It's a curious thing, and a bit unnerving, besides, sitting down to interview someone you suspect may be a good deal smarter than you are. You do what you can; you try to reassure yourself. "I'm not the one who has to answer the questions," you say. "I just have to ask ’em."
Ah, but precisely.
There's a line near the end of Fincher and Walker's sublime Se7en, spoken as the detectives are steeling themselves for the unspooling of inscrutable mastermind John Doe's homicidal opus: "If John Doe's head should open up and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it." That may be a slight paraphrase, I think, but it ran through my head more than once as I prepared for a chat with Charlie Kaufman, having recently taken a whirl in what may be his most poetic and wholly, giddily enjoyable teacup ride yet — his directorial entrée Synecdoche, New York.
There was no UFO. I did not want for it. The Kaufman I met speaks quickly, softly, often excitedly — you can hear his mind working, and it's fun to listen to. Partly, yes, because you can imagine that it looks like a pinball table made out of an Escher print in there. And partly because you know that that's the brain from whence sprung Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation., Confessions, and Malkovich (plus the Rhys Ifans one you totally mean to see). But also, and largely, because the patient, curly-haired dude/Academy Award-winning screenwriter next to you — he of the three-for-five Oscar-nominations-to-produced-screenplays ratio (excluding, just for the moment, Synecdoche) — is about as blustery and pretentious as the guy bagging your purchase at Half-Price Books. (You know, the one who seems to know a heckuva lot about Polish science-fiction satirists.)
Saw `Synecdoche` yesterday … I wonder how many times you get the question … “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m not asking, but `is the question asked` constantly?
Not — not that much anymore. At firstwhen `Being John` Malkovich came out that was the thing, and people also had kind of painted me in a certain way, like I was some sort of mysterious — I guess just ’cause it came out of nowhere.
And they’re like, “What’s in your crazy brain, man?”
Well, you know what, I did a radio show in Dallas yesterday, and they played a clip, an audio clip from Adaptation. … I’m listening to it, and I haven’t seen this movie in a few years, and it’s a meeting at the beginning of the movie where he’s meeting with this film producer, and she says, “Boy, I’d love to have a portal into your brain.” And then Nic Cage`’s` character says “Well … it’s no fun in here, believe me,” or something like that. And I realized, `as` I was listening to it, how painful it was, ’cause I used to get — the reason that’s in there is ’cause people used to say that to me all the time, and my stupid answer was exactly the same thing that he said.
Do you remember the first creative thing you wrote?
It’s weird, you know … I actually had a memory the other day, which was brought out in an interview ... I wrote this book in fourth grade — we had an assignment where we were gonna self-bind books ... we were studying explorers, and the books had to be about explorers. And I had the idea that I would write about my adventures with explorers. Like, rather than pick one explorer, the idea of the book would be that, for some reason, all these different explorers needed me to travel with them, ... and so `it was` in the form of a diary: “Oh, oh, Vasco da Gama has asked me to travel with him.”
“Ugh. I’m so tired — OK, I’ll go.” You know … that kind of thing. ... it was illustrated, and I still have the book. It’s called My Voyages With Explorers. But ... I was thinking about it, when I was talking to this journalist ... there is something kind of similar ... in the idea of that, to the stuff that I do, where I kind of like take a real-world thing and fictionalize it, or include myself in it or something, and I was doing it in fourth grade, and it freaked me out a little bit to realize that `laughs` ... basically I had my ideas in fourth grade, and I’m still doing it.
You were an actor. Right? Or you did it for a little bit?
Well, as a kid, yeah. ... But, I mean, I loved it. It was what I wanted to do with my life, and then I eventually went to acting school in college, and then I transferred after my first year to film school. … And I haven’t really done it much since. I was in some improv companies when I was in my 20s, and I did some standup ... but it was really like my passion when I was a kid.
You don’t miss it?
I did for a long time. I don’t know right now. I don’t think so. I feel I’ve changed a lot. I don’t know that I could do it anymore. I don’t know, getting up and — well, I might like it. I mean it, it was a lot of fun.
You say you don’t know if you could get up there in front of people, or you don’t know if you could do the technical parts?
Well, probably both. I mean, I don’t know how skilled I am. I was skilled for, you know, a 13-year-old. I don’t know how I would exist in the real world. ... But there was something very liberating about it for me in so many different ways. … I loved pretending to be other people, and I loved, you know, getting laughs. ... It’s just an amazing revelation when that first happened. You know — holy cow, this is everything.
I feel like it’s a special thing, maybe, for a writer-director when you first start seeing the props `for your film` kind of come into play, creating this world that’s existed here `in your head` ... in the physical world. I imagine you’re pretty involved with that?
Yeah, yeah. I’m very involved with it, but there’s lots and lots of people working on it. You know, a whole art department — production designer, set decorator, dressers. `There are` people whose job is only to do those graphics. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, you know. They do a mock-up of it, I make suggestions, they go back and do it again. It’s actually thrilling.
I love that stuff. And I’ve always — it’s one of the things I’ve always loved about theater in general — the idea of fake reality is just so … pleasing to me, you know?
People just kind of tend to marvel at your creativity, and talk about …
Some people. `laughs`
I don’t mean to sound too much `like` an ass-kiss right now, but — I can’t imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “I don’t like your stuff,” because it seems like there would be the fear that if you say, “This teen sex comedy sucked,” then people are like, “Yeah, it sucked.” But if you’re like, “This movie with a convoluted plot that’s hard to follow sucked,” it feels like there’d be a fear that people would say, “Oh, you just couldn’t follow it. You’re stupid.”
Yeah, but they don’t. They say that I’m overrated, or I have one idea, or I do the same thing, or they could write better … and often, sometimes they’ll defend their arguments with lots of, like, allusions to better people. You know, it’ll be like, “Well,” you know, “This is what Paddy Chayefsky did.” You know, so they’ll show that they’re intelligent. And it’s weird, ’cause it’s like strangely hurtful sometimes, and I don’t know why it should be, because I can separate myself from it, but it’s very hard for me — often I can’t get that far away from it. I just react and go “Aaugh! Augh! They hate me!”
`In` both this movie and Adaptation, the main characters kind of seem obsessed with making this `perfect artistic work`, and then the entire film becomes about that process. ... Is that `consummate theater piece, the creation of which is the protagonist’s goal in Synecdoche` something that you envisioned, and then `you` became more interested in the process?
No. I mean, I think I like the idea of it. Stanislaw Lem wrote a book of reviews, I think it’s called A Perfect Vacuum, of reviews for nonexistent books. It’s a really great book. And one of the things he said ... is that the reason he wrote it is because he really liked the ideas of these books, but they could never actually be written in their entirety. So, this way, he could talk about the idea of the book, but not have to figure out how to write this whole book. And the idea of creating a whole city, populating `it` with actors, and `having` an audience participate and view the play by just wandering around the city looking at stuff is a really cool idea to me. And it sort of feeds into a lot of stuff that I’m interested in, like, you know, I like sets, and I like fake reality, and I like parallels, and — but I don’t think it’s really possible to do it. ... It’s just been so long since I wrote this, but it does seem like it’s possible that I came up with it in that kind of way — as something that couldn’t really be done, but I could have happen in a movie.
Yeah. And then you’ve kind of put the idea out there, and it sort of exists, in a sense, and then you also get the film about the process.
And you get to use special effects to fake the idea.