Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson On Their New Film Anomalisa

Pin It

The movie masterminds muse about the beauty of animation, creative serendipity and the value of perseverance

It's the week after the Oscars and Charlie Kaufman — the brilliant, award-winning force behind such unforgettable films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — is in London with co-director Duke Johnson to promote their extraordinary stop-motion film Anomalisa. The baroque Soho hotel where they are staying couldn't be more different from the blandly corporate Fregoli Hotel, which serves as the location for much of the action in their film. Named after the Fregoli delusion, a disorder of person identification in which the sufferer may believe that different people are in fact the same person, the Fregoli is in many ways the exact replica of any identikit, upscale western hotel, yet sufficiently strange as to be exactly what you might expect from the imagination of Charlie Kaufman. Each tiny set, perfect in its uncanny verisimilitude, was the result of hours of painstaking work undertaken by a group of dedicated artists. The puppets who move through them — anomic customer services don Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), sweet-natured Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and everyone else (Tom Noonan) — were similarly, meticulously modelled, with just a few telltale signs of their construction remaining to remind cinema-goers they are watching a film (with decidedly adult themes) enacted by dolls. 

Kaufman's second theatrical release since directing the swooningly sad meta-drama Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa began life as a sound play in 2005 before transitioning to a stop-motion film. Initially funded through an astonishingly successful Kickstarter campaign, and made entirely outside of the studio system, Anomalisa was a labour of love for Kaufman and Johnson, a director specialising in stop-motion animation who first saw Being John Malkovich as a budding filmmaker studying the craft at NYU. Since premiering at Telluride last year, their three-year passion project has been garlanded with multiple prizes and nominations, including the Special Jury Prize in Venice and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film (it lost to Pixar's Inside Out). "We were both [at the Oscars], and the Indie Spirit Awards the day before," confirms Kaufman, before deadpanning: "There was a lot of losing going on."

In a twist on the film junket, versions of Michael and Lisa are propped on the table as we speak. Roughly Barbie-sized, yet anatomically correct and clothed in the accoutrements of middle management, they are as strikingly affecting in the (sort of) flesh as they are on-screen. Their story is a nominally simple one of lonely people connecting: Michael, grey-haired and rumpled, is in Cincinnati for 24 hours to deliver a motivational speech on the subject of customer services, an area in which he is some kind of rock star; sweet, simple Lisa is an awe-struck fan staying at the same hotel. Their shy flirtation and awkward congress (which netted the film an R-rating), are touchingly, wincingly human, although, this being a Kaufman film, things quickly take a turn for the darkly surreal. Here, Kaufman and Johnson share some insights into the making of their beautiful film. 

Charlie on his first forays into animation...
"I think if you're doing film as a kid, you tend to do animation. So I did like, object animation, boots walking and that sort of stuff. In high school I did stop motion clay animation, which was the most ambitious movie that I ever made as a kid, it took a long time. I didn't know what I was doing, I was making it up as I went along and I was very excited. But, professionally, no. I've done some writing for big animated movies, I've done some rewrites for Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. Not the originals, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Shrek…12 [laughs], I don't know what it was. I feel very interested in it now in a way that I don't think I was before."

Charlie on Jennifer Jason Leigh...
"She's so good. I first knew her doing this as a play in 2005, that's when I first worked with her and then I worked with her on Synecdoche. So I've known her since 2005. Lovely person. Very easy to work with in addition to being so talented. [Keeping the original cast] was a thing for me, and it could have been a deal breaker. It didn't come to it, because as soon as we started to work on this I approached them and they all said they wanted to do it. But they originated the parts and we really had a good time doing the play and I know specifically Jennifer was sorry that she only — we only — got to do it twice as a play. She was really missing that character, Lisa, she loved the character. It would have been weird to cast other people. I feel like they have ownership of it too."

Charlie and Duke on what they learned from each other...
Duke: "Charlie bakes great madeleines. I feel like one thing that keeps coming back to me is a general approach to directing and trying not to be influenced by the machine of Hollywood and outside forces. Trying to be very brave and hold true to the original intention and inspiration you had that compelled you to want to tell this story."  

Charlie: "The thing that I'm most proud of with this movie is the perseverance of it, you know? This was such a difficult production for us and there were so many crises and financial issues and it was constantly looking like it was going to fold and these guys just kept working through it, which is like walking a tight, tight tightrope. [Duke and the team] were in the trenches every day. I was in contact with them every day and we talked every day about stuff that was in progress and the shots, but they were there every day and that perseverance and that sense of commitment is inspiring to me."

Duke on being trailblazers...
"Animation in general is used to tell children's stories or family stories, which are basically children's stories that parents won't be terribly bored watching. There are some experimental shorts, but as far as theatrically released feature films there's been very few [animated films with adult themes]. I don't know if it's the first R-rated animation but it's the first R-rated animated feature nominated for an Oscar, for example."

Charlie on creating such lifelike puppets...
"We originally had people come in with character designs, but they were stop-motion designers, and even when we gave them the directive that they should be not cartoonish, they still had upturned noses and giant eyeballs and shit. So we eventually just started to look for photographs of real people, we'd just look up 'middle-aged man' online, and after a while, it ended up being these stock actor photos. If you look up 'middle-aged man', that's what you find — do it afterwards. So then Duke happened to be looking at his Facebook and saw a photo of his ex-brother-in-law and showed it to me as a possible Michael. So he was brought in and photographed and then a sculptor came in and did a clay maquette of this character and adjusted it and the same thing with Lisa. Our producer spotted a woman in a restaurant in Los Angeles that looked like Lisa, so she was approached, and turned out to be an actress. If you approach anybody in a restaurant in Los Angeles, they turn out to be an actress."

Charlie on the location of the film...
"I can't remember what I was thinking when I decided that this is how the story would unfold but often with me, it's just this instinctive thing, where something feels right and then afterwards, maybe it could be analysed. I don't remember why it was a hotel, but a hotel's obviously a great place for people to meet and it's got this professionally nice group of people who are professionally nice to you but with absolutely no actual connection, which serves Michael's story. It's like a nowhere, when you go into a hotel room like that, it's nowhere. You're not anywhere. And it's intentionally that, I guess. If it's quirky, there's something a little off-putting about it, you know? 'Cause if it's not your version of quirk, the version that appeals to you, then it sort of feels weird."

Charlie on the role of chance and serendipity in his work...
"Things come together and then afterwards you realise that it feels like it was moving in that direction by some outside force, but who knows? I'll come up with an idea that I like, and it might be a very instinctive thing and then afterwards somebody will write about it and say: oh my god, look how perfect this is. My daughter asked me the other day if I have ever said a joke and didn't realise it was a joke until everybody laughed. When I was younger, I had that experience a lot. I'd say something and it was amazingly brilliant in people's minds but I didn't have a clue that I was saying it. And I had this thing when I was growing up — should I take credit for that or should I say, well, no I didn't mean that, I didn't have any idea, it just slipped out? I decided to take credit for it. I didn't know [when writing Being John Malkovich that his actual door number was seven and a half, an important number in the film]. But what does that mean? The rest of that story is that he thought that I did know it and that I'd been stalking him. That is a complete accident. Bizarre. But it was kind of great, you know, because maybe that helped John decide to do the movie, or made him at least curious. His production partner met with me, I think basically to feel out, was I dangerous? My initial interaction with these guys was based on that and it worked out well for me."

Charlie and Duke on their upcoming projects...
Duke: "I'm working on some things, I'm trying to figure out exactly what I want to do. This has been so overwhelming and all-consuming that I feel like my head is spinning and I need to step away from it and get quiet and allow it to be revealed to me what story I really want to tell next."

Charlie: "I'm writing a script, I just turned in a draft of a screenplay to Paramount. It's based on a novel called IQ83, which is about a virus that attacks the United States and lowers everyone's IQ. So it's kind of timely. [Laughs]"

Anomalisa hits screens in the UK on March 11th, 2016.