: Went out to dinner.

PK:  No surprise party?

CK: I’ve never had a surprise party; no one’s ever given me a surprise party.

PK: How sad.

CK:  I don’t know if I want one. But certainly, maybe the people I know, know that I wouldn’t want one so they don’t do.  Or maybe no one is interested in spending the time that is needed to organize something. I kind of think it might be that.

PK:  Turning fifty, is that turning you more reflective? Though I don’t see how you could be more reflective than your movies demonstrate.

CK:  I’ve been working on this movie for five years so I guess if it’s made me more reflective it started at 45. So, you know, as you get older, things happen in your life that make you more conscious, or less able to deny the inevitability of the end of your life, I mean, so, I guess that makes you more reflective, I don’t know. 

PK:  When did you shoot this movie?

CK: [Notices book I’m toting] You’re reading “The Road?”

PK: It’s a real picker upper. Did you read it?

CK:  I did read it, I didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would and now it’s a major motion picture which also makes me nervous.

PK:  I don’t know if frozen ash and cannibalism are high concept material.

CK: [laughs] Well I won’t reveal the surprise ending.

PK: Really? He wakes up at the end ...

CK: Turns out...

PK: Turns out it’s all a play put on by Caden.  What about the Fregoli Syndrome?

CK:  You’ve been reading up on me.

PK:  There’s a website that is dedicated to you, have you seen it?

CK: To what? To me?

PK: Yeah, it’s called “Being Charlie Kaufman.”

CK: Yeah, I didn’t know they mentioned that on there. What about it?

PK:  Could be a demonstration of that symptom in the film, when everybody in the film takes the same person, or different people you assume are the same person [in the film characters are played in the play within the film by actors who are in turn played by other characters and so on].

CK:  Yeah, I actually did a play called “Anomalisa” which I wrote under a pen name for various reasons and I used the name Francis Fregoli as the pen name and yeah, it was a play about a man and everybody in his life is the same person. So, it was kind of fun.  I like psychotic syndromes.

PK:  Do you read a lot of the guy who writes “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat"?

CK:  Oliver Sacks. I read that book a long time ago, but no I don’t. I just look things up online and find syndromes. I think I’m out of them.

PK: There’s one more.

CK: Capgras. [the belief that some loved one or close friend has been replaced by an exact duplicate]. Which is kind of a - when he gets the apartment, when he goes to Adele’s [Caden’s wife played by Catherine Keener] apartment, the name on the board outside is “Capgras.”

 PK: I didn’t catch that.

CK:  Next time! Next time. When you see it again.

PK: Third time it’s a walk in the park. How about Korsakoff’s syndrome? Sort of like “Memento.”'s-syndrome

CK:  That’s related to alcoholism, confabulation and that sort of thing.

NEXT: More literary name-dropping and the “M” word.


| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Outside The Frame Archives