Ebert makes special point of presenting thumb-up to director of 'Synecdoche'
CHAMPAIGN – Calling Charlie Kaufman the most creative screenwriter of his generation, Roger Ebert made the unusual move on Friday night of coming onto the Virginia Theatre stage to introduce him and hand him his "Golden Thumb" award.
Ebert said he wanted to present the casting of his famed thumb-up to Kaufman because the critic considers his "Synecdoche, New York" the best movie of the decade.
Kaufman thanked Ebert for his review of the 2008 movie, which was panned by some critics – Rex Reed called it a "bucket of swill" – and was a box office failure.
"(Ebert's) is a very compassionate voice, which I think is kind of lacking, not entirely, right now," Kaufman said before his movie was screened to a full 1,500-seat theater on the third day of Roger Ebert's Film Festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
The movie starring Academy Award-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sad-sack theater director drew the longest line of the five-day festival – 150 people. They all got seats because some festival pass-holders don't show.
Ebert said when "Synecdoche" played at the Toronto Film Festival, some viewers left the theater asking what it was all about.
"I know it was about life itself, and I know I wanted to see it again and again," he said.
Ebert said on first viewing the movie appears very complex "and one that needs a lot of figuring out."
"To be simple, the film is perfectly logical if you ask yourself how you organize your own life," he said, adding that perhaps viewers have to approach it on their own terms, something Kaufman echoed after the screening.
"Like many good films," Ebert said, "it will become a masterpiece without going through the earlier stage of success."
Kaufman, who also wrote the critically acclaimed movies "Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature," "Adaptation," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" – the most popular movie in Turkey, Ebert was told – said he didn't want to explain or dissect "Synecdoche."
"I'm done with it," he said of the first film he directed. "It's for people to react to, and if I went into what I thought, you wouldn't have your own experience with it.
"It works or doesn't work, based on your reaction to it. I'm not traveling around to explain it. It's irrelevant."
Kaufman also downplayed the auteur theory that a director's films reflect his or her personal vision. Kaufman called movie-making a collaborative process.
"It's ridiculous for anyone to take credit for it," he said.
Critic Kim Morgan, among those on stage with Kaufman after the screening, told him she saw "Synecdoche" influences from the Spanish director Luis Bunuel, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Russian author Fyodor Dostovesky.
Kaufman, who said he has read widely, maintained that if they did influence him, he was not conscious of it when making "Synecdoche."
"I think about issues, ideas come to me and they feel right or wrong," he said. "It's not an intellectual exercise for me. "
And while Kaufman said he's learned a lot from directors like Spike Jonze, who directed "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," he has to direct in his own way, as he did with "Synecdoche."
With it, Kaufman said he wanted to make a movie about things that are scary to human beings and not a conventional horror movie.
In "Synecdoche," Hoffman's character, Caden Cotard, suffers various maladies; he often asks his physicians if he will die.
He never recovers from getting deserted by his wife, Adele Lack, a successful artist portrayed by Catherine Keener, who moves to Berlin with their daughter, Olive.
Though Cotard eventually has another daughter by an actress with whom he works, he refers to Olive as his "real daughter."
"I think things that are really scary are not popular," Kaufman said, adding that conventional horror movies are "more like a ride."
In "Synecdoche," he explored issues everyone can relate to: loneliness, mortality, illness, rejection, he said.
"Seems like it would be a real crowd-pleaser. I was wrong. I learned a lot."
Kaufman also said he "intended there not to be a lot of safety in this movie."
"There's no landing place or place to get your bearings," he added.
Indeed, after Adele leaves Caden, the movie becomes more surrealistic. Time is loose: Caden says his wife left him a week earlier while a woman who is interested in him points out it was a year.
And after he wins a MacArthur "genius" grant, Caden embarks on an epic theater production in a monster warehouse in New York City. The space is increasingly divided into sets on multiple floors, where the doppelgangers of Caden and other principles play out scenes from his life.
Producer Anthony Bregman, on stage after the screening, said "Synecdoche" came together "at the very last time a movie like this could come together."
"The kind of financing and mechanism to get complex or big movies like this out in the world doesn't exist right now," the producer said. "It's not a cheap movie. It's not a typical movie."
The budget was $20 million, considered middling in the industry today. Producers figure they will be able to offset a certain amount of such budgets with international sales, Bregman said, noting that Kaufman has an international audience, as does Hoffman, to a different degree.
Kaufman called the box-office performance of "Synecdoche" the "death knell" for movies of its ilk.
However, frequent Ebertfest guest Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed the film, said he believes it will have a "very, very long life."
In that regard, he compared it to "Run Lola Run," "Spider" and "Orlando," other challenging films that did not have box-office success but do well in rentals. Barker referred to "Synecdoche" as an "evergreen."
"I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't think a movies like this stands the test of time," Barker said.
However, Kaufman said he doesn't think films like his will happen again. Barker agreed, saying movies in the middle of the budget range are impossible now to greenlight because of the attrition of the DVD marketplace and the global economic crisis.
Critic Nell Minow said what makes DVD sales work is the extras such as director commentaries and short features on the production.
Kaufman called director voice overs "terrible" and said he did one once and won't do it again.
"The movie is the movie," he said. "Me talking over the movie and telling you what happened that day on the set or what went wrong is not the movie."