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Charlie Kaufman Revisits 'Synecdoche, New York'

Rumors of Charlie Kaufman’s reclusiveness have been greatly exaggerated.

Kaufman, the soft-spoken New York native who began his career in television churning out scripts for short-lived Fox sitcoms like Get a Life before graduating to feature films with the Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, is, according to his IMDb.com biography, a voracious reader notorious for avoiding the press. And yet here he is, cordial and seemingly at ease as he lounges in a conference room at San Francisco’s Prescott Hotel, ready for a rigorous day of interviews.

“I don’t have anything to do with what people write about me on websites like IMDb,” he says with a sigh of resignation. “It bothers me, because they say I’m an avid reader. What the hell is that? I don’t know where it comes from. I imagine that whoever wrote it read somewhere that I dislike interviews, but I don’t have any problem talking to people. I enjoy it.”

Kaufman is here to promote the March 10 arrival on DVD and Blu-Ray of his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, which might just be his most audacious work to date – no small praise, considering the vivid imagination evident in Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation and his Oscar-winning script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet Kaufman, unlike so many of his peers, isn’t interested in selling himself or even his movie.

After Adaptation, he worried that his career was finished, that his warped, semi-biographical take on Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief, written during a months-long stretch of prolonged depression, would ground his rapidly rising star for good. Now, he’s hoping that Synecdoche, a bleak but often hilarious portrait of a death-obsessed artist caught in an increasingly surreal dramatization of his own life, will earn him a second shot in the director’s chair to go along with the Best First Feature award he recently earned at February's Independent Spirit Awards.

“I guess I’m selling the movie in theory by talking about it, but I’m not trying to get anyone to see it,” he says. “I don’t like selling people things, and that’s why I try to make movies that can’t be confused with products.

“I am worried that I might not get to work again the way I want to work. I don’t know if I want to direct my own scripts for the rest of my career, but I do know that I learned a lot making this movie, and I want to get a chance to do it again.”

Kaufman describes directing as a “managerial and pragmatic job,” unlike writing, which remains for him the foundation of everything a movie can achieve. Even so, he relished the chance to work closely with actors – in this case, an accomplished cast featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton and Jennifer Jason Leigh – whom he considers talented and consummate professionals.

“I like being social some of the time, and I like being alone and introspective some of the time,” he says. “When you’re directing, you get a good balance of the two. With this film, I had the opportunity to work with some great people. I couldn’t deal with crappy movie stars this early in my directing career. Not that all movie stars are crappy – I’m sure there are some very nice ones. But for this project, I didn’t have a single jerk in the bunch.”

Although Kaufman, 49, insists that his perspective has changed since the anxiety-ridden period that produced Adaptation, those same themes of self-doubt and desperation are present in Synecdoche. To describe it as a somber meditation on loneliness, illness and the passage of time might be misleading, as it wouldn’t account for the film’s sense of humor. But Kaufman doesn’t deny that those themes are prominent.

“It took me at least two years to write this, and I thought a lot about mortality and isolation,” he says. “I realize it could be viewed as depressing, even though there’s a lot of humor in it. But when I look at life, I just don’t think there’s some revelatory moment when you say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ Life keeps going, and it always remains confusing and then you die. In the end, I think that’s what I was trying to express.”