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"Being John Malkovich" Writer Kaufman Makes Directing Debut

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CANNES, France — It seems fitting that Charlie Kaufman's directing debut, which offers enough enigmatic ideas to fry viewers' brains, should also come with a title that will twist their tongues.

Kaufman, screenwriter of "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," presented his directing debut Friday at the Cannes Film Festival with "Synecdoche, New York," the tale of a theater director who literally tries to re-create the world in all of its messy, mundane glory.

Meeting reporters after a press screening, Kaufman and his cast were flooded with questions about the film's far-flung themes _ and of course, the title.

Star Philip Seymour Hoffman helped out on the pronunciation.

"`Sin-NEK-doh-kee,'" Hoffman said. "Once you know it, it's hard to forget it, actually."

"The key is also that it sounds like Schenectady, which is the city that it's a play on. So if you know how to pronounce Schenectady, then you just take out the `kuh,'" Kaufman said.

A "synecdoche" is a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole, or vice versa, such as "society" for "high society."

Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., with a failing marriage, a wandering romantic eye, constant creative doubts and a multitude of unspecified ailments. The film spans decades as Caden ambles through a life of ceaseless regret, loss, longing and fleeting joy.

Caden's wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Germany. His second marriage to his leading lady on stage (Michelle Williams) crumbles amid the emotional baggage left by his first family. He has a lifelong flirtation with his potential soul mate (Samantha Morton), a woman who buys a house that's perpetually on fire despite her fear of dying in the flames.

The cast also includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis and Tom Noonan.

As Caden struggles to make sense of life, death, love, art and seemingly every other big question facing humanity, he tries to find answers with the most mammoth theater project ever _ a re-creation of New York City that grows over the decades to include an infinite cast in sets spanning warehouse after warehouse.

As with Kaufman's earlier scripts, the film raises troubling questions of identity as real people interact with those playing them in Caden's production and the line between his creation and reality blur.

Spike Jonze, who directed "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and was a producer on "Synecdoche," said Kaufman grows bolder and delves deeper with each story he tells.

"Every script he writes I feel is that much more raw and honest and audacious and brave," Jonze said. "He's by far my favorite writer."

Kaufman sidestepped reporters' efforts to interpret the story, saying "I don't really have a message about anything. Just what happens in the movie."

"The way I write is very much without kind of a goal," Kaufman said. "I have something I'm interested in and then I decide I'm going to explore it. I don't know where the characters are going to go, I don't know what the movie is going to do or what the screenplay is going to do. For me, that's the way to keep it alive."

"I tried to approach the directing in the same way. We have the script, we have the actors, and we're trying to figure out what this is, and you don't know what it is," he said. "You have to be open to what it's going to become rather than have this thing that you're trying to get to, which is boring."

"Synecdoche" was competing for the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes, which will be presented as the festival closes Sunday. At Cannes, Kaufman and his collaborators also were meeting with potential distributors to release the movie in theaters.

Kaufman resisted reporters' suggestions that the title would be off-putting to commercial audiences.

"I like titles that are a little difficult, because it's kind of counterintuitive," Kaufman said, adding that he chose "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" "because it was really hard to remember that title. I couldn't remember it for the longest time."

When people asked him the name, Kaufman had to pause and think, `Well, which word comes where in that title? Then pretty soon, I remembered it, and then everyone seems to know it now," Kaufman said of the movie that won him an Academy Award for original screenplay.

With "Synecdoche," Kaufman said, "People will learn to pronounce another word, and that's always good, right?"

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On the Net:

http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en.html