Old-new interview: Q&A from the Synecdoche script book

Way back in the day, Newmarket Press published the official shooting script book for Synecdoche, New York (as they have done for CK's other films). Alongside some other extra features like behind-the-scenes photos and whatnot, there's a really great interview conducted by Rob Feld. I haven't read this interview before... but BCKster Jan took a hit to the wallet for all of us, buying an exhorbitantly priced copy of the book on eBay. And NOW WE CAN READ THE INTERVIEW. It's a bit of a rarity, because Charlie talks somewhat more freely about what's going on under the hood of his film, and why certain choices were made.

[...] we were able to schedule it in such a way that we were able to shoot all of Phil’s relationship with Catherine Keenerup front, the first thing we did. [...] Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and Catherine know each other because they did Capote together. They're friends and comfortable with each other, and they did a lot of improvisation—not on-screen so much, but in rehearsal—to establish the relationship between these two characters. [...] I think his feeling of being unmoored worked partially because we started with them together. We came in and did all this work but then, all of a sudden, Catherine was gone. The experience of making this movie was so intense, the days were so long and Phil worked so hard that Phil and I would say to each other two weeks after Catherine was done shooting, “God, it feels like seven years since we saw Catherine.” We both felt it and there was a real sadness to it, which I really, really think helped. And that wasn’t planned. That was just lucky.

I very much wanted to emphasize that it was from Caden’s point of view. It’s a very personal experience, so there’s really little in the way it's shot that isn’t from Caden’s point of view. There’s one moment in the movie toward the end where you have a bird’s-eye view of him walking down the street when he’s very old, but that’s it. Everything else is seen as he sees it, which is a very specific choice, maybe even more than I realized. We couldn’t, and do not, have any establishing shots in this movie, not one, with the exception of that bird’s-eye view, if you could call it that. And so it gives it a sort of uncomfortable feeling, I think—and maybe not for the good of the movie, I don’t know—but it was decided that we wouldn’t have them.

You know what’s so funny? God, I hate the Internet. Here’s what happened: we were so careful about not letting the screenplay get out and seen by people, or stolen and put online. But somehow that happened, and in so doing the title page got taken off. This is my sort of detective work in guessing what happened here, but I imagine somebody retyped the title page as Schenectady, New York. So, now, in the lovely world of the Internet, people say—and it just becomes part of the truth of the story—that the original title of this movie was Schenectady, New York, and that somehow along the way I decided to change it to Synecdoche. The title was never Schenectady, New York. It’s not a title I would ever use for anything. I mean, what the hell would I use that for? So, in the lore of the Internet, I changed it after I realized that there was a play on words here, but no, I didn’t.

You have that one line when Caden asks the doctor if it’s serious, and he replies, “We don't know, but yes.”
CK: Yeah, but it isn’t also, because to me that’s the way doctors are. I mean, I think it’s funny, hopefully, but that’s the relationship I often feel with doctors; you're scared and they’ve got this God-like arrogance, and you feel like you're this wormy little sick thing. My favorite thing is when I find a doctor who tells me something is physically wrong with him. It’s so rare, but it’s happened on occasion and it’s like, wow, because I’m surprised. Of course he’s a human being and he’s going to have whatever physical problems he has—he’s not a god—but I can’t get it through my head that they're not, and I think they love that, I think they foster it. But, yeah, for any character I write, I need to feel like I’m writing from their point of view, so even if what they do is absurd, when I write it I have to know why they're doing it. Otherwise it becomes sort of silly to me. If you don't do that, it’s a little Lewis Carroll or something, which there’s nothing wrong with, obviously, but...

Metaphors seem to operate subconsciously as well, even if you can’t verbalize their effect on us.
CK: Well, yeah, I think that’s what dreams do. I’m so astounded by dreams, by my dreams, because I feel like I do my best writing in them, and I’m doing it in real time, or what seems to me to be real time. Like what you were saying about the title, Synecdoche, about which came first; I often have dreams that have a surprise ending that works! And it’s, like, How the hell did I do that? because I’m doing it. I’m thinking that I figure it out in real time, that all these pieces came together. I can’t possibly have it planned for the dream to arrive at this surprise ending, because then I would know what it was, and then it wouldn’t be a surprise. But you get somewhere and there’s a reveal and it’s like, Oh, fuck! As opposed to something that takes me three years to write when I’m awake, I can write a dream in my sleep in a matter of moments.

I set out to not have voice-over in this movie, for example. In order to have the internal experience of the character, which I’m interested in, I decided to project it externally, so that's why the world is interacting with him the way it is. It echoes back to it being the dream state that he’s in, even though I don’t see this movie as a dream. But it is using dream logic and that kind of symbolism and stuff. But, yeah, it was a conscious decision not to have voice-over—the only voice-over that exists in the movie is in the form of other people talking to him, like Millicent instructing him in somebody else’s interior monologue.

There's also some stuff about Hope Leaves the Theater.

It’s so funny, I was doing the New Ear play and with a group of people talking about actors going up on their lines in theater. And Meryl said something like, “That’s the most exciting thing.” It never really occurred to me that an actor would feel that way. I used to act in plays and the idea of forgetting my lines, which has happened to me, is so terrifying, and I love the idea of approaching it from the other way; that this is actually kind of a cool thing to happen and watch because you’re watching this thing, someone maneuver within it, and the other people on stage maneuver and figure out what they need to do, and suddenly you’re awake. [...] What was cool about the New Ear piece to me is that the play stops in real time and the actor yells at the audience, and in a movie you can’t do that because they're not really yelling at you; they're yelling at an imagined audience or an audience that’s on film with them. You don’t feel the threat that you feel when you're at a magic show and you're terrified that the guy’s going to pick on you.

I could copy-paste all day, but it'd be easier if you just read the whole thing yerself, yeah? (PDF / docx.) Big thanks to Jan for taking a hit to the wallet, and for putting in the effort of transcribing!

"Synecdoche" Quick Links



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