Charlie Kaufman, a diminutive 50-year-old screenwriter with a thatch of uneven curly hair, is all but swathed in existential terror. He's in the midst of barnstorming the world, promoting his long-awaited directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York," a rite of passage somewhat akin to a root canal for the famously shy auteur.
You'd think given the originality of his films, such as "Being John Malkovich" (about a puppeteer who discovers a portal into John Malkovich's brain) or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (about a love affair complicated by a memory-erasing machine), that Kaufman wouldn't care what anybody thinks. But he does. Since playing at the Cannes Film Festival six months ago, "Synecdoche" has polarized critics. There's been much praise for what A.O. Scott of the New York Times termed "its seamless alternate reality," yet there's also been sniping about the film's opacity and air of gloom. The film's lack of universal acclaim and the fact that it took so long to find its distributor (Sony Pictures Classics) have left Kaufman jangled and upset.
"I feel very vulnerable," he says, as he waits for lunch in a French bistro in Los Feliz. So vulnerable that he's actually talking about quitting screenwriting.
This film, which opened Friday, "is really personal," he says. "I feel embarrassed for even doing this in the world. I put this thing, that is like me, my soul, in the world, and I just feel like it's trampled. It makes me feel like I don't want to do this anymore. I certainly don't want to try to sell them, but I don't want to make them anymore either."
He insists he's not kidding. "It's not a threat," he says. "It's just me trying to figure out what I'm going to do next. I need a job. I need to figure out what I'm going to do to pay my mortgage."
It's slightly depressing to hear a dreamer like Kaufman speak so prosaically. His name is practically an adjective in Hollywood, synonymous with a comically depressed inversion of reality, where people's interior lives are externalized for all to see. He won an Oscar for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and was nominated twice more. He is one of the few first-time directors to get final cut. Yet even Charlie Kaufman has to eat. He's spent the last five years on "Synecdoche." Even with a cast of actors' actors led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Synecdoche," which cost more than $20 million, may or may not make money for its investors.
The film's commercial prospects weigh heavily on Kaufman, who doesn't want to end up like another visionary, Orson Welles, reduced to hawking wine. "Why am I trying to seduce how many millions of people for this thing to be worthwhile to the people who invested?" he asks, despairing over how the making of cinematic art devolves into "this business crap. Hollywood Oscar watch . . . this thing that people want to rip down because it's gotten too successful. It seems heartless to me. It's not based on anything to do with anyone's heart. It has to do with anger. Everybody is really angry all the time. It makes me angry," Kaufman adds with frustration. "I don't want to be angry."
Viewers have to piece it together
"Synecdoche, New York" is like a sprawling garden of Kaufman's mind, filled with a jumble of wondrous sights amid human ugliness and a continual preoccupation with death. The film is completely original and memorable -- as long as you like movies that make you think (and haven't had too much wine at dinner).
On the plot level, it's about a struggling theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., Caden Cotard, whose artist wife abandons him partly in disgust for his banal imagination (which seems to consist of a penchant for restaging classics) and takes along their 4-year-old daughter. Unexpectedly freed from monetary worries by a "genius" grant, Caden moves to New York, where he creates a simulacrum of real life in an abandoned warehouse. It's an apartment building housing actors playing Caden and the various women Caden loves in a continual play that lasts for decades. And, oh yes, Caden is perpetually obsessed with illness and dying.
A "synecdoche" is a grammatical term meaning the part for the whole, like referring to headlights to describe a car driving down the road. The title might refer to the constantly mutating theater piece as the physical manifestations of Caden's psychological state. Or the term might refer to Caden, as an alter ego, or kind of synecdoche of Kaufman himself.
Kaufman does not care to elucidate, except to say that, "There's nothing written that's not autobiographical. By that, I mean 'Transformers' too."
He also does not care to explain any of the oddities of the film, like why one character lives in a house that is perpetually burning but never burns down. "I don't explain things," says Kaufman. "The whole point is to make the experience of the person watching [the film] as individual as that could be. Your experience might be completely different than anybody else's in the audience." It's like "when you wake up from a dream and you have to interpret what the dream meant."
Contributing to the film's dreamlike feel is the fact that "Synecdoche" spans 50 years, and yet is filled with what Kaufman calls "temporal inconsistencies" that are intended "to put you off balance." For instance, only certain characters wear age makeup while others seem as dewy as their introduction on-screen. Time literally flies. In one scene, it is September when Caden wakes up, and Halloween by the time he finishes his breakfast. "There's a panicky quality to that," says Kaufman, "of time getting away from you and going faster and faster."
Paying his dues on $6 an hour
It's hard to imagine that Kaufman didn't pop out of the womb with his idiosyncratic worldview fully formed, but in fact, he was 30 before he began writing professionally. As a kid growing up in Long Island and Connecticut, he wanted to be an actor. That passion was thwarted during college, when he developed a fatal self-consciousness that made self-display impossible. "I started to get embarrassed and just couldn't do it anymore." He wound up studying film at New York University and eventually moved to Minneapolis where, at 30, he worked for $6 an hour as a receptionist at an art museum.
That was motivation enough to decide "to do whatever it takes" to become a professional writer. He sent a TV spec script to an agent he tangentially knew, and then called his office every week for a year and a half until the agent read and ultimately signed him. "It's not like me to do that," says Kaufman. "I take rejection really hard." He spent years grinding away in the world of TV comedy, writing for shows like "The Dana Carvey Show." When the work dried up, he wrote "Being John Malkovich," as a writing sample. Unlike his other films that tilt toward absurdist comedy, "Synecdoche" lacks what Kaufman calls "an escape hatch," a jokey high-concept device like the brain portal in "Being John Malkovich" that "gives you distance and makes it OK even if you're dealing with subjects that are serious and upsetting."
He didn't write those films as comedies to make them more commercial, though that might have been the effect. With the collapse of several independent distributors, including Picturehouse, times are certainly tough for the truly unconventional film. "I don't think 'John Malkovich' would get made now," says Kaufman. "In every aspect of life, in politics and [art], you will get more of what you're supporting, and all the other stuff will go away. I can't say that my movie is good, but I can say that it's sincere. It's sincerely made in a very unusual way in this culture without any concern for commercial viability."
He sighs. This is the bitter truth. "I'm going to have to pay the price for that."