BEING CHARLIE KAUFMAN
By Beverly Berning
Interior. Day. A small hotel conference room. A woman, BEVERLY BERNING, walks in, followed by a publicist. BEVERLY is casually dressed, not too sexy, not too frumpy. She looks like she could be in her mid-forties, but it’s hard to tell. A man, CHARLIE KAUFMAN, is standing at the other end of the room looking at some papers. He is medium height, slim, and has a head full of dark curly hair. He looks like he’s barely out of college, but it’s hard to tell. The publicist introduces BEVERLY to CHARLIE. After the introduction, she leaves and they both sit at the far end of the table, on either side so that they are facing each other. The overhead light is positioned so that it is shining directly on BEVERLY’s head.
BEVERLY off: Oh my, god. He’s cute. He looks so young. I wish this light weren’t so bright. It’s going to make me look terrible.
BEVERLY starts out with a few mundane questions about whether he’s enjoying his stay in San Francisco, and CHARLIE talks about the hectic schedule to promote his new film, Synecdoche, New York. They both seem a little stiff. BEVERLY looks a little nervous. Charlie looks guarded.
CHARLIE: I’m going to Spain tomorrow.
BEVERLY upbeat: Well, that’s kind of nice. Don’t you think?
CHARLIE: I’m going to Europe twice this month, two different trips, and for the rest of the month, I’m touring around the United States, so it’s a little hard…. a little scary.
BEVERLY off: Oh my god. Why did I say Spain is nice? He acts stressed.
BEVERLY: Well, considering what I’ve been going through just for this half hour I’m going to have with you, I don’t think I could do it.
CHARLIE: Why? What have you been going through?
Charlie asks the question quickly, atonally, kind of like a therapist would. BEVERLY answers his question the way a patient might, a little cautiously.
BEVERLY: Well, just all the stress…. You know….
CHARLIE: Really? Why are you stressed?
BEVERLY lets out an abrupt laugh. Charlie doesn’t react; he is serious.
BEVERLY off: I’ve already lost control. I always do this. Here we are talking about me, when it should be me asking the questions.
CHARLIE insistent: No seriously. Are you stressed because you’re always stressed, or…?
BEVERLY: I’m always stressed.
Charlie seems satisfied, as if the answer is completely understandable.
BEVERLY more relaxed: Yeah, I get stressed VERY easily, which, you know, makes living kind of hard, but...
BEVERLY: This is also a little daunting because I’m such a huge fan of yours, but you are such a normal looking person that…pauses… I find that…pauses again… comforting.
CHARLIE: Did you expect…? I mean, thank you, but…
BEVERLY: I knew what you looked like.
CHARLIE: Are there some people who are not normal looking that you have to interview?
BEVERLY hesitating: Well…the actors…some are more…oh, I don’t know…
BEVERLY stops herself. She lifts her eyes up, as if she’s trying to look into her own head for ideas.
BEVERLY off: What am I saying? I’ve only interviewed one actor, and she was very sweet. How am I going to get out of this?
There is an awkward silence. CharliE breaks the tension.
CHARLIE: Who’s the scariest person you ever interviewed?
Beverly seems relieved at the slight diversion from the concept of what’s normal looking.
BEVERLY: The first.
CHARLIE: Who was that?
BEVERLY: Uh…what’s his name…. laughs nervously Michael McDonagh, or Matthew. He’s a playwright who did a film last year called In Bruges.
BEVERLY off: Shit. Why can’t I remember his name?
CHARLIE: Oh. Martin.
BEVERLY: Martin McDonagh! Yeah. Martin. Sorry. Michael, Matthew, yeah…Martin…
CHARLIE: I met him once. He’s nice, though, right?
BEVERLY: Yes, very nice.
CHARLIE: That’s what I thought.
BEVERLY: Very nice.
CHARLIE nods, then he giggles slightly. BEVERLY sighs.
BEVERLY off: He must think I’m an idiot. I can’t believe I forgot Martin McDonagh’s name. Jesus.
BEVERLY: Anyway, ummmm, all right, lets, uh…
BEVERLY’s voice trails off. She looks at her notes.
BEVERLY off: I sound like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. La di da, la di da.
She looks back up at CHARLIE and smiles a bit wanly.
BEVERLY: Any other questions?
CHARLIE: No, no, no.
CHARLIE smiles slightly and shakes his head. BEVERLY laughs.
BEVERLY: Are there any questions you’d like me to ask you?
CHARLIE more emphatic: No. No. In fact, if we could be silent for half an hour, it would be most appreciated.
BEVERLY: Well, obviously we can’t do that.
BEVERLY off: God, I’m thirsty.
She picks up a glass of water that is on the table next to her.
BEVERLY: Let me just take a little…
BEVERLY takes a sip of water and puts down the glass. She starts swishing her tongue around her mouth.
BEVERLY muttering, almost to herself: Take out my gum, too.
BEVERLY off: My hand is going to my mouth, and my cerebral cortex has no say in the matter. At least I can remember the name cerebral cortex.
BEVERLY puts her fingers in her mouth and takes out a tiny wad of gum. She looks around on the table for a place to put it. CHARLIE is watching intently.
BEVERLY still looking around: Don’t know where to put it.
Charlie leans over and hands her a cocktail napkin. She takes it and folds her gum in it and puts it on the table.
BEVERLY: Thank you.
BEVERLY looks at her notes. She sees the word “Die” written down with a question mark by it. She lets out a big sigh. It sounds like a sigh of resignation.
BEVERLY to Charlie: Okay, here’s a quick easy question.
BEVERLY: What is the last word in the movie?
BEVERLY suddenly excited, like she got the final Jeopardy answer: Yes! I thought so! I’ve got it in my notes.
CHARLIE confused: People are saying it’s not die?
BEVERLY: No. It’s just that I could barely hear it.
CHARLIE: Oh really?
BEVERLY: Yeah, that’s why I decided to ask you. Great last word for a film, by the way.
Charlie snickers. BEVERLY pauses for a minute. She suddenly looks perplexed.
BEVERLY: I don’t remember the last scene in the film, but…
CHARLIE interrupting: It’s when he dies.
They both laugh. BEVERLY’s laugh is much louder.
CHARLIE: It’s when Dianne Wiest tells him to die, and the movie’s over.
BEVERLY: Oh yeah, that’s right.
BEVERLY off: Shit. How could I forget the last scene! Now, I’m sure he thinks I’m an idiot.
BEVERLY to Charlie: Oh yeah…laughs again…I need to see this film again. There are so many scenes that I just don’t remember.
CHARLIE giggles: That’s not a good sign.
BEVERLY: Well, it’s partly because the film is chock full of stuff.
CHARLIE: It is chock full of scenes. It has way more scenes than a conventional movie...twice as many as one of that length. When did you see it?
BEVERLY: Two weeks ago. I want to see it again. She assumes a newscaster’s voice. I think it’s a movie that invites several viewings.
CHARLIE: I’d like for people to want to see it more than once, because I think there’s stuff to be gotten seeing it more than once, but they have to like it enough to want to see it more than once, so…. That’s the trick.
BEVERLY: Yes, that’s the trick.
CHARLIE: That’s the trick.
BEVERLY: Synecdoche is not as easy a movie as your others have been. As you said yourself, it’s tougher.
CHARLIE: It’s more raw. But that’s okay. My goal is to try to get closer, with each thing I do, to something, and as I get older, I’ve got different life experiences and I’m trying to incorporate my understanding of things into the work in an uncompromised way, and some people are going to respond to the work, and some aren’t. Some people are going to want to do something else on a Friday night, and that’s fine.
BEVERLY: Well, speaking of how you’ve grown older, and how the movie reflects that, as I was doing research, I went back and saw Internal Sunshine…I mean Eternal Sunshine…again, and I was struck by how lovely it is. Within the heart of it, there’s the feeling that love…she pauses…survives.
CHARLIE: You could take it that way. You don’t have to. There is a whole other side to it. With everything I do, I like to have the opportunity for people to incorporate it into their own psyche and to come out with their own conclusions.
BEVERLY: Yeah, and I understand those other conclusions as well. But, that being said, Synecdoche seems a little more complicated in its exploration of the relationships between men and women.
CHARLIE: I hope so. I was trying to do something that felt honest to me, almost in response to some romantic movies that I really find so damaging to my psyche. It’s always good to try get closer, as I said, to get closer to something, and this looks at a much larger time frame, for one thing, and it’s approached from an older person’s point of view, and it deals with family, regret, children and all that stuff. In addition to that, it deals with illness, mortality, aging, and time passage. It’s nice to try to figure out a way to deal with complicated things, disparate things, that are all a part of life. Because we live in such a complicated state all the time. There are so many things going on in your head right now that aren’t apparent in our conversation or to someone who’s observing it. But your entire, and mine as well, ONE’s entire past is playing out just in this conversation we’re having. And it’s very hard to get that into a movie, because then it starts to feel more cluttered than real life. But I’m trying. I’m trying to figure that out because it seems true to me. And that’s why I try to do an interior landscape when I’m writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in that aspect of the world, that subjective thing, because really, your past is playing out, your feelings about yourself, your feelings about me, your feelings about my feelings about you, your future, whatever else is going on, what you had for lunch….
BEVERLY suddenly excited: That’s exactly…I don’t mean to interrupt, but that’s exactly why I like you so much. I mean, why I like your films so much. It’s almost like you’re in MY head, because a lot of your neuroses, your interior stuff that’s going on, is very similar to mine…and probably quite a few other people out there. We are not that dissimilar as individuals.
CHARLIE: And we call them neuroses, but I also wonder sometimes what they really are. I mean, they’re part of the makeup of the human brain in general. We are programmed…he pauses…to worry. We need to be able to predict the future, because that’s the way we protect ourselves. We need to know what’s going to happen. We need to know if there’s danger outside that door. We need to know that if that door’s hot, then there’s a fire out there. And because we do that, that stuff can get more complicated than is helpful. The worry becomes overwhelming.
BEVERLY: And that’s where the neurotic quality comes in.
CHARLIE: Yes, but it’s necessary. We’re also creatures who know we’re going to die—maybe the only creature that knows in any concrete way—and that has to interact with our psyches in a way that is overwhelming. Plus, we live in this really fractured, confusing society. I don’t know if there is any other response to it but neurosis. I mean we’re separated from everything. We’re separated from where our food comes from. When people start studying where what they eat comes from, they become vegetarians. You almost have to. He shrugs. So we don’t.
BEVERLY laughs: Ignorance is bliss.
CHARLIE: Exactly. But it’s not complete ignorance because you know you’re avoiding looking at those videos of the stockyards on Youtube. You know you’re avoiding it, so it’s calculated ignorance.
CHARLIE shakes his head. BEVERLY laughs.
BEVERLY: Do you ever stop thinking?
CHARLIE: No. I mean I can’t. I don’t. I’m kind of obsessive. I hate to characterize my brain as mentally ill, but I do have that kind of thinking. I do obsess about things. And in some ways it’s been helpful, to my writing. I do go over stories, and permutations of stories.
BEVERLY: That leads me to one of my questions. How do you access, or how do you turn that on, or does it have to be turned on? Are you that way all the time, or…?
CHARLIE: The question is: How do I turn it off?
BEVERLY: Right. That was the other question. How do you filter it? How do you regulate it?
CHARLIE: I’m a functioning person, but I do worry a lot. I do get stressed a lot. Over the years I’ve tried meditating, and I do yoga now, which helps. And I got a ukulele as a birthday present. I’m taking it with me on the road. I’m going to learn how to play the ukulele, which in a way is very comforting.
BEVERLY: It’s only four chords. I mean four strings.
CHARLIE: There’s something really nice about it in your hands. Do you play it?
BEVERLY: No. I have played it.
CHARLIE: I could hold it forever.
BEVERLY: It’s a fun instrument, very childlike.
CHARLIE: It is, but then you hear about this guy named Jake Shimabukuro, who, I’m told, is this great ukulele player, so I go on Youtube and watch him, and…
BEVERLY interrupting: What about Tiny Tim?
CHARLIE impassioned: No, no, no. Seriously. Go on Youtube and look at Jake Shimabukuro, and you won’t believe it’s coming out of a ukulele. It’s extraordinary. He’s a genius musician, and the idea that this little thing, with these four strings, can make this kind of sound is incredible. So my goal now is to play like him. He laughs. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I do set my sights there.
BEVERLY: But that is one way good way to de-stress. I do the same thing. I have dance.
CHARLIE: Yeah, because you have to be present. When I’m doing a yoga position, I can barely function, I’m so focused on this experience, which is so hard for me.
BEVERLY: And an hour and a half passes and you didn’t see it passing.
CHARLIE: Yeah. I also run, which gets rid of some of the stress. But not as well.
BEVERLY: But you don’t take drugs.
They both laugh.
CHARLIE: I could. I could take drugs, but…. He snickers. I’d rather not talk about my pharmaceutical life, if that’s okay.
BEVERLY: No, that’s quite all right. But I did think about drugs when I was watching the movie. The effect of your writing is like being on an acid trip. All that free association, not editing yourself…
CHARLIE: It is edited, though. I just wanted to say that. There is a kind of process of freedom and expansiveness, but there is some skill involved in putting it together.
They both laugh.
BEVERLY: Of course, don’t get me wrong. I had a feeling that you’re just a genius, but there has to be some craft behind it, too, of course.
CHARLIE: You know, it took me over two years to write this thing. If I were just free-associating, I’d write it in a week. I do go back and change things and fix things, relentlessly.
BEVERLY surreptitiously looks down at her watch.
BEVERLY off: I wonder how long we’ve been talking. I need to start asking questions about the movie.
BEVERLY: There’s this scene in the movie, where Dianne Wiest takes over as the director, and they stage a scene that is like a musical number.
CHARLIE: You’re talking about the scene with the preacher?
CHARLIE: That’s an interesting scene because I didn’t have the exact script for it until the day before we shot it. I had always wanted to do a choreographed thing. What I wanted was, when Dianne Wiest took over, for her to do something that was extraordinary, but also extraordinarily different from what Caden would ever do. So that he, at this point where he is completely depleted, would see something that was antithetical to his vision and embrace it. So I wanted to do a choreographed thing, but I was afraid I couldn’t do anything spectacular that way because I just had a bunch of extras who weren’t dancers. So I wrote this monologue the night before. I cast the actor the night before—Chris Evan Welch, someone I had auditioned earlier for another part—and he memorized this fairly long monologue and came in and did it. I wanted the character to speak unlike anyone else in the movie. I think the people I was working with were a little concerned, because it’s very late in the movie, and it’s a very long monologue, and it’s really kind of counterintuitive to have a very long monologue by a character you’ve never seen before, and you’ll never see again, at that point in the movie.
BEVERLY: I loved it.
CHARLIE: Yeah, it turns out to be a lot of people’s favorite thing in the movie, which is really interesting, because I feel like I pegged it somehow.
BEVERLY: Yeah, you did. You got it just right.
CHARLIE: No, but I mean that I pegged the idea that you could respond to this. Finally there’s something…he stops himself…I mean…it might be the only thing in the movie that you can finally feel grounded with….
BEVERLY interrupts, laughing: Yeah, if only Dianne Wiest had come earlier.
CHARLIE: Yeah. So of course Caden’s going to love it, too. He had to come out of that scene and give her the job to take over the entire play. We had to have something there that was believable in motivating him to do that.
BEVERLY: The other scene is the death scene with his daughter. Where the heck did that come from? It was so bizarre.
CHARLIE: The idea that you had a kid that you haven’t seen since she was five, and when you saw her again, she was dying and she didn’t speak the same language as you…. There’s a lot of dream-like kind of disconnect going on, a lack of connection between people in this movie, and it seemed very clear to me that that would be so upsetting.
BEVERLY: That’s very interesting. I know that you’re a father—and I’m a mother—and one of the things that happens as your children get older is that disconnect, or there can be.
CHARLIE: I think a lot of it has to do with being a father. I think a lot of it has to do with my life. He smiles. Obviously, my daughter is much younger than that, and she doesn’t live in Germany.
BEVERLY: Is her mother an artist?
CHARLIE: Her mother is an artist, but she doesn’t do that kind of painting. She is a painter. But this character doesn’t bare any resemblance to her personality. There isn’t a…
BEVERLY’s face lights up when Charlie mentions his wife is an artist. She doesn’t hear the part about there being no other resemblance.
BEVERLY off: Aha! So his wife is an artist, too. I wonder how intrusive I should get into his personal life.
BEVERLY: That’s interesting that your wife is an artist, because one of the things…. I’m sorry. Did I interrupt?
CHARLIE: No, no. I mean, who knows? I don’t know anymore, either.
BEVERLY: I wonder if you’ve been asked how much of Caden is in you, and how much of Adele comes from real life. And then, I thought that a part of who Adele is comes from your imagination of what a wife would be who is a bit antithetical to your nature. She just seems like a much more powerful person than Caden.
CHARLIE: Yes, she is a much more powerful person. Yeah, a lot of it is imagination; a lot of it is in the service of what I want the dynamic to be between these two people. A lot what happens to Caden, and maybe everything that happens to Caden after Adele leaves is based on her leaving him, based on him trying to figure out who he is after what she says to him by way of her rejection. He’s almost trying to prove to her that he is a value, because she is so important to him. Her respect is what he’s trying to win, even though she doesn’t exist anymore.
BEVERLY: That was kind of jolting, to suddenly have Catherine Keener leave the movie, and never come back.
BEVERLY: And then I thought about the other women in his life, and how they are both substitutes for her, and yet also each of them provides him with something that the other doesn’t. I mean they’re very different. And Hazel, Samantha Morton’s character, is the woman who feels like the most important to him in the end. Even though his wife is still, in his mind, a powerful presence, it seems like if you were to take the idea of two people growing old together and living their lives together…
There is the sound of a door opening. The sound distracts BEVERLY.
BEVERLY: She seems like the one that…
BEVERLY looks up at the publicist, who has entered the room. Then she looks back at CHARLIE.
BEVERLY: I think we have to wrap this up.
Charlie lets out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
CHARLIE: I don’t have to answer this. Phew!
CHARLIE: What a relief!
Publicist: Hard question?
CHARLIE at the same time: It’s a question I didn’t want to answer.
BEVERLY looking puzzled: Really?
CHARLIE: Well, I don’t like to…. I like the interpretation to remain with the person interpreting it.
BEVERLY: Well, that was my interpretation.
CHARLIE nodding: And I think it’s good.
BEVERLY off: I wonder what he’s thinking.
BEVERLY definitively: Hazel was the one, in the end.
BEVERLY laughs again. CHARLIE is silent. Her half hour is up.
BEVERLY off: If he thought Hazel was the one, he would have said so, wouldn’t he? I bet it’s Adele. Of course it’s Adele. Or it’s no one. Romantic love is just a projection, anyway. Right?
[Watch Jake Shimabukuro play the ukulele on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9mEKMz2Pvo. Culturevulture’s review of Synecdoche, New York is at http://www.culturevulture.net/Movies/synecdoche_11-08.htm.]