Charlie Kaufman has built his reputation on the elusive nature of his writing – multi-layered, meta-textual and mind-bending. His creations include a puppeteer who finds a portal into the brain of a famous actor (Being John Malkovich); a young man raised as an ape (Human Nature); twin incarnations of himself struggling with art and commerce (Adaptation.); two lovers losing their memories (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); and now, in Synecdoche, New York, a theatre director who spends a lifetime proving Shakespeare’s adage that the world is a stage. He has a reputation as a tough interviewee, but we found him an engaged and intelligent character when we spoke about his latest film, his career to date and the people in his life.
LWLies: I want to start with a quote… About two days ago I was reading a novel and came across a quote from Matisse who said something like, ‘the first job of the artist is to cut out his tongue so that he can never explain his work.’ Does that ring true to you given the publicity you’ve been doing? Would you like a film like Synecdoche to be able to speak for itself?
Kaufman: Oh, well, I mean it’s not a matter of publicity. I agree with that idea, but what it means to me is not that you can’t talk about your movie in order to market it, it means that you shouldn’t explain it, you know? I remember reading a quote, I don’t remember who it was from – it was a pianist and I’m blanking on who it was – he played a piece, he was a modern classical composer and he played a piece. Afterwards somebody asked him what it meant and he sat down and he played it again. That was his answer. You know, I feel, I mean, on a bunch of different levels I feel that’s correct. If I could tell you what something means then there’s no point in making it because I might as well just tell people what it means. But in addition to that I try to create stuff that people can have their own reaction to and interpret in different ways. I wanted to work on a bunch of different levels and in a bunch of different ways. So if I was then to pin it down and say what I think it means, because I’m somewhat of an authoritative voice in the case of my work, people would assume I’m right and that would inhibit their ability to look at it, you know? And so I choose not to. So I agree with Matisse in that sense and I’m loathe to talk about what things mean.
LWLies: Do you think as audiences we’ve lost the habit of reflecting on ideas?
Kaufman: It seems to me like there was a lot of resistance to this movie when it opened in the United States among certain people in that regard. I also, you know… What I said to you I’ve said before about not wanting to interpret it, then some people see that as my inability to interpret it. Or a cop out, like I don’t even understand it so how can I expect them to understand it. It really is… I’m done with it, you know? I’m done with it. I did it, it’s out there, watch it if you want to, interact with it… I’m hopeful that someone can have an experience that’s somewhat satisfying with it. I mean, it’s my intention that they would, but my work is done. And yes, I enjoy interactive experiences, I enjoy interacting with the piece of art that I’m witnessing. Whether it’s a book or a movie, I want it to be mine, I want ownership of it, but I think that there is this kind of entertainment expectation from movies… By ‘entertainment’ I mean you can sit back and you can, you know… I don’t know… It’s just… It passes the time.
LWLies: I guess with Synecdoche, what it means is an aggregate of all the things that people think it means.
Kaufman: Well yeah, and absolutely it means that, and everyone with every experience is correct. I mean, you know, if there is such a thing as ‘ being correct’ with a piece of art, your experience with it… It’s like reading a book. You read a book and if it’s a good book you’re living with the book and you bring your life and your history and your memory and your prejudices and your hopes and your thoughts and all that stuff. You can’t help but do that. And the proof of that is that if you read a book now and you read it next week, or you read it 10 years from now, it’s a different book because you’re different. And I’m trying for that, you know, as my goal.
LWLies: One of the words that’s been used to describe the film is ‘self-indulgent’. But two things on that – one is that looking through interviews in the past, you seem incredibly well versed on the reviews for the film, so it’s not like you’ve just made it for yourself and you’re not interested in people’s reactions, which doesn’t seem like the actions of a self-indulgent person. And number two…
Kaufman: I mean, you know… Self-indulgence is an odd thing and I don’t know what it means. What does it mean? Really, really when you come down to it, what does it mean? If you’re a person and you’re making a work of art, you’re creating something, whatever that may be, what can it be but self-indulgent?
LWLies: That’s number two! All art is self-indulgent.
Kaufman: It’s said in a pejorative way, but it’s a meaningless criticism. What I’m trying to do is explore an idea for myself. Yes, it’s for myself because that’s really what I can do as a creative person. I can offer you myself. I can’t do anything else. I can’t offer your friend him, you know? I can’t do it. I’m me; I’ve got my experiences in the world, my subjective thing and I think in what I see as a very generous and vulnerable way I’m saying, ‘These are the things I’m thinking about – maybe they’re interesting to you or maybe they’re not.’ I’m not presumptuous. I mean, I’m hopeful I can make a connection with other people because I like that, you know? I like that when you give something of yourself and other people respond to it; it’s communicative. But the self-indulgent thing… There’s a lot of labels that people throw around that I find to be meaningless. I think ‘self-indulgent’ is a meaningless label, I think ‘pretentious’ is another one, which I get a lot. I don’t know what that means. What does that mean? I’m not pretending anything. I’m really honestly trying to explore stuff that concerns me, in the world and my life and my history, and being a human being. These are things that concern me. I’m not hiding anything and saying it’s something else. You know what I mean? It’s, like, what is self-indulgence? Is Rembrandt self-indulgent?
LWLies: We had this same conversation…
Kaufman: I don’t know what it is. I’m not making Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s not my interest in the world, you know? That, to me, I don’t think it’s self-indulgent, but I think it’s a fairly cynical enterprise, to make those kinds of movies. And I like them, sometimes, I enjoy them. But they’re designed to make you like them. That’s what they’re designed to do, and the reason that they’re designed to make you like them is that the people who made them want to make a lot of money. They’re creating a product. They sit in a room and they decide, ‘This is what I think people will like because, you know, we’ve seen that they like this in other movies’ or this or that, you know? I’ve not been in these meetings. I mean… I’ve been working in Hollywood for a very long time now. I know what goes on and the idea… I don’t know. It’s hard for me. I feel like I’m arguing that people should see the movie, and I’m not because they should see the movie if they want to see the movie. I’m not even going to try to convince people to like it. But I will tell you that I’m not doing it in a cynical way, and that’s really the best thing I can offer.
LWLies: I know that in part you ended up directing this due to a scheduling issue with Spike Jonze, but did you feel ready to direct before this? Did you know you were ready or was it a feeling that just evolved? Or has it yet to evolve? Would you now confidently call yourself a director?
Kaufman: I don’t confidently call myself anything, to tell you the truth. I don’t consider myself a director; I don’t consider myself a writer.
LWLies: Hang on: you don’t consider yourself a writer?
Kaufman: No I don’t. I mean, I recognise that I have a career writing screenplays and I make money out of them and I’ve achieved a certain level of recognition for it, but, it’s weird, I don’t think of myself as that. I think of myself just as trying to do stuff, and these are the things that I’m interested in. Since I was a kid I did a lot of theatre stuff, and I did a lot of movies when I was a kid – you know, I don’t mean that I was in movies but I shot Super 8 movies and did school plays. It’s just the stuff that I’ve grown to really like to do. But no… It’s weird to walk around saying that you’re something. Isn’t it? It’s like a weird… It’s like a defence mechanism, like, ‘Oh, look, I’m okay. I’m validated!’
LWLies: But the impression that you get from watching the films that have been made from your scripts is that you lead a very examined life – that you’re somebody who spends a lot of time investigating his own thoughts. You’ve said that when you’re writing you’re trying to put your truth down on paper.
Kaufman: Trying to explore, maybe, my truth, or what I see as the experience that I’m having at that time of being a human being. I do like to do that. That’s what I do. I kind of feel like, you know, if there is a job description I have that would be it. And that’s why I feel this certain incredible responsibility when I put something in the world – that it should be as honest as I can be. And that makes me, kind of, open to being wounded and all that stuff that comes from that. But I feel like it’s my job and I feel that if I’m not doing that then I’m cheating people and I’m putting garbage into the world. I don’t feel as ethical.
LWLies: It seems ironic then that you’ve gravitated towards Hollywood, which is hardly known as the great bastion of truth and honesty.
Kaufman: No, but, you know, it’s no different than anywhere else, that’s the bottom line. I think what happened is, I really like this stuff, I’ve always done it and this is where the work is for this stuff, you know? Where it is for me, at least, in this country. This is where I knew it to be so… It took me a long time to come out here. I was very scared of it; I was a very, sort of, timid person in that way. I’ve worked in a lot of jobs in a lot of different places and I kind of realised, somewhere along the line, I think when I reached 30, I can work for assholes and make five dollars an hour – and I have – but I might as well try to pursue the thing that interests me. And this is where it was. This is how I could understand how to do this thing.
LWLies: Can you tell us about those early days – who or what influenced and inspired you to write?
Kaufman: Um, I don’t know. Are you talking, like, influences like other writers?
LWLies: Other writers, or just where you were in your life. At what point did you get the courage or the energy or the impetus to leave the five-dollar-an-hour jobs for assholes?
Kaufman: It really was turning 30. I had, sort of… I felt like the writing was on the wall in a way and I had to do something because this was gonna be my life, you know? And it was a very difficult life. I mean, I couldn’t really support myself and it wasn’t fulfilling in any way, so, you know, I got the idea to be very tenacious and actually get a job, and I kind of looked pragmatically at how I would do that and I realised that there was, kind of, a route to getting work in television in the United States – at least, there was at the time. It was very simple, you know, in that you had to write sample scripts and if you could attract the attention of an agent then the agent could send them out to producers and then, you know, if they liked your script… It wasn’t like you needed a certain degree or you needed some experience even, really. You could just get a job as a writer if you could get in. And so I pursued that doggedly, you know, wrote the sample scripts and sent them out, got an agent, which was also difficult but I did it – I pursued it until I got one – I came out here to LA to do job interviews and I ended up getting a job. So I started writing on a TV show when I was 32.
LWLies: I wanted to ask a little bit about your relationship with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. I think that the popular view, or myth, is that you guys, sort of, hang out all day in this amazing funhouse of cool and creativity, but it’s not like that, right?
Kaufman: I’m there now!
LWLies: What’s the truth of your relationship with them – how did you come to meet them? What is it about the others that keeps you moving in the same circles?
Kaufman: Well I don’t know that we’re really moving in the same circles. I haven’t seen either of them for quite a while. I’ve seen Spike more recently because he was a producer on the film. But what happened was, I’d written Being John Malkovich, and after a while it got to Spike and he was interested in directing it and he was in a position at the time… He was pretty well known as a commercials and video director so he could kind of get it set up with his company. So he approached me – I didn’t know him, I didn’t even know who he was – and we met and I think we liked each other, and we got the movie made. And that was a good experience and he’s a cool guy, very collaborative, so I got to be involved in the process of making the movie, which I think was good for the movie and good for me. Then through Spike I was introduced to Michel, who was a friend of Spike’s, and he was looking to make movies but couldn’t find any scripts that he liked. Spike I guess showed him Being John Malkovich and he loved it, but it was already being made so we met and talked about other things and that’s how we got involved. And that’s it. I mean… I think they’re both living in New York. I haven’t seen either of them in a bit.
LWLies: Do you see yourself as almost being in competition with them now that you’re a director? You seem very keen on the idea of ownership and authorship, but the work of Spike and Michel has a clear stamp. Do you feel the need to develop your own stamp now so people know it’s yours?
Kaufman: I don’t really think that that’s the motivation. I hope I express it. I had a really good collaborative relationship with both of them, you know? And hopefully will in the future. It’s more like I wanted to do this. Like I said, I did a lot of theatre, I went to film school, I directed movies as a kid and I wanted to do it. I’m very interested in actors and… And then, you know, there does come the thing where choices have to be made and there are certain disagreements, and usually Spike and Michel and I agreed on things. When there are disagreements, the director wins, so there are choices that are made that I don’t… I wouldn’t necessarily make. And I wanted to see what that would look like if I had that control from the inception of the thing to its completion. So I think… It wasn’t really like a kind of, ‘Oh, I want a stamp on it’ or anything. I don’t think I’m really interested in that. I don’t know. It doesn’t drive me.
LWLies: Just briefly, I love the way your scripts seem, on paper, like they should just be great unmade stories. But somehow you’ve managed to get them all made. Do you actually have anything in a draw somewhere that you haven’t made yet but you’d like to go back to?
Kaufman: Not really, no. I’ve been pretty fortunate with one exception – and I don’t think it’s great or anything – but I wrote an adaptation of a Phillip K Dick novel, which didn’t get made because it didn’t and then somebody else made another version of it, and that’s the only… At this point that’s the only unmade script I have. I don’t… I’m a pretty slow writer – I haven’t written that many. I wrote some scripts with a writing partner when I was first out of college. I wrote a couple of screenplays with this other guy and they’re pretty crazy. They haven’t been made and I’ve thought about revisiting them but haven’t and they’re… I’d say they’re maybe more out there than my other things in some ways. They’re pretty, like, they’re pretty chaotic and crazy and silly and jokey. I don’t know. I think that the hard thing is to come back to something that you wrote when you were 22 and try to find its relevance in your life, you know? Even though I’m interested and I’d love to see them made – it would be fun. But I’m not sure I want to take them on at this point. But I might at some point. I don’t know.
LWLies: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Kaufman: I’m writing something new, but it’s pretty early. There’s not much to talk about.