"I think that film is, in a way, a dead medium. In that with theater you've got accidents that can happen, you've got performances that change, but this is a recording. And so what I try to sort of do is infuse my screenplays with enough information so that upon repeated viewings, you can have a different experience.
Rather than the movie going linearly to one thing and at the end it tells you what the movie is about, I try to keep it kind of like a conversation with the audience. With each individual member of the audience, hopefully...
I have this averse reaction to Hollywood romances. They've been very damaging to me growing up, I feel, in that I had these expectations in the world of what my life was going to be like, and what my romantic life was going to be like. And as I got older and I realized my life wasn't like that, it became kind of depressing. And then I thought, real life is more interesting and maybe I should try to explore that and not put more damaging stuff into the world.
And so I'm always sort of trying to think, What is true? -- I mean true to me, which is all I know -- and then try to sort of reject the ideas which come from other movies. Which is a very hard thing to do because you often don't know that your ideas of a scene or a relationship come from movies, not from your real life."
Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. Fresh off of a successful production of Death of a Salesman, he has traded in the suburban blue-hairs and regional theater of Schenectady for the cultured audiences and bright footlights of Broadway. Armed with a MacArthur grant and determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can put his whole self, he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan's theater district. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a small mockup of the city outside. As the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden's own life veers wildly off the tracks. The shadow of his ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a celebrated painter who left him years ago for Germany's art scene, sneers at him from every corner. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele's friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He's helplessly driving his marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) into the ground. Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), the actor Caden has hired to play himself within the play, is a bit too perfect for the part, and is making it difficult for Caden to revive his relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. His is second daughter, Ariel, is retarded. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. As the years rapidly pass, Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece. Populating the cast and crew with doppelgangers, he steadily blurs the line between the world of the play and that of his own deteriorating reality.