'Synecdoche' is screenwriter's directing debut

When camera-shy screenwriter Charlie Kaufman unveils “Synecdoche, New York,” he’ll be the only director making his debut in the Cannes competition.

He faces a daunting prospect: not only climbing the red carpet in full view of snapping paparazzi, but being judged by some 5,000 assembled global media at Cannes. Will they boo and flap their chairs in disgust? Or hail him a new Preston Sturges? Soon cinephiles will find out if Kaufman’s director chops are on a par with his defiantly unpredictable writer skills.

Being in the French fest is “good for the movie and gives us attention right away,” says Kaufman, “and makes everyone feel like we accomplished something.”

That’s what Cannes is all about: anointing a new director with a slot in the pantheon of the world’s most respected filmmakers. It worked for fellow Americans Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies, and videotape”), Spike Lee (“She’s Gotta Have It”), Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”), the Coen brothers (“Barton Fink”), Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) and David Lynch (“Wild at Heart”).

Even Steven Spielberg, who is returning to the Croisette (with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) for the first time since “E.T.” in 1982 (he did not accompany “The Color Purple”) has a long and happy relationship with Cannes going back to “Sugarland Express.”

Kaufman’s “Synecdoche,” which Sidney Kimmel Entertainment backed to the tune of $15 million, is one of three Cannes unveilings at the top of the Hollywood specialty distrib “to buy” list this year, along with Soderbergh’s Che Guevara double feature and James Gray’s “Two Lovers.” Assuming that Kaufman’s pic delivers the right mix of art and entertainment, the likes of Miramax, Focus and Fox Searchlight will be scrambling to acquire it from seller UTA.

That’s because Kaufman is one of the rare writers whose genre-busting films are instantly identifiable as his, no matter who directs them, from Michel Gondry to Spike Jonze. His films are by no means blockbusters. Kaufman’s highest-grosser to date, 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” for which he won the original screenplay Oscar, grossed $35 million domestically. But he has made himself into a known brand by penning wildly original screenplays, even when he’s writing an “Adaptation.”

Having grabbed an unusual degree of autonomy by working closely with his directors, says Kaufman, “I was always engaged collaboratively. I was very present and respected by the directors I worked with. I had a strong voice in the process.”

The one helmer who didn’t allow Kaufman to collaborate during production, George Clooney, nonetheless stated that he chose to make his directorial debut on “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” with the “best screenplay I’d ever read.”

Writing was always a route to directing for Kaufman, who has a box full of the Super-8 shorts he filmed as a kid. He acted in plays in high school, summer stock and at Boston U. before transferring to NYU film school.

“I was always interested in working with actors,” he says. “Directing was something I always wanted to do. As much as I’ve enjoyed the choices directors have been making — and they did not make changes in the material — it’s a question of balance and emphasis.”

Always socially awkward on set, especially with actors, Kaufman spent most of his time working with his directors during pre- and post- production. “During shooting I was feeling I was in the way,” he says. “I had a kind of issue about meeting famous people, it was scary for me. It’s less so now.”

When he got out of film school, Kaufman started worked in TV and writing scripts as a route to directing, inspired by the example of star colleague Chris Columbus, who sold an after-school special while still at NYU and swiftly became a director.

“I couldn’t get an agent and didn’t work for quite a while,” says Kaufman. “I had tenacity up to the first step, but I’d get discouraged and shy if someone sent stuff back.”

After writing a spec script for “The Simpsons,” Kaufman landed an agent. It took seven more years before Jonze managed to film “Being John Malkovich.” “Luck has a lot to do with it,” insists Kaufman. ” ‘Malkovich’ was kicking around for a couple of years. Nobody was going to make it. That it got made, and did well critically, opened doors so I could do what I wanted to do.”

Sony’s Amy Pascal, who backed “Adaptation,” commissioned “Synecdoche, New York” for Jonze to direct but put it in turnaround because it seemed too small for a studio project.

In the project, a theater director in Schenectady (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is left by his artist wife (Catherine Keener), who is not impressed with his work. She disappears for years with his young daughter. In an effort to prove himself, the director mounts an ambitious replica of New York City in a warehouse and populates it with actors who live there “to replicate the truth as he sees it,” says Kaufman.

The production gets larger and larger and continues for 40 years, through the director’s relationships with various women, and blurs his sense of reality. “It’s emotional and funny in some places and sad in other places,” says Kaufman. “Hopefully it’s thought-provoking.”

When Kaufman eventually felt ready to direct the movie, Jonze withdrew, and Kimmel offered to finance it. Kaufman prepared for the rigors of production by directing several plays, which boosted his confidence about working with actors, he says. “It gave me a sense that maybe I’m OK at this.” He sent the script to actors he knew, like Hoffman and Keener. Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton also star.

In the end, Kaufman enjoyed his actors after all. “I love talking to actors about emotional truth,” he says. “It’s what I do all day anyway. It’s fun for me. That’s what drew me to writing, my life as an actor. It’s the same thing, just a different side of it.”

Shot by “Blue Velvet’s” Frederick Elmes and designed by Mark Friedberg, who collaborated on the hallucinatory sets for “Across the Universe,” “Synecdoche” was a challenging first project. “We had 204 scenes to shoot in 45 days,” says Kaufman, who managed to squeeze the film into two hours. “It was a terrible experience: exciting, tedious, long, and short.” Finally, he says he’d gladly do it again.

Kaufman accompanied Gondry’s “Human Nature” to Cannes in 2001, which played out of competition to a tepid fest reception. He even went up the red carpet, ducking photogs all the way.

Finally, this year, Kaufman may have to let go of his fear of cameras. “It’s the big photo shoots I’m trying to avoid,” he says. “I don’t like to draw attention to myself. You’ll never see pictures of me pointing.”

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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