Charlie Kaufman Depresses Us and Talks About ‘Synecdoche, NY’

Charlie Kaufman takes our minds through a tornado, discusses his new film, and teaches us that we’re all going to die.
By  · Published on October 24th, 2008

Charlie Kaufman talks faster than I can write.

This shouldn’t be too surprising since most humans can speak faster than can write, but what is surprising is the topic that Kaufman is talking on. Currently, we – meaning me, two other writers and Charlie Kaufman – are sitting at a conference table in a swank hotel here in D.C. Pens are flying furiously, and Kaufman seems to be gesticulating to mirror us, waving his hands like a conductor as he speaks. His eyes look like they are trying to escape from his face, his hair looks like he hasn’t slept in days, and he’s talking at break-neck speed about death.

His new film, Synecdoche, NY, his directorial debut, opens October 24th, and it’s good. Really good. And it’s about death. If that’s what you think it’s about.

“It’s about what you want it to be about,” Kaufman says, motioning for the woodwinds to play louder. He says this and continues explaining about how we’re all going to die. The movie may be what we want it to be, but its creator wants it to be about death.

“We’re all gonna die. That’s true,” he says as if talking about parallel parking. “A large part of what this movie is about is the exploration of that idea. How it affects the choices you make. We’re the only animal that knows [we’re going to die]. It shapes our lives – consciously or unconsciously.”

We’re being polite and taking turns asking questions so after he answers mine, I ask if he wants to interview us. In fact, I’d hoped that he would from the beginning – thinking it would make a really great, really meta angle for the interview, but he doesn’t want to play along. This is probably a good thing since the next question launches him into a tirade about how Hollywood is only out to create a product. Charlie Kaufman is only interested in creating art, something that creates a conversation.

He says if he didn’t care about art, he might as well do Transformers. “I don’t give a shit about Transformers,” he says. “But I’ll make a ton of money.”

It remains to be seen whether Kaufman hates explosions and robots (or whether he’s even seen Transformers), but it seems obvious that he finds Michael Bay guilty of simply making a product. “Movies seem to take you by the hand and lead you to a stupid place. If you take away what [films] are about, it makes them worthless. You’re putting garbage into the world.”

This is why when a fellow writer asks what Syencdoche, NY is about, Kaufman tells him it’s what he wants it to be about. And he’s not being glib. Promise.

Oh, but it is about death.

And time. The film deals with time in a very unique way, and Kaufman has thought a lot about that. From moment to moment during the film, it’s difficult to know how much time has passed since the last scene, and Kaufman can relate to it in his own life. He speaks at length about how growing older as made time move faster.

“It always seems to be my birthday,” he says, acknowledging that a year goes much faster at 50 than it does at 15. This leads him to talking about how the elderly are sidelined in our society. Which, inevitably, leads him back to talking about death.

Talking about death leads him back to questioning the existence of time. It also helps that I ask what philosophy he’s reading these days.

He says he doesn’t read it. “I’m no philosopher, but I think about things,” he claims before going into detail about dabbling in Buddhism, questioning and evaluating life, explaining that we create our own reality and describing the world as “inexplicable,” claiming there’s “no way to understand it.”

Perhaps that’s why the core of his artwork isn’t about the world or reality, but about people. His true question is “what it means to be a human being, experiencing memory or time or love.”

After digging deep into the human experience and doubting the existence of time, his public relations representative comes in the room to warn us we have five minutes left. If minutes exist, that is. Which, at this point, we’re unsure. Climbing out of the abyss, I start to feel like any question I ask is going to fall flat or going to lead him back to our impending human mortality, so I start to question my questions, none of which I actually wrote down. Luckily, the conversation turns to his visual style as a director. After all, this is the first film he’s gotten to express himself with completely.

So of course, he claims he doesn’t have one. More specifically, he says he doesn’t “know exactly what [he] wants to do with visual style.” This apparently applies to all future directing projects – if he does any – since each project would have its own life, and Kaufman doesn’t want to commit to a style that would suit him but not suit his next project. In fact, he doesn’t quite understand directors with a signature style although he hears they exist.

When he asks for an example, I offer Michael Bay as a man with a distinct visual style. He seems surprised, as if he didn’t realize that, which leads me to believe he hasn’t actually seen Transformers. Directly after being confused about signature styles, he begins speaking on the concept of dream imagery and, of course, David Lynch. I assume Lynch will lead him back to death, but instead, he lauds the director, saying he loves him and feels a kinship with him because he feels they both commit to dream imagery in their work – although Kaufman doesn’t want to emulate Lynch’s signature visual style because his “dreams don’t look like David Lynch’s dreams.”

So, yes, Charlie Kaufman is full of contradictions, has more questions than answers, and has made an absolutely beautiful film because of it. Near the beginning of the interview, when I didn’t know that my questions were all worthless, he slows down at the end of a monologue about death to claim that, “The end is built into the beginning.”

We shake hands, and as I’m walking down into the lobby trying to comprehend the tornado of conversation that just took place – and the mad maestro behind it all – I realize that the only question that should have mattered from the beginning, the one I should have asked myself before walking through the front doors of the hotel was, “Does Charlie Kaufman talk faster than I can write?” and I have a feeling I know where to find the answer.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.