Are You There, World?

Watching Charlie Kaufman try to work it all out

Charlie Kaufman at the Austin Film Festival in October (Photo by John Anderson)

The morning I meet Charlie Kaufman, he is tired, run ragged from weeks of promoting his new film, Synecdoche, New York. He is already arguably the world's most celebrated contemporary screenwriter, but this film – a dizzying exploration of mortality, romance, regret, and the creative process – marks his first time in the director's chair. As the face of the film, he must shoulder the promotional process all on his own, this despite being famously press-shy. So Charlie Kaufman is tired. He is tired, he is cold, and he is feeling down.

The night before, he showed his film to a packed Paramount Theatre, in conjunction with the Austin Film Festival, and received a standing ovation. "I mean, you know," he cautions, "not everyone in the audience stood." He will do this again and again in our conversation on an early morning in a chilly theatre at the Alamo at the Ritz – say something, then dial it down. Equivocate, reword, caution, apply caveat. He is feeling gun-shy. He has been burned. He says the day before, he decided it was time to stop reading the reviews.

But first, back to the screening at the Paramount.

"Afterwards, people came up to me. And one guy said, 'I'm a big tough guy from Texas' – he was like a real jocky-looking guy, the guys that scare me 'cause of my history with guys like that, you know? – and he said: 'I'm a big tough guy from Texas, and this movie made me cry out of both of my eyes. So thank you.' And that was really sweet. And I was like, just because of my history in the world and my relationship to people like that and my background – and I say 'people like that' just because of what he said he was and what he looked like. I didn't know who he was at all. Clearly a very decent person. Just, it's a very generous thing to do, to come out and say that, and I really appreciated it."

He spends another minute talking about how nice the man was to say the nice things and then finishes with, "I went back to the hotel, and I was kind of depressed still."

Anyone who has seen a Charlie Kaufman picture – Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, take your pick –will recognize the same depressive streak. That glass-half-empty outlook has carried over from film to film – which isn't to say that they don't also have the capacity for great joy, an impish sense of play. They are often consumed with the act of artistic creation and how that creation is a reflection of the creator himself, even an assessment of his worth in the world. Synecdoche explodes that conceit with its lead, Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-defeating, chronically ill theatre director who stages a monumental piece of ongoing performance art – a decades-long retelling of his own life, as it happens, cast by actors who over time become characters in their own right in Caden's life/play and thus earn the right to be played by actors, too. Kaufman's detractors will call it more tail-chasing – and to be fair, he kicked the door open to that kind of criticism by making the lead of 2002's Adaptation. a writer named Charlie Kaufman. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find another screenwriter whose characters are so willfully confused, by critics and audiences alike, with their creator. When I ask him how he responds to that complaint, he takes his time with the answer, knowing full well how easily manipulated sound bites can be.

"I have to be very careful how I say this, because then this will be taken potentially in some other form." He pauses again. "The movies are me. And by that I mean I'm putting myself into the movies. It doesn't mean I'm Caden; it doesn't mean I'm any of the other characters. The feelings and the emotions and desires and neediness or whatever expressed in the movie is me trying to be very honest.

"And I feel like this stuff is me, and in a way I'm saying ... accept me." He laughs. "You know? Or something."


Charlie Kaufman is big on truth. A good deal of our talk is dedicated to a venting, pure and simple, of his frustrations with the press. Part of it comes down to the inevitable discomfort of a private man thrust into the public arena. But it cuts deeper than that. It's anger at the way – especially in the age of the Internet –a lie, or even simply a misrepresentation, can be repeated for so long that eventually it calcifies into widely accepted fact.

"For an example," he says, "that we received mostly bad reviews out of Cannes. Which is just not true. There was a sort of contextual thing that happened at Cannes, where we didn't sell the movie, because no one was selling movies at Cannes, and for some reason, it stuck to us as an indication that this movie was somehow problematic. ... So that's been sort of represented in various articles as 'mixed reviews at Cannes,' which is not even true. And now it's like, 'all bad reviews out of Cannes.'"

(It is worth noting that since its limited release several weeks ago, Synecdoche has indeed received mixed reviews, which is an exceedingly tame way of describing the kind of emotions the film incites. It is also worth noting that I think Synecdoche is brilliant, brutalizing, occasionally inscrutable, and some of the most cathartic couple of hours I've spent in the dark of a theatre.)

Later, Kaufman circles back to the same frustrations.

"You know like with Eternal Sunshine, people would say things with authority –that my movies had no heart before Eternal Sunshine and, 'Clearly, you know, it's [director] Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth [who is co-credited with the story idea]' – this guy who had nothing to do with the movie and got an Oscar for it, which I can't tell you how infuriating that was, because he's going around talking about the movie as if he wrote it. That [people say] clearly they're the people who brought the emotion to my writing, and it's like, no. Okay? No. That's not what happened. And you can maybe speculate that maybe that's what happened. So long as you frame it as a speculation, I guess that's fair. But to say that you know something – because then what happens is, it kind of goes out into the Internet, and people just repeat it, and all of a sudden, there's no source to it – it just is."

At least no one can accuse him of throwing stones; he held himself to the same (maybe-impossible) standard of truth-telling when adapting Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession.

"For me, when I was writing Adaptation., one of the main reasons I got stuck, and one of the main reasons I included myself in it, was because I was in a position that felt enormously unethical to me. Because I was putting words into real people's mouths, and I didn't know how to do that. I'm not going to say, 'Susan Orlean said this,' and I'm not going to say that she had this happen to her when she didn't. So I came up with the idea that the only way that I can frame this is to say that I'm saying that she said this. This is clearly a fiction. And then I felt comfortable saying whatever I wanted – that she was a murderer."

Charlie Kaufman (right) directs Michelle Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I ask him if he had similar reservations with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which he adapted from former Gong Show host Chuck Barris' much-contested autobiography, in which he claimed he'd been an undercover CIA assassin.

"I didn't have the same problem with Chuck Barris. The only reason I was interested in that, and the only reason I took it, was because I thought he was lying. And I was interested in the notion that, first of all, he said it, and he's lying, so it's okay for me to lie. And second of all, I was interested in the notion that he was lying. ... I was like, why is this guy – if he is making this up, which I think he is – why is this his fantasy? You know? Which is basically a 10-year-old's fantasy, written by a 50-year-old. And he wasn't winking. He wasn't making fun of himself. It was like, no, this is clearly what made him feel like, if he said this, his life would be more valuable, more valid, than it was if he actually said he did what he did do."

In the Charlie Kaufman canon, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has always felt like something of an anomaly, a less intensely personal work, but then, there it is, right there in his own words, the through line: the exploration of what makes our lives valuable, what makes our lives valid. But valuable, and valid, to whom?


I'm just a little person

One person in a sea

Of many little people

Who are not aware of me

Charlie Kaufman wrote the lyrics to several songs in the film (scored by Jon Brion and performed with an instant-standard, whispery croon by Deanna Storey). In a film packed with befuddlements – a house forever engulfed in flames, tanks that overrun the streets of Caden's sprawling city-stage – the lyrics to "Little Person" are perhaps the most transparent expression of Caden's wants, needs, and sense of self-worth. And again, not to confuse the man with the art, but there's something there, in that twinning of Caden's feelings of smallness and yearning for greatness put up against Kaufman's own push and pull –between the desire to block it all out and the very human hunger for acknowledgment.

"I think everybody wants some kind of positive reinforcement, obviously, but that really raises the stakes when you're putting yourself out there on such a large canvas. You might be getting a lot more self-affirmation than a lot of people do, but you're also leaving yourself open to a lot more ..."

He trails off, then picks up the thread again in stops and starts.

"Yeah. I think. I don't know. I think I am, and then the question is raised ..." He stops again, self-censoring. "And now I feel like I'm so gun-shy right now, and I haven't been, and I'm trying to not say things that are gonna, you know, make me regret what I've said." He gives a short laugh.

"But the question is also, what type of person does that? You know, who I am to begin with, that I would do that, and how much vulnerable or needy of a person might I be because I am doing that? Am I begging for something and then feeling the rejection, or whatever, more immediately, because of who I am going in, that I would do this?

"Henry Miller said, I read [it] once and it stuck with me, [that] he realized at one point that everything that he had written he could have just as comfortably written the exact opposite and been right, or true. And I feel that way, too. I say things, and I'm a mass of contradictions, and I have a million arguments in the other direction about why I do what I do. I actually try to include that, try to make characters complex enough that they may contain all those contradictions."

There is a telling line near the end of Synecdoche, when a voice whispers into Caden's ear, "There is no one watching you, and there never was." Taken out of context, it might read terribly despairing, but in fact, the effect, I think, is something akin to the ecstasy of the newly converted.Only it's ecstasy in the absence – of a parent, a lover, a god, an audience. In a film that must use the word "lonely" a dozen times or more, there's great relief in an end-of-the-line owning up to our fundamental aloneness. But saying and doing are two different things entirely, and even if we say no one is watching, that doesn't mean we'll stop playing to an audience, real or imagined – that we'll give up on the hope of an audience, if only an audience of one. Even Charlie Kaufman.

Somewhere maybe someday

Maybe somewhere far away

I'll meet a second little person

And we'll go out and play

Read the review of Synecdoche, New York.

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SynecdocheNew York, Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Michel Gondry

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