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  • Interview: Charlie Kaufman and Catherine Keener

    Thu, 23 Oct 2008 16:21:18

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    Say it with us: Synecdoche (Sih-NECK-doh-kee), New York. How to properly pronounce the title of Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut isn’t the only thing confounding about it. The film is a meditation on mortality and love, challenging viewers to immerse themselves in a dreamlike universe where houses burn for no apparent reason and its main character, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads a life where the lines between objective reality and fiction are blurred. Actress Catherine Keener, who previously worked with Kaufman on Being John Malkovich, plays Cotard’s wife Adele, who leaves him to pursue a career as a painter in Berlin and takes their daughter with her. The identically initialed duo recently spoke about the project and the emotional resonance that lies beneath its perplexing surface.

    How do you communicate your ideas to actors, and is it important that they ‘get it’ while they’re doing it?

    Charlie Kaufman: I have these little ear pieces that I stick in their ears [laughs]. The relationships in this movie are very real relationships and that’s the actor’s business, to understand those and understand what the moments are between the characters in the scene that they’re in. Talking philosophically to them is not necessarily even helpful.

    Catherine Keener: I would say that it’s not really [about] communicating ideas, per se. I think it’s more like, “I’ll walk through this with you,” and also, the way he does it is in a very intimate way.

    Kaufman: We do it in bed.

    Keener: Shhh. It’s very intimate and you feel very protected, so it allows [for a] completely honest discourse. And we took walks. We’d go outside and take walks, which was really nice.

    Kaufman: Lying on our back in the grass outside.

    Keener: Sneezing. That was helpful, actually, just to walk away from the set and kind of get perspective from the goings on. There wasn’t a great bit of expectation for coming back with an answer. It was just more tripping your mind a little bit into something that might open you up, which is why it was such a pleasant experience for actors.

    With Phillip Seymour Hoffman being a director, too, was maintaining a relationship on set easy?

    Kaufman: I think Phil came onto this movie as an actor. He did his job as an actor. It seemed to be that there was a mutual respect between us and we spent a lot of time talking before we started shooting—weeks and weeks about life and death and relationships and children and age and guilt and illness. I think we came to feel an understanding that permeated the shoot.

    How did directing your own material compare to past creative experiences, and will you do it again?

    Kaufman: I want to do it again. I feel compelled to do it again. It was hard in a lot of places and it was a very strenuous schedule for a lot of reasons. But, I like the work and I like working with actors a lot, so I’d like to do it again.

    Do you think that college crowds that you’ve screened for are more receptive to your work than the average L.A. critics’ screening audience?

    Kaufman: I’ve had both [positive and negative] responses to this movie, and often within the same audience, so I don’t really know how to divide up the audience or what the demographics are. I’ve had college kids talk to me after early screenings completely understanding things that have never been mentioned to me [prior]. I’ve had 80-year-old people also responding really positively; I’ve had 80-year-old people being really mad at me about it because they hated it so much. I’m sure that there will be college students that are like that, too. It seems like this [film] provokes responses in people and they aren’t necessarily all the same, so I think that’s okay.

    Do you see life as theater?

    Kaufman: There’s theater in life, obviously, and there’s life in theater. It’s not like I’m presenting my thesis as “there’s theater in life,” or, “life as theater.” It’s just kind of like, this is where this story takes place and these things seemed interesting to me and an interesting way to explore the psyche of [the] people involved in this story. I don’t feel like I’m making any grand statement, like, “Life is a play.” I intentionally tried to go “hook-less” this time, which I think is maybe one of the reasons that people are having trouble knowing what to think of it, because I’m not telling them what to think of it. I wanted to do that intentionally. I wanted to try to not give people the easy out that I feel like sometimes they can have when they go, “Oh, [someone’s] memory’s being erased,” or “Oh, they’re inside John Malkovich.” I think people were waiting for that in this movie, and, no, it’s a man’s life. There are no answers and he dies. That seems like an honest thing to me, so that’s what I tried to do.

    Did you approach this project like a series of moments in the character’s life?

    Kaufman: When I was writing it I was exploring the ideas that I was interested in, which are, I think, evident in the movie. In no way was I trying to make this an episodic kind of thing. Once things would open up to me, I would try to incorporate them into the story and adjust the structure so they were organic to each other.

    Can you talk about working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michelle Williams?

    Keener: I’m very [much] in awe and enamored by Michelle. I just love her and I think she’s a wonderful actress and person and I love being around her. Phil and I have worked together before and we have this great play between us and complete honesty between us, too. We’re very, very direct with each other… it’s what you do for your partner and what you do for your teammate. He’d walk through any door with me, and the same goes for most of the actors I know. You’re there for each other, you really are. Beyond that, all the women in the movie…when we had makeup tests, I walked into the trailer and every seat was taken by one great fucking actress after the next. It’s the kind of movie that could hold all those…heavyweights. We all said, “I can’t believe we’re in this movie together. It was just phenomenal.

    Everything that goes on, no matter how crazy the situation is, has to have some kind of resonance emotionally.

    Many of your films feel very dreamlike, but at the same time they’re grounded in reality and are very relatable. Are these two things irrevocably intertwined for you?

    Kaufman: I think if something resonates, even if it’s surreal, it’s because it is relatable. I think that’s a core issue for me. I need to know, emotionally, what’s going on with the character. It’s not like I just go, “Oh, that’s weird! I’ll put that in!” It doesn’t work that way, and so I don’t write that way. I’m not interested in that. I think that keeps things grounded. Everything that goes on, no matter how crazy the situation is, has to have some kind of resonance emotionally in a dynamic between people or between a person and him or herself. It’s always feels like it’s in service of something that needs to be expressed as truth as opposed to in service of being weird.

    Keener: It’s real to us. When you’re crying and the effect is comic, I’m not crying comedy tears. It’s real to you and it has to be authentic.

    The music really compliments the movie’s tone. Can you talk about collaborating with Jon Brion?

    Kaufman: I love Jon Brion. He did Eternal Sunshine, and from the first reading of [this] script he’s been passionate about the story and felt very connected to it in his own life. Jon’s just a guy who is so musically facile that he can and does make adjustments of score...while you’re sitting there based on conversation. I’m not a musician, so my very non-musical explanation of what I want he completely understands musically. It’s an exciting thing, because he’s got so many interesting ideas and he’s so creative.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Charlie Kaufman, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis

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