Synecdoche, New York

From imdb.com: "Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. Fresh off of a successful production of Death of a Salesman, he has traded in the suburban blue-hairs and regional theater of Schenectady for the cultured audiences and bright footlights of Broadway. Armed with a MacArthur grant and determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can put his whole self, he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a small mockup of the city outside. As the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden’s own life veers wildly off the tracks. The shadow of his ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a celebrated painter who left him years ago for Germany’s art scene, sneers at him from every corner. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele’s friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He’s helplessly driving his marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) into the ground. Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), the actor Caden has hired to play himself within the play, is a bit too perfect for the part, and is making it difficult for Caden to revive his relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. His is second daughter, Ariel, is retarded. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. As the years rapidly pass, Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece. Populating the cast and crew with doppelgangers, he steadily blurs the line between the world of the play and that of his own deteriorating reality. As he pushes the limits of his relationships, both personally and professionally, a change in creative direction arrives in Millicent Weems, a celebrated theater actress who may offer Caden the break he needs. By seamlessly blending together subjective point-of-views with traditional narrative structures, writer/director Charlie Kaufman has created a world of superbly unsteady footing. His richly developed cast of characters flutter between moments of warm intimacy and frightful insecurity, creating a script that brings to life all the complex and beautiful nuances of shared life and artistic creation. Synecdoche, New York is as its definition states: a part of the whole or the whole used for the part, the general for the specific, the specific for the general. "


Left to Right: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton as Hazel

Catherine Keener as Adele Lack

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Maria

Samantha Morton as Hazel

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman

Samantha Morton as Hazel

Michelle Williams as Claire Keen

Samantha Morton as Hazel

Samantha Morton as Hazel

Michelle Williams and Charlie Kaufman

Left to Right: Emily Watson as Tammy, Dianne Weist as Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems

Emily Watson as Tammy


Left to Right: Sadie Goldstein as Olive, Catherin Keener as Adele Lack, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Charlie Kaufman

Catherine Keener as Adele Lack

Left to Right: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Hope Davis as Madeleine Gravis

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard

Left to Right: Samantha Morton as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Maria, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard


Left to Right: Emily Watson as Tammy, Samantha Morton as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard


Left to Right: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton as Hazel


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard


Left to Right: Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard


Left to Right: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard

From Sony Classics:

Charlie Kaufman, the man who brought you ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a movie whose title even he had trouble remembering, now brings us SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, a film with a title only English teachers understand and almost no one can pronounce. “When I named ETERNAL SUNSHINE… everybody said nobody would ever remember it,” he recalls. “But what’s cool is that the title is really easy to remember now. Everybody who knows that movie knows the title. And if this movie gets the proper amount of response, then people will be able to pronounce it and everyone will be able to know the word ‘synecdoche’—which is a good word to know.” Still, the movie itself never mentions the word, and Kaufman doesn’t want to spell it out for people. “One of the things I think is really exciting and joyful about the experience of being an audience member is figuring things out,” he says. “When you make a connection, it’s yours, and there’s a thrill to that. So people can look up “synecdoche,” if they want. And if they do, maybe they’ll think about some things it might correspond to in the movie, and if it opens up another understanding of the film for them, that would be great.”
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is one of those rare films that deals with death, excruciating illness, gross bodily fluids, despair, heartbreak and bad sex that can still bring a twinkle to the eye. “I think the movie is fun,” says Kaufman. “It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’ Who cares. It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny. You can get more than that if you want to. Hopefully the movie will work on a lot of levels and people can read different things from it depending on who they are.”
A unique aspect of Kaufman’s work (which also includes BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and HUMAN NATURE) is his blend of the whimsically fantastic with deeply felt emotion. “I’m interested in dreams and how we tell stories to ourselves in dreams,” he says. “Let me make it very clear that this film is not a dream, but it does have a dreamlike logic. You can start to fly in a dream and in the dream it’s just, ‘Oh yeah, I can fly’—it’s not like what your reaction would be in the real world. So everything that happens in this movie is to be taken at face value, it’s what’s happening. It’s okay that it doesn’t happen in real life—it’s a movie.” Still, as playful as Kaufman’s storytelling is, he doesn’t create weird situations arbitrarily. “Charlie has these absurd and hilarious ideas, but they are always serving something emotional,” says Spike Jonze, who directed Kaufman’s scripts for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. “He’s always using his intellect to serve something that he’s feeling or that means something to him.”
The original impetus of the film was for Kaufman to write a horror film screenplay for Jonze to direct. Of course, there was never any possibility that a Charlie Kaufman “horror film” would become anything like a conventional scary movie. “Towards the beginning, I was talking to Charlie about some anxiety dreams I was having,” says Jonze, “and Charlie said that it would be amazing to be able to make a movie that captured those kinds of feelings.” So Kaufman opened his imagination to things that were truly terrifying to him. “My process is to start by thinking about something and see what comes,” says Kaufman. “I’m not very interested in things like writing towards an end.” “Charlie would call and say I want to put this idea in the film and that idea in the film,” says Jonze. “And suddenly there were dozens and dozens of ideas. Charlie has a real desire to put everything he’s thinking and feeling into the thing he’s working on at the time.” It took two years for Kaufman to fully realize the script, and over that time it evolved to a place that had very little to do with the original concept. During this process, Jonze was writing his own screenplay for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and by the time Kaufman’s script was ready, Jonze was already in pre-production on the other film. Not wanting to wait, and having long planned to move into directing (he has an acting and theater background and studied at NYU Film School), Kaufman asked Jonze if he could direct it, and he readily agreed. “It seemed not only natural, but inevitable that Charlie was going to direct at some point,” says Jonze.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK explores nightmares that are all too realistic and human. Its hero, Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 40-year-old local theater director in Schnectady whose life is collapsing around him: his marriage to his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is on its last legs at the same time as he is stricken with a series of increasingly catastrophic illnesses. While time flies past him, he is afraid he will die any moment, and never have the chance to accomplish anything important with his life. When he receives a MacArthur Grant, he decides to use the windfall to create a massive theater piece in New York City. “He wants to create The Great Piece of Art,” says Hoffman. “He thinks his life will end, and he has all this heartbreak and death and separation around him, and he wants to leave something true and honest and heartbreaking and just like life is.”
While many decry the scarcity of good film roles for women, Kaufman’s script includes at least eight compelling female characters, not to mention that nearly all of them exist in multiple incarnations, and some are seen over many decades. The stories of these women, which round out aspects of Caden’s romantic, emotional and artistic life, attracted some of the world’s most talented actresses including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis.
Caden’s relationship with Adele plays out the sadness of two people, neither of which are able to satisfy each other’s needs. Her loss of her respect and approval for his work is perhaps the most important motivation for Caden’s tackling his monumental and ambitious play. Counseling sessions with the ultra-untherapeutic therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) are no help for the troubled couple and eventually Adele departs for Berlin with their four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In Germany, Maria covers Olive’s body with tattoos and her mind with lies until Olive (now played by Robin Weigert and speaking in a German accent) spurns him.
After Adele leaves, Caden becomes involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a refreshingly uncomplicated woman who adores him, and Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), a beautiful young actress moony over Caden’s artistic brilliance, who he ultimately marries and has a second daughter, with. But Caden is never able to fully connect with either woman, because his mind is always lingering on the one before: he can’t be with Hazel because he’s thinking about Adele; he can’t be with Claire because he’s thinking about Hazel; and when he can’t be with Hazel, he turns to Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress who plays Hazel in his play. “He has a difficult time being present in any situation,” says Kaufman. “He misses opportunities, he misses moments, and he misses connections. And I think that’s a very common human condition.”
Entering the story near the end is the inscrutable Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), the veteran thespian who plays the cleaning lady Ellen Bascomb (who may or may not exist), until she slips into Caden’s role as director when Caden is too aesthetically depleted to carry on.
Caden begins his theater project by renting an airport terminal sized warehouse in New York, where he gathers a large cast and begins to build full-sized replicas of New York Streets. Unsure at first where this will lead him, he simply gives each of the actors notes that tell them about what happened to them that day—hoping that something profound and true will emerge from the aggregate struggles of people’s ordinary lives. Eventually he turns inward, and sets upon the idea of restaging his own life, with Claire playing herself and another actor playing himself. At an open audition he finds Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who is a perfect match for the role as he has followed Caden around for twenty years. But in order for Sammy to play Caden properly, he must not only act the role of Claire’s husband, he also needs to direct. Sammy suggests that Hazel (who is now Caden’s assistant) should also be a character, and so Tammy (Emily Watson) joins the cast of the play as “Hazel.” It doesn’t take long before a host of doppelgangers—and triplegangers and quadruplegangers—overrun the production.
Taking things to their logical extremities—and blasting off to the wild blue yonder beyond them—is plain sailing for Kaufman. “If Claire is playing herself in the warehouse, living in this fake Claire apartment,” says Kaufman, “then where she would go from there is to a rehearsal in the warehouse-within-the-warehouse, in which she’d be playing herself with another Sammy playing Caden. Even though she’s already at rehearsal, then she would be playing herself at another rehearsal. And that goes on in smaller and smaller warehouses.” Script supervisor Mary Cybulski (who deserves to be in the Continuity Hall of Fame for doing this and ETERNAL SUNSHINE…) created a chart to clarify the Russian Nesting Doll-style proliferation of the story. “There are scene numbers that take place in the real warehouse,” she explains. “And then there’s an exterior warehouse set that they built inside the warehouse, and then the scenes that take place on the street set that’s inside the warehouse set, but outside the warehouse set number two. It goes on like that.” Production Designer Mark Friedberg was tasked with finding the requisite plywood and coherence to realize Kaufman’s intricate vision: “There was always an underlying structure that was not arbitrary,” says Friedberg. “As confusing as it could be, there was security for all of us in knowing that we could always turn to Charlie or Mary to clarify.”
No matter how outlandish the film’s style and story gets, the behavior and emotions of the characters are always palpably real. “There was nothing intellectual about creating the performances,” says Kaufman. “All of those things were discussed with and co-created by the actors.” Catherine Keener explains that it fell into place intuitively for her: “You just kind of step into the reality and before you know it you really kind of understand. And you don’t even know what you understand, but if Charlie’s not questioning it and it’s working for him, then it works for you.” Certainly the nucleus and anchor of the film’s verisimilitude is the stark performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden. “Everything you see happen to the character is something Phil was going through when we shot it, because that’s the way he works,” says Kaufman. “He had to understand what it was that was happening at every point, or he couldn’t do it. He was very serious because this character is really struggling and Phil was really struggling through the performance.” Jonze agrees: “It was a very hard part for Phil. Some movies it might be intense emotionally a week or two, but this film it was intense emotionally for him every day.”
Even extremely experienced filmmakers might find SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK a formidable challenge, but first-time director Kaufman was philosophical. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” he asks. “I take big risks in my writing, and I choose to do that because that’s what I think makes stuff interesting. The worst thing that can happen is that I’ll be embarrassed and they won’t hire me to direct movies again. If that’s the worst thing that can happen, that’s not so bad.” From Hoffman’s point of view, that seems unlikely. “To me, Charlie might as well have been directing all of his life. There was never any time where I felt he didn’t understand what it meant to converse with the actor or the director of photographer or anyone, in a way that clarified a situation or helped or aided in some way. He always fought for what he thought was the thing that needed to happen, that he always had empathy for the struggles that everyone was going through.” Knowing his story so well, Kaufman had the ability to create scenes when needed at the spur of the moment. Spike Jonze relates a story: “One scene I was surprised by in dailies was something I hadn’t read, the scene of the Pastor’s sermon at the end. It’s a page-long monologue about life and death, an amazing piece of writing, and Charlie wrote it the night before.” An actor who had been considered, but not cast for another role (Christopher Evan Welch) was quickly contacted and told to report for work following day. “Charlie faxed him this huge piece of text and the guy learned it that night and came in and did an amazing job,” says Jonze.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is such a cornucopia of a film that it’s more than a challenge to catch everything in one viewing—it’s virtually impossible. The film is jam-packed with jokes and references—like Caden’s glimpse of Sammy following him in a cartoon, when Caden hasn’t been introduced to Sammy yet—that won’t pay off for most people on the first go-round. “It’s intentional,” says Kaufman. “I want the film to be different the next time you see it, and not a repeat.” Kaufman explains that he is trying to capture the dynamism that he feel theater has and movies lack: “Every time you see a play it’s alive—the interactions between the actors is going to be different, and the energy of the audience changes the actors’ performances,” he says. But a movie is dead and unchanging—so what can you do in a movie that can make it more alive? My approach is to make films that allow you to discover new things upon multiple viewings. And it’s my goal to make you feel like it’s a living thing as opposed to a dead thing.”
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK can be seen as colossal as Caden’s warehouse or as small as the closet in Adele’s apartment, metaphysically labyrinthine or emotionally simple, an Empire State Building-sized witticism, a prodigious paranormal paronomasia (look it up), an existential shaggy dog story, or even a poem, or all these things or none of them, or as its director hopes—just entertaining and the hell with it. “It could read as an epic story of a man who builds everything and finds himself alone,” says Friedberg. “But it could also be read as a man turned in on himself, in his subconscious.” Kaufman is especially delighted when he hears people express interpretations he didn’t intend. “I get no bigger thrill than that,” he says, “because that means it’s alive.” He is also adamant that he has no intention to make it hard for the audience. “I’m not trying to daunt people,” he says. “I want the things I do to be things that I’d want to see, and if I went into this movie it would be cool for me.” While many might place this film in a different box from more traditional movies, there are many examples where sizeable audiences have happily gone to have their minds bent by anything from “2001” to THERE WILL BE BLOOD—emerging somewhat bewildered, but still feeling like they got their money’s worth.
“A challenge doesn’t have to be seen as homework,” says Executive Producer William Horberg. “It can also inspire you, and that’s exciting.” Hoffman agrees: “Some people might tag this as an art house movie, but I think more mainstream filmgoers will respond to this film. I think it’s accessible in a way that’s incredibly innovative—I can’t imagine it’s not going to speak to everybody.”
Producer Anthony Bregman remembers giving the SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK screenplay to casting director Jeannie McCarthy: “She called me up and said she was halfway through it and she felt she didn’t know what was going on. And I said that she should just finish it. About an hour and a half later, she called me back and said, ‘Well, I finished the script. I’m still confused, but when I closed it, I wept for forty minutes.” Bregman will never forget his own first reading. “It requires a lot and I got in a trancelike state just reading it,” he says. “There was so much that’s complicated and bizarre, and yet at the same time very personal. And towards the end of the script I felt like it was talking about events in my own life.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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