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Charlie Kaufman On Being - And Directing
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. The movies "Being John Malkovich, " "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" were written by my guest, Charlie Kaufman. His movies often take you inside the minds of his characters. Writing about him in Wired, Jason Tanz said, in the mind of Charlie - what he said was, the mind of Charlie Kaufman may not be the happiest place on earth, but it's one of the most fascinating. Kaufman merges the existential despair of Beckett with absurdist humor of Monty Python and the intellectual playfulness of a natural-born puzzle geek.
Kaufman makes his directorial debut with the new film "Synecdoche, New York," which he also wrote. In the film, theater director Caden Cotard decides to give up on the standard repertoire and instead stage production that reflects the brutal existence of his own life. But as his own life evolves, the play keeps expanding until thousands of actors are cast, and he's created a replica of New York in a New York City warehouse.
The casting becomes a hall of mirrors, since he cast an actor to play himself, then that character has to cast an actor to play himself and so on. The director is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In this scene, he's talking about death and his vision of the play to the actors who are seated in front of him. He's a little too self-absorbed, and an actress in the front row is a little too in awe of him. She is played by Michelle Williams.
(Soundbite of movie "Synecdoche, New York")
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Caden Cotard) I've been thinking a lot about dying lately.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Claire Keen) You're going to be fine, sweetie.
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Caden Cotard) I appreciate that, Claire but...
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Claire Keen) You are, you poor thing.
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Caden Cotard) You know, regardless of how this particular thing works itself out, I will be dying and so will you and so will everyone here, and that - that's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death. Yet, here we are, for the moment, alive, each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing that we won't.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Claire Keen) That's brilliant. It's everything. It's (unintelligible) talk.
GROSS: That's a scene from Charlie Kaufman's new film, "Synecdoche, New York." Charlie Kaufman, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, you've said that you were asked to write a horror film. So you wrote a movie about the things that really terrify you. Obviously, one of them is death. What are some of the other things that really terrify you that you wanted to put in the movie?
Mr. CHARLIE KAUFMAN (Director, "Synecdoche, New York" ): Illness, the passing of time, the speeding up of the passing of time as I get older, loneliness, isolation, regret as a process of getting older. Those are - that's the kind of laundry list there.
GROSS: In conventional horror movies, at least some of the main characters are rescued, and the monster is defeated, until the sequel anyways, but nothing is going to rescue you from guilt and death and remorse and the passage of time.
Mr. KAUFMAN: That's true. That's the horror.
GROSS: Right. OK.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Exactly. So, you know, and you've said that - like sickness is one of the things that you wanted to include in your version of the horror film. And in the movie, in addition to dealing with his wife leaving him and taking their daughter with her, the main character is dealing with all kinds of physical problems - arthritis, a mysterious neurological ailment, pustules, he needs gum surgery. Do you obsess on your body's weaknesses and on pain?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I obsess over the possibility of illness. I think I'm looking for signs of it often, maybe always. You know, I'm waiting for a first symptom, and when I get a first symptom, and I don't know what it is, there's a lot of speculation that goes into it as to what it might be, and I really don't want to know what it is. And so, I often sort of hope that it will go away before I have to go to a doctor and find out what it is, and there's this kind of constant sort worry in that regard.
GROSS: One of the great things about fiction, whether it's, you know, movies or novels, is that it gets you out of your own head and lets you inhabit someone else's life, someone else's world. And then, when you return to your own head, it's maybe furnished a little bit differently by virtue of having seen things through the author's eyes or the character's eyes. In this movie, since the main character decides to do a play about the truth as he lived it, and because his play is autobiographical, he keeps getting deeper and deeper into his own life, and you kind of stop seeing anything outside of what's in his head. He gets trapped in his mind. And I'm wondering if that's a conflict for you when you're writing, that, you know, as you're trying to get into characters, you also find yourself getting trapped in your own mind.
Mr. KAUFMAN: What I try to do when I write is to reveal myself to myself and then in the work. I mean, I think that's my job, and I'm kind of not sure that anyone has anything else to say other than, this is who I am. Because that's what you know, and I write about that a lot, and I come up against that a lot when I'm writing. It's like, well, this is what I know, and I know it through me.
And I think that, you know, even when I took on something that was decidedly outside of myself, which - the example of characters of Susan Orlean and John Laroche in "The Orchid Thief," which I ended up writing into a movie called "Adaptation." It was a kind of - the issues that I came up against when I was struggling was where - I'm not Susan Orlean, and she's a real person. And now, I'm in a position to make up stuff that she said. And how can I do that? Ethically, how can I do that? But I had to do that, and I got stuck because of that.
So, what I guess I'm trying to answer or say is that I don't - being inside my head is what I have to offer you, and so that's what I do. And it isn't - to me, when I relate to a piece of fiction or a novel or something, it isn't that it makes me step outside of myself. Although sometimes, there are those kind of books. But, I mean, the things that I really relate to is when I read something that is articulate, something that I felt but haven't been able to articulate. And I find that incredibly moving. And I find an incredible sense of community in that.
And sometimes it's over centuries, which is even more exciting to me. If I read something somebody wrote 300 years ago, and it's me, you know, what I'm going through now in my head - I mean, it sends chills down my spine. And I feel like that's what I want to be able to offer, that if I offer myself, that there's a chance that somebody else will feel connected because they felt that. And even if the story is sad, you can be connected in your sadness and the sadness of being a human being.
GROSS: That's really well-put.
Mr. KAUFMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: I'd like to play a scene from "Adaptation." And for our listeners who haven't seen it, this is your movie based on a nonfiction book by Susan Orlean, and her book was about a guy who was an orchid fanatic and kind of illegally got orchids from Florida swamps. So, you're trying to adapt this nonfiction book, and you're trying to figure how to do it, and you're really stuck.
In this scene, it's after you've committed to write the screenplay, but you're having a great deal of trouble figuring out how do you adopt this book because there's no story. I mean, there's no standard narrative, and you run into one of the movie exec's who have contracted you to write it at a restaurant, and she's about to meet Susan Orlean, and she wants you to stay and meet Susan Orlean, too. But you're really afraid to meet her because you're having such a hard time here. So you kind of flee the restaurant, go into your car, where you start obsessing on the screenplay, and eventually, you start dictating notes to yourself on a recording machine. So here's the scene.
(Soundbite of movie "Adaptation")
Mr. NICOLAS CAGE: (As Charlie Kaufman) Who am I kidding? This is not Susan's Orlean's story. I have no connection with her. I can't even meet her. I can't meet anyone. I have no understanding of anything else out of my own panic and self-loathing and pathetic little existence. It's like the only thing I'm actually qualified to write about is myself and my own self.
We open on Charlie Kaufman. Fat, old, bald, repulsive, sitting in a Hollywood restaurant across from Valerie Thomas, a lovely, statuesque film executive. Kaufman, trying to get a writing assignment, wanting to impress her, sweats profusely. Fat, bald Kaufman paces furiously in his bedroom. He speaks into his hand held tape recorder, and he says, Charlie Kaufman. Fat, bald, repulsive, old, sits at a Hollywood restaurant with Valerie Thomas.
GROSS: Charlie Kaufman, that's so typical of the kind of circles that your characters end up going in because they're so self-reflective, and they're writing art based on the self-reflective nature of themselves. It's like a hall of mirrors, your work. Do you ever worry like when you're writing a scene like that, somebody will watch and think, oh, that's Charlie Kaufman. He has a low self-esteem.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAUFMAN: No. I didn't. When I wrote that, I mean, that was the first time that I've done anything that people started to think that, well, he's writing about himself because, I mean, the character after me. And I did get a lot of that afterwards, and the people do to this day always assume the lead male in anything I write is a stand-in for me, and so I get a lot of questions.
I did a Q&A last night at NYU after screening, and somebody in the audience asked me, why do I keep doing this if it's so painful for me and I don't know. I said, it's not painful for me. I like doing it. And this is what about any way. I think about these issues, so writing is something I get paid for, basically. I don't know if I'm in pain. I mean, sometimes I am. Maybe I'm a depressed guy sometimes. I don't know. I probably am. But it's sort of, at this point, it's kind of nature as my nature. But I'm not always.
But I do think that it's very hard to be yourself or at least for me. And there's sort of like this idea that you've got to sort of project this thing into the world, and there's a kind of a nice thing about trying to shed that, and then there's no concern. You are who you are. This is who I am. And so, like, for example, I often went into meetings. One of the things that the Nick Cage character says that is true is that I sweat a lot in meetings. And I was also really embarrassed about it, and then, after I did "Adaptation," I figured, well, everyone is expecting that from me. So if I sweat, it doesn't anymore. And so I could sweat without embarrassment, and you know what happened? I stopped sweating. I mean, and I thought it was really interesting. So there you go.
GROSS: That is really interesting. As it turns out, "Adaptation" was a very popular film. It was critically well-received. But as you were writing it, you didn't know that. So as you're writing this movie about your writing a movie, you had no idea how it would turn out. It's not like you were writing it at the end, and you knew the end turned out well. This wasn't all like remembered difficulty. This was actual difficulty. You were still experiencing it. So what were some of the problems about writing the process that you were going though as you were going through it?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I mean, I think I alluded to it earlier. It was sort of the issue. There were a few issues. One is, when I went into this project not knowing how to do it, which I liked. I like the idea that I really like this book. I found this book really moving, and there wasn't really any story to speak of, but I like that it was about flowers. There's something really like, how do you make a movie about flowers? And that sense is very sort of similar to the way the Nicolas Cage character is presenting his thoughts at the beginning. And then, when I got to writing it, I couldn't figure out how to do it.
And then I came upon this other issue that I mentioned, which is sort of the ethical issue of like not wanting to. There was some talk about, what if there is no romantic relationship between Susan Orlean and John Laroche in the movie or in real life? And there was talk about, that seemed like the natural place to go with the story if you're making a movie of it. But there wasn't, and I couldn't make that up. I mean, I didn't want to.
And I was very scared, and it was fairly early in my career, and I took on this job, and I thought I was going to have to give back money. In fact, I talked to my agents at times about, is it possible to give back money, and he would say it at the time, no, just don't, don't, don't. Just try to do it. And so, I did try to do it, and what I did is I put myself in the present, which is kind of an interesting thing to do. And the present was, I don't know how to write this thing. I'm really depressed. I wake up every morning. I can't bare to go to my computer. I mean, it was miserable for me, and I thought, that's who I am. But how does that fit into what the story is? And then I thought of, what if I put that in, and because there's a writer who's on a search in this movie, I'm on search to do this thing, and it started to kind of form into this sort of parallel world that appealed to me. And I didn't tell anybody who I was working for in this thing.
At the time, I was writing for Jonathan Demme's company. I didn't tell them because I thought they'd say no. And I had no other ideas, and I was expecting it to be a disaster. And at first, I think, when I turned in to Demme's company, the executive there, Jonathan Demme's partner, Ed Saxon, looked at it and was really disturbed because - I only heard this in retrospect - because he thought it had my brother's name as a written by with me. And he thought that I really had kind of farmed out part the script to somebody, and then they had hired me, and he was like, what is he doing? How could he do this? It's not our contract? But by the time I heard from them, they were liking it, and I was really surprised.
GROSS: My guest is Charlie Kaufman. He wrote and directed the new film "Synecdoche, New York." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
My guest is Charlie Kaufman. He wrote the screenplays for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Adaptation," and "Being John Malkovich." He wrote and directed the new film "Synecdoche, New York." Here's a scene from "Eternal Sunshine." Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man who decides to go through a neurological procedure that allows you to erase the memories of someone you want to forget. He wants to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine, who has already done the same with her memories of him.
Here's the neurologist played by Tom Wilkinson explaining what Joel needs to do prepare for the procedure.
(Soundbite of movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind")
Mr. TOM WILKINSON: (As Dr. Howard Mierzwiak) The first thing we need you to do, Mr. Barish, is to go home and collect everything you own that has some association with Clementine, anything. We'll use these items to create a map of Clementine in your brain, OK? So we'll need photos, clothing, gifts, books she may have bought you, CDs you might have bought together, journal entries. I want to empty your home. I want to empty your life of Clementine. And after the mapping is done, our technicians will do the erasing in your home tonight. That way, when you wake in the morning, you find yourself in your own bed as if nothing had happened. A new life awaiting you.
GROSS: I know you're very interested in dreams and how stories are told in dreams. Do you borrow images or structure from your own dreams?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I do think a lot about dreams and with "Synecdoche, New York" I very intentionally decided to try to structure it as a dream with dream logic and dream images. Not that I'm saying that the movie is a dream but I do have a lot of interest in dreams and how stories are told in dreams and I find them kind of amazingly well written. And I wonder how I'd do it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAUFMAN: Sometimes - I do, it's like I do this in something that takes me two years in my real life I can do, you know I don't know how long it's going on in my head. But, I mean, what's also really interesting to me about dreams, sometimes is that they're so structured that I keep the ending from myself until I get there. And I don't know how I do that. But the ending - you know, there's sometimes a surprise ending. And it makes sense. But I've made it up so therefore, how do I lead myself to that without telling myself what the ending is?
It's very mysterious to me, and I wake up often from dreams feeling so emotionally affected, devastated, and I can't shake it for an entire day or just full of longing, sometimes really happy and sometimes angry or hurt. So I'm interested in that, and it seems that movies, to me, are kind of an ideal place to utilize that kind of logic.
GROSS: Are there any dreams that you feel like you'd be willing to share on the radio that reveal something about how your mind works?
Mr. KAUFMAN: There's one dream that I remember that I have, and I remember it because it's recurring, and it's an elevator dream. And I realize that I use elevators. I've got elevators in, I think, three of my movies, at least three that I can think of right now. And it's always sort of the same dream. It's always getting into an elevator. The elevator is always old, and it's always ascending. And as it ascends, there's a sense that it's kind of not very well hanging, and it's that moving from side to side, and then it's going to fall. And it's rickety, and it's squeaking, and it's shaky, and it's claustrophobic. And I've had that dream for years. So there's an elevator in "Synecdoche, New York." There's an elevator in "Adaptation," and there's an elevator in "Malkovich." So I do have a thing about elevators.
GROSS: Did you grow up in an apartment building that had an elevator?
Mr. KAUFMAN: No. In fact, I grew up in houses.
GROSS: So were elevators more of like an image, more of a symbol rather than reality in your life?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I guess they must be. I think I do have a certain anxiety getting into elevators all the time. And, in fact, just briefly, once, when were scouting for "Synecdoche," it was the end of a very long day. We were already shooting, and we had to get a last minute location and had like 10 crew people with me for a tech scout late at night in this building, and they all got in the elevator, and they're all hulking guys. So it was already really claustrophobic and terrifying, and there were way too many people in this elevator. There was no room in the elevator. And I say, we shouldn't all be in the elevator at this time. And it's like, oh, we'll all be on it, and the elevator got stuck between floors in the middle of the night in a building where nobody was.
And I thought it was going to plummet, and I think everybody else did, too. It was really terrifying. And I am small guy. I am five-four and this, you know, there is a really like 800-pound guy like me - one of my producers on the movie is, I don't know, he's the tallest person I've ever seen. And then there were a whole bunch of other guys like that, electricians and stuff, and so, yeah, it was like, you couldn't breathe anyway, even for the three minutes that you thought you were going to be on the elevator. But we tried to get on the phone with the company that owned the elevator, owned the building, and then somebody pushed open the doors, and we were halfway between floors.
And I remember one of the guys jumped out onto the floor. And it's a really dangerous thing to do in elevator. You are not supposed to ever leave an elevator that's in that situation because you'd get decapitated. But I was so jealous of this guy who was out there, you know? And I just, you know, so was like everybody one by one got up their courage and jumped. And we all got out, but so, that was sort of life imitating art imitating life.
GROSS: Charlie Kaufman will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new film "Synecdoche, New York." I am Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
GROSS: Coming up, why John Malkovich? We talk with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman about writing the film "Being John Malkovich." Also, we talk with Clint Eastwood about directing the new film "Changeling" and playing Dirty Harry and Rowdy Yates. And we'll listen to him sing on the first record he ever made.
This is Fresh Air. I am Terry Gross. My guest is Charlie Kaufman. He wrote the films "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and "Human Nature." He wrote and directed the new film "Synedoche, New York."
Let's talk a little bit about "Being John Malkovich." This was like your first hit film. It's about a kind of avant-garde puppeteer played by John Cusack who finds a door that leads into John Malkovich's head. So when you go through this door, you see the world through Malkovich's eyes. And in this scene, John Cusack is explaining this door - this portal.
(Soundbite movie "Being John Malkovich")
Mr. JOHN CUSACK: (As Craig Schwartz) There's a tiny in my office, Maxine. It's a portal, and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through Malkovich's eyes, and then, after about 15 minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey turnpike.
Ms. CATHERINE KEENER: (As Maxine Lund) Sounds great. Who the (bleep) is John Malkovich?
Mr. CUSACK: (As Craig Schwartz) Oh, he's an actor. He is one of the great American actors of the 20th century.
Ms. KEENER: (As Maxine Lund) Oh, yeah. What's he been in?
Mr. CUSACK: (As Craig) Lots of things. That (unintelligible) for example. He is very well respected. Anyway, the point is, this is a very odd thing. It's supernatural, for lack of better word. I mean, it raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know? About the nature of self, about the existence of a soul, you know? And I mean, is Malkovich Malkovich? I had a piece of wood in my hand, Maxine. I don't have any more. Where is it? Did it disappear? How could that be? Is it still in Malkovich's head? I don't know. Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?
GROSS: Charlie Kaufman, maybe I'm the millionth person to ask you, of all the people in world you could've chosen to have a portal into their brains, why was it John Malkovich that you chose?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I'll try to answer it, you know, in the way I have for the millionth time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Thank you.
Mr. KAUFMAN: I think that - no, no, not at all. It's a valid question. I wanted someone who would be funny to be, but I didn't want someone who would be jokey to be. There is a kind of level of jokiness in certain celebrities that I could have chosen, and I won't name any names. But, you know, like at the time when a movie came out, there were a lot of questions like, you know, why John Malkovich? Why not Tom Cruise?
And that, to me, in the other direction, seems obvious. You know, I mean, a lot of people would probably want to be Tom Cruise. It seems less likely that people would want to be John Malkovich, just because, you know, one of them is movie star, and one of them is a character actor. And, you know, everybody wants to be movie star thing, and it's not funny. But in this world that I was writing, everybody wanted to be John Malkovich, which seemed funny to me. But it's not jokey because he's a serious actor. He is a well-respected actor. So that's one reason.
Another reason is that there's an oddness to John Malkovich. Which, you know, and there is almost kind of like an unknowability to - when you look into his eyes. I don't know how to characterize it, except that I see it. It's sort of like, you don't know exactly who is looking at you. And so, that seemed to be right for this.
And the other thing, the third thing is that, his name is really good for this. And, you know, in fact, when it came to it, and it looked like the movie, after being written several years before, it looked like the movie was going to be made, and Spike Jonze and I were not yet sure whether John would do the movie. We had to kind of put together a list of other possible people that it could be, and nobody's name worked. You know, Being Christopher Walken, it doesn't work. It's not funny, Being Willem Dafoe. I mean, I mentioned these guys because there's an oddness obviously to them, as well. So those were the reasons.
GROSS: Did you have to work hard to get Malkovich to say yes to using his name in the movie and to being in the movie?
Mr. KAUFMAN: I think that using his name and being in the movie were one in the same problem. And he'd read the script when I first wrote it, which was, you know, I think maybe two or three years before it finally got made. And so, even early on, before Spike Jonze was involved, I was called in for a meeting with Malkovich's business partner to talk to him about the script.
And I think, basically, they wanted to feel me out and find out who I was and why I did this. And, you know, at some point in the meeting, the guy asked me kind of off-handedly, well, you know, why the seven and a half floor? And, you know, I, not knowing what he meant, tried to answer that and say, you know, because I thinks it's funny to have a half floor, and people, you know, low overhead and that joke and all that of sort of stuff. And he said, well, did you know that John's apartment in New York is number seven and a half, which I didn't know. But I realized that he was feeling me out, and that they thought I was stalker. And I thought, OK...
GROSS: You're kidding! Really?
Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, I mean, that's what I took from it. It seemed very suspicious, and, of course, it is very suspicious. I mean, how did that happen? I don't know. It was a coincidence, but it's an odd coincidence. I mean, who has an apartment with that number? But I did feel like, OK, if this movie ever gets made, I'm not getting John Malkovich. And more than that, there might be a lawsuit. But, you know, when Spike came on, and he met with Malkovich, and the three of us met in New York, and he agreed to do the movie. And it was fairly simple once he was approached.
GROSS: Early in your career, you wrote for television.
Mr. KAUFMAN: I did, yes.
GROSS: And you wrote for "Get a Life," with "The Dana Carvey Show" and some other shows that most us have never heard of. How did you fit in into the TV world? Now, "Get a Life" was a Chris Elliott show, and Chris Elliott has a pretty highly developed sense of the absurd. So, I can imagine you being pretty at home there. But where did you feel most uncomfortable in the TV world?
Mr. KAUFMAN: "Get a Life" was my first job in television, and it was by far my most exciting job. I really liked that type of comedy, and I really liked the people I worked with. I couldn't get a job on the show that I wanted to. I wanted to be on something like "The Simpsons" or "Seinfeld" or "Larry Sanders," and I couldn't get on any of those shows. So I was on more kind of - sometimes very, very conventional shows that didn't - that weren't even popular. You know, they were like first season of a show that basically didn't get on the air for more than a few episodes. I did a lot of those shows. I don't know if you want me to name names. It really would be no point. No one's heard of them.
GROSS: All right. Well, provide a name - a name.
Mr. KAUFMAN: I was on "The Trouble with Larry," which was a show that I think aired three times with Bronson Pinchot after he did "Perfect Strangers." I was on a show called "Misery Loves Company" with Chris Meloni, actually, from you know...
GROSS: "Oz" and yeah.
Mr. KAUFMAN: Yeah, yeah, and Dennis Boutsikaris.
GROSS: The shows that you wrote for were mostly comedies of one sort or another. Is there a lot of pressure to write in comedy for you?
Mr. KAUFMAN: A pressure how so?
GROSS: I don't know. It always seemed difficult to me to imagine having to be kind of funny for your job, to have to - to have your job be to see the funny or ridiculous side of things because sometimes, you just don't feel that way.
Mr. KAUFMAN: Yeah. But it's also - I mean, it is, especially if it's a show with a kind of a sensibility that you enjoy, like "Get a Life," I mean, it's fun for me. It was fun for me, and it was fun - but a very nerve wracking at first, I mean, for the first six weeks. You know, that was my first job. For the first six weeks of that show, and I didn't say a word in the writer's room, and I was convinced I was going to be fired. Every day I was convinced of it because I was so shy and so scared. And when I talk, apparently, I wasn't audible. But eventually, I got assigned an episode, and I wrote it, and it was well received within the writing staff. So then I got a little more confidence, and I think, over the years, I got more confidence.
GROSS: Finally, in your new movie, "Synecdoche, New York," there's a priest, and one of the things the priest says, and this is like within the play within the movie, and the priest says, there are millions strings attached to every decision you make. And when I heard that, I thought, yeah, how true. And I am wondering, like, just thinking about that, that there are millions strings attached to every decision you make, leave you feeling that the world is filled with wonder, or does it leave you feeling totally paralyzed?
Mr. KAUFMAN: It depends on the day. It depends on my mood. It could be either. I feel like, when I can get myself kind of grounded, it makes me feel happy. And when I'm stressed out, and I'm kind of flying all over the place, literally and figuratively, it's very difficult, and it can be paralyzing for me.
GROSS: Charlie Kaufman, great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. KAUFMAN: You too. Thank you very much. This was very enjoyable.
GROSS: Charlie Kaufman wrote and directed the new film "Synecdoche, New York." Coming up, Clint Eastwood returns to Fresh Air. He directed the new film "Changeling." This is Fresh Air.
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The Many Facets Of 'Changeling' Eastwood
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Clint Eastwood, directed the new movie, "Changeling." His "Dirty Harry" films were recently collected in a box set with lots of extras. We're going to talk about his early and current work.
Let's start with a scene from the new film, "Changeling," which is based on a real incident from 1928. Angelina Jolie plays a single mother who returns home from work to find her son has disappeared. Five months later, the police tell her they found her son, but the boy they present to her isn't him.
When she protests, the police, who want to take credit for solving the case, insist that she just doesn't recognize him because he's changed in the five months he's been gone. She reluctantly agrees to take the boy home, but later returns to the police certain that this boy is not her son. Here's Angelina Jolie with Jeffrey Donovan as the police captain.
(Soundbite of movie "Changeling")
Ms. ANGELINA JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) He's not my son.
Mr. JEFFREY DONOVAN: (As Capt. J.J. Jones) Mrs. Collins.
Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) No. I don't know why he's saying that he is, but he's not Walter, and there has been a mistake.
Mr. DONOVAN: (As Capt. J.J. Jones) I thought we agreed to give him time to adjust.
Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) He's three inches shorter. I measured him on the chart.
Mr. DONOVAN: (As Capt. J.J. Jones) Well, maybe your measurements are off. Look, I am sure there is a reasonable explanation for all of this.
Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) He's circumcised, and Walter isn't.
Mr. DONOVAN: (As Capt. J.J. Jones) Mrs. Collins, your son was missing for five months, for at least part of that time in the company of an as of yet unidentified drifter. Who knows what such a disturbed individual might have done? He could have him circumcised. He could have...
Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) Made him shorter? Why aren't you listening to me?
Mr. DONOVAN: (As Capt. J.J. Jones) I am listening, damn it. I am listening. And I understand your feelings. He's changed, no mistaking. That's - you've both been through a terrible experience, and that's why he needs your love and support to bounce back.
Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) He's not my son.
GROSS: Clint Eastwood, welcome back to Fresh Air. The cops in "Changeling" are very corrupt. It's set in the late '20s and early '30s. It's the L.A.P.D. The captain apparently told his cops to shoot criminals. What was the reputation of the cops when you were growing in California because you grew up in the '30s and '40s.
Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD (Director, "Changeling"): I didn't, at that particular time in history, I didn't know too much about what was going on, but those are the actual words of the Police Chief Davis of Los Angeles at that time, as he didn't want to bring in the people dead or alive. He wanted to be brought in dead - the criminals.
But unfortunately, that gets out of control, and this - there's a slight message that, once you get into that sort of thing, you start hammering people down in every other category of government. And, of course, a woman in 1928 probably didn't have, especially a woman who is a single mother and living alone, working for the phone company, probably did not have a great deal of say so with what was going on.
GROSS: "Changeling" is told from the perspective of a woman who becomes the victim of corrupt cops. Of course, one of the series of movies that you're very famous for is "Dirty Harry," and a "Dirty Harry" box set recently came out with all the "Dirty Harry" movies and a lot of extras and documentaries. Let's just start here with a mix of some of the most famous lines from your "Dirty Harry" films.
(Soundbite of "Dirty Harry" movies)
Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking, did he fire six shots or only five? Now, to tell you the truth, I've forgotten myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, I will blow your head clean off. You've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
Go ahead make my day.
Unidentified Male: You're a killer, Harry. A maniac.
(Soundbite of running car)
Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) Man's has got to know his limitations.
GROSS: Clint Eastwood, when you read those lines for the first time, did you think, these lines will live in film history?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I thought they had potentials. The first one is a - from "Dirty Harry," the original "Dirty Harry," and when I first read the script by Harry Julian Fink, he had that little speech in there, but I also have chose to reprise it at the end, too, because I felt it was such a good line. I felt it was a good way to wrap up the movie.
GROSS: What were your first impressions when you read "Dirty Harry" the first time?
Mr. EASTWOOD: I just thought it was - actually, Paul Newman had led me onto it. He told Jennings Lang, who is an executive at Universal at that time, that there is a script that I read this exciting detective story, might be great for Clint, and, of course, when Jennings told me that, I said, well, how come Paul didn't want to do it? He says, well, he had some questions about the political ramifications of what have you, but he thinks it's an exciting story, and you might want to do it.
And I read it, and I did. I thought it was exciting detective story and wanted to do it. I don't care much about political ramifications of one way or the other, you know. You have to tell some points of view in different movies. So, why not?
GROSS: I think the political ramifications that Paul Newman would have been concerned about would include that Harry doesn't believe in Mirandizing people, I mean, because it just gets in the way. In fact...
Mr. EASTWOOD: True.
GROSS: Let's play a clip of that.
(Soundbite of movie "Dirty Harry")
Mr. JOSSEF SOMMER: (as Attorney Rothko) You're lucky I'm not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) What?
Mr. SOMMER: (As Attorney Rothko) Where the hell does it say that you've got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights.
Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights.
GROSS: You had already worked with Don Siegel on "Two Mules for Sister Sarah" and "Beguiled" before making "Dirty Harry." Did he have an interesting approach to action scenes and gun scenes? Are there things that you learned about those kinds of scenes from watching him direct?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I liked his directing style because he was kind of a no-nonsense guy, and he knew exactly what he wanted. I've worked for the director's who are like that, and I always admired them. People got right to it, and they came very prepared and kind of had a vision of what they wanted to do. I've also worked with directors along the way who were very insecure about their vision, and when that happens, that makes it very frustrating for the actors because you don't get the feeling that the production is going any place in particular.
GROSS: Harry doesn't have a lot of respect for the mayor, Dirty Harry. Was your payback for that becoming a mayor and having to oversee a bureaucracy and oversee a police department?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, it was â no, that was strictly a local deal in my community that I live, and I enjoyed that very much, but the question of whether it's payback of Dirty Harry, I can't say that because Dirty Harry is just a character. I don't really believe like that person.
In fact, it's much more fun to play a person that you don't necessarily agree with in a lot of ways, but it's a fantasy thing. It's a fantasy to say, wouldn't it be great if there was somebody like this? If I was in trouble in society or if you were, or anyone of us that was in trouble, wouldn't you like to have somebody as dogmatic as this coming out trying to work on your behalf?
GROSS: My guess is Clint Eastwood, and he directed the new movie, "Changeling." I probably told you this before, but I was such a big fan of "Rawhide" when I was a kid. I know it was probably a very frustrating experience for you, but I loved the show. One of the things you had to do is learn how to, as the theme song goes, rope, roll, and brand them because it was all about, you know, a cattle driving herd. So, did you have to learn how to, you know, rope, roll, and brand steer?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I did it periodically, most of the time it was done by trickery, and maybe you'd come in and catch a new steer, and it cut to some other thing and come back, and the steer was already branded or something. But it was great fun, that series was a great fun at that time. After I had done about three years of it, I thought maybe, wouldn't it be nice to go on and do something else, but I just sort of said it in my mind that this was a great experience. I have no regrets. It was great learning ground.
GROSS: Because you became a star on "Rawhide," you did what a lot of stars at that time did. You made some pop recording. And I thought we could talk about the first recording that you ever made, and I believe that was "Unknown Girl"?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, I think I did something like that. In those days, they would take actors who were on a series, and they would figure, well, it's a head start. At least their face is familiar. Their character is familiar, and maybe they could get a record going for them. I recorded a few times, but I can't say that anything was earth shattering about it.
GROSS: Let's hear the first recording that you made, and this was a single called "Unknown Girl" in 1961, and here is how it sounded. This isn't the best recording of it, but it's the only one we have.
(Soundbite of song "Unknown Girl")
Mr. EASTWOOD: (Singing) I would travel far and wide.
Just to have you by my side.
Unknown girl of my dreams take your hand...
GROSS: That's Clint Eastwood recorded in 1961. One of the things I find so interesting about that is, you know, here you are, this guy who like loves Fats Waller and then decides, no love also, love Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. And here you are, making this, you know, kind of very generically produced pop recording.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Thank you for not playing the whole record.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You're welcome, you're welcome.
Mr. EASTWOOD: I have to give you a lot of points on that one. But, yeah, well, you know, you're just - that's what music was all about in the '60s. Everything was starting to get into the rock and roll era, and it wasn't complicated. But to have to listen - you think looking at yourself at the screen is tough. That is really tough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: There's nothing wrong with your voice. It's the arrangement that's so generic sounding.
Mr. EASTWOOD: I know, the arrangements are really corny.
GROSS: My guest is Clint Eastwood. He directed the new movie, "Changeling." His "Dirty Harry" films are recently collected in a DVD box set. This is Fresh Air.
My guest is Clint Eastwood, and his new movie, which he directed, is called "Changeling." In your films, the "Dirty Harry" films, the westerns, you've had to give and take a lot physical abuse. What did you have to learn to do in order to take physical abuse within your roles?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, you get nicks and scrapes and bruises and things like that from whenever you do stunts, but you kind of live with it because you're into the roles. And, in fact, I always wanted to do all the stunts and stuff when I was a young man doing those things because it was all part of the character. But then, as you get older and wiser, you decide, well, maybe we shouldn't jeopardize the production by putting yourself at risk and putting the whole production at risk by not having a stunt double.
GROSS: What's the least wise stunt that you did in your career?
Mr. EASTWOOD: I remember having to be on the hood of a car. The scene is, he's going to roll off the car just before a car piles into the bay. Well, they had me wired onto the car so I wouldn't roll off and get hurt on the way, so they had a cable drilled through the hood. And so I was wired on the car when, all of a sudden, when you get wired on there with this cable, and you think, what happens if somebody, you know, they don't stop in time, and you go right into the bay? I'm stuck wired on there. I can't even float to the surface. So it was, you know, a couple of things like that because you get little bit of a reticent. But, in the meantime, I've had quite a few jumping through windows and jumping off roofs, some things like that.
GROSS: Let's look ahead a little bit. You have another film coming up very soon called "Gran Torino," that, from what I've read, is about a Korean War veteran who returns home and has some very racist, like anti-Asian feelings, maybe as a result of - you made the film. You can tell me, instead of me telling you, what it's about.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, he - no he has - he's not just anti, he's not anti-Asian. He's anti everything. He's a guy who is in the Korean War. It's present day, a guy who was in the Korean war, but then, after that, he went to work in a Ford factory for over 50 years. And he's now an older guy, and he lives by himself, and his neighborhood has changed, and the world was changing around him, and he's having a rough time communicating with his own family. And it's sort of how he befriends these Asian people who he at first doesn't like just for the principle of it. The neighbor has changed a lot, but then he forms a relationship with these people. And the story goes on from there.
GROSS: And finally, it seems to me like you're not thinking about retiring or anything. You got two films coming out this season.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah. I often wonder why that's happening, but it's just a matter of - it seems like, in the last five years, as soon as I'd be finishing one, I'd come across something else that I liked. When I was doing "Mystic River," somebody, Al Redding, gave me "Million Dollar Baby," and I said, yeah, I'll do that. So I just went ahead and prepared that and did that right afterwards.
And then, while I was preparing "Flags of Our Fathers," we got the idea of doing the Japanese version, "The Letters from Iwa Jima." Then this one was the same way. I've kind of - I was doing "Changeling," working on the editing, and this little film "Gran Torino" came along, and I liked the story. I figured, well, I might as well do it.
GROSS: Well, Clint Eastwood, thank you so much for talking with us. A pleasure to talk with you.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Terry, good talking to you again.
GROSS: Clint Eastwood directed the new film "Changeling." His "Dirty Harry" films are now collected on a DVD box set. You can download podcast of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
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