Synecdoche, New York: The Shooting Script


What follows is the introduction to Synecdoche, New York: The Shooting Script, by Charlie Kaufman:

They want me to write an introduction to this thing. They’re pestering me. This guy, Keith, at Newmarket Press. I’ve already consented to and gone through a long interview for this book and am currently mired in endless press for the movie, which opens soon enough but not soon enough for me. I’m traveling the country (San Francisco, Boston, New York, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Denver, Seattle—I think that’s it) and back and forth twice to Europe in the month of October alone. On a plane almost every night for the entire month. So on top of that, they keep asking me to do this introduction thing and I keep saying, through intermediaries, that I don’t have the time or the inclination. I just got a new e-mail, just now, right now, from Keith, saying they left a space at the beginning of the book for my introduction, as if my responses never got to them. So, okay, now I’m writing this version, sort of out of spite. I don’t get any money for these books. There’s a screenplay book for each of my produced movies. I think I got one eight-dollar check once. So I’m not motivated and a little pissy.

The other thing is they have the idea that I really need to explain in an introduction why I chose to publish this version of the screenplay, the one in the book you’re holding, if anyone is holding this. Is anyone holding this? The thing is it doesn’t seem that interesting a topic. But okay, if anyone cares, I chose this version because I had to choose some version and this version was the easiest to prepare because it is basically the version we went into production with; it’s already put together. If I were to have to put together a version based on the finished film, I would have had to deal with the changes that came about during production and editing: improvised lines, rewrites, new voice-overs, switched-around scene order, blah blah blah, which I don’t have the time for or the interest in doing. I don’t want to have to read this script again, let alone reconstruct it. I’m really just trying to get through this process; the finish line is almost visible. Nobody ever buys these things, anyway. I’m not even sure why they’re published. I think it’s more or less a promotional tool for the theatrical release of the movie. So on every movie, I have the exact same discussion with the producer. It goes:

Him: What do you want to do about the screenplay book?
Me: I don’t care. Let’s not do it.
Him: (slightly judgmental pause) I think we should. Should we go with Esther [publisher at Newmarket]? She loves the movie.
Me: I don’t care. That’s fine.
Him: Okay. Which draft should we use?
Me: I don’t care. Whatever is easiest.
Him: (slightly judgmental pause) Okay.
Me: (slightly defensive, slightly pleading) I mean, what difference does it make?
Him: Okay. I’ll let them know.

So here I am, as I knew I would be once I agreed to having this thing published, trying to write an introduction and being mad at Keith. I don’t even know Keith. I’ve never seen him, as far as I know, which may be completely untrue. I may have met him forty times and not paid attention. I don’t even know his job title, that’s how much Keith and this screenplay book are part of my life. Every movie I write I’m asked to participate in the making of these books. I think with Being John Malkovich it was kind of exciting for me. It was my first script and it was getting published. But I soon learned that nobody buys these things and nobody reads these things and I make no money from these things. So I started to get pissy about being approached at the end of each of these projects by people wanting to get me to work for free on a side project that would never be looked at by anyone. Who is Keith that he should have the right to badger me so? I don’t know. I would guess he’s forty. I guess he sits in an office. Maybe he has blond hair parted neatly on the side. Wears glasses? That’s kind of it. Mostly he’s a pest to me, not part of my life, not interesting. When I see his e-mails on my computer, I find myself feeling angry and put upon. He’s an annoyance to me. That is all he is. But if I stop and think about it, which I just did, if I try to broaden my view of the world, which I just did, I realize that every moment I exist as me, Keith exists as Keith. He is not the occasional letter in my e-mail box. Every moment of every day, he is living a life somewhere far away from me. As an experiment, I decided to e-mail Keith and ask him to tell me a bit about himself. After questioning my intentions (“Hey, Charlie—you poking fun at me or what?”), followed by my brief response assuring him I was not (“not poking fun—it’s a real idea I’m toying with”), Keith sent me this:

“Okay—I’ll answer your broad questions below very quickly and hope that it gives you a springboard for your piece. I’m going to be very upfront. You know you have set out Caden’s life in an incredibly sweeping way, so here’s a quick stab at mine.

“I grew up in the ’50s in a sheltered, supposedly idyllic setting in Connecticut, watching my father trudge off to Manhattan every morning and vowing that would not be my plight. We’d enjoy toast and tea in the morning, and then I’d wave him off.

“In the ’60s I attended a prestigious boys’ prep school in Massachusetts that totally radicalized me—rebelling against the ancient ways of tradition there, I began publishing an underground paper, writing poetry, protesting against the war in Vietnam. I opted for Oberlin College in faraway Ohio for college, and that was a paradise—the place was alive with women (!), lively thought, music, paintings, movies galore, politics, spiritual studies (I studied with a Tibetan monk named Geshe Sopa, who taught meditation and a whole way of approaching life I longed for), so many interesting souls—including Julie Taymor and Bill Irwin. I fell into a romantic relationship of twelve years with a dancer. We moved to dreaded Manhattan and lived happily (for a while) on the Upper West Side. I had learned to hand-set books in Oberlin in the cold basement of an English professor, and four of us poets hand-printed tiny volumes that we were enormously proud of and realized that we could get out a different written word.

“I knew I wanted to be in publishing and after a hilarious stint at a vanity publishing operation, I landed an incredible job at Random House, working on the unabridged dictionary, finding new words and writing definitions. I continued at Random House for ten years and moved over to Newmarket Press way back in 1989, a smaller company where I could be involved in every aspect of book making and publishing again.

“In the meantime I had a traumatic breakup with my college girlfriend and eventually started a long relationship with a Norwegian woman, also in publishing. She was very interested in spiritual studies as well and led me into the Gurdjieff studies, which would eventually take me to France, Switzerland, and back to New York. I lost Sandy to ovarian cancer in 1995, after her diagnosis in ’91. She made a tremendous effort at healing herself, and that experience has informed the rest of my life.

“A year later I was blessed with meeting an amazing Japanese woman at a retreat in Phoenicia, New York, whom I ended up marrying at City Hall on the spur of the moment six months later, ostensibly to solve a visa problem, but an amazing love had manifested itself! I now have two stepsons, Nobu and Akira, and two granddaughters, Himuka and Minato, who just visited us. I don’t speak Japanese very well, but it’s been like entering another world altogether. It can be very sweet and seductive.

“I live 60 miles north of New York City now, in Brewster, New York, on a couple of acres with a pond—happily joined by an absolutely faithful mutt we adopted, along with three cats: Mei-chan from Yokohama, who requires Japanese food; Musashi, a toughie rescued from Brooklyn, who the vet said was male and hence the samurai name, but turns out she’s female and still tough; and our newest member, Ikkyu, named after a Zen monk, a cat who crawled out of a blizzard last year and declared he had found his home.

“Recent anecdote: I no longer eat beef, but my dog relishes it. He comes out back with me where the grill is and keeps an eye on my cooking. Three days ago I pull off the cover to the grill and notice something under the grill—it’s a mouse who’s made a fantastic bed out of the cottony material that lines the grill cover and some leaves. I shoo her away and finally see that there are two newly born mice under her in this exquisite bed. The dog is excited, barking, and my wife comes out to see the family. We cover up the grill, wish them well, and cook the steak for the dog inside, seasoned just the way he likes it. I’ll have to check on the mice one of these days to clean up their deserted nest.

“I love working on the books and drag the work around with me everywhere. I am driven by some crazy sense of perfection, which can never actually be attained, but it colors my day at work. I like the idea of the Middle Eastern master carpetmaker who intentionally introduces a tiny, seemingly insignificant flaw into the weaving to show his own humility to the unobtainable Spirit of Perfection.

“So today I have the remnants of a nasty head cold and a bit of a headache, but I’ve enjoyed writing this sweeping bio for you and hope it sparks whatever you might be looking for.”

Wow. Keith’s letter did way more than I anticipated. Now I love Keith. Now I feel a connection with him. There are so many things I love about Keith’s letter. Not the least of which is his willingness to participate and his openness in talking about himself, his leap of faith that I would not abuse the confidence. I love that he took me seriously. It made me think: How many hundreds of people have worked on this film whom I’ve never had a conversation with, whom I don’t know at all, didn’t think it was important to know? There is no periphery, it seems. Periphery is an illusion of individual consciousness. Each of us in our own mind is the center of the universe, and everything falls off in direct relation to its proximity or importance to us. But if you move to the periphery of your own existence, you find it to be the center of someone else’s. Now I feel a responsibility to Keith. I can’t dismiss him anymore. I’m not sure I like that. Maybe it’s easier to see people as peripheral. Maybe that’s why we do it. It’s a weird and daunting experience to let other people in their fullness into our minds. It is so much easier to see them as serving a purpose in our own lives.

In any event, this somehow seems to lead me to some of the things explored in the screenplay that you, imaginary person, are holding in your hands right now. And the relentlessly experienced life of yours that has brought you to this book at this time will now perhaps interact with the relentlessly experienced life of mine as it is represented by this script. I hope we recognize each other.

—Charlie Kaufman and Keith Hollaman
Los Angeles and New York, respectively


Excerpted from Synecdoche, New York: The Shooting Script Copyright © 2008 by Charlie Kaufman
Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press, 18 East 48 Street, New York, NY 10017

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Charlie Kaufman is a writer and filmmaker. More from this author →