May 25, 2008 / 5:59 AM / 10 years ago

Kaufman defies convention with "Synecdoche"

CANNES, France (Reuters) - “Synecdoche, New York” is, by a long shot, the hardest title to pronounce at this year’s Cannes film festival, and the movie’s writer/director Charlie Kaufman wants it that way.

U.S. director Charlie Kaufman (L) poses with cast members Catherine Keener (C) and Michelle Williams during a photocall for the film "Synecdoche, New York" at the 61st Cannes Film Festival May 23, 2008. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

New York is the easy part. Synecdoche, for the record, is pronounced “sin-ek-duh-kee” with the accent on “ek,” and people familiar with the U.S. town of Schenectady, New York, should have little trouble saying it. The rest might need help.

“I like titles that are a little difficult because it’s kind of counter-intuitive,” Kaufman told reporters on Friday ahead of the Cannes premiere of what is his directorial debut.

The title defies conventional filmmaking. Movie studios and theatre owners have found over more than 100 years of cinema that it is easier to attract audiences with an easy title.

But Kaufman, 49, is known for pushing the boundaries of storytelling and being highly successful at doing so.

He penned “Being John Malkovich,” about a man who is able to live inside the head of famous actor Malkovich, and “Adaptation,” in which a writer named Charlie Kaufman has difficulty adapting a novel into a movie.

Kaufman is no stranger to offbeat titles either. He penned quirky romance “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

“It was really hard to remember, that title. I couldn’t remember it for the longest time,” he said. “Then, pretty soon I remembered it, and everyone seems to know it now.”

That film, which starred Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as lovers who erase their memories before renewing their bond, was a mild box office success and earned Kaufman a screenwriting Oscar. So, maybe he does know a thing or two about titles.


“Synecdoche” may well prove to audiences whether the writer also knows how to direct. His previous screenplays have been transformed into movies by directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. The latter is a producer on the new film.

“Synecdoche” stars Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) as a melancholy theatre director, Caden Cotard, whose career takes off after he directs Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in a small production in Schenectady.

But even as his career soars, Caden finds his personal life unravelling. His artist wife leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin to pursue a life as a painter. Caden also finds himself afflicted with numerous physical maladies.

Over the years, Caden becomes involved in two serious love affairs and is constantly aware his own death might be near. To audiences, his life appears as if it might be a dream. One of his affairs is with a woman whose house is constantly on fire.

The writer-turned-director said he avoided telling stories that easily fitted into standard genres, such as romantic comedy, crime thriller or action adventure.

“I don’t write genre stuff in any form. I’m not interested in it. What I always try to do is the opposite of that, is try not to fit into some pre-designed form,” he said.

With that sort of philosophy, it is easier to understand why “Synecdoche” has a hard-to-say title. But there is another commonality between Kaufman’s stories and his titles.

Once seen, his movies are hard to stop thinking about.

Editing by David Fogarty

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