TORONTO - “I don’t need to be mentored,” says Charlie Kaufman, a touch indignant, when asked if Spike Jonze helped out with advice on “Synecdoche, New York.” The film, which marks the famously idiosyncratic screenwriter’s directing debut, was originally going to be helmed by Kaufman’s pal - and his “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” director - Jonze.
But here is Kaufman, at a table in a Toronto eatery, getting a tad exercised about the idea that he’s not up to directing the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson and Michelle Williams by himself. “I’m my own person. Why don’t you put that in your article? The whole point of my doing this is for me to have done it.
Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan
(Sony Classics; US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008; 2008)
“I’m not at that point in my life where I need a mentor. ... I don’t really even care if I fall on my face. I wanted this to be mine.”
And “Synecdoche, New York,” which is set in (and pronounced almost like) the city of Schenectady, is certainly, and completely, all Kaufman. Synecdoche (sih-NECK-doh-kee) is a figure of speech in which a part stands for a whole, or the whole stands for a part (as in, the screen = the movies; or the law = the police), and the title’s bearing on Kaufman’s film is about that easy to grasp.
“It’s not your action movie or big-budget comedy, but I think it’s pretty terrific,” says the film’s star, Hoffman, in a separate interview on the day of the film’s September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I think it’s one of a kind, and I stand behind it,” says Oscar-winner Hoffman, who appears in virtually every frame of “Synecdoche,” as a theater director whose creative and emotional psyche is deconstructed in Kaufman’s epic, surreal tale.
“I’m pretty defensive about it,” Hoffman adds. “It’s a lot more accessible than people think, actually, and it will become much more accessible as people start seeing it and talking about it. ... If you let go, you’re going to pretty much identify with the whole thing.”
The actor laughs.
“It’s not as ‘out there’ and crazy as people think. It’s just really imaginative and quite creative, as all film and theater and art are supposed to be.”
Kaufman, who turns 50 in a few weeks, worked on the “Synecdoche” screenplay for close to three years. Like Hoffman’s character in the pic, Kaufman is married to a painter (she’s played by Keener in the film). And it’s a safe bet that Kaufman, like Hoffman’s Caden Cotard, lies awake at night, full of worry.
“It’s very complicated stuff that I want to think about,” says the writer. “Complicated for me, anyway. I don’t go in (to a script) knowing where something’s going to go. I go in thinking, ‘OK, I want to think about these issues, I want to think about time passing, or I want to think about illness, or I want to think about dying.’
“And then how these things interact with each other becomes part of the structure, and then a story starts to surface.”
Time, illness, dying - that may sound morbid, and, indeed, “Synecdoche, New York” is, on one level, a meditation on said themes. But for his part, Hoffman found humor, hope and insight in Kaufman’s multi-tiered yarn. And as for the “nutty” label that Kaufman’s screenplays get stuck with (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Hoffman bristles.
“It’s going to take people laying down the ‘isn’t it nutty?’ thing, putting that aside,” he insists. “Because, no, ‘isn’t it heartbreaking?’
“Isn’t it heartbreaking that we all have to die, and that we might see our children die, and we’re not going to understand? We’re never going to feel like we’re finished, and we wish we would but we don’t ...
“These things sound depressing - but no, that’s life. That’s what it is. And that’s beautiful and that’s sad and that’s a lot of things, and Charlie encompasses all that in this movie in a way that really gets under your skin.”