From The Vault: Charlie Kaufman On Synecdoche New York

The Oscar-winning screenwriter of quirky hits like Being John Malkovich seems painfully ill at ease. All he wants is to be loved.

By Stephen Applebaum

 May 7, 2009


For the past decade, Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays for films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have marked him out as one of American cinema’s most distinctive and idiosyncratic creative talents. Yet 20 years ago, his life was going nowhere.

Stuck in a rut answering the phones at an art museum in Minneapolis, he had no money, and little hope. “I was broke and I had no future,” he recalls gloomily, during a stop-over in London to discuss his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. He did believe he had a talent for writing, though. So, at 30 years old, he decided to take a final shot at fulfilling his long-cherished ambition of becoming a screenwriter.

“I thought: ‘I’m just going to make a desperate last effort to try to get into this world before I give up’. So I did. And I really got lucky. For the first time.”

Although films were his ultimate goal, Kaufman understood how television worked. He wrote a script and sent it to an agent, “hounded” the agent for a year until he agreed to represent him, and then headed for Hollywood during the hiring season.

“It was very concentrated, very tenacious,” he says of this period. “I threw away my timidity, or my fear of rejection, as much as I could, and just put it out there.”

His persistance paid off when he secured a job writing TV comedies. It was a dream come true, but for a while it threatened to turn into a nightmare. The painfully shy newcomer initially found the communal nature of the writing process intimidating. “You’ve got to pitch jokes,” he explains, “and I couldn’t speak in the room at all. For probably the first month and a half, I would be completely silent. And if I said something, I was barely audible.” Gradually he was force out of his shell — it was either that or leave the business — and, as he gained in confidence, his reputation as a singular new talent grew too.

“It was like: ‘There’s this guy, his stuff will never be made but you’ve got to read it’. That gave me the feeling I could continue to do this,” he says.

His big break finally came when his screenplay for Being John Malkovich, which he had produced merely as a writing sample, was picked up by the director Spike Jonze and filmed in 1999. That earned Kaufman an Oscar nomination. He received another nod from the Academy for his screenplay for Adaptation, also directed by Jonze. But it was not until his third nomination, for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — this time directed by the French auteur Michel Gondry — that he actually won.

Despite his success, Kaufman has never been entirely at ease with the fame that goes along with being in the movies. Journalists who interviewed him in 2005, when Adaptation was released, found he could barely look them in the eye, such was his shyness. 

Six years on, however, he is the writer-director of one of the most enigmatic and unsettling films to come along in a while, and talks with far less reticence than in the past. But his discomfort at having to hold a conversation is still apparent enough to make the fact that he directed a movie seem almost like a heroic act.

Synecdoche, New York is an ambitious and sprawling film about an anxiety-ridden theatre director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who spends years constructing a simulacrum of his life in an abandoned warehouse in New York. The film does nothing less than address some of life’s weightiest imponderables. Why are we here? How do you give meaning to an apparently meaningless existence? While he knows he cannot provide any answers, Kaufman hopes he can offer some comfort. 

“My goal in writing it is to express who I am, or as close as I can to who I am, in the hope that there will be some response from the world,” he says. “That there will be someone watching this movie and feeling a human connection… as opposed to feeling alienated and isolated from the human race.”

Kaufman tells a story about someone at a Q & A in Seattle who asked why his lonely protagonist does not look to God for love. He felt sympathetic towards the questioner, but told him it was like asking why he had not written a film about lumberjacks. “Because this isn’t my experience. My experience in the world is that I need, and people I know, they also need, to be loved by other people.

“The idea that God is this other person that can love — I don’t know what that means. I live in this world with people, and I am desperate for them to love me, and I think other people feel that way too.”

Born in New York, in 1958 — his father was an engineer, his mother a housewife — Kaufman describes his upbringing as “casually Jewish”. He went to Hebrew school because, he says, he had to study for his barmitzvah, but: “I rebelled against Judaism because it didn’t speak to me. That’s not Judaism’s fault.”

Philosophically, his work feels existentialist. However, Kaufman rejects all attempts to label either him or his writing. “I’ve been accused of being a solipsist and I’ve been accused of being an existentialist, and I don’t subscribe to anything,” he says irritably.

Even suggesting that he has become his own genre, or bringing up the fact that people now talk about things being “kaufmanesque” makes him bristle with exasperation. Accepting a label means conforming to someone else’s view of the world. Kaufman just wants to be himself.

“When I write, I sit there and I try to think about what seems honest to me. I just try to bare my soul in the ways that I can,” he says.

Published in The Jewish Chronicle May 7, 2009

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