Charlie Kaufman interview, Part II

So we seemed to be going great guns, with Kaufman even tolerating my fey digression about Proust, until I asked a gauche question about Michelle Williams. And then the “M” word. Then it all goes down the toilet. But it neded to be ask. Or maybe not --judge for yourself.

PK:  And Cottard is also a character in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time."

CK: He is, yes.

PK:  Is that the first page of  “Swann’s Way” that somebody is reading ...?

CK: Yeah, oh for sure.  When she  comes and she asks him to go out for a drink, that’s what she’s reading in the ticket box, that’s what Hazel is reading.

[omitted exchange: embarrassingly pretentious]

PK: ...Have you read Pinter’s screenplay of Proust?

PK: Check that out. It’s really brilliant.

CK: I kinda feel like I want to read Proust before I read Pinter’s Proust. Is that a mistake?

PK: See the movie, then if you like it... The dates, I try to pay attention to the dates the second time I saw it, it starts out in 2005, it seems, like in...

CK: October. No, September, first day of fall. It’s the first thing on the radio, so it’s September 21st or something.

PK: Yeah, and then there is a October 31st and then it’s like November 2 and...

CK: Yeah before that it’s October 15 or something like that, which is actually the day that it was announced that Pinter won the Nobel Prize. It’s the actual day.

PK: .. or died

CK: Right. The reaction that I had when I saw the headline and just thought, I saw a picture of him and saw whatever it said, and thought, oh god, Pinter died. But he won the Nobel Prize, so I stuck that in. But it’s also the day that avian flu was discovered in Turkey and the woman runner died. So those are all real events that happened.

PK: Except for the newspaper and the radio, occasionally, there doesn’t seem to be any connection with the outside world. The TV is on, and is showing these obvious self-referential, well not obvious, obvious after the second time I saw it, self-referential cartoons. Is this a deliberate kind of suggestion that we’re not in the real world?

CK: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. I’d hate to say that...I think that I used a lot of dream images and dream realities in the movie and this seemed like...I don’t know, I liked the idea of having the commentary taking place in that interaction with the television, so I just figured I’d go for it and do it.

PK: Those paintings, did you assign somebody to make those paintings?

CK: I hired an artist named Alex Kanevsky to do them. ...The paintings aren’t really tiny. That’s a trick. They couldn’t possibly be tiny and look like that, that would be impossible. That was what I liked about them was that they were very painterly. No, the real paintings that Alex did for us -- he’s a really amazing artist, I asked him to do these portraits of the women in the movie and they’re about this big...

PK: That’s pretty tiny.

CK: Yeah but they’re not painterly. You know, they’re very meticulous looking things, you can have obviously small things like that, but they don’ can’t do this. You can’t have sort of expressionistic brush strokes. I don’t think you could do it. You know like that guy...the guy who does those little sculptures. You know what I’m talking about? You should look this guy up if you don’t know his stuff. He does sculptures that are, you can’t see them without a...his name is Wigan, I think? I want to say his first name is Willard but I’m not sure, it’s something like that. He does these um...they’re made out of dust and paint, and they’re small enough that he’ll do like the Statue of Liberty that fits on the head of a pin. Or he’ll do Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs standing on a pin, and they’re about this big. You can’t see them without magnifying glasses. And they’re extraordinary, but they’re not, I don’t want to say they’re not painterly, but they’re not very expressionistic. They have to be very precise because of the size of them. So I wanted something that you couldn’t do in this size.

PK: I’m also impressed by the sets in this movie. First of all, I want to say that he really knew how to budget $100,000 grant over 17 years.

CK: Well it's more than that. It's $100,000 a year. It’s for 5 years, but also, it's way more than 17 years. When that actor says that thing that it's 17 years, its not the end of the thing it’s like midway through. But yeah, I read this one review where this guy hated the movie and he said, and it was actually addressed to me, which I shouldn’t even acknowledge this because it’s what he wants I’m sure, for me to say that I read this thing, because he’s talking to me, by the way Charlie, I’ve known people who have won MacArthur grants and it’s $100,000 over five years, you know, or $500,000, you know, and not only that but Caden, based on his work, could never win one. And it’s like well, this is all dreamery, I mean, I like the idea that this is an impossible production that he’s mounting, and that you also can’t build a full-size replica of New York City in a warehouse. You can’t do that. By the way Charlie, you can’t build a full-size replica within a warehouse within a full-size New York City. Yes, I know that.

PK; This was on the Internet that you read this?

CK: Um, yeah. Everything’s on the Internet. I mean, that’s where I read things. I shouldn’t read things but I do.

PK: There are no computers in this movie I don’t think, are there?

CK: No computers where? Oh in the movie? Yeah, no he sees, he goes to Madeleine’s [the self-help therapist and author treating Caden played by Hope Davis] website to see, um..

PK: Oh, right.

CK: “This book will change my life,” is what his quote is.

PK: What’s wrong with her feet, anyway?

CK: Her shoes are too tight.

PK: Is that what it was? I thought it might be that.

CK: Yeah, she’s got all sorts of blisters, and..

PK: ..It looks like she’s got gangrene at the end.

CK: They’re actually kind of prosthetics. They took quite awhile to apply these to Hope Davis’s feet, and she had to be carried into the set, because she could walk with those things on.

PK: So your first directorial effort, it can’t be too bad if you get to work with all these beautiful women.

CK: Well, in addition to being beautiful they’re like, my favorite actors. You know, it was wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better cast.

PK: Michelle Williams [who plays Claire], had she already suffered her loss, before making the movie or was it afterwards?

CK: [an expression of extreme disappointment and resignation at the tastelessness of the question] I don’t...I’d really rather not.

PK: [persisting boorishly nonetheless] Well, I was just thinking, a movie like this which is so obsessed with mortality, I mean what kind of effect would that have on her...

CK: Yeah. I just--

PK: But she’s really good.

CK: Yeah she is good.

PK: But it seems like all the women are sort of, it's almost like a masochistic relationship that the director has with almost all the women in the movie.

CK: The director meaning Caden?

PK: Yeah.

CK: Um, yeah, well I guess. Is it masochistic with Hazel? She does make him get down on his knees to beg for a kiss. Yeah, I guess there is a lot of torture, but he participates in it, so I don’t find fault with them.

PK: has anyone brought up the “M” word with regards to the women?

CK: The “M”  word?

PK: Misogyny.

CK: Oh. Um, god, I mean, you know, the one place I’ve heard that is this guy who interviewed me for “Vice Magazine”  said that he saw it with a friend who felt that it was misogynistic and I responded to that, because I was really surprised, you know, I..the response that I seem to get when people respond to the movie, is kind of the opposite of that, you know, people appreciate that I’ve written characters for women to play, as opposed to eye-candy, or...I mean that’s the only place I’ve heard it. I don’t that something you think? It’s misogynistic?

PK: Some of the women seemed to be negative portraits in some ways.  

CK: Well, first of all, I don’t agree with that, but second of all, I don’t think they’re negative portraits, and I don’t know what that means so you’d have to clarify it, but I don’t think that portraying somebody with characteristics that aren’t necessarily ideal, is misogyny. I mean I do that with male characters, too. I mean, I’m trying to write human beings, so why is that misogynistic?

PK: Good point.

CK: Yeah. I mean the women I know in my life are people. They have various characteristics that make them human. And they have you know, like anyone else, they have needs and they’re people. I do take issue with it, because I inhabit my characters when I write. I don’t write any character from the outside. And so when I’m having a conversation between two characters in a movie, in a screenplay, when I’m writing this character, I’m with this character and when I’m writing this character, I’m with this character.

PK: Would you agree with Caden that the Maria [Caden’s wife’s lover played by Jennifer Jason Leigh] character is evil??

CL: Yeah, I don’t know if she’s evil, because I don’t know what evil means. I would say she’s kind of, she’s probably, the rotten-est person in the movie. But making a woman a rotten person in a movie doesn’t make me a misogynist. That makes me the writer of a character of a woman who’s a rotten person, but there are women, there are kind of rotten people in the world, of various genders. I didn’t feel that way, you know I didn’t get that response from any of the women who were in the movie, who kinda wanted to be in it, because they were interested in their characters, you know. They felt like they could inhabit them.

PK: Was that scene, in the peep show ... did you see “Paris Texas?”

CK: Yeah.

PK: Is the similarity just coincidental...?

CK: I didn’t remember it at the time, actually, someone mentioned another movie, called “Hardcore,”  which I haven’t seen. It wasn’t intentional.

PK: Going back to last night, you mentioned that one thing you have against Hollywood movies is that they presented a sort of stereotype of relationships, especially romantic relationships, that is unrealistic. And it seems to me that this film is a sort of continuation of the relationships in a lot of the other films of yours. It's sort of the Abelard/Heloise sort of relationship, where two people are in love for their entire life, but it's totally unfulfilled. Do you see that as a continuing pattern in your movies? 

CK: Yeah I see it cropping up, and I think that can be taken literally and can be taken figuratively, you know. In sort of being at a distance from yourself and not being able to kind of, become whole or complete, but yeah I see that.

PK: Do you record your dreams?

CK: No I often think I should and often kinda get a book and never do it.

PK: It would seem that a lot of your ideas and images come directly from...

CK: [distractedly] They don’t, but I was thinking about dreams when I tried to come up with these ideas. The idea of dreams was a basis for a lot of the imagery and the logic in the movie. But they didn’t come directly from dreams. So I don’t know....I’m still stuck on the misogyny. It’s just a weird thing, it’s like a weird thing. I think people maybe confuse misogyny with I don’t know what....

PK: Maybe I meant “metonymy.”

CK: Yeah. I don’t know if I should be mad about that.

PK: What about Hazel as "Box Office?

CK: What? 

PK: She’s referred to as “box office” at one point which is like a synecdoche right?

CK: Oh yeah, that’s true.

PK: So Caden’s love affair with Hazel is your desire really to have a blockbuster movie.

CK: Which is misogynistic.

 PK: Or materialistic.

CK: Which is misogyny.

PK: Do you have any other figures of speech that you want to make movies about?

CK: No, but I found a list of them and I found...god I wish I could remember some of them, there were some great ones...

PK: I like “chiasmus.” 

CK: What is that?

PK: It’s when you have a sentence where you reverse the terms, like ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. I guess it doesn’t have much movie potential.

CK: Yeah, you can’t do much with that. But there are...if you go on like Wikipedia you get a list of them. There’s some really amazing ones...of course I can’t remember any of them now, but they’re all kind of exciting. They’re like “oh yeah, oh yeah, oh wow, ok...that’s interesting..." things that I never even thought about as ideas, they just sort of wash over you in your whatever.

PK: I think that’s one of the benefits of your movies, it sends people to dictionaries, and to Wikipedia.

CK: Wikipedia’s great.

PK: I never knew about Fregoli syndrome.

CK:There you go. Did you know about Cotards? 

PK: I had heard about it, actually there was a murder here in Boston happened back in 2000 where this guy killed 7 people and he claimed that he was dead and he did it because a guardian angel told him that if he killed these 7 people it’d be Hitler and his six henchman that he’d stop the holocaust and be able to go to heaven.

CK: Oh wow.

PK: So, you’ve said this is a horror movie. Did you have plans to have it come out on October 31st?

CK: No I didn’t have any plans. Sony Classics is having it come out when they wanted it to come out. You know it's one of those things that they do based on what’s coming out and I don’t know, you know, what else is coming out. It’s like, oh well, we’re not going to be totally buried because there’s not another movie about a theater director who builds a giant set of New York coming out that weekend.

PK: When you were making the movie, Spike Jonze was one of the producers... 

CK: Yes that’s right.

PK: I heard that there was some difference of opinion about something.

CK: No, you know, there’s always difference of opinion. But I had fun (inaudible).

PK: I heard you always were diffident about going on the set for the other movies that you wrote the screenplay for.

CK: I had to go on set this time. I had to.

PK: So this is like overcoming your fear.

CK: Yeah, pretty quickly. I mean, within the first day. I think the first day was very hard, you know to get up and go there, but after that it was like work. It was, the days could be hard, they could be easy but I wasn’t terrified. I mean sometimes, there was a new actor coming along or something, there was a little anxiety about that, but I’ve done these plays and I think that helped me enormously in getting over my fear of talking to actors..

PK: Was one of them “Death of a Salesman?” 

CK: No I did this play that I think I told you. and then I did another play called “Hope Leaves the Theater.” 

PK: That’s the one where the cell phone rings...

CK: Yeah, did you see it?

PK: No, I read about it. It’s kind of like a radio play. Like Beckett’s.

CK: They’re not really radio plays, we try and distinguish them from radio plays because the visual is very important for me. Or the lack of visual. What’s not happening, what you’re hearing, what you’re not seeing onstage, is a very interesting thing for me.

PK: I imagine dealing with actors must be one of the most satisfying aspects.

 CK: It’s the most important thing.

PK: ..and just trying to tell them what character they’re trying to play. I mean, because they’re all characters playing characters in another production.

CK: Yeah, but they all understood that. There wasn’t a lot of explaining to do in that regard. In a way, the only people who had to....well I guess, Diane Wiest and Emily Watson and Tom  Noonan all had to sort of play two different versions, but Samantha [Morton] and Phil [Hoffman]  and Catherine [Keener] were only playing themselves. Michelle was playing herself, playing herself, but she’s still playing herself.

PK: One of my favorite lines is, “Caden, you’re breaking the fourth wall.” How would you know, at that point? The sets are pretty amazing too. I mean it looks like they cost more than $100,000. What kind of process did you use to create that effect?

CK: Which effect? The effect that the city is in the warehouse?

PK:  ...and the warehouse is in that warehouse...

CK: I mean, some of it we built in a warehouse, and then a lot of it, most of it, later on when it got built up was in shooting in New York City and the post-production effects people doing, building, that warehouse structure around the entire city. So we did some computer stuff and built a computer model of this enormous warehouse and they were able to manipulate it and change the angles so we could find the version that fit best with whatever city state we were existing in. So, that’s how we did it.

PK: Do you keep any souvenirs from the movies that you make?

CK: I don’t have much in this one, but I have some of Caden’s theater posters. I have the one...there’s a burnt version of the poster for “Death of A Salesman” which is in Hazel’s apartment when the place is really burned down towards the end of the movie, I have that. I have that painting that was painted on the wall of the kitchen, which is like the woman, I don’t know if you noticed that...kind of a heavy woman kind of painted into the wall.

PK: Was that supposed to be there or was it a hallucination...?

CK: No, it's something that Adele did on the wall one morning. Alex came in and did it. But it was supposed to be just, she paints, kind of free character who can just paint on the walls.

PK: You don’t like talking about future plans.

CK: I don’t have any future plans. I’m trying to write something now, but I have no, I have nothing really developed in any way that’s even worth mentioning.

PK: So you do suffer from writer’s block occasionally?

CK: I don’t suffer from it anymore. I feel comfortable with it now. I feel like its part of the process of letting things gestate.

PK: Are you going to vote?

CK: Am I going to vote? Yes I’m going to vote.

PK: One of the odd things about this movie is that its about a completely interior person, with no regard for the rest of the world, tand it’s coming out just before one of the major elections, one of the major turning point elections in the last 50 years or so. Do you think this is a good time for it to come out? Do you think people will be inspired to become introverted?

CK: I don’t know. I guess I don’t think of him that way. I see him as a person struggling in the world and I think everybody’s internal and everybody’s got their personal self involvement. But  I mean I don’t think this is a commercial for that particular form of existence. Its not like I’m advocating it, or its going to look appealing to anyone, so no, that doesn’t...I actually think this movie is a good movie for the time.

PK: A lot of peoplesuggest it is a signature moment when Caden is examining his stools.

CK: Yeah. Weird. It’s weird, the stuff that you don’t really think about and then everyone is saying, like he’s examining his stools means his head's up his ass, or whatever it is that their saying. But there’s a lot of illness in the movie and there’s a lot of concern about health issues and that’s one of the things people talk about when you’ve got health issues and it's one of the things you watch. And I wanted to show it because you know, because everyone has feces, and probably a lot of people look at them. Maybe people don’t poke them apart with bathroom brushes....

PK: I think everyone has done that at one time in their life.

CK: I wasn’t going to make any assumptions.

PK: Present company excluded.

CK: It’s like, come on. I guess, what I’m saying is, I don’t feel that way about the character. So for people to say that’s obviously what I’m saying, that he’s obviously only involved in his own shit, is kind of like, eh, I could do better than that if I was going to come up with a metaphor, you know? Wouldn’t be my choice. It’s fine if people think it, and I’m not gonna disavow them on that.

PK: What about the green poop, you have any thoughts on that?

CK: I do have thoughts on it.


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