Life's a stage

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

As writer-director Charlie Kaufman moved to sit down next to me, I noticed he was carrying a brass ball. He'd nicked it off the top of a nearby stanchion in a hotel lounge where, at the halfway point in the Toronto International Film Festival, we'd found a small space of relative quiet near a hectic press wrangling area.

"I carry it with me now," Kaufman deadpanned. "It's a conversation piece in case we run out of things to talk about."

He needn't have worried. The screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was there, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, to talk about his first film as director, Synecdoche, New York.

It is a work that practically demands to be talked about, and if you're a Kaufman fan, it makes the further demand to be seen more than once.

Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life literally becomes his work through the creation of a massive play simulating everything in his daily existence.

Covering decades that seem to pass with increasing speed and subjects as deep as death, failure and abandonment - and in a manner that allows for books to change their text in a reader's hands and for a main character's home to constantly be in flames - the film is darkly funny and endlessly fascinating.

Even if you love Kaufman's mind-bending films, however, this one can be tough to get a handle on.

"I didn't want to give people an easy sort of, 'Oh, it's a memory-erasing machine,' or 'It's in someone's head,'" Kaufman explained. "I wanted it to be about what it was about, which is a life, trying to find meaning in chaos and swimming through, and this felt like the right way to do this story."

After spending nearly three years developing and writing the script, Kaufman explained that he was ready to turn it over to director Spike Jonze, but when its completion coincided with Jonze's commitment to Where the Wild Things Are, Kaufman asked Jonze to let it go and took the reins himself.

As a first-time filmmaker, Kaufman didn't ask advice from the directors he'd worked with in the past. But after being involved in the production of virtually every script he's written, he didn't really need to.

"I've been around the sets, I've seen Spike and Michel [Gondry] direct," he said.

For Hoffman, Kaufman's epic vision came down to one man.

Despite the blurring on screen of what we know as reality, "I don't think it's a dream," Hoffman said. "I think it's real, the life you're watching. It's just a very subjective view. You're experiencing it in a way that puts you almost literally inside his shoes. If you think about it, about being subjective within yourself, life is f---ing really, really strange."

Still, the film teases the viewer with suggestions that this is more than a life - that what you're seeing could be as big as a view of purgatory.

"Hopefully people will just discuss that endlessly," Hoffman said. "I think he lays all that stuff in there for you to grab hold of if you want, but at the end of the day, we're really telling a story about a man's life."

Keener, playing Caden's wife Adele, who leaves him near the start of the film, is mostly present by her absence. After seeing the movie, she felt, "Oh wow, Adele is really missed. There's like a hole, and that's just Charlie, how he told that story. It does feel like, that's what happens when a mother, a wife disappears."

Beyond her own involvement in the story, she didn't hazard a guess to its greater meaning, and doesn't believe that's necessary to enjoy it. "I do crossword puzzles, so I've learned you can walk away," Keener said. "I'm not that upset about not figuring it out right away, or ever. It's OK, maybe I wasn't supposed to."

"Synecdoche, New York"

Opens Friday at Landmark's Gateway Theater