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Synecdoche, New York Roundtables:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Kaufman and Catherine Keener
Regency Hotel
October 15, 2008

Written by Frank J. Avella

Click here for Frank J Avella's Review of Synecdoche, New York

Opposite Photo: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams
and Tom Noonan in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

The Interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman is a fascinating actor; very craft conscious and not really interested in speaking about interpretations of the film, which too much of the roundtable was devoted to. Here are the most interesting excerpts.

Question: What were the unique challenges of doing this film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: It covers a large expanse of a person’s life. I was hitting all the peaks and valleys of a persons life in nine or ten weeks…to try to go through that many break-ups and losing people and failing…with the small successes and small joys that were mixed in--but not many days go by where you’d have to tackle another scene…

Question: What is your take on the film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s really a film about a man’s life--a man who makes his work his life and is in the pursuit of doing something great, something important…finding out something special, because he really wants his wife and child back. He’s heartbroken and that’s really what you’re watching.

Question: You’ve worked with John Patrick Shanley (on the upcoming Doubt), another writer directing his own work. How different was the process with him versus with Charlie.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Not a lot different. We rehearsed with Shanley…we had a smaller cast. They’re both very different people about what they’re writing about and what they want to do and what they’re creating--but actually they’re both writers who don’t direct. But they both behave and did the job as if they’d been doing it forever…they’re both actor’s directors.

Question: Does it help the process when you’re working with a director who is an actor as well and/or has a background in theatre.

Philip Seymour Hoffman:I think it does help. I think it helps that if you’re a director that has an affinity for acting and you understand how the actor’s mind works, then that’s a huge deal. If you don’t know what the hell that is, it’s a bit disconcerting. I’ve worked with directors that really don’t understand what an actor does or how they prepare…and they just wish you’d do it and not bother them.

Question: How do you split your time between theatre and film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s pretty much half and half. I was just in London directing a play. I spend maybe even more time in the theatre than I do in film.

Catherine Keener in Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Charlie Kaufman

The Interview with Charlie Kaufman & Catherine Keener

In a twist that Charlie Kaufman could appreciate, speaking with Kaufman & Catherine Keener, at first, reminded me of the interview with Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep when they were promoting Robert Altman’s last film A Prairie Home Companion. They got along smashingly, finishing each other’s sentences and it was obvious they had a lot of respect for one another.

There was press babble that Keener would be doing all the gabbing because the shy Kaufman doesn’t enjoy the media spotlight, but as the interview progressed it became apparent that Kaufman was happy and willing to speak about his film, rather effusively.

Question: How was it working together?

Catherine Keener: It was great. It was perfect.

Charlie Kaufman: …With Phil and Catherine we did a lot of improvisation beforehand and even during the shoot to try and establish the history of this couple which was very important.

Catherine Keener: And we just hung out.

Charlie Kaufman: And we hung out.

Catherine Keener: Yeah.

Charlie Kaufman: And they already knew each other.

Catherine Keener: We were friends.

Charlie Kaufman: In terms of working with the actors and the crew…there’s not a blanket way to deal with people. You figure out who it is you’re talking to and what it is they need from you and you give that to them. And different people need different things.

Catherine Keener: Everybody wanted to do his or her best work for Charlie within this too-small budget. Everyone worked so much harder with not as-much money to make it perfect…fantastic.

Charlie Kaufman: Everybody did seem to be there--crew member and cast member--because they wanted to be there. And there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project.

Question: How did you feel about your cast?

Charlie Kaufman: I cast the best actors in the world. Not only are they the best actors but they’re also the nicest people. I was really nervous about having, like, a troubled person. I had too much to do and was worried about having to deal with a personality issue. Some of the people I knew. I knew Catherine and some of the others I had directed in plays.

Catherine Keener: We’d be in the makeup trailer and look down and—oh my God—there are four other amazing women you never get in a movie. Usually they’re all guys and one chick. Here I’m working with these heavyweights and they’re all women, it’s just great…it’s wonderful.

Question: Speak about Catherine’s great impression on the film even when her scenes are over (after the first quarter).

Charlie Kaufman: They (Philip and Catherine) knew each other and they love each other. We worked a lot on the history of that couple. We shot Catherine’s stuff first so it did set the roots for everything that happens to Phil afterwards. And because the production was so dense in what we had to do and it was a forty-five day shoot and she was gone after two weeks, it became really clear, after a few days, that she had been gone forever. We both love her and we both missed her. And she was gone and she doesn’t ever come back, and it was really felt. And it helped inform a lot of the loneliness. It was kind of serendipitous choice that we did that first.

Catherine Keener: It’s interesting, though, because in my world I felt the same way.

Question: Do you want to direct more?

Charlie Kaufman: Yes.

Question: Is it harder than writing?

CKaufman: No. It’s harder in terms of getting up in the morning…but they’re different jobs and they’re different things that are different about them. In some ways directing is simpler because your day is scheduled… There’s a lot of self-motivating required in writing which is enormously difficult. And it’s lonely. It’s very different. Directing is a managerial thing and it’s an interpretational thing. And writing is a creation type of thing, starting with nothing and figuring out how to form something. I like them both and I like the idea of one serving the other…

Question: How long did this take to finish?

Charlie Kaufman: This took about two years to write. That’s what Eternal Sunshine took. I never know where I’m going. But that’s part of the process to allow for discovery in the writing.

Question: Would you encourage repeat viewings?

Charlie Kaufman: I hope that people do want to see it again.

Catherine Keener: I have to say it’s worth seeing again and I don’t usually like to see things I’m in. I do it because I feel responsible, but this movie I’ve seen more than once and I love it.

Charlie Kaufman: It’s designed to reward repeat viewing. It’s pretty densely layered.



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