Riding a mental rollercoaster with one of our heroes.
October 26, 2008 | I meet Charlie Kaufman in a dark little passage beneath Denver's Hotel Monaco, both of us surveying a spread of cold-cuts and a nice salad of greens and gorgonzola on the final day of a gruelling month-long junket in support of Kaufman's new film and hyphenate debut, Synecdoche, New York. His first interview of the day following a late-night, (packed) post-screening Q&A at the University of Colorado, I confided in Kaufman that I'd been vying for a chance to speak with him for over four years now after being thwarted at a junket for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--an experience I documented in an essay that developed a fun second life, probably got one of my local publicists fired, and doomed me to never getting offered another junket again. Mr. Kaufman asked me what it was like. I said it was like being a bug buoyed on the back of an ant colony and finally expelled not for smelling bad, but for smelling bad in the wrong way. We'd come back to this a few minutes later.
Reports of Mr. Kaufman's hermetic nervousness have been greatly exaggerated--have become the story, I suspect, in lieu of any real attempt to engage with his difficult films. Slight, clearly exhausted, he gives the impression, first and foremost, of having a genuine, penetrating curiosity; he's level and attentive when I ask a question and in the habit of looking down and to the left when offering answers. He uses a person-desperate-to-be-understood's verbal crutch of ending sentences with "you know?", and periodically/terrifyingly, he turns the tables and starts grilling me. Gracious and polite, Kaufman is also real guy, not puffed-up with pretension and still grateful for reaching the top of the mountain, as it were. Most tellingly, he doesn't have a publicist and is only now, after so much time in the trenches, considering hiring one.
Mr. Kaufman is able to experience wonder and surprised at being misunderstood. He struggles in a frank way with negative reactions to what feels in Synecdoche like his mission statement. (Raising his own bar, as he does with this film, is just another cross for him to bear.) There may be no more vital an American voice at this moment.-Walter Chaw
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Talk to me about the rapture of language.
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: You pick something very difficult for someone who's very tired. (laughs; long, thoughtful pause) Oh gosh. You know. Obviously I'm very interested in language, I use it in my work and I realize that... I've come to the conclusion that it isn't the thing. You know. It isn't the thing it describes. It can't really in most cases get close to the thing. I'm always trying to write in the chaos of experience as opposed to at a distance. I'm not interested in having perspective in the things that I write about--I'm interested in writing about them from where I am. Because that's always where you are. You never have perspective. You aren't really telling a story, you're never telling a story, story's what happens ten years down the line looking back.
So you begin with what you don't know?
(laughs) It's true, it's really backwards from the conventional wisdom of what you're supposed to write. You're never supposed to write about something that you don't have that distance from. It's weird. But we never live in that place from which we write about: it's always a fiction. I noticed a few years ago as I was going through a depression (voice drops) that was really serious that it was completely non-verbal. I couldn't explain it. I couldn't talk about it. The only way I knew that it wasn't happening anymore was that I could talk about it--then I could describe it and say that this was what my depression was, what it felt like. But at the same time that I could do it, I realized that it was completely unrelated to the experience of being in the middle of it, which was not in any way a verbal experience.
Does that frustrate empathy?
I was having this conversation recently with Amy Pascal at Sony, we were talking about this story that I wanted to try to find the place, even though language is used, where the language is not. I wanted to find that truth. Which is a very hard thing to do I guess because we communicate in language and just in our interactions we're limited to communicating to each other in language. I guess in that sense, I don't know if that addresses your question, but those are the kinds of things that I worry about in my writing.
The moments of misunderstanding in your films--I'm thinking mostly of the Orson Bean character from Being John Malkovich, but also the "urologist/neurologist" bits in Synecdoche--it sounds like you're working from frustration, but they come off as playful.
As far as "urologist/neurologist" and stuff like that go, I don't know what they mean in a larger scale but as you observed well, I think, I just like them. I think that they're funny. I enjoy wordplay. I find it funny that in her half-asleep state Adele thinks that her husband is talking about a stool in his office being full of blood. Which is actually completely acceptable within a dream world--there could actually be a stool in this movie filled with blood.
Is there not? I mean in the sense that male creation is akin in their minds anyway to giving birth--wouldn't a writer at his desk, in effect, bleed? Would that misunderstanding address in some way the difference between how Caden treats his biological children and his artistic creations?
What do you think the difference is between the way that he treats his biological children? Because that's an interesting thing and I wonder what you took away from that. It's an issue that I'm actually really exploring right now.
I think that he works harder for the one than for the other--that Olive, literally, becomes a function of his creativity.
Do you think that women feel a free pass in that regard somehow? The painfulness of artificial creation?
I wonder. I've always wondered if I have a prejudice against women artists in that I don't often have access to their hang-ups in the same primal way.
What about contemporary examples? Are you talking when you say "primal" about sexuality?
I am. I look at someone like Claire Denis in film or maybe Sylvia Plath in contemporary terms and I get something from them, but it feels more alien than, for lack of the right word, comfortable, or correct, than something like, for instance, Eternal Sunshine. I don't get the thrum of connection.
Could that be just because you're a man?
That's something that really interests me. I agree with what you're saying. I've been wondering a lot lately about how much we're getting from art is societally determined in that way in the sort of like, you know, you hear that stuff about how certain structures in what we do are clearly analogous to the male sexual act.
But that's unavoidable to have that, isn't it, if you take for granted that men do art to satisfy in some way the reproductive drive--that if you do find the spaces between the words, you're attempting to narrate that collective, ineffable experience.
It's interesting because the thinking has to go then that if you're doing this to capture some fragment of the meaning of life through art, that if you're trying to write to the authentic experience in some way, that maybe then at the end of all of it the meaning of life is actually, in fact on some levels, different for different people. Or more particularly, that the meaning of life is different for men than it is for women. What's interesting to me is to wonder if the quality of that experience of finding that fragment of connection in art that you do connect to is not just different in men [and] women--it's literally different, right?--but different from person to person. I'm coming across that with this movie, this intense divide to the response to it has been... hard... you know, but it's better to think that some of it has to do with people not connecting to how I see things. I can argue with myself that it's their lack of openness or an unwillingness to engage on some level, but that's... It's weird to hear when some people call you a "gloom head" or something. That's the other thing, that I'm seen as such a downer or so heavy when from my vantage point that's an experience that's so close to, is such a secondary component, to the making of it for me. I mean to say that I don't start out with any thought of pessimism or anything like that--I was just setting out to figure out something for myself. Of course I'm a product and a victim of my own place in the world, my own biology; my own brain chemistry, like everyone is--but then you find people that connect to it and that sort of feels like...
I find your work to validate a lot of my responses to the world and, in that way, not to be "downers," but to be evidence that you're not an alien in the world.
Exactly, exactly. I guess I'm trying to get to a point where as a man, how you can say that women don't "have it" because maybe there's just something so inherently alien about us that it makes us feel... It's a very weird world, you know. (laughs) You read things, or you have read things in the past, where people talk about what we need as people: this, this, this, and then they'll say things like "the love of a good woman," which is so non-specific, and it's completely insane and incredibly dismissive. It's so--you don't have to think that far past your place in the world, to expand your vision to understand that this is very different for completely half of the population, right? I'm trying to...think of women artists that I like and there are several that impress me, so I'm not sure I can agree with your premise that women can't affect men in the same way through art or that they don't engage art in the same way... But I'm challenged by this idea, you know, that maybe I'm not being moved in the same way.
See--you're right in the sense that there are exceptions, aren't there? But are those exceptions actual proofs of the contrary?
You like Anne Sexton, I bet.
(laughs) I like her an awful lot.
You like the cut to the bone stuff, right?
I don't know. I do know that I'm challenged by her--it's electric for me with her.
It's a physical thing, right, almost like a conversation that you're having with her.
"Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" is a favourite. You know what I fight with a lot is that I'm embarrassed of still liking Sylvia Plath, not so much with Sexton. That seems an odd reaction.
I was thinking about that whole thing about being embarrassed to read things. It's such an important thing to get over. There's so much nasty pressure put on people to, you know... You know what I was thinking is, for me, where did it come from? Something about my age and where I came from there was this guy, Rod McKuen...as a little kid I knew somehow from my family that this guy was a joke as a poet. But I didn't know why and so therefore I had to feel--and I don't know if I ever really read him--I just thought well I can't like this guy, he's a really bad poet, he's a joke, but since I don't really know why, I have to be really careful about who I do like so that I don't embarrass myself. I was literally just thinking about that yesterday and his name popped right into my head. The people that come to my head that are important to me and influential to me are, perhaps, you know, in some way embarrassing. I don't know, is that the nature of it?
The nature of being naked before something?
Right, right, like the women writers that I like. I love Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, and Patricia Highsmith, who I think does something that I can't understand. I feel like she speaks in a way that has nothing to do with language. She's here, obviously, in language, but there's some sort of queasiness of existence that's so subtle and so terrifying that I find masterful and transcendent.
You see a lot of Highsmith tropes in your work, don't you? Identity, doubling, mirrors, loneliness, and connection?
Yes. And what's transcending to me about that is that somewhere there are those devices that exist and are pleasing, and somewhere between those devices and something that I can't figure out is this thing that makes me really uncomfortable. That's art to me. That's someone who's got something very singular, specific in what they're conveying, and you don't know if she's even intentionally doing it or if it's more likely a function of her personality. When you read about her there's this oddness to her as a person. I'm trying to think of visual artists...and again, it's an unfair thing because the history of western art is exclusive to women it's, you know, saying that the Jewish people are lacking a visual sense but in a sense they've been on the fringe of it a lot and so is it that they don't have the capacity or is it where they've been placed? Does [Kiki Smith] fit into your category of something close to primal in her work?
Well her stuff, right, is like "Birth" and "Hanging Woman" and stuff. I wonder if she doesn't more feed the idea for me that a woman's sexuality expressed through art is just sort of alien--you know, almost insectile--for me. Kiki Smith scares me--or like that photographer...
Diane Arbus? She's an amazing artist, isn't she? There's something... It's not the same as Highsmith, but there's something that she finds there that's complementary to Highsmith. Amazing, amazing. She finds something in those pictures that's not even what you're looking at to the point that you can just tell that they're hers. People say things about her that, that she's kind of exploiting people, but I really think that she's very humane and the reason I feel that way is that the compassion that I feel for the people in her photographs. It's very genuine.
As opposed to like a Joel Peter Witkin?
Exactly. I think it's a very different kind of discomfort and I think that on the surface you could say that they're working in the same tradition but they're really not, are they? I think that Witkin is really the definition of exploitive of his subjects.
A male photographer, as it happens.
I wonder if that's the root of some of that discomfort--that nature of discomfort.
|"You need to put something into the world that isn't crap."||
Kaufman directs Robin Weigert in Synecdoche, New York
Can you talk to me about doubles?
I really should sort of figure this out because I'm asked this a lot but I don't really know. I don't know if would be fair or helpful for me to say to you that it speaks to this thing that you talk about regarding the ineffable in art--the inarticulate in art. I'm just really attracted to fake reality. On some level it just appeals to me, and when I put myself into a story situation and I don't know where it's going, these permutations just become part of the story and...then they, they kind of, what's the word? They... (long pause) I mean, they please me. When I start going down a certain road with those kinds of things, those conceptual conceits, I find that there's no end to it and it can go as far as I'm willing to take it. There's something expansive to me about the world seen through this conceit. When I realize that you're building a replica of New York City in a warehouse inside New York City that there inevitably has to contain a replica of the warehouse where it's taking place in and once you come to that realization you can't stop. It'll keep going forever, replica after replica after replica...
Until authenticity is lost--or is that another definition of authenticity?
Both--they exist together in tension, don't they? The replica is as real as the "real" as the replica, isn't it? I think there's something appealing and terrifying about that. I'm not really sure why. Does it speak to you in any way?
For sure. I feel like when you're confronted with the inexplicable, there's simultaneously this feeling of existential desolation, "what's happening? How could this be?"--but there's also that feeling through this articulation of the inexplicable that we're actually, somehow, less alone because someone else understands that desolation.
I think what you just said is exactly what I try to do. I've had this experience many times where people... I'm basically going to just repeat what you said. I've had this experience where people say that I'm depressing, or "so sad" and why am I so sad--my experience in the world is that when someone has written something or articulated something that is close to me but hasn't been articulated or written and I recognize it, I feel a common humanity that's overpowering to me. It's actually a time where I feel less alienated from the human race and I feel actually, in a way, pleased to be part of this thing. God, this person. And you know, when you combine it with the idea that this thing, this painting or this book, might have been written two-hundred years ago and this person who created this thing is dead and has been dead for a long time...is me. And then you know that history is not this thing but you know that this person was in this world and going through with as much urgency and sadness and passion and loneliness this thing that I'm going through. That somehow... It's mind-boggling because where is that now? Other than this book, where is that? How can it be there and now it isn't anymore? This time capsule has been sent into the world and is touching someone that he couldn't imagine, in a world that this person couldn't even imagine, and it's mind-blowing.
Yet that scale is what makes it, ironically I suppose, human.
Yes, it's profoundly large--it brings me to a place that's close to religion. This idea that there's something so much more complicated than I could ever understand that's going on that I'm trying to sort of feel my way through and I think that we've cut ourselves off from that as a culture. We've made art peripheral. People don't engage in it anymore but it's so essential to foster the proper growth of the world and the human race and if we don't do that we're in really, really serious trouble.
We really are. We really are. When people start feeling that they're other people, everything would get a lot better. We truncate ourselves and we wither. We do that as a rule. I don't think it's entirely--or even at all--the fault of the individual, because when you make everything in a society about marketing, about getting people to engage in something for your profit, you know, financial or otherwise... Which is what I think movies do and what advertising does. What happened to you--I mean, why couldn't we have had this conversation four years ago when you and I were in Beverly Hills maybe just a room apart but had to wait until I come with this movie that no one before Sony wanted to distribute? It's not the quality of our conversation, it's the extent to which... It's what politics does--it's where we are in the world to the point where we celebrate this idea that we have something that's called "Spin Alley." It's not what the candidates are talking about, but what's the narrative, what's the story, what the fuck are we talking about? People have real issues out there--sick and poor and lonely--it's a disaster. And there has to be someone who can say ["stop"]--and I think it does happen occasionally but it really needs to be hammered home that we have to stop. We have to save ourselves in the world during this really cataclysmic time that we're in and I feel like on whatever level that I exist in the world, all I can do is just try to understand my own existence in as true and as immediate and subjective a way as I can.
The way to larger insight is through an honest subjectivity?
No question. You need to put something into the world that isn't crap. You don't do things for other people to consume--ego-wise and career-wise of course I want people to go see my movies, but when you're doing something you can't think about that, because otherwise you mold yourself to expectations. You're no longer being honest. You're doing that other thing. You're lying. I hope that, you know, that the importance of this subjective, chaotic expression is recognized before it's really too late.
Kaufman on the set of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Kate Winslet and Michel Gondry
|"I'm a human being and all this shit is in my head."|
Tell me about dreams, how they dissipate, and how that fuels the melancholy in your work.
I'm very interested in dreams, you know, in the way that you express. I feel they're enormously powerful. I feel like...if I were to equate it to my waking life, that I do my best writing in my dreams. I'm often astounded by the feelings that I get when I wake up. They can affect me for days. Even as they do dissipate, even as I can't pull out the details, I feel these incredible feelings of longing, and loneliness, it functions like poetry and I try very pointedly to sort of, because I often maybe always write from the point-of-view of somebody. I don't think that the world exists outside of that point-of-view of human experience or that if it does it doesn't look anything at all like what we think that it does--that's my theory. (laughs) My movies take place from the point-of-view of this interior story. It's a difficult thing in movies. The medium doesn't really allow it easily so, often, I use voiceover, which I like and I have fun with it, but this time I didn't want voiceover. I wanted to externalize his interior world which, I think, is what dreams do. They give you an exterior touchpoint for the inside of your brain. I wanted to hack into that terrain and interact with people in ways that are not quite understandable in any intellectual way. People's motives might be unclear, but they're felt.
Like the "get on your knees" scene with Samantha Morton.
That's the example. She tells him to get down on his knees and beg her for a kiss and it's so very counter to what we know of this character before, and that's a dream image. There's something really scary about it. But in a dream, you're going through with it. This thing comes up and all of a sudden you're doing this thing that's given you pause and, really, that's like life right, that you muddle through all the things that you need to muddle through in your waking existence. I think that movies...lend themselves by design to exist in a dream state and that doesn't get utilized very often. It's curious to me that they don't. Audiences have been bred not to expect it.
Is that another possible explanation to why there's more resistance to this picture than to your others?
I want to think so. I want to think that they're wondering if there's going to be a reveal at the end that it's all a dream and I think there's an expectation of that that maybe I've fostered in my other work that at some point there's going to be a reveal of the device and all will be explained. But I didn't want to do that this time. [T]he truth is that I don't understand the device and I wanted to follow that through to the end of this character's life, because that made it more raw for me and affecting. I don't understand the device of my life--it feels more honest to me that this character never does, either.
So another conundrum, yes, is that what's conventionally accepted as "realism" in the movies is, in fact, a comfortable lie?
Yes. It has nothing to do with the real world. I think that it's possible to get closer to the truth of our existence by avoiding those traps because it's a common language but it's something that by design...the intention of most people who make movies is to make you forget that you're watching a movie. They want you to engage in it and to think that it's real, but what it does is limit your experience of it because it takes you to the acceptance of face value when, I don't know, that feels like it's cutting off your arm in a way when you approach film like that, especially as a director.
Turn off your brain, sit back and enjoy.
Right, and to be fair I understand that--there are times when I just want to sit in my hotel room and choose from this list of movies and just not think and there's space for that. But what I want is to create work that doesn't require you to analyze it so much, or to dissect it from a purely intellectual place, you know, but to experience it in a different way, with different expectations. To in a way "sit back" and let it wash over you and see if you "get it" in a different way. I want that. I want that possibility of a non-intellectual, dream-like interaction that can move in different ways wherein different things might resonate with you, or not--that you're navigating this minefield of ideas about life and time and aging: what it means to be connected to other people. It's hard for me to say because I'm close to what I do but for me, if I'm doing what I want to do and I'm not putting crap into the world, those feelings and that connection is there--is available--in a very "surfacey" kind of way. I don't think I'm trying to be obfuscating.
Is that what you fear the most?
To be obfuscating? No. I fear, I think, that I'm not having a conversation through my work with people. I was in Austin--Houston? No, Austin--and this big guy comes up to me afterwards and he's this big crew-cutted, jock-looking guy, the kind of guy that's always intimidated me because of my relationship with those kinds of people as a kid, and he said that "I just want you to know that I'm a big, tough, Texan and this movie made me cry out of both my eyes." That was a really sweet thing for me on a lot of levels--such a generous gesture from him--and it was, you know, it made me happy. It made me feel like this guy that I look at and peg as someone that I would have nothing in common with, I have something common in with. And that's something that's overwhelming to me, overwhelmingly important to me.
Isn't that the key? To trust mystery--to trust that the things that are pleasurable to me and scary to me are also that for others, without explanation?
You're absolutely right. That's what I try to do. If one is doing art, that's what I think that you must try to do. There are other functions for film and people do it for all different reasons, but if you were to ask me why I do this--which is you know painful sometimes and hard all of the time--I would say that if you're doing this for art that the only responsibility that you have is to try to get close to your truth. This thing I read that Isadora Duncan said that really stuck with me is that she strove her whole life to make one authentic gesture and I think that's the truth of it. Here you have this world-class artist and that's all she's trying to do and implied in that is that she failed, but that it's her goal throughout to find this thing that's true. I saw this thing, this dance troupe, really acrobatic, and the notes in this show had the choreographer saying that she came to a point where she observed that any movement that she did should take only the amount of time and effort it took to do.
Seems Buddhist, almost.
Most definitely--and trite, almost, too--but it really spoke to me that I'm not trying to put curlicues on it or embellish it [in] some way. I'm trying to see what it takes to stand up and walk to the door and then to express that...
(laughs) Yes, to replicate that in as little surplus movement as possible--to suggest the thing of it economically. It's a beautiful, profound, simple thing.
Is the irony of it that in striving for it, you embellish it?
Yes, that's right, but what I want--what I strive to do--is to consider that there's always for me contradictions and complications and that if you're inclusive of that... It's like if you're meditating and if you're desirous of anything, even enlightenment--especially enlightenment--then you're not achieving it, you have to acknowledge that that striving, that hellish confusion, is the truth of being a person--is inescapable. You're trying to get there, but you're also wanting to get there, and what's the confusion of that, what's the complexity of that? And all I can do, all that I can expect of myself, is to honestly express that tension in my work. I'm a human being and all this shit is in my head. If I hope to express myself with honesty, and of the moment, without the clarification of perspective on it, then I have to include all the impurities.