Interview: Charlie Kaufman
In a Time Out exclusive, Charlie Kaufman, writer of ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ – and now writer and director of ‘Synecdoche, New York’ – explains why messing with an audience’s mind comes naturally to him
I do like escapism. I like going to the movies on a Friday night and seeing something fun. But I guess that’s not how I want to spend my time working. I don’t mind going to see those movies, but ‘Synecdoche, New York’ took me five years to make. That’s my life, and I want to spend it on something I feel a passion for. And it’s nice for a culture to have a thorn in its side. Even if it makes you less popular and a pariah of sorts. It’s kind of nice.
With ‘Synecdoche, New York’ I was trying to make a movie that reflected the interior life of a person. (The film spans the life of a disappointed theatre director called Caden, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Caden embarks on a never-ending theatre project that reflects his entire life and mind.) But how do you do that, technically? How do you make a film that looks or feels like that? How do you immerse an audience in a moment of that existence, rather than reforming the whole thing into a story, which has a conclusion and a distance and a perspective and a lesson and all that artificial stuff?
I read somewhere, I don’t even remember who said it, that ‘everything you know should be in everything you write’. And I took it literally. There’s so much stuff going on in your brain every moment of your existence, there are so many things that you’re thinking about, things that you’re seeing, reflections on your past and anxiety about your future.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that – what it is to be a person and to have a brain – reflected in a movie. Cinema almost doesn’t allow for it. A movie is a very linear thing. But I’ve wrestled with that, and I’ve tried to make that what my films are about.
Everything I’ve written is personal – it’s the only way I know how to write. I’m not trying to put myself above people or teach them anything. There’s no lesson for the movie-going public in my films. I’m an authority on nothing other than my own experience. In my films, I’m trying to explain what existence feels like, as I understand it. I’m trying to do something that’s close to my soul.
I’m influenced by things that I’ve seen and read, but they’re not at the front of my brain when writing. We’re formed by our experiences, but I’m not like Quentin Tarantino, where everything is a reference or a homage or a tip of the hat. I still can’t convince people that I’ve never seen Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’. People don’t want to believe it.
I guess what I’m saying is we’re so inundated with movies that everybody is an expert. Everybody understands. That’s why movies can make jokes about movies. You can shock people or scare people or make people laugh by doing a little twist and subverting a cliché. We all know the clichés.
Part of life is the struggle to try and find meaning. It’s not unique to a writer. I guess there’s a certain futility in it, in that we know so little about what’s happening in the world. I mean that in a profound way: I don’t even know that I exist, let alone what’s happening.There are so many questions and there’s so much confusion and limitation in the human brain, in the same way as in a dog’s brain. We can see clearly that there’s so much that a dog will never understand, ever, no matter how much you teach him. Just move up a couple of steps on the chain and you have to come to the conclusion that we’re pretty much in the dark in a cosmic sense. We don’t know what’s going on, what reality is, and even if there is such a thing.
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