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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Tuesday 12th May 2009

Interview with Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman in conversation with Toby Young during the London Film Festival at the British Film Institute on 29th October 2008

Toby Young

So I have to ask… is it really you? And why did you send Meryl Streep in your place to accept your Oscar?

Charlie Kaufman

My BAFTA? Actually, I couldn’t be there, and I don’t remember why, and she was going to be there so I wrote a speech in case I won, and she agreed to read it.

TY

It wasn’t a reluctance to be at the event?

CK

No, I was there two other times but for some reason I couldn’t make it that year.

TY

I’m going to focus on four films, starting with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York. But to start I want to ask you a bit about your background in television. You served an apprenticeship, for want of a better word, as a television writer. You worked on two episodes of Chris Elliot’s Get a Life...

CK

No, I worked on a lot of episodes. It’s just that I wrote two episodes.

TY

...and you worked on a couple of shows – Ned and Stacey and The Dana Carvey Show. Was that at all useful to you as a screenwriter?

CK

No. It was useful to me to have a job. It was the first time that I was hired to write, and that’s a big deal. Before that I had a lot of difficulty showing people the stuff that I had written, and you really can’t have that problem if you’re working on a TV show. You have to turn in your scripts. So I had to get over a lot of things. I was very shy in the writer’s room in sitcoms, where you’re throwing out jokes and it’s a very competitive environment. I was very shy and was barely audible for the first several months of working there. So that was good, and I was paid to be a writer, and that was really good. That’s very useful, but I don’t know if that was a training thing, it was a job.

TY

Was there a pivotal moment, where you decided that that wasn’t enough and you wanted to do something bigger, or had you always wanted to write screenplays?

CK

I always wanted to, and I had an impossible time figuring out how to get into the business that I wanted to get into. I was 30 when I decided that I was going to work in TV. It wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. It was with an eye towards getting people to know me and maybe having a chance to write screenplays. So that was the pivotal moment: deciding that this was what I was going to do, deciding to get a job on a TV show. I was very focused and pragmatic and tenacious in a way that I hadn’t been because in a way it was a last ditch effort for me. At the time I was answering phones in an art museum in Minneapolis, and I was making $6 an hour, which was good for me. That was it – I borrowed $3,000 and I went out to LA and I tried to get a job. If I didn’t get a job I wasn’t going to be able to pay that money back. Then I got lucky.

TY

Why comedy writing? Why not novels, or poems?

CK

I started out being interested in theatre and acting, and I did a lot of that when I was a kid. That’s just where I was. I liked putting on plays and being in plays. I liked stagecraft. It’s what I always did as a kid, so I didn’t start out as a novelist I guess.

TY

Did you have a career in the theatre as a theatre director, for instance?

CK

No. I directed a couple of plays two years ago. That was the first time that I directed anything. That was good for me and an education. It was confidence building to work with actors, and that it came out well allowed me to direct the film with confidence.

TY

Was there a breakthrough moment where you found your voice? Was Being John Malkovich a new departure for you as a writer, or was it similar to the kind of material that you had been working on?

CK

No. I had being writing that kind of stuff for a long time, although that was the first screenplay that I wrote by myself. I had a writing partner when I was in my early twenties, and we wrote a lot of pretty chaotic stuff. When I was in TV I wrote a bunch of pilots that were silly and odd, and maybe along the lines of Malkovich. They didn’t get produced, but I wrote them. They’re still sitting around.

TY

One thing that I get from your films is the deep acquaintance or familiarity with the craft of writing, and even though they are spellbindingly original, there seems to be an underpinning of craft.

CK

Last night at the screening a guy asked me a crazy question, like, “I notice that your screenplays don’t have any structure, do you feel okay about your screenplays not having structure, or do you wish your screenplays had structure?” Apparently there’s someone that doesn’t agree with you! Yes, I think that I have a craft!

TY

How do you know which rules to stick to and which to break?

CK

I don’t think there are any rules. There’s experience and trying to figure out a creative way to tell a story. Those are the two things that I’m interested in and that at this point I have some of. But there aren’t any rules.

TY

Let me put it a different way: Which aspects of the craft do you think it’s important to preserve and which are dispensable?

CK

I think that I’ve got some skill, or something like that, but I don’t think there are rules that I’m either adhering to or throwing away. I really do try to think of it as, this is a piece of work, I have different tools to work with, I have the ability to create fictional people, I have the ability to describe scenery, I have the ability to put it in a certain order, I’ve got the ability to write lines for these people. Then I figure out the best way to do that to my mind. I vaguely know what a three act structure is, but it doesn’t interest me. It seems like an odd thing, that it’s like saying there’s only one way to paint a painting. No one says that, but they do say that there’s one way to write a screenplay, and I disagree.

TY

The whole trajectory of the questions I’ve been asking you is trying to fit you into a story template that I’ve got in my head which is: You start out as this bright television writer who learns the craft in the trenches of the television industry and then use that – which is clearly rubbish. Do you often find yourself resisting efforts to impose these journalistic story templates on your career?

CK

I resist it if it’s not true. I get that not only on my career, I get that on personal things too. Journalists are always trying to figure out an angle. I did an interview for Time magazine several years ago, and it’s one of those things that I think I’m more aware of now, but there’s a thing that journalists do where they befriend you and they make you think that they like you, then you trust them, then they kill you. So anyway, I had a conversation with this woman and at some point in the conversation where we’re talking about my past and I said that I got picked on in school. So the article comes out and the headline is, “The Revenge of the Nerd.” Her whole angle was: Look at me now – you beat me up in high school but now I’m getting back at all of you. Now, I don’t care, but at the time I was really offended because it has nothing to do with why I do anything, and it was just this thing that she wanted to say because it gave the article a form. I have a difficult time doing things to people and characters that I make up -- that people feel comfortable doing that to real people that live in the real world is an odd thing. Like I said, I had been writing for a long time before I got a job in TV, and I started trying to get that job by the time I was 30, and by the time I got my first TV job I was 32 years old. I wasn’t a kid, and probably in a lot of ways that ended up being helpful to me because I was not taken by it in the same way that I saw from people I worked with who were younger than I was. But I think that I had my comedic ideas and interests, and maybe the style that I was interested in working in pre-existed my TV work. And the TV work was good. I got the confidence from doing it and I worked with a lot of funny people, and that’s always good. It’s inspiring and you do get an education from doing that: you hear other people’s jokes.

[Clip from Being John Malkovich]

TY

Why a real person and not an actor in the John Malkovich role? Why introduce that element of reality into a work of fiction? What was going on there?

CK

I think it’s funnier, you know. It’s more confusing, in a good way. It raises the stakes – if it’s an actor playing it, then it doesn’t raise the same questions as are raised by John Malkovich playing himself in this particular version of his life.

TY

Did you work with him on his dialogue so that it would sound like him, or did you just give him his lines?

CK

No. I didn’t know John when I wrote this and Spike and I decided before we met him that this is the John Malkovich that we’re representing, the character in this movie, and that we weren’t going to try to change it to be like the Malkovich that we would meet if there was any difference, and we stuck to that. We didn’t need to change any lines.

TY

He at no stage said, I just wouldn’t say that?

CK

No, he didn’t say that. But there is a story that Spike tells that at one point he did tell John that John wouldn’t say this that way, based on our idea of John Malkovich, and then John changed his reading.

TY

Why John Malkovich? Why not another real actor?

CK

At the time when I wrote it, it was as simple as that I thought it was funny. Since I’ve been asked this question a lot, I’ve analysed why it’s funny to me, and I think it’s funny because it’s a funny idea that people would want to be him, but he’s a serious actor, so it’s not a joke. It’s not a jokey choice. He’s a real, serious actor, but it’s funny. There’s also a quality to Malkovich that’s unknowable and odd, and I think you can imagine that there’s someone looking out through his eye at all times, that isn’t him. Plus his name: There’s no other name that works, like in the scene that we just saw where people are saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.” It’s funny.

TY

One of the things that seems to distinguish your work is an impatience with artifice. So rather than have an actor play an actor, you just have John Malkovich seemingly playing himself, and that seems to be symptomatic of what is new and how your work is a departure, and that’s more of a theme in Adaptation. But at the same time as this intolerance of the lies that we’re normally told during the course of watching films and being required to suspend disbelief and so forth, you also seem completely enchanted by these artificial, fantastic worlds which require special effects to create. Is that a paradox, or am I reading too much into that?

CK

I really like artifice, and I like reminding people that they’re watching a movie, and I really like the idea of having people question the veracity of what they’re watching. By mixing things that are possibly real with things that are clearly not real or questionable are to me interesting and fun. I don’t see it as a paradox, I guess. I’ve always liked the fake world, and I like sets and illusion and all that stuff. But I don’t like being lied to, and I think that movies lie a lot. Maybe I’m trying not to lie in some of these things by saying that I am lying, that I’m not lying anymore, if that makes sense.

TY

Another thing that occurs frequently in your work is the idea that as human beings we are in some sense trapped in our own subjectivity. We can’t in any sense transcend our own point of view. Your films depict events from the point of view of usually the protagonist. But in Being John Malkovich, was this a fantasy about how we might escape this solipsistic world, how we could actually climb into someone else’s brain and experience things?

CK

There’s two sides to feeling that way, and one is a recognition that that’s just the truth. That each of us is an organism, and we have sense organs and we perceive the world through them, and it’s not the world as it is that we’re perceiving, it’s the world as it’s translated by this mound of material in our heads. I think that I’ve often wanted to be someone other than I am, that’s a common feeling that I have. Maybe it’s because I’m so aware that I am me, and that I’m limited by being me and I’m limited by people’s perception of me and how I am in the world is how I’m treated, you know what I mean? Initially, the idea of finding a portal into someone’s brain is an idea that appealed to me, and I made a joke of it. Which is maybe somewhat defensive, but is probably where it came from.

TY

Another paradox...

CK

But we determined that the other one wasn’t a paradox. You’re doing that journalist thing by making me into something!

TY

A second attempt to saddle you with a paradox... My point is that… you seem to subscribe to this almost Matrix-like view of reality, in which people cannot transcend themselves, and in which their reality seems to be very personal to them, and there is no mind-independent universe for them to connect with. Yet, at the same time, you’ve said in interviews that if we could somehow escape from ourselves and take an objective look at the universe, it would look very different to how it looks to us.

CK

In a way, it wouldn’t look like anything because what it looks like is based on these, attached to this. It’s a function of our brain. It doesn’t really look like anything, but if there’s no one looking at it...

TY

Sure. But when you hear these ideas expressed in philosophy, they’re often accompanied by or part of a general assault on the very idea of truth… Yet, in your case, it doesn’t seem to be part of that because you are very attached to the truth, and doing what’s true.

CK

No, I’m very attached to my truth, and I make a point of saying that. The only thing that I can say with any truthfulness, is that this is how I see things. I don’t have any other vantage point, so I think that I’m expressing my experience, and that’s really all that I can do.

TY

Here’s a six million dollar question: When you’re trying to be faithful to yourself and express something that feels true to you, how do you separate those false feelings which may take on the appearance of being true, but which are ersatz feelings?

CK

Well, give me an example of what that is. What is a fake feeling?

TY

Well, you yourself have criticised the notion of “spin alley”. What are spin doctors trying to do? They’re trying to conjure up interpretations and feelings about the candidates that they’re working for which people might act on when it comes to casting their votes, but which I think they might later come to recognise are phoney. So they might feel manipulated.

CK

But what’s an example of that within me? I’m serious: What would it be?

TY

In the context of a relationship, you might imagine that you had a much stronger attachment to a person than you really do.

CK

But that’s part of a truth then. And that’s fascinating. And what I would do if I was writing about that is I would include that, and make the situation more complex. And that’s what I’m always trying to do. I’m trying to add the complexity, the confusion. When I sit down and try to meditate, the first thing that I realise is that there’s an endless barrage of interference in my head that keeps me from this task, which is trying to breathe. Then there’s a thought about what I need to do, or there’s an embarrassment that I remember, or whatever is going on, and those are all true. That’s it. That’s what the world is. This friend of mine told me a story that she went to a meditation retreat somewhere in some rural setting, and there’s a whole class full of people trying to meditate. It was near a farm, and all of a sudden there were two horses fucking close by, and it was really distracting to the people, and they were getting really mad. Her reaction was, Yeah, but this is it! This is what’s happening. The whole idea of meditating is not to be away from what’s happening, is to be with all of the complexity of the world. So having confused feelings about somebody is part of that complexity. It’s interesting and it’s true, and if you put that into a work, people are going to relate to it and feel less lonely because they have those feelings too. As opposed to the bullshit that you see in romantic comedies, where there’s a uniformity of emotion that’s expressed that has nothing to do with anybody’s feelings about anything. But we all feel jealous of it because it looks so fucking great.

TY

How much of your work is in part prompted by rage at the shortcomings of other people’s work?

CK

I don’t feel anything about shortcomings. I like shortcomings. I love failure. I really do. What I get mad about is the people who are writing bullshit to make money, to get rich, at the expense of other people. And I mean that across the board, not just in screenwriting. I mean people lying in politics, or selling soda, or whatever the hell they’re doing, because they’re greedy. It makes everyone else in the world feel alienated and isolated, and I think it’s a shame. But people’s failures, people trying to do things, or acknowledging shortcomings or limitations: I think it’s beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with it.

[Shows angry rant about Hollywood clip from Adaptation]

TY

How much of you is in that character?

CK

I don’t recognise it at all! [Laughter] It’s funny that the thing that Tilda Swinton says about wanting a portal into my brain is something that after Malkovich came out I used to get every time I met someone professionally, and even sometimes not professionally, people used to say that exact thing to me. And I would say that really stupid thing in response, “It’s no fun in here you know.” That conversation is fairly close to the conversation I had with the real Valerie Thomas, who it’s based on, when I tried to get this job.

TY

Did you, when you got that job, tell Valerie Thomas roughly how you were going to adapt the book?

CK

No, I had no idea. I was five or six months into it when I was so desperately stuck for various reasons that I came upon the idea of including myself. I didn’t tell anybody until I turned in the script because I knew that they would say no, and I really had no other way to do this that I could think of. So I thought, Just do it and be done with it and deal with it later.

TY

It sounded very like you. That high-minded intolerance of doing it in a Hollywood way.

CK

You know what I came up against, ultimately? I really liked the book which really doesn’t have any story. It’s just interesting about orchids. I learned a lot about orchids and somehow it was very melancholy and moving and there’s no story. There was talk about having these two characters having a love affair and I didn’t want to do that. When it was cut out of the movie, the first thing that Nick Cage says when she says that thing is, Well, that didn’t happen. For some reason, it’s cut – I didn’t realise it was. But actually his response makes a little more sense if that was actually in there. It doesn’t seem so rambling. What I came up against when I couldn’t figure out how to do this was I didn’t want to make up lies about these real people. I felt really uncomfortable even writing lines of dialogue for them that weren’t in the book. And there wasn’t much dialogue in the book, you know. I think the initial idea of putting myself in was basically to say, Okay, I’m lying. You’ll see the process, you’ll see that some of this is being made up by a screenwriter, and that gave me freedom to make it as outrageous as I wanted to without being harmful to other people. At least that’s how I saw it.

TY

By creating your hack twin brother, did that also give you the license to then do all the things with the story that you initially told Valerie you weren’t going to do?

CK

Yes, but that came later. It’s really interesting the progression of that script was that the impetus was this, what I just told you, and then my impetus was okay I’ve got this screenwriter who’s working on a script and he has no friends and no social life, and there’s nothing dramatic about that – I didn’t know how to show it. So I thought, Okay, it’s that stupid identical twin idea that people always do in movies I thought was really funny. I thought, Okay, I’ll give him someone to talk to, and it’ll be him. Then once I did that I thought, Okay, his brother’s a dope, because it’s fun to write dopes. Then I thought, Okay, what if he wants to do what Charlie does? Then I came to a point where the screenplay sort of started to write itself and the screenplay then becomes the subject of the screenplay, and the transformation of the screenplay into this questionable thing became part of the collaboration that Charlie eventually did with his brother. And it just fell into place, and it was fun. I went from being stuck and really unable to write for months, to being really excited about it.

TY

Like the character in the film, you actually had writer’s block?

CK

No, because he doesn’t become excited about it.

TY

He gets blocked at one stage, is what I meant.

CK

He takes his brother in and allows his brother to finish the screenplay, basically. So Charlie in the movie has failed, and the screenplay fails, and so the movie fails which I felt the movie needed to… in order to work. Rather than winking at the audience and saying, okay, we’re failing...

TY

Were you disappointed when it didn’t?

CK

No, it did fail. It became this thing that didn’t resolve itself at the same level or in the same form that it started. And that was intentional. It went into this other world. Everything that he said he didn’t want to do obviously happened, all these clichés happened, but they happened really. Spike and I really tried to do them. We tried to make the relationship with Amelia feel like a lovely movie thing. And all that stuff, so it’s almost like when the movie’s over, you’re kind of pleased but you’re kind of like, I don’t know, the goal was to have this ambivalence at the end.

TY

One thing that aspiring screenwriters might take from a lot of what you say is this notion that making any sort of concession to the audience and the needs and wishes of the audience is heresy, and I think a lot of people may identify you with the Charlie Kaufman character rather than the Donald Kaufman character in Adaptation. But actually, there’s a lot of showmanship in your work. You like to dazzle and entertain. You like to be funny and make people laugh. You wouldn’t get the impression from listening to that tortured soul telling the movie executive how he’s going to do it, that what he’s going to do is going to be remotely funny, but the way you did it is funny and that scene is very funny. In that, there is showmanship.

CK

Yes, I like to be funny. But what I like to be funny for is me. That’s always the gauge or the barometer: Do I think it’s funny? Not trying to think what other people are going to think is funny. That’s what I think the difference is. I hope that eventually people will think that it’s funny, and if people think that it’s funny then it’s pleasing to me. It’s flattering, it makes me feel good and I like it. But when I’m working I try very seriously to not go in the direction to figure out what people want.

[Shows clip from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

TY

There was a bidding war for the script of ESOTSM… Is that wrong?

CK

There was interest.

TY

A lot of interest. And at the time Jim Carey was if not the, then one of the two or three biggest box office stars in the world. Given how antithetical to Hollywood a lot of your work is, are you surprised how receptive Hollywood is to your work, and how keen they are to do it?

CK

By Hollywood, you mean Jim Carey?

TY

Why is it, do you think, that when you’re trying to do something so original and different and unusual by the standards of Hollywood filmmaking, there is so much receptiveness?

CK

I don’t know. I think the fact that Being John Malkovich did well and made its money back, but also did well critically -- it became a kind of prestige thing for the people that made it. So there’s that element. Also, actors are for some reason or another, interested in working on these scripts, so we’ve been able to attract really good actors for very little money. They don’t take their fee. Obviously, Jim Carey’s fee would have been the entire budget of this movie. That helps them get made – Jim Carey wants to do it, and that helps the movie get made.

TY

Did working with a big box office star present any difficulties for you? Did he try to change anything?

CK

No, I think he was great. He came to this, and it’s always been the case with the people that worked on these movies, Jim came to it because he wanted to do this movie and he had met with Michelle before and liked Michelle. The first time I met him was the first rehearsal, and he came in and he was wearing a hat very similar to that and he needed a shave. I had a real sigh of relief when I saw him because I pictured this very rubber faced, hair thing guy. But he looked like a person, he looked really cool. Michelle and I after the thing said, Okay Jim wears no make up and always needs a shave in this movie. He agreed to that and I think it does a lot to humanise him. I think he was available throughout the production to try to do the part rather than try to be Jim Carey.

TY

Do you find it easy to preserve some kind of element of control in the filmmaking process given the level at which you’re working? A lot of writers are reluctant or wary of doing films with Hollywood production entities or with big stars because they feel like they will lose control.

CK

Well what’s the alternative? I mean, that’s who you have to do them with. When Spike Jones said he wanted to do Being John Malkovich, I had no idea who he was and I didn’t care. It was like, Someone wanted to make my movie! It turned out to be a good thing, and a really fruitful collaboration for both of us I think. But you’re trying to get your career going. So then I had this person who I trusted and I made another movie with him, and then I had a relationship with Michel Gondry which was also collaborative and we did two movies together, and I think that’s what you need to find. You need to find people who are allies, who you can trust. I’ve had pretty good luck. It’s the same with the actors. As I said, they’ve all come with the right spirit.

TY

Was your experience on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind a less happy one?

CK

Well it wasn’t really an experience because I wasn’t really involved in that. I don’t think that George Clooney was all that interested in what I was interested in, so I was separate from that production, and that was frustrating for me because I care about these things. They’re important to me. These scripts are important to me. I had had this good experience with working with a director so this was an unusual thing for me, although I know it’s a typical thing for writers in Hollywood.

TY

Do you intend to continue to work with Spike Jones and Michel Gondry or, now that you’ve directed a film, are you going to… direct your own work?

CK

I don’t know. I’d like to direct again. I’d like to direct the next thing that I write. That’s as far ahead as I’ve thought. I like Michel and I like Spike and I like working with them and who knows? But right now I feel like I’ve had this experience and I want to do it again and take it somewhere else and try it again.

[Shows trailer of Synecdoche, NY]

TY

Was it a very different experience actually being in charge -- directing -- as opposed to just sitting alongside the director?

CK

Yes. It’s different. I’ve been involved in a lot of the aspects of the other movies, so I’ve had some experience. So the actual day-to-day -- working with the actors and getting the thing moving and keeping it on schedule and all that stuff -- was new for me, and it’s very different. It’s a managerial job in a lot of ways, as opposed to a writer’s job, which is fairly isolated.

TY

Did you feel that because you weren’t collaborating and because you had more control that ultimately you were able to put something up on screen that was more faithful to your vision as a writer than the previous things that you have worked on?

CK

The short answer is yes. I think that it’s more idiosyncratic than other things that I’ve done. I did have the control to keep it that way. But the longer answer is that I have had a very good relationship with Spike and Michel and they’ve been very respectful of my work and my writing, and appreciative of it. But when push comes to shove and we disagree on something, they make the final decision about what stays and what goes.

TY

Did you find yourself calling either of them for advice?

CK

No. I wanted to do this and I didn’t want my hand held. So I never called anybody.

TY

One of the things I got from the film was it felt like a final summation of many of the things that you’ve been exploring...

CK

I hope not!

TY

Well it almost felt like a last testament: If I die tomorrow, at least I have said what I felt I was put on the earth to say. It had a finality about it. You’ve quoted before something a writer said that struck a chord with you, which is that you should try and put everything you know in everything you do. It certainly felt like that.

CK

Yes, and everything you write. But I’ve tried to do that with everything. I just know other things now. I’m going through life, and I’m a different person. Even in the process of writing this and making it, I’ve changed. I’m trying to get closer to something, but I don’t think that I’ve arrived at anything, I don’t think you ever can. That’s one of the things that’s expressed in this movie. You can’t ever finish anything really, because if you’re trying to be inclusive of as much of you can of the truth of your existence then you just keep learning more. It’s like the thing you were asking me about earlier: If you have a confusion about your feelings about somebody else then that, too, is part of your reality, and you’re trying to add that. You’re not trying to direct it. I’m not trying to direct it to a conclusion or a grand statement. I would never do that; I have no interest in that. I don’t feel that I have the authority to do that. I’m just trying to express as full a feeling of a life experience as I can, and it’s always going to be able to get more, you know?

TY

It sounds a little like what the Philip Seymour Hoffman character says in the film. He’s engaged in a search for authenticity in a universe in which that isn’t really available to him. It’s as though he’s constantly groping for it, but just missing because he doesn’t quite know what it might consist of -- nothing seems to have that property...

CK

Yes, he’s very literal, and his idea is that if he can just put everything that’s in the real world into this play, which he can do because it’s a movie, and you can do things like that in a movie, then... I don’t know if it’s clear from the trailer, but he ends up constructing a full size replica of New York city in a warehouse in New York and populating it with thousands of actors who live there as performers in this fake reality. So he’s trying, down to the last detail of the place where he lives, he’s trying to express it in this very literal way, whereas his wife, who’s a painter, does almost exactly the opposite. Her canvasses where getting smaller and smaller throughout the movie until you can’t see them without special glasses. So there’s the question of how does one express something? I don’t think that he’s getting there, but he’s trying to approximate something. Which I actually like. I like the idea of a big fake New York. That actually appeals to me, too. I would do it if I could.

TY

Initially, I took it for a metaphor for building a film set which is supposed to be New York in New York. But actually, it’s not exactly that, is it? If the technology was available to actually recreate New York in a large enough warehouse, you’d probably do it, right?

CK

Well, the thing is where this movie moves away from what is possible is that this warehouse exists within New York city yet inside of it is big enough to build an entire full size replica of New York. In fact, because it’s a complete full size replica of New York, there is a replica of the warehouse in this replica in which there is another full size replica of New York. And this goes on and on -- how far we don’t know. But we do several versions of it. So, yes, if I could do that, I would. There’s a dream logic to the movie, so there’s things that can’t really happen [that] happen. Which is fun for me.

TY

Okay, it’s time to throw the questions open to the audience. Any questions?

Audience Member

There was some talk about you and Spike collaborating on a horror film, is that true and if not is there any other particular genre you’d like to explore?

CK

Just this. This is what came of it really. When we were approached we wanted to write something that was really scary as opposed to horror movie scary so the things that are in here are issues of time passage and illness and death and loneliness and regret. It was never really going to be a horror movie. I think the problem for me was going to be… that I can’t write in a genre form because it doesn’t interest me. I feel like I’m trying to conform to a genre as opposed to trying to express something that feels honest to me. So I jettisoned that pretty quickly. The other thing to that was, Am I going to do another genre? I read the other day that someone wants me to do a Western. But it was like their way of saying, Well, he’s always doing the same thing, but why doesn’t he do a Western? If he was really good he would do a Western. So I think I might do a Western just because this guy wants me to. I have no interest in Westerns but still I like the challenge.

AM

Writers say that they build characters that then somehow through their subconscious run off and create a narrative for them. But when I watch your work on screen I feel that there’s so much complexity and so many layers, I can’t see how that would happen in your writing. Yet you said you feel it very difficult to impose a form or an idea on these imaginary characters in your head, and I just can’t quite in my mind square those two things.

CK

I don’t want to abuse them is what I was saying. I’m fine imposing a form. They do that though. I find that when I first start writing dialogue for characters it’s difficult finding their voice, but once I’ve found their voice then I find that it’s easy and I can write interactions between them fairly quickly and that then helps with the process. They do run away a little bit. But I know I’m writing it – I’m not insane. But you hear them in your head a little bit.

AM

I’m not suggesting you’re an idiot savant!

AM

In Adaptation you’ve got Robert McKee in there. I wondered how beneficial you think that script writing books and seminars are in writing, and what we should take from them and what we should gravitate towards in learning our craft?

CK

I think it depends on what you want to do. I feel like I don’t know how to answer that question in a general way. If you want to be part of Hollywood... I think a lot of executives read those books. McKee is very popular with those people. I think there’s a value in what they would consider a well-crafted screenplay, but I haven’t done that and I’m not interested. So I think my question is, What do you want to do?

AM

Write.

CK

Yes, but do you want to write your own thing, or do you want to write for the studios?

AM

When I studied, they recommend books to read and do this and that. But I just want to do what I want to do! Do you think there’s a benefit in just knowing the form and doing what you think?

CK

I don’t know what the form is. I find a benefit in taking each thing that I do as a new challenge, with as much as possible, zero information from the start. This is this thing that I’m thinking about; I’m thinking about these issues and this character. What’s the most interesting way, to me, to tell that story? And I don’t think about, well, this has to happen on page thirty. That doesn’t come into the equation for me. I read the McKee book and I went to his seminar because I decided that I wanted to put that character in, and I needed to do research. That’s the only book of that type that I’ve ever read. I feel like it’s all built-in in people anyway. You’ve seen so many movies that my experience is that you can tell exactly what to do. I saw Kung Fu Panda and I can tell you from the first minute of that movie what the story is going to be. I know exactly what it’s going to be and it’s not hard. This is what’s going to happen, this is what the obstacle is going to be, and this is what’s going to happen at the end. And that’s very comforting to people when they watch movies and they like it. And I understand that and I do too sometimes – I like Kung Fu Panda. But I don’t think you need a book to tell you. You know what a screenplay looks like, you know what those stories look like, so don’t worry about it. Just write the things that you’re interested in and take yourself seriously. I think it’s hard to take yourself seriously when no one else is taking you seriously yet. That’s the hardest thing and you really need to because it’s lonely and there’s a lot of rejection. There’s going to be endless people ignoring you unless you’re really lucky. And [if] you’re doing something that’s really important to you maybe that can keep you going a little bit longer.

AM

Robert McKee says that another problem with a lot of scripts is that they are too self-indulgent, but your films seem to have a lot of yourself in them yet they don’t seem to be self-indulgent. How do you balance those out?

CK

I don’t know what “self-indulgent” means. The only thing I have to offer, or you have to offer or anybody has to offer, is yourself. That’s what you’ve got. And if you do that in a sincere way, I think that it’s a very generous thing to do. If you do it in a way where you’re basically masturbating and asking people to applaud you for it, that’s self-indulgent, maybe… But if you’re sincerely offering your experience, then for any artist that’s the only thing you have to offer.

AM

That’s what you seem to do. You’re also quite philosophical as well with a lot of the stuff that you put in there, that you make really entertaining and engaging. Where do you see the fine line between saying how you see your reality to your audience while also making sure that you’re not turning it into an essay or a lecture?

CK

Because I think that I’m entertaining myself, you know? I think of things that make me feel excited. Emotionally, I feel that I’ve touched on something that’s true to me and my experience, or I think of something that feels funny to me that I’d like to see in a movie. For me, that’s a good gauge for whether something is right or not is that I’m imagining myself sitting there watching, thinking, Oh, that would be really cool if I saw that in a movie. Then I write it, and then hopefully it gets to be in a movie. Use yourself and your taste and your interests. If you’re writing something that’s an essay and you’re boring yourself, then you’re probably not going to make a good movie for other people.

AM

Would you ever consider working in TV again?

CK

… The thing that interests me about TV is that I’m really interested in form and the thing about TV is that there’s a chance that you can tell a story over a very long period of time, and have characters change within a story in the way that people do. Which doesn’t seem to happen in TV shows, at least it doesn’t work in the ones that I’ve seen. Tony Soprano and The Sopranos, I think that that was a really good show, but it always struck me that all the horrible things that he’s done don’t seem to accumulate from season to season, but if you were a real person, they would. Wouldn’t that be interesting to think of a trajectory for a character, and follow that character over several years or decades, which you can do in a movie, but you have to condense it. So I’ve thought about that and I’d like to, but it’s a real time commitment doing TV, and I think that ultimately there’s a lot of delegation which I’m not really comfortable with. Like, you have to hire writers to write your stuff, which makes me really nervous. If I could do it all myself, I would be happier.

AM

Do you have any thoughts about the validity of theatre versus film as art forms, and do you have any plans to work in theatre?

CK

I directed a couple of plays a few years ago, and wrote them. I did one here next door at the Royal Festival Hall. I really like it. I really like doing theatre. I’ve said this before, and I guess that I still think it, that the difference that I see is that theatre is alive and film isn’t and you have an opportunity to experience something uncertain when you go to the theatre, both as an audience and as the performers, and it will never be the same from moment to moment or night to night, depending on what’s going on on stage, or what the audience is. A movie is always the same, it’s pre-recorded, so I’ve tried in my writing to incorporate the possibility of change in movies, and the only way that I’ve been able to think how to do that is to make them dense enough so that your experience could conceivably be different, so that you can see things the second or third time that you saw it that you can’t see the first time. Or just emotionally complex enough, like when you read a book when you’re 18 and then you read the same book again when you’re 30 and you have a completely different experience, if it’s a good book. Or even from week to week if you’re in a different mood, you find things that speak to you because of where you are emotionally. That’s what I’m interested in doing in the movies, because I can’t do the other thing that I like so much about theatre in movies.

AM

You seem to be into the idea of being true to yourself and further truths when you write a film, and getting through the bullshit of other films and making people feel less lonely. Have you had a film or a book that really resonated with you and made you feel less lonely, and that encouraged you to write in that way?

CK

Yes, I’ve had a lot of experiences like that. That’s my whole life reading, has been like that: Coming upon things in books that have articulated something that I haven’t articulated, but I recognised. That’s an incredible sense of community for me. It makes me happy to be a human being, which is not something that I experience a lot. I’ve had a lot of experiences like that. As far as movies go, yes, I’m sure I have. There are movies that I love and feel that with. It’s more with books, I think, because I feel that it’s more personal to me, and it’s more about my interaction with it, which is something that I’m interested in trying to do with movies, but I’m not sure if I can or if it’s possible.

AM

When you’re writing a screenplay, do you write with imagination unfettered, or do you, as you’ve had more experience, write with a producer’s hat on or with a director’s hat on? Do you ever consider that your screenplay will attract a certain amount of time, resources or money?

CK

No, I don’t. When I write, I don’t write for Spike Jones, I write for me. And then, hopefully, Spike Jones is interested. So there wasn’t any need to do that. One of the things that used to happen with Spike was that I used to ask questions about how we could afford to do this, and he would just tell me not to worry about it, we’ll figure out how to do it. I had that relationship with Spike and with Michel, so in this movie, Synecdoche, I have this character build this thing which is impossible, and obviously not something that we could build, and it became a really difficult thing to figure out how to do it, how to make it look like... but we did. I didn’t change anything and we figured out how to create the effects on the budget that we had. I think we were pretty successful at it, and I feel like that’s the way that I want to write. And even now that I’ve had the experience of realising how difficult budget constraints are, I don’t want to be thinking about being a producer or the pragmatic issues of how we’re going to afford this. It’s more like, You’ll figure it out. And we always have, for every movie it’s always been figured out, and they do have interesting production problems in them. So, it’s not a good way to write.

AM

Are the layers that you add in the film there just to confuse people and add to the dreamlike sense? Because things like the burning house didn’t mean anything to me there, and I don’t know if I’m missing something, or if you’re just adding to this world that you’re creating. So why do you have signifiers, if indeed they are signifiers?

CK

The burning house does mean something to me, and it means something to other people that I’ve spoken to, but it also doesn’t mean something to a lot of people. Virtually every Q and A that I do, somebody asks me what the burning house means, so I think you’re certainly in good company, if not in large company. Maybe we can all go out and get a drink afterwards… but I feel like the stuff resonates for me, I am using dream imagery, but it’s imagery that resonates for me. When people tell me what they think the burning house means, they don’t always tell me the same thing, which I like. I like the idea that people will, in an ideal circumstance, take this movie and make it their own. That was my goal. I don’t put things in to confuse people. I said that I don’t put things in to pander to people, I don’t put things to do anything to people, I put things in because they interest me, or they appeal to me, or they resonate emotionally with me in some way. So my answer is, I’m not trying to screw with you, and I’m sorry that you feel that way.

AM

One thing that stood out for me in the film was the strength of the female leads in it. When you are writing or you’re at the stage when you’re starting to direct, did you have those actresses in mind for some or all of those roles?

CK

When I’m writing, I don’t think about actors. I feel like that gets in the way of creating a character, so I intentionally don’t do that. When I was writing this I wasn’t even planning on directing it so it wouldn’t have been up to me. But once I started thinking about who I could hire to be in this, these are the names that I came up with and I was really fortunate in that almost everybody that I went out to agreed to do it. So I got all these people, most of them I didn’t know, some of them I had worked with before, but most of them I didn’t know, and I got to meet them and work with them and it was very exciting for me.

AM

Adaptation and Fellini’s 8 1/2 deal with the similar problem of a director making a movie. Can you say something about that? May I suggest that your film is deeper and more modern in its treatment of this fundamental problem? My other questions is that your work is very serious in that it deals with questions of truth, lies, authenticity, presentation and reality, and consequently these are philosophical and sociological questions, where the abuse of power is clearly leading in the future to the possibility of the very nature of our perception as social beings as well as individual ones, being altered, not by organic processes of development. Can you say something about that?

CK

I’ll deal with the 8 1/2 question first, because I’m sorry to say this but I may need you to repeat the second one! I got a little bit lost in there. I’ve been told that this movie compares to 8 1/2 a lot. I’ve never seen 8 1/2. Once people start telling me that it’s similar, I decided that I wouldn’t see 8 1/2 until I was completely done with this. So I can sincerely say that I’ve never seen 8 1/2, so I can’t really respond to that. I appreciate what you said, and thank you, but it’s in no way a response to 8 1/2.

AM

I’ll repeat the second question, it’s very simple. The question is about truth and lies, reality and representation, authenticity and alienation, etc. You deal with these questions, and very few people are successful in dealing with them. There are philosophical aspects of these problems, and there are social ones. The philosophical problem is very simple in that we shall remain unchanged for ever, so long as we exist as a human species. But the social aspect is far more serious because there is now a tendency, thanks to scientific successes, that technology is enabling the abuse of power of unelected people whereas in present and the near and far future, the very nature of perception becomes subject to alteration, not by an organic process of species development. That is the question. How do you do that?

CK

What you’re saying is fascinating. I love what you’re saying, but I don’t see it as a question. Are you saying that you’re afraid that this is going to happen? No? How do I deal with it as an artist?

AM

It’s a very simple question. This is the problem: you are an artist, you are dealing with it, tell us something about it. That’s all.

CK

Oh….

TY

I think this man has detected a theme in your work, which is the impact of technological processes as opposed to organic ones on our perception of reality, and how they’ve distorted out perception of reality. He seems to think that you share his concern about that... I think.

CK

I don’t know. The things that I think about, and I don’t think that I’ve given a lot of thought to the thing that you’re talking about, but what I think that it relates to that I do think about is how our perception as human beings is being altered by what we’re presented with in the media, and we’re being constantly lied to and the truth is being obfuscated, and we’re being confused intentionally, and we’re being under-educated intentionally, so that we an be controlled. I don’t know about the technological aspect of controlling people, but I think in this way, this has been going on since the early part of the 20th century with the advent of advertising, and the hiring by advertising agencies of behaviourists and psychologists to figure out how to manipulate people in sophisticated ways. I think we’re well into that. I don’t think that it’s coming, I think that it’s here and we’re the victims of it. And it’s scary. I guess that’s all I know about that.

TY

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the technological process that Jim Carey has...

CK

The technological process in that movie is truthfully one of the things that I’m least interested in about that story. I feel like it was a device. It’s not a device that is new -- it’s been used a lot -- and it was a device that I was presented with by Michel, and it seemed to be a way that I could tell a story about a relationship and the experience of being at the end of a relationship in a way that would put you with the character of Joel that was an objective point of view as he’s experiencing other layers of the relationship that you’re not first aware of. It’s a way to tell the story to get you as a viewer to be with Joel. It’s a structural device so that what he’s feeling, you’re feeling as he’s feeling it. At least that was my intention. The actual technology, I’m not really...

TY

It’s not a metaphor for the looming spectre of corporate mind-control?

CK

It is if it affects him that way. It is. It wasn’t what I was thinking about. Although I am very interested in corporate mind control. But in the sense that I’ve said, I’m interested in how we’re being lied to all the time as I spoke about earlier. I do think that it’s the same thing that the man was saying, just in a less technological form.

AM

Your work has been noted for its originality, and it doesn’t remind me of anyone else’s work. I was wondering if you feel that you have any peers – anyone that you feel that you have an affinity with, not necessarily in film, but in any area?

CK

I’m sure there is. I hate questions like this because I then have to think about the people that I like, and then I have to say it. I’m trying to think. I’m not questioning your right to ask me, I’m just trying to think. Um. I don’t know. In film, I like David Lynch a lot. It’s not that I consider him a peer or anything, he’s just a guy I like. I’m trying to think of people that are writing now.

TY

In an interview, you praised Patricia Highsmith for...

CK

Yes, but she’s not writing now. I mean, I like Patricia Highsmith. I like a lot of dead people.

AM

I was also wondering if you felt an affinity with people in other art forms, not necessarily screenwriting, but short stories or philosophy or music?

CK

Oh god. This is only making it worse. I’m sorry, I just get so awkward with these questions about who I like, I don’t know why.

AM

All of your films are set in the world as we know it. I’m interested to know whether you’d be interested to work in, say, an animation that could be potentially based in a completely fantastical setting. I thought that Pixar’s Monsters Inc, particularly in its latter part, was a wonderful concept that could’ve been one of your own.

CK

Well, I have to say that I really like Monsters Inc. I really think that it’s a great movie and has really got a lot of smart and touching stuff in it. But I don’t know that I would write it. Although I’ve never really explored that world that much, my understanding is that those movies are so expensive and take so long that they almost have to be these things that they do. I don’t think that you can do them cheaply and I don’t think that they would be interested. They’re like these big things that they release into the world and I feel like I don’t know how I would do it and not be forced into making it by committee in some way. But I do really like that movie. I think that you probably picked the one that I liked best. I didn’t care much for WALL-E. Is that the same people? I didn’t care that much for that one.

TY

And on that note...

CK

On that sort of weird, doesn’t-allude-to anything-note!

TY

… Likes Monsters Inc but doesn’t like WALL-E! Thank you, Charlie Kaufman.

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