In Charlie Kaufman's universe, life is lonely, painful and ultimately futile. Even after a full decade as the most critically revered screenwriter of his generation - with an Oscar under his belt and a queue of A-list stars clamouring to work with him - his existential angst is as acute as ever.
Indeed, Kaufman's one-man war against simple-minded Hollywood optimism enters a bracing new phase with his latest film, Synecdoche, New York. For the first time, the creator of such philosophical marvels as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has taken on the dual duties of writer and director. The result is a tragicomic masterpiece, numbingly narcissistic yet fiercely original. And this time it's personal.
"I feel I've been damaged by movies in my life, by what they lead you to expect," says Kaufman, a soft-spoken 50-year-old. "I didn't want to put that into the world. I wanted to put out something else for people who didn't have the life experiences that movies tell you you should be having. I would be ashamed of myself if I wasn't emotionally truthful. I need to be as true as I can. That's my job."
Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman's most ambitious, novelistic, metafictional work to date. Its mind-bending intellectual games begin with that cumbersome title: a synecdoche refers to a partial word or figure of speech used in place of a larger whole. But it is also a laboured pun on the upstate New York town of Schenectady, where the story begins. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a neurotic theatre director gripped by the urge to create a monumentally serious artwork before his death. Abandoned by his wife and daughter, he makes use of an apparently limitless "genius" grant to construct a vast scale model of New York City inside a warehouse. But years pass and the project grows ever more complex, acquiring self-referential subplots like a hall of mirrors. Art imitates life and vice versa. Cotard, meanwhile, sinks ever deeper into despair.
Featuring a classy ensemble cast including Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson, Synecdoche, New York walks a wobbly line between dazzling tour de force and epic grand folly. Like all of Kaufman's scripts, it also crackles with literary allusions, from Proust to Brecht, Beckett to Borges. It is shamelessly self-indulgent, but loaded with tender emotion and bittersweet humour. For all sorts of reasons, good and bad, it stays with you long after viewing.
Following its cool reception at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Synecdoche, New York earned mixed reviews when it went on limited and commercially disastrous release in the US last October. Rolling Stone called it "exhilarating and exasperating in equal doses", while The Onion described it as "a snarling, ungainly beast of self-reflexive absurdities". In the UK, meanwhile, The Guardian condemned the film for its "morose, myopic self-pity".
Kaufman's directing debut is unquestionably his most relentlessly glum and complex work to date. But it also belongs to a noble tradition of melancholy, navel-gazing auteur cinema that includes Federico Fellini's 8½, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and most of Ingmar Bergman's career peaks. In this sense, box office failure is almost a validation of its artistic worth. Kaufman is certainly not taking the film's lukewarm reception personally. "I'm very conscious of embracing the idea of failure in my work," he says. "It's a philosophy I subscribe to because I can't do anything that's at all daring if I am not willing to have it fall on its face."
Some critics have complained that Synecdoche, New York is so dense with self-referential trickery that it is impossible to digest in one sitting. But Kaufman claims that was precisely his intention: to capture on screen some of the open-ended, unpredictable electricity of live theatre. "I want the film to be different the next time you see it," he says. "What can you do in a movie to make it more alive? My approach is to make films that allow you to discover new things on multiple viewings, to make you feel like it's a living thing."
All of Kaufman's screenplays so far have had an autobiographical element, some more obvious than others. John Cusack's melancholy puppeteer in Being John Malkovich and Jim Carrey's alienated romantic in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were both thinly veiled alter egos. More overtly, Nicolas Cage actually played Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald in Adaptation. "There is no way, when you write something, that it's not a reflection of you, no matter what you write," Kaufman says. "Everything that everybody writes is autobiographical, whether they want it to be or not, so I don't shy away from using my own experience. It's sort of all I have. It's my arsenal so I use it. Otherwise I would be writing with no anchor, no grounding."
Hoffman's tormented director in Synecdoche, New York is just the latest Kaufman surrogate, only this time his vision arrives unfiltered by other writers or directors. The result is an intense trip around the inside of one man's troubled psyche, dominated by morbid obsessions and anxieties. Being Charlie Kaufman, it seems, is a pretty miserable experience. "Looking at the male leads in all the scripts I've written, I would say there is a similarity between them," he says. "So the shyness, the awkwardness, the loneliness are probably things I feel, yeah."
Too many films, Kaufman argues, take the easy option of offering a simplistic worldview and a happy ending. But such stories are "pandering" to audiences, he says, rather than crediting them with intelligence and complex emotions. "People writing movies are often working from precedents," he says. "This worked, so we'll do it again. I try hard not to do that, but it's difficult to avoid because you're so inundated with these kinds of stories and versions of relationships you see all the time in movies. They're very, very seductive. They are designed to manipulate me and anyone else who watches them. But my experience is that you feel really frustrated, sad and lonely after these movies because you can't ever have what they show. That world doesn't exist."
Although he studied film at New York University, Kaufman toiled for years in obscurity before achieving overnight success. He spent much of his twenties and thirties as a classic bedsit writer, paying the rent by working at a newspaper delivery warehouse. Even after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he earned his keep writing and producing TV comedies. Few of them lasted, but at least they earned him the time and space to hone his talents.
"The shows I was on were inevitably cancelled," he says, smiling. "But it was fun in the sense that it was my first writing job. Before that I'd been struggling for maybe 10 years. In that sense it was exciting, it was a validation. And I was paid to be a writer, which is something I never imagined would happen when I was working in a warehouse." Kaufman's big break arrived in 1999, when the first-time director Spike Jonze turned Kaufman's much-admired screenplay Being John Malkovich into the offbeat hit of the year. The partnership with Jonze seemed like a brilliant piece of Hollywood chemistry: hot new screenwriter meets cool young rock-video director. In fact, a host of big-name filmmakers including David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and David Cronenberg had already passed on the script, deeming it unfilmable.
"Being John Malkovich got a lot of attention," Kaufman says, "but everybody would say the same thing: that this movie would never be made. I went for countless meetings where that was said to me. So I was not expecting it to get made, and the truth is when Spike decided he wanted to make it, I had no idea who he was. People ask why did I trust it with Spike. I trusted Spike because Spike wanted to make it. I didn't have any other choices."
Ironically, considering how much of himself he reveals on screen, Kaufman leads a fiercely private life. Resisting temptation to market himself as a "celebrity" writer, he lives quietly with his wife and two children in Pasadena, a suburban district north of Los Angeles. "Like I said, I've been damaged by conventional movies and I feel I've been damaged by celebrity too," he says. "I'm just this guy with my own individual problems and struggles, so to talk about my personal life and make it something for newspapers just feels embarrassing. In addition to that, I just don't like being photographed. I'm not all that comfortable with my image."
By not playing the celebrity game, Kaufman has earned a reputation as a reclusive misfit, which he clearly finds irksome. "When people write articles about me, the angle they often take is the angle everyone expects - that I'm a weirdo and recluse," he sighs. "That just isn't true. I mean, maybe I am a weirdo but I'm certainly not a recluse. I'm a private person but I don't live in a garret full of old newspapers or anything. I live in Pasadena, a relatively normal place to live."
After 10 years as the most original and adored screenwriter of his generation, Kaufman's darkly comic universe is still miles removed from eternal sunshine. Behind all the awards and acclaim, the nagging sense of futility and despair remains. But how could it be otherwise? After all, Charlie Kaufman doesn't do happy endings. "That's a really valuable lesson about having some success," he shrugs. "It certainly improved a lot of elements of my life. I'm not complaining about it. And maybe I'd be a complete basket case if I didn't have this in my life, so maybe it's changed me in ways I can't see. But it certainly hasn't relieved me of my loneliness."