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Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson discuss ‘Anomalisa’

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews


Tomorrow will see the wider UK release of Anomalisa, one of the past year’s most anticipated animated features following its near-universal Stateside acclaim. The film, which Skwigly reviewed last week, is penned by Charlie Kaufman, a man whose scripts are far from mainstream affairs, though in the right hands have proved consistently popular with cinephiles thirsty for true inventiveness and unpredictability. The Spike Jonze-directed Being John Malkovich (1999) and its seemingly autobiographical successor Adaptation (2002) both proved a strong writer/director combo, as did Michel Gondry’s visually ingenious approach to tragicomic love-story-in-reverse Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. It was Kaufman’s 2008 feature Synecdoche, New York, in which arts fellowship recipient Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) drifts through an impossibly elaborate, possibly purgatorial final chapter of existence, that saw the writer take on directorial duties for the first time. For Anomalisa Kaufman again finds himself in the director’s chair alongside animation TV ace Duke Johnson of Starburns Industries. The film, much like the titular Lisa, is a refreshing anomaly in a sea of animated features with such near-identical plot structures and character dynamics that I, much like protagonist Michael Stone and his inability to discern individuality in those who surround him, have struggled to maintain enthusiasm for of late (regular readers and podcast listeners will no doubt have picked up that I’ll have far more to say on the works of Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, Don Hertzfeldt et al than pretty much any major studio production).

Meeting with the directors in a Soho hotel far cheerier than Anomalisa‘s primary setting The Fregoli, I’m told by Kaufman that the period following Synecdoche, New York was “a very difficult time” that involved numerous projects, including a TV pilot for FX, not taking flight. Ultimately the road to his first animated feature would draw on a project he had taken on during a break in writing Synecdoche, when composer Carter Burwell approached him to be involved in Theater of the New Ear, a series of productions where actors and musicians performed without staging or sets.

Anomalisa was originally a play, what we call a ‘sound play’.” Kaufman explains, “The actors were onstage reading scripts, we had a foley artist onstage and we had Carter Burwell conducting his music onstage. The idea was that the imagery would be created in the minds of the audience members.”

The show, along with the Coen Brothers’ contribution Sawbones and Hope Leaves the Theater (also by Kaufman) was performed in 2005 at Royce Hall in Los Angeles, featuring a minimal three-person cast of David Thewlis as beleaguered Michael Stone, a motivational business speaker suffering a personal crisis, Tom Noonan as everybody he encounters including members of his family, all of whom having blended together from Stone’s perspective, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh as Lisa, the one person who Stone acknowledges as unique and interesting, to his unexpected delight.

While this is far from Kaufman’s first time at bat, Anomalisa is the feature film debut of co-director Duke Johnson, who originally studied live-action filmmaking at NYU before working as a waiter in the city, where he would meet producer and writer Dino Stamotopoulis.

“I went off to LA to go to grad school and then I invited Dino to my thesis film premiere.” Johnson recalls, “He was doing a show on Adult Swim at the time called Moral Orel and he offered to let me direct an episode if it got another season. So I never really actively thought about pursuing animation but this was an opportunity to direct something, so I ended up hanging around the studio for a year, learning the craft and falling in love with it.”

Johnson’s experience directing for Moral Orel, a stop-motion series, saw him and Stamatopoulos develop a creative affinity with one another. Further projects with Starburns Industries would include directing twelve episodes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole (also for Adult Swim), an Emmy-winning animated episode of US sitcom Community, a Moral Orel special as well as commercials and music videos. In the midst of this, Stamatopoulos had seen Kaufman’s ‘sound play’ incarnation of Anomalisa and, intrigued by its possibilities, had requested a copy of the script.

“We were looking for something to produce next, and Dino mentioned it as a possibility: ‘Maybe we could ask Charlie if we could do this as a movie?’ I was excited about that and we thought it was a great idea. So Dino met with Charlie.

“Obviously it doesn’t exist until there’s money for it. So we went off on our own and sought financing. We tried some traditional means of seeking money and it wasn’t working out, so we tried Kickstarter. Once it became clear that the Kickstarter was going to be a success – because you know right away if you have like a third of it within the first 48 hours, then statistically it’s going to be successful – then Charlie and I started talking ‘Okay, it looks like this is going to happen now, what does that mean?’”

Above: The original Kickstarter pitch video for Anomalisa

While other streams of funding were necessary further down the road, ultimately what this approach guaranteed was a project unfettered by the types of outsider meddling more traditionally-produced feature films are so frequently plagued by.

“We didn’t go too far with it,” Says Johnson, “We met with a couple of companies who were trying to find ways to monetize it – ‘maybe it could be episodic?’, ‘could this be the first part of a series?’ – things like that. It became clear to us that the script didn’t need development…”

“Interference.” Kaufman knowingly offers by way of synonym.

“Yeah, executives giving their opinion on anything.” Johnson concurs, “We were just inspired to find a way to do it on our own, basically.”

In spite of the fact that Kaufman’s films are frequently uncompromising and far from mainstream, including Adaptation‘s metaphysical nod to the rigours of scriptwriting in and of itself, the director acknowledges his good fortune to have largely sidestepped this type of unwanted intervention: “I’ve had the bad experience of not being able to get things made, which is kind of like interference, in a way. For me I’ve been fairly fortunate in dealing with people who have let me be. Not completely, but mostly.”

“For me it was like working in television.” Adds Johnson, “It’s great but it’s its own thing. When you’re working within a system with schedules and budgets, standards and practices, you can’t say and do everything you want to do, there are all these limitations. I was just personally excited about making something on our own.”

Director & Producer Duke Johnson on the set of the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Director & Producer Duke Johnson on the set of the animated stop-motion film Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures)

When contemplating the general public’s somewhat stifled attitude to animation as a filmmaking medium, it’s certainly hard to imagine that Anomalisa would have remained as intact in its final form if produced under other circumstances. As it stands, audiences are privileged to see the story told at Kaufman’s pace, with as much fidelity to its original incarnation as possible, retaining composer Carter Burwell and, crucially, the voice performances of Tom Noonan, Davd Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh reprising their respective roles.

“I wanted to use them again because we had a very good experience. They were part of the production for me, as far as I was concerned.” Affirms Kaufman. Though boasting the same character dynamics and overall intent of the piece, the adaptation to an animated feature has allowed for a number of extra layers that further elaborate on Michael Stone’s fractured psyche, the production process itself expertly interwoven into the events as they play out. “When you’re making something, you try to make it specific to the form in which you’re making it. So when it was a radio play, that’s why it’s voices and that’s why there was an ambiguity to the dialogue; I thought it was interesting, since there was no visual, to have the opportunity for audience members to interpret things differently. When it became a film then you kind of repurpose it to think about what is it visually and what it is to animate, how do you utilize the form to effect?”

Predominantly it’s the carrying over of the stage show’s theme of all people sharing the same voice into the movie that is best complemented by the animation process, with everyone Michael Stone encounters (save for Lisa) sharing the same facial features thanks to the ease of replication 3D printing affords. The condition that Stone finds himself in is analogous to the symptoms of Fregoli delusion, in which sufferers become convinced that many people are, in fact, one and the same. The film’s setting of The Fregoli hotel is a wry nod to this, though Kaufman insists Michael Stone doesn’t suffer from the condition in any literal sense.

“It was sort of the genesis of the idea. When I’d read about it I was looking for a way to use three actors and have one of them play a lot of parts, because I had a limited budget and didn’t have much time. So I’d read about [Fregoli delusion] and thought it was interesting to have a character suffer from a metaphorical version of it. The name of the hotel in the play is The Millennium, which is an actual hotel in Cincinnati. They wouldn’t allow us to use their name in the movie so we decided to call it The Fregoli, just as an inside joke.”

The aforementioned repurposing is not limited to the elaborate and considered puppet animation and their ability to carry across the film’s visual metaphors; the environments in particular are used to great effect, most notably the primary hotel setting that does such an outstanding job of conveying Stone’s loneliness and ennui. As Johnson elaborates, the overall effect is the result of multiple considerations: “It wasn’t just the set design, but also the camera, the depth of field, where the camera is in the room, trying to articulate his emotional experience in this room where he’s isolated or alone. The room feels different when he’s in there alone vs. when he’s in there with Lisa.”

Director & Producer Duke Johnson on the set of the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Director & Producer Duke Johnson on the set of the animated stop-motion film Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures)

The role of the hotel as both setting and, on occasion, character in cinema is certainly well established, and the atmosphere Anomalisa cultivates is easily on par with some of the greats.

“I love Barton Fink.” Kaufman says in acknowledgement of the Coen Brothers’ 1991 masterwork that, while worlds apart in terms of overall story, similarly deals with the personal tribulations of a lonely ruminator, bound to an increasingly foreboding hotel room, “I haven’t seen all of their movies but I think it’s an amazing movie. I don’t know if there’s a literal connection or not…”

“Certainly when you’re making a movie that takes place in a hotel you think of other movies that take place in hotels,” adds Johnson, “so we talked about Barton Fink, we talked about The Shining, things like that, but we didn’t…”

“We weren’t cribbing.” Kaufman mumbles with a chuckle.

“Yeah, but certainly those influence were in our minds.”

Perhaps what has made the film stand out so much in the pantheon of stop-motion features is its true visual uniqueness. Generally speaking, visual influences, trends and cues are identifiable in the works of Tim Burton, Aardman Animations, Laika and most of Starburns’ other projects, yet Anomalisa‘s universe occupies a curious limbo between photorealism and stylisation, while effectively avoiding the potential issues of either; it’s not too real to be uncomfortable, yet not too ‘cartooney’ to diminish its impact. This can be credited to the atypically disparate filmmaking backgrounds of its directors.

Says Johnson, “I know there are people that are sort of purists and stop motion represents something specific in their mind, but I don’t have that same sort of attachment to it so I didn’t feel like it had to be something specific. I was a little indoctrinated into some of the rules – you can’t do this, that’s breaking the rules of stop-motion; that’s one of the things that was so great about collaborating with Charlie, because he doesn’t have any of those inhibitions. So we were able to kind of invent this new approach. I think that’s why it doesn’t look like anything else, which is one of the things I think we’re most proud of.”

Hear more from directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson in the next episode of the Skwigly Podcast. Anomalisa is out in UK cinemas March 11th.

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