Charlie Kaufman, the greatest screenwriter of the last quarter-century
I’ve been fortunate enough to interview many fascinating people from all kinds of walks of life—the pioneering psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura; the celebrated writer Tillie Olsen; the NASA engineer Homer Hickam; legendary forensic pathologist Dr. Henry Lee; and, from the movies, well over a hundred fascinating individuals, from the last living star of the silent era Anita Page to the biggest celebrity of our time Paris Hilton. Few interview opportunities, though, have excited me as much as the one that I was granted this week…
It’s Sunday evening, and I drive from my home in Connecticut to the AMC cineplex in Harvard Square, which is just off of the Harvard campus and minutes from downtown Boston. A little after 9pm, a screening attended by 500 college students comes to a close, the lights in the theater come up, and a man who most people would have passed on the street without so much as a glimmer of recognition is introduced to raucous applause. Standing a mere 5-foot-4—and that’s factoring in his curly, frizzy hair—he looks and sounds almost frail. He doesn’t like talking about his films, or himself, or about much of anything, but he’s here anyway out of fear. Tonight he’s worried that if this movie (to which he’s devoted the last 5 years of his life) flops, he may never get a second chance to direct another. Tomorrow, though, chances are he’ll be on to worrying about something else. And when this happens, we, the people, are usually the beneficiaries of it, because rather than talking about his worries, he’ll be writing about them. He’s the greatest screenwriter of the last quarter-century, and his name is Charlie Kaufman.
Kaufman is best-known for writing such truly original screenplays as the psychedelic Being John Malkovich (1999), the self-parodying Adaptation (2002), the conspiratorial Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), and the mind-bending romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, for Kaufman he won an Oscar). His latest movie is called Synecdoche, New York (10/24, Sony Pictures Classics, trailer), and he not only wrote it, but also directed and produced it. It will begin a phased release on Friday, starting in major cities and, depending on its reception, possibly making its way across America. It is the story of a Kaufmanesque character—meaning neurotic but brilliant—named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who spends his entire life trying to cope with his fear of death. It tackles all sorts of big picture issues—the age-old quest for immortality, the similarities between living and acting, the roles others play in our lives and we play in the lives of others, and, indeed, nothing less than the meaning of life itself. And, like his earlier films, it is presented in such a way as to constitute what one might crudely call a mind-fuck.
Unlike Kaufman’s earlier films, though, Synecdoche does not tie everything together at the end in a neat way that is sure to leave audiences pleased with themselves, the film, and the screenwriter; instead, it requires audiences to form interpretations and conclusions of their own, which inevitably means that some will go home dissatisfied. I, however, went home with the sense that I had seen a film that undoubtedly has its shortcomings, but is nevertheless one of the most insanely imaginitive, shockingly ambitious, and ultimately brilliant films of this or any year. To me, it is the work of a visionary.
I don’t expect or ask others to agree with my own reading of the film—and, as you can hear for yourself by playing the 20-minute podcast (below) of my chat with Charlie Kaufman, neither does he. But I do encourage you to check it out, for it is a rare example of a tragically dying breed: a film by a filmmaker who actually assumes his audience is not stupid, but smart.
Anyway, take a listen to what Kaufman had to say during our chat in Boston on Sunday night, after the rest of the audience cleared out and he took a seat beside me in one of the middle rows of the mostly darkened theater…