Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has built a career on crafting stories that use bizarre fantasy to paint over the drab, boring details of our average human existence. With the release of his new film, Anomalisa, Kaufman is back in fine form, this time utilizing stop motion animation to tell perhaps his most human tale only without one living, breathing person in it.
Kaufman’s intricate fables begin on the page where the writer has crafted such beloved films as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Adaptation but he handed the visualization of those films to filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who both met the stories with surreality and winning casts that brought their humanity to life.
Kaufman finally got to direct his own screenplay with 2008’s Synecdoche, NY and has returned to directing with Anomalisa, this time collaborating on the duties with Duke Johnson, the fresh mind behind the animated Moral Orel series, the popular darkly comic claymation hit on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line-up.
Their brilliant collaboration tells the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) a customer service expert visiting Cincinnati to deliver a much anticipated address to adoring fans. Michael is clearly ready to finish his travels and return home, although marriage woes apparent in phone calls aren’t drawing him any closer, while the banalities of existence are starting to take their toll on his psyche. And if it appears like everyone in Michael’s life sounds the same, that’s because they do, actor Tom Noonan gets multiple-duty as the voice of every other character in the film save for one notable one, brought to life by the sweet sounds of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose character sets forward a wave of Kaufman-esque changes for Michael that are best left to see for yourself.
The path to the big screen for Anomalisa actually started a decade ago under composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of a New Ear, which brought together two separate works by Kaufman and famed filmmaker duo the Coen brothers which featured performances in a radio play style complete with music, foley and vocals being performed live in front of audiences in London, New York and Los Angeles. When scheduling conflicts knocked out the Coen brothers from their final show in L.A., Kaufman stepped up and wrote a second piece, Anomalisa, which was voiced then as it is now by Thewlis, Noonan and Leigh.
The play garnered many fans including the owners of Starburns Industries, known for their productions of cult animated television shows Moral Orel and Rick And Morty, who convinced Kaufman to adapt it for the big screen and lead a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the project in 2012. The successful funding was the final piece in preproduction and Kaufman and Johnson jumped into the process of animating the story which consisted of the daunting task of bringing the hum drum touches of reality to life – the sameness of hotel living, right down to the cookie cutter furniture and layouts, the shape and movement of real bodies, the awkwardness of sex with strangers (yes, Anomalisa features one of the most real and fascinating love scenes ever) – and thanks to the ol’ Kaufman touch of surrealism, creates a human tale personified by nothing but animated puppets.
Constant Watcher talked to both directors, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, about the finer points of breathing life into the ordinary and making it extraordinary.
Constant Watcher: So, Charlie, seeing as how there’s no human beings in this film how was it taking this on as your second directorial effort?
Charlie Kaufman: Obviously the most challenging part is that I had never made this kind of movie before. There was a huge learning curve and the process is really protracted in comparison to live-action. In terms of production we shot this in two years and we shot Synecdoche in forty days. Also, you kind of have to decide, in great detail, what the movie is going to be before you shoot it because of the process and it’s so painstaking that we can’t do more than one take of an action of a shot. We pretty much have to edit the movie and figure out the shots down to the frame before we shoot it. In other movies I’ve worked on, the editing is a really big part of the creation of the film, they call editing the real second part of the writing process, which I think is accurate. Normally a lot of the stuff you figure out after, and you see what works and what doesn’t work and you move stuff around, remove stuff. We didn’t have the opportunity to do any of that, which is challenging. But I enjoyed it and I enjoyed the process of working with Duke to choreograph this and figure it out and make every decision, which is not normally my experience on live action films – you usually interact with the actors on the set, you try different things and in real time people offer suggestions – all of that happens in this process too but so much of it is required to be figured out beforehand.
Working with Duke was great for me, when we started it we didn’t know each other and Duke had a lot of experience with animation and obviously that was enormously important because I had none. I had no idea how to make a movie like this but through the process, from early on, it became a collaboration for me based on shared sensibilities, artistically and aesthetically. We consulted on every aspect of every shot, the look of the film, and we just talked about everything and it became such a harmonious relationship, and because we didn’t know each other before neither one of us knew going in whether it would be great or not. We lucked out because we both enjoyed the experience and since it took place over such a length of time it was really lucky for the both of us.
Ten years ago for Carter Burwell’s series, you had to famously put Anomalisa in at the last minute. Did you have it just lying around or did it come fresh to you?
No I had to write it. The Coen brothers actually did one play in this special evening in London and New York with their actors and my actors and musicians, but they couldn’t come to Los Angeles so before it went to LA I had to write a second play if we wanted the show to go on otherwise the evening wouldn’t have been long enough.
How long did it take you to write it?
I really don’t remember, this was 2005 and it was relatively short because we had a time limit to get something ready and I don’t remember the span between London and L.A. but this was a real quick one for me. I’ve got a lot of background doing this because I work on sitcoms and the turnaround time is really fast so you basically have a couple of weeks to write an episode once they send you out to write it, but I’ve been taking longer and longer on my screenplays over the years because I needed to and no one was waiting for them to go into production. This time there was a deadline I had to meet and so I did. I had read about this mental disorder called the Fergoli Delusion, which is a belief that everyone else in the world, other than yourself, is the same person in disguise. In creating the sound play I thought that sounded like a unique thing to bring to the story and the performance.
Duke, can you talk about how important it was to get all of the tiny mundane details of real life just right?
Duke Johnson: It was very important because Charlie and I had decided that we wanted something that felt decidedly small and intimate, yet subtle and nuanced because we felt that was something that was a little untapped in the animation world. Especially dealing with a more adult subject and a more realistic stylization and puppets. It became very important to us to focus on some of the smaller, subtle and more nuanced details of the performances.
There is an aspect to every other character’s face that also takes on a similarity, did you base the basic design of the faces of the extra characters on anyone in particular?
Yeah, ultimately we ended up basing them on real people. Michael is based on my ex-brother in law, actually. And Lisa is based off a woman that the producer Rosa Tran spotted in a bar in L.A. called Little Dom’s, and she turned out to be an actress actually. Basically what happened is that we brought them in and photographed them and then there’s a slight discrepancy between what those people looked like and what the puppets looked like because in order to bring them into our specific world we had a sculptor by the name of Carol Koch translate them from the photographs to a clay maquette. So she looked at the photo and sculpted maquettes of Michael, Lisa and the World character, that character is based off of, well, we photographed everybody working in the studio at the time and we combined their faces in Photoshop to get a generic melding of faces and Carol interpreted those into a sculpt as well.
Other than their being involved in the original soundplay what is perfect about the voices of David Thewlis, Tom Noonan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, that works for you for this production?
Charlie Kaufman: First and foremost, the reason I approached them to do this had to do with their acting skills and my love of their work, I didn’t know them beforehand. I think they all have great voices and they’re appropriate to the characters they’re playing but the strength for me and the reason behind it is that they’re really good actors and I just approached them and they said “yes”. It’s a tall order to do this kind of work, both of the soundplay and also as the animated film, but so much of their character is created by that acting ability and there’s so many different levels and colors to the performances and that’s why I cast them, and I’m just glad they said yes a second time.
Anomalisa opens this Friday, January 15 in Denver at Landmark’s Mayan Theater, 110 Broadway. Get tickets and showtimes at landmarktheaters.com.