From Script to Screen: Synecdoche New York

Charlie Kaufman is a name that every screenwriter or aspiring one should know about. Not only is his work fascinating and honestly enviable to any writer, any piece of his work offers a great object of study. Synecdoche, New York is one of the few feature films that he has directed along with writing it. The story's premise came about when Sony asked Kaufman and long time collaborator Spike Jonze to work on a horror movie. Instead of doing a traditional slash and awe film, they worked together came up with an idea about doing a story that dealt with real life problems like illness and the various absurdities of the human existence. In the end, the story became a tale of failure and the inevitability of suffering. Of course, this kind of premise can lead to plethora of genuinely emotional scenes which are further enhanced by Kaufman's unique touch. One such scene is the death of his daughter and one of the biggest notes to take away from it is the combination of sadness and absurdity. 

FROM SCRIPT: How It Reads

INT. NYC HOSPITAL ROOM – 2041 – DAY

Maria leads Caden into the room. Olive, 40, lies in bed,
emaciated and pale. Maria and Olive speak only in German.

MARIA

Hello, darling.

OLIVE

Hi.

MARIA

This is him.

OLIVE

Hello.

CADEN

Hi, Olive.
I've missed you so much.

OLIVE

Maria, would you leave us?

Maria kisses Olive again on the forehead.

MARIA

In heaven, my darling.

Maria exits.

OLIVE

(broken English)

Forgive me but no longer remember
English. Speak German?

CADEN

No.

I'm sorry.

OLIVE

I had hope you have learned.

Weakly, Olive points to a headset on her night table. She pantomimes putting it on. Caden puts it on. Olive puts on her own. There follows a slightly delayed and staticky translation, in an accented male voice, of everything Olive says, with a delay between what Caden says and Olive's response, as she listens in translation.

OLIVE (CONT'D)

I'm dying, as I'm sure Maria told
you. The flower tattoos have
become infected and they're dying.
So I am, as well. This is life.
Olive pulls down her hospital gown a bit to show Caden the
now sickly and decayed flower tattoos.

CADEN

It's Maria. She did this.

OLIVE

Maria gave me reason to live once
you left. The flowers defined me.

CADEN

Your mother and Maria took you
away. I tried for years to find
you. I didn't leave you.

OLIVE

You did something.

Caden is affected by this. It resonates.

OLIVE (CONT'D)

I want to talk to you about your
homosexuality.

CADEN

What?
I'm not a homosexual!

OLIVE

Maria said you would deny it.

CADEN

She's lying to you.

OLIVE

I had the same struggle when I
first fell in love with Maria and
we began to have dirty, aching sex.

CADEN

Maria is your lover?

OLIVE

Of course. She introduced me to
myself. To my vagina and to hers.

CADEN

You have no idea how evil she is.

OLIVE

I need to forgive you before I die,
but I can't forgive someone who has
not asked for forgiveness.

CADEN

I —

OLIVE

I have no time! I need you to ask
for forgiveness!

CADEN

(long pause)
Can you ever forgive me?

OLIVE

For what?

CADEN

For abandoning you.

OLIVE

"For abandoning you to have anal
sex with my homosexual lover Eric."

CADEN

For abandoning you to be have anal
sex with my homosexual lover Eric.

OLIVE

(long hesitation)
No. No, I'm sorry, I cannot.

Olive dies. Dead flower petals slip from her hospital gown. Caden sits there. Maria hurries rushes to Olive's side.

MARIA

I hope you're happy, faggot.
Caden gets up and leaves.

 

THE SCENE: How It Looks 

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Truthfully, there is not much difference with the transition. Kaufman’s screenplays are very refined and generally do not need too much editing. Yet, even a master like Kaufman can recognize changes needed for his work to flow on screen. The first noticeable distinction between the two mediums is the use of humor. While the film and screenplay are both humorous, there is a stark contrast in intensity. The screenplay embraces the absurdity and has laughable dialogue. Both of the characters of Olive and Caden seem more animated in the script but are much more subdued in the film. The humor is as dark as it is absurd and the screenplay is very flagrant about it. In the beginning of the scene in the screenplay, Olive asks if Caden spoke German and she mildly chastises him when he states that he never learned. In the film, this part of the dialogue is omitted and instead a look of disappointment by Olive takes its place.

The other major difference is the omission of the Maria character from the scene in the film. In the screenplay, Maria has a lot more prominence and in this scene has the introducing and ending line. She offers further bereavement for Caden. She constantly calls him “faggot” to a comedic level and this action ties into the fact that the daughter has misconceptions of him. The film removes this character because she really does not add anything more to the scene. Caden is already suffering and having her there to berate him would only undercut the tone of the scene by adding humor.

There are many reasons for a director to change certain details in a script but the most important one is consistency. Consistency is what creates a narrative structure and enables the audience to connect to the story. Kaufman's screenplay and film are both surreal and comedic but there needed to be a change in tone. A filmmaker needs to recognize this circumstance and adjust to it. The film's premise is a series of failures and while funny at times, overall it is quite dark. With so many scenes of pain and by having the main character suffer through intense melancholia, there is a lot for the viewer to handle. The change in dialogue and the omission of the Maria character was needed otherwise the movie would have felt unbearable.