Charlie Kaufman interview: Life's little dramas

CHARLIE KAUFMAN IS A WORRIED man. Ever since making his screenwriting debut with Being John Malkovich, the New York-born writer has enjoyed the "weird, atypical and lucky" experience of having his idiosyncratic scripts filmed.

However, now that parts of the film industry are feeling the pinch along with the rest of us (some ex-bankers and politicians excepted, of course), the creative force behind Adaptation and the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is confronting an uncertain future.

"I've been able to do the things I want to do, pretty much, and I don't know now," he says gloomily. "Just based on what's happening in the independent world, and what's happening in the economy, I think it's going to be trickier."

Kaufman knows that his experience to date has been extraordinary. Instead of churning out easy-to-market sequels, prequels or riffs on the last big thing, he has built his reputation on works that are so singular, they have actually given rise to an adjective: Kaufmanesque. To the writer's amusement, a commentator even used it recently to describe his ambitious directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.

"That's kind of amazing. I mean it's actually Kaufmanesque to describe it as Kaufmanesque." Then again, he once saw a news report where a shipwreck was referred to as a "real-life Titanic". "I swear to God!" he says, laughing.

Suggesting that Kaufman has become his own genre causes the writer's mood to darken. "I don't write genre stuff in any form," he says irritably. "I'm not interested in it. I always try to do the opposite of that."

His screenplays eschew the classic three-act structure slavishly adhered to by many of his peers – he once declared: "I don't know what the hell a third act is". "I have something I'm interested in and then I decide I'm going to explore it," he says. "I don't know where the characters are going to go or what the screenplay's going to do. For me, that's the way to keep it alive and make it interesting and worthwhile."

It is easy to see why he slyly sent up Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Adaptation. Kaufman's approach is organic, not rule-bound; his narratives often take sudden and unexpected turns. "Realistic and naturalistic are not the same thing," he says. "And I think it's interesting to play with surrealism or dream logic and try to create a poem, a metaphor, something that conveys a feeling or makes something happen in your gut that you don't necessarily intellectually understand."

No wonder he was disappointed by George Clooney's conventional direction of his script for Confessions of A Dangerous Mind. Kaufman had enjoyed close collaborative relationships with the directors Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine) but Clooney, stepping behind the camera for the first time, did not want him around. "I wasn't really involved. So I feel disconnected from that ... product," he says, sneeringly.

This is a strong statement from someone who insists that everything he does is "really personal". "I always try to bare my soul in the ways that I can," he says – making me wonder if he would, or even could, do something just for the money. "If I need to make a living I'll make a living," he says. "I have a child, so I will do what I need to do. But, I don't know, it's an interesting question. I think for as long as I can I will try to do things I believe in. And I guess if I can't, I will have to try and figure out another way to make a living. So it's either answering telephones," he groans, recalling the last job he had before moving to Los Angeles to try breaking into films, "or writing a script that is not necessarily in my heart."

One senses how painful this would be for a man whose goal in writing Synecdoche, New York was to "express who I am, or as close as I can who I am, in the hope that there will be some response from the world. That there will be some sense of community, of someone watching this movie and feeling a human connection."

The film is so naked and revealing, in fact, that it is like watching someone being pinned to a dissecting table and having his guts pulled out for examination. In it, a hypochondriac theatre director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), experiencing a mid-life crisis, attempts to understand himself and his world, and, indeed, the meaning (and perhaps meaninglessness) of life itself, by recreating his experiences as a theatrical happening in a disused warehouse in New York. Life through Cotard's eyes effectively becomes something that we struggle through while we're waiting to die – and that is gone in the blink of an eye.

Not surprisingly, Kaufman lists Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco among the writers that have been important to him, although he refuses to be pigeon-holed as an existentialist, or any other kind of "ist", come to that. "I don't subscribe to anything. I sit there and I try to think about what seems honest to me."

He says Woody Allen and Monty Python were also very important to him growing up, as was "anything that took you out of what the convention is of being alive, of being a person, of the things that are just accepted. I think comedy, for me, when it's good, does that. It says, 'wait a minute, why are we doing this?' I think that's what I like about the absurdists, and it was just eye-opening to me, as a kid, to see that stuff."

Synecdoche, New York contains laughs but overall it's downbeat, sad, and thought-provoking. The opposite of a feel-good movie, it seeks out the truth in subjects often idealised by Hollywood. Take romantic love, for example: Cotard's wife (Catherine Keener) tells her husband at one point that it is only a projection, and because of that relationships are always disappointing.

For Kaufman, this is reality stripped of illusion. He is not so cynical as to completely dismiss the idea of being in love, he says, because "it's potent and powerful and it serves some sort of incredible purpose in our psyches. But then what do you do with it? And how do you make it a real thing?"

He accuses "movies and entertainment" of exacerbating feelings of alienation, unhappiness and failure by "lying".

"I think that people have expectations of themselves and other people that are based on these fictions that are presented to them as the way human life and relationships could be, in some sort of weird, ideal world, but they never are. So you're constantly being shown this garbage and you can't get there."

If this all makes Synecdoche, New York sound like your idea of a horror movie, then you are not far off. Sony's Amy Pascal was intrigued to know what a horror film made by Kaufman and Jonze would look like, so the pair went off and talked about what they found scary. Instead of knife-wielding maniacs and rampaging monsters, they realised that what really frightened them were issues of mortality, illness, bereavement, grief, relationship struggles and loneliness – the stuff we all have to deal with at some point in our life. "We're the animal that knows it's going to die," says Kaufman. "That's our speciality."

Jonze was slated to direct but when he asked for the project to be postponed while he filmed an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Kaufman stepped in. "I was being a little pushy," he admits. "If Spike wasn't going to direct this, I didn't care if I didn't have any experience, I wanted it. I didn't want to wait. And the idea of another director taking this away from me would have been terrible."

His efforts were unveiled to baffled fascination at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Some critics, desperate to understand what they had just seen, drew comparisons with Federico Fellini's 8, though I was reminded more of Laurence Sterne's death-shadowed, proto-modernist novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, whose protagonist is constantly playing catch-up with his own life as he tries to put it on the page.

Kaufman says the book was actually recommended to him years ago by the director Steven Soderbergh, but he found it impenetrable. "I've read everything about it and know exactly what it is, but I can't get into it," he says. "I mean it sounds amazing – as long as you don't have to actually read it."

There will, undoubtedly, be some who say the same about watching Synecdoche, New York. A dense and demanding work, bursting with imagination, compassion and despairing insights into the human condition, the film looks set for cult status, but it is probably too strange and difficult to be broadly embraced. Even Kaufman says he never expected the film to be a big commercial hit. But then his primary aim was something different. As EM Forster famously put it: "Only connect".

• Synecdoche, New York is released on 15 May.

Being Charlie Kaufman

Being John Malkovich (1999)

An instant critical and commercial smash, Kaufman's debut film was widely praised for its originality upon its release. Spike Jonze directs an all-star cast, with John Cusack playing an unsuccessful puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of Hollywood actor John Malkovich in a run-down office building. Cusack and co-worker Catherine Keener immediately set out to exploit this discovery by offering access to the portal for $200 a time. Nominated for three Academy Awards, Being John Malkovich is still held in high regard a decade after its release, with Empire magazine ranking it 441st in its "500 greatest movies of all time" list.

Human Nature (2001)

Teaming up with director Michel Gondry, Kaufman's second film tells the story of Puff, a man born and raised in the wild (played by a suitably scruffy looking Rhys Ifans) and Nathan, an obsessive scientist intent on teaching Puff the ways of the civilised world. Based largely on the Kafka short story "A Report to An Academy", Human Nature was not as positively received as Being John Malkovich, but has none the less become something of a cult film amongst fans of Kaufman.

Adaptation (2002)

With Spike Jonze back in the director's chair, Adaptation furthered Kaufman's reputation for marrying fact with outrageous fiction. Starring Nicolas Cage as a fictionalised version of Kaufman, the self-referential film details the trials and tribulations of adapting a book to the big screen. It's a subject that Kaufman knows well; Adaptation had been in development since 1994.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Based on the memoirs of popular 1970s American game show host Chuck Barris, who claimed that he had worked as a CIA assassin. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was notable for marking the directorial debut of George Clooney, who drastically altered Kaufman's script without consulting him. Despite generating some respectable reviews, the film was a box office flop.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Written with director Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, this won an Oscar for best original screenplay. An unusually straight faced Jim Carrey plays Joel, who enlists the help of a doctor to erase memories of a failed relationship from his brain. Described as "The Awful Truth turned inside-out by Philip K Dick", the film was a huge critical and commercial success, and won Kaufman the prestigious PEN award for best screenplay.