Over the years, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has played a lot of wild and different roles but when he signed on to play theater director Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (pronounced “si-neck-doh-kee”), the occupation might have been one aspect of the role Hoffman could easily to relate to, having directed many theater productions over the years.
In the surreal film, Caden’s life is falling apart after his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves with their young daughter, right before he’s about to stage one of the most ambitious stage productions ever, taking over a warehouse to create a theatrical piece that spirals out of control as it develops a life of its own over the course of decades. That’s a highly simplified version of the intricate plot, in which Caden has affairs with a number of women around him, and various actors coming on board the production to play Caden and those women. Believe us, it’s something easier to experience than explain.
ComingSoon.net has talked to Hoffman a few in the past and every time, he seemed relatively guarded and unwilling to open up, but this time, things were different, and he shared honestly and openly with the group of journalists who sat down to find out more about this quizzical film. This interview is probably the most insight we got into the mind of Hoffman and learned some enlightening things about why he may not have been the easiest interview subject in the past.
ComingSoon.net: Charlie Kaufman told us that he doesn’t like to explain things. As an actor working with him, can you go to him and say you don’t understand something and he’ll explain it to you or does he still want you to interpret it in your own way? Hoffman: He does want you to find your own way, but he has an opinion and he has a take and he’ll have suggestions. I think now that the movie is out, the movie isn’t about him having to explain to you. It’s a movie to be experienced to understand it the way you want to understand it. It’s a movie that should be seen more than once. It’s not a short story that you watch and you know what you saw. It’s definitely a film to be experienced I think.
CS: How surreal was (making this movie) for you, having played a director before but also being a director? One would assume this role was emotionally intense. Hoffman: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is a very emotional movie. Life’s an emotional thing and in this, you really get the peaks and valleys of a man’s life in a way. Like I said, there’s always those three or four scenes, those days you know are going to be really tough. “That scene is going to be tough and that scene…” This film like every other day, I knew I’d be doing a scene that was going to be about losing my wife or losing my daughter or failing at this or being rejected or trying to fall in love… he was really covering the whole gamut of experience.
CS: When you first got the screenplay from Charlie, what were your impressions of it? Was there enough on the page that you could read through it and understand where it’s going? There’s a lot of stuff that’s visual and very intricate in terms of the setting. Was that all on the page? Hoffman: Pretty much, yeah, it’s all on the page. It’s weird because everyone knows it’s a visual medium, and sometimes I’ll be in script meetings with producers, and I’m like maybe there’ll be a scene and they’ll be like I’m not quite getting it, and I’m like, “Well it says right there…” And they don’t get it, and I’m like “Yeah, because you’re going to see it. You haven’t seen it yet. That actor has to act that.” ‘Cause the question is actually interesting because yes and no, of course, yes, I got an idea, my own vision, like when you’re reading a book.
CS: Is he very descriptive in his script, describing the scenes? Hoffman: Yeah, yeah… he has kind of an idea, but stuff also hits him while he’s shooting it, so there’s going to be things he puts in that aren’t in the script that’s just going to come to him while he’s shooting it, but yes, ultimately you can’t see it, you can’t really know, you won’t really know until you’re there.
CS: On that note, when you saw the final film, what surprised you about it? Hoffman: Well, it’s not so surprising anymore because you actually shot it. What’s more surprising is when you actually show up. (laughter) Seeing the film is kind of more unsettling ’cause it’s like “Oh, that’s weird. I didn’t know that” or “Oh, that’s good.” It’s a different thing but when I showed up to the set the first time and went into the warehouse and they’re building it and I was like “Wow.” That experience of being inside our apartment that I have with Michelle Williams’ character that I live with and then we go back to that and Tom Noonan, and she’s playing herself and Tom is playing me and I’m watching that scene that you saw earlier that actually happened in real life. That’s actual set, that’s an actual apartment that we shot in and they literally built that apartment on a set in a warehouse, and we walk in and you’re like, “F*ck, wow.” (laughter) It was heavy, it was amazing, AMAZING! So we actually were experiencing the reality of that, of what Caden was actually doing so it was very literal to use, it was very narrative to us, that he was actually building his life, so it was very clear to me what was my life and what wasn’t ultimately. It was very clear to me and then ultimately, it all was my life, just like talking to you right now, you’re in my life because I’m talking to you. If I’m directing a play, that actor playing some fictitious person is in my life. But it gets weird because you start to see the narratives in people’s lives and their stories and we start to look at them like stories and therefore they become separate from life and they become something else that we just watch to get entertained by, you know all that stuff, so that was new and exciting to me while we were shooting it, but when you’re reading it, you don’t know, and at the end, you know and you’re just kind of hoping they put it together in a way that you’re happy with.
CS: After doing a movie like this or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which are so intense, do you feel want to get back into doing more comedy? I guess in some ways this could be seen as a comedy, but do you want to get away from the dramatic stuff after doing so many intense movies? Hoffman: Be careful what you wish for, you know? I mean, what’s a comedy? What the f*ck’s a comedy? You know? I think things are funny when they’re funny, wherever they end up, you know what I’m saying? I think you guys would agree. It’s like something’s funny when it’s funny and you’re just glad it happened. It could be in the middle of the saddest movie in the world but if it’s f*cking funny, it’s funny I can get into a film that is grounded in something that’s not concerned with being funny but something that has humor in it. I’m much more attracted to that kind of thing, not that I haven’t done like “Along Came Polly.” I think there’s some people, like Ben Stiller is a funny man. I think he knows how to do things funny, and I think he knows how to do things like his latest movie. You’ve seen his latest movie (“Tropic Thunder”) I thought it was hysterical. But yeah, it’s fun to do that kind of thing but I think there’s only a few guys who know how to do that.
CS: When you’re working on a film like this or “Doubt” and you have a concept of the character, does that change over the course of the production? Hoffman: Sure, it evolves I would say, it evolves. Hopefully, you keep asking questions and sometimes in the middle of shooting or during the run of a play, you’re like “Oh, wow, that’s what that is” and that’ll hit you, so that will change that way. Hopefully, you’re evolving the whole time. That’s I think something that I think is similar between film and theater even though you’re shooting scenes and you shoot a scene and let it go in film and you move on, it’s in the can and all that, you can still evolve with the character while shooting a film, through the shoot of a film. Because once something is pieced together, those little nuances and changes, you’re not going to pick up so much, but we do. When I watch a film, I know I shot that the first week and I know I shot that at the end, and there’s usually a difference.
CS: Do you ever want to watch dailies? (Note: they’re the scenes shot during a day of a film shoot) Hoffman: Sometimes. If I feel it’s necessary I will, if it’s not I won’t, but I do like to have the option because sometimes it is very helpful, and sometimes you just need it at the beginning, just to check on things like the first week and then you don’t watch them. There’s been films, like “Doubt” I got the stuff to watch, but I stopped after a while. There was only certain things I would look at, because I would think about the day, but purely for technical kind of, I had to answer some questions.
CS: One of the in-jokes in the movie was having Emily Watson play Samantha Morton’s character because a lot of people get them mixed up, but Charlie got someone who doesn’t look anything like you at all to play you. Hoffman: It says a lot about Caden. (laughter) There is no me, the ego he may have that you can never really see, that you only see in his actions. He doesn’t behave in an egomaniacal kind of way, but his actions are so narcissistic, but then ultimately very human, because he kind of wears his heart on his sleeve, but also the people who look like you aren’t necessarily the people who are like you. Tom Noonan’s character I don’t think is like Caden at all, I think that’s more bringing someone into his life that’ll challenge him, do you know what I mean? That kind of… I remember someone saying to me, “Why are you friends with that *sshole?” and it’s like, “Yeah, why am I friends with that *sshole?” And there’s those people in your life that they’re not very good people but you keep them as your friends, why? Know what I mean? He’s great in it, isn’t he? Noonan’s a really fun.
CS: Have you ever had any productions that went that out of control either that you directed or appeared in? Hoffman: Your life can go that out of control. To me that’s what’s really happening is that it’s his life. He’s trying to do something with his life, which is basically answer life’s question, something like that. It’s not something that ends. It’s limitless and so you literally see the limitlessness of it and then you see the ultimate finite act.
CS: You have so much going on in your life right now, so do you ever have a chance to breathe? Hoffman: You’re right, and it won’t be like that forever, and I know that, but there’s a lot of things I’ve committed myself to that I’m trying to see through, and I’m trying not to take on too many new things actually right now and I haven’t been for awhile because there’s stuff I need to keep doing, theater stuff, directing gigs and things like that. So yes, it has been actually hard to keep up and do things and that’s why I’m trying not to take on new things and trying to finish what I already have on my plate. I don’t know. I’ve done it well sometimes, not so well some other times. I’m just trying to get by.
CS: What do you want from a director you’re going to work with? Hoffman: (takes a deep breath) I want from a director that they instill in everybody that what they’re working on is something that’s special, that it’s unique, that what they’re doing is an extraordinary event. Whether people won’t see that doesn’t really matter, but to make life exciting like that. I think if a director doesn’t infuse enthusiasm in you to do something special with your work, they’re doing something that directors need to do. And then a director has empathy with the mind of an actor, understands how actors function like that, I think that kind of empathy is very smart, and somebody when giving direction does it sharp and to the point, really knows how to do that. It’s very difficult to be a good director because those qualities are hard to do good. Those are the qualities you really want. You don’t want to show up to work having a director who’ll be like “Well here we are again so anyway… you’re there…” or even a director who’s kind of like “Yeah, it’s cool! We should be so glad we’re working!” and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to just be glad I’m working.” We get paid good money to be here to do this. It’s really cynical… and kinda of deathly, but those directors that show up who have a serious sense of enthusiasm about, “Let’s make something special. Let’s put something out there that we can all be proud of” those are the directors you want to be with.
CS: Do you try and do those things when you’re directing theater? Hoffman: Yeah, you want to make the actors feel like that’s the only place they want to be, but that means creating a challenge that’s so impossible to meet that they’ll always be in search of how to get it right. Those are the kinds of things that people keep showing up for.
CS: Does acting ever become like a day job? I think everyone, however much they love their job, there’s always the point where it’s like “Ugh, I have to go work.” Hoffman: Oh, yeah, totally. I’m pretty burnt out right now. Right now I can definitely feel like I wouldn’t be really good about doing that with a cast right now, and you have to just leave yourself alone. An actor’s thing, I think, I think Elia Kazan said it once, that everyone’s been cut or scraped, the skin heals and there’s a scab and then the scab goes away and then there’s a mark or something. Well, actors, they get cut and there’s a scab over but before they heal, they take the scab off and it has to heal again and they take the scab off, and it’s kind of dramatic, as cliché as that sounds, it’s actually very true, and I think that you get to the point where you have to leave yourself alone for a while.
CS: Some actors never get burnt out, like Sam Jackson probably works every single day without a vacation. Hoffman: Yeah, well I mean, maybe Sam’s able to switch work off. Maybe he’s doing work where he doesn’t have to do that kind of work so much where he can leave himself alone while he’s working, and then that’s that but I’m not so good at that.
CS: Is directing taking a different energy than the acting and is that part of how you can do that? Or do you just need time off altogether? Hoffman: Yeah, well with directing you’re really putting it on others, so it’s not about you, it’s really helping others and it’s very therapeutic for the mind of an actor I think because as an actor, you have to be that self-centered, you have to be thinking about yourself because that’s what your work is, and that’s what you burn out on as an actor. You just kind of don’t want to go at yourself anymore, you want to leave yourself alone. When you’re in conversations… that’s why press can be really hard I think, that’s why actors, there’s that whole cliché about… it really does come from a point of not wanting to talk about yourself anymore, not wanting to think that way anymore. I think people immediately think, “Well, actors, don’t they just want to…?” Well maybe some do but I think ultimately most actors get tired of it because their work is really being alone with themselves and looking at a script and putting their own experiences into the script, and that kind of self-examination sometimes needs to be left alone, so the whole interview process can be something like thinking how to talk more, and your brain wants to go (makes motion and sound effect of shutting off).
CS: So you’re dreading the Oscar season for this and “Doubt”? Hoffman: No, but its true. I think when people say they dread it or they hate it, I don’t think they’re not grateful for the opportunity or the accolades. I think it means they’re dreading the fact that there will be so much energy pointing this way (points to self) and that’s just not normal. That’s just not a normal thing for human being to have that much… you want to push it back out and I think that’s why people act out sometimes, I really do. I think it comes from a very real place of trying to turn the energy back that way so the breath will drop in their body again, you know?
CS: Looking at your work, who’s influence would I see and which actors have shaped you, do you think, consciously or unconsciously? Hoffman: A lot of actors have, a lot of actors, and I mean that. I could go through many… Paul Scofield, when I was young. Paul Scofield, Sean Penn. I remember watching Meryl Streep when I was young and thinking “Is she American?” and now she’s a friend of mine and she definitely influences what I do. Mike Nichols, Martin Davies, this theater director influences what I do, Paul Thomas Anderson, actors, directors, novelists… it’s art. I remember reading my first Arthur Miller play, “All My Sons,” I read “Death of a Salesman,” all these things influence you. When I first saw Pacino live on stage, huge influence, I saw Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman,” and they’re all so different and they all mean so many different things but it’s so influential, they so make up how you ultimately try to be an actor and an artist.
CS: Have you had a chance to talk to any of those people who influenced you about how to get out of being burnt out and how they get through it? Hoffman: Kinda, you know, but I thought about it. The people I was just naming? Oh, yeah, they don’t want to be bothered. (laughter)
Synecdoche, New York opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 24. After you see the movie, you might want to learn what Hoffman thinks about the movie’s ending, but seriously, you might not want to read on until you have seen the movie.
SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE DOWN!!!!!
ComingSoon.net: So do you know what happens at the end when everyone’s dead? Is that what Charlie thinks happened or did you guys make your own decisions? Hoffman: That stuff’s just clear. War has obviously ravaged the planet. I mean, that’s clear. Charlie is saying that in 2070 or something, war has basically killed off the people and you see basically when he says at the funeral scene, he says this really extraordinarily low number. “13 million people on the planet,” and that’s what he’s saying. It’s not a mystery, and that would be like 2050. Charlie’s just saying the world at that time of this story would be populated with 13 million people and you think, “Wow, that means that a lot of people have died” but they’re still living their lives like anybody would. You’d think, “Well, life would so different.” Maybe it wouldn’t, but when he wakes up at the end, they’re almost all gone it seems like, so he’s walking around wondering what happened and he’s about to be gone, too. I think things like that you can actually take for what he’s telling you narratively. What it means metaphorically is something again I think has to be experienced, but that stuff I narrative stuff.
CS: I thought that the people in the production had just revolted against the director and that was the result, so there’s definitely ways to interpret that ending, too. Hoffman: But they’re dead! There’s dead people everywhere!
CS: Well, if you ever had a production that went that badly… Hoffman: They would start shooting everybody, is that what you’re saying? (laughter) No, they’re all dead… no, everyone’s just dead. When he walks out of the building, walks outside, there’s nothing. There’s no cars… it’s desolate except for the bodies and then he starts to walk into his set and walking and walking and that’s more metaphorical stuff.