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?
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
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
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
PK: The first time I
saw it I was unable to speak to people for half an hour.
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
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
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?
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
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
PK: You just had your fiftieth birthday, is that correct?
CK: That is correct.
PK: Did you have a
CK: Went out to dinner.
PK: No surprise
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
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.
[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.”
CK: That’s related to
alcoholism, confabulation and that sort of thing.
NEXT: More literary name-dropping and the “M” word.