Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson talk about the technical and emotional work behind Anomalisa
'There are absolutely no accidents.'1
Given America's ongoing struggle to understand animation outside a family-film context, Anomalisa feels like a daring experiment. The latest project from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman is a surreal, deeply emotional story about one man's loneliness and disaffection with the world, which he sees as populated by people who all have the same face and voice. Then he meets someone else he considers a real person: the shy, awkward Lisa, as seen above in a newly released, exclusive clip.
Kaufman originally wrote Anomalisa for Carter Burwell's Theater Of The New Ear, a venue for "sound plays," aka staged readings meant to evoke radio plays. It was performed there in 2005, with three actors: David Thewlis as Michael, the frustrated self-help book author; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa; and Tom Noonan as everyone else in their world. Comedian / producer / actor Dino Stamatopoulos saw it, and years later, urged Kaufman to revisit it as a stop-motion film through Stamatopoulos' production company, Starburns Industries, named for the character Stamatopoulos' plays on Community. In 2012, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $400,000 to support the film. Kaufman co-directed the film along with Duke Johnson, a stop-motion vet who's headed up episodes of the Starburns Industries shows Morel Orel and Mary Shelley's Frankenhole, as well as the claymation Community Christmas special.
A surreal, deeply emotional
The film is still slowly being released theater by theater, but the Oscar nomination has brought it new attention. I recently talked to Johnson and Kaufman about a few of the questions the film raises, both about its characters and the puppets that bring them to life.
Tasha Robinson: Charlie, I've read that you were reluctant to let this be translated to the screen. Were there parts you were specifically concerned with not working in film?
Charlie Kaufman: I wouldn't say I was reluctant. I would say I was reticent. And the reason is that it was designed to be not seen. The dialogue is somewhat ambitious as to specifics. Because it's a staged radio play, the actors are just sitting onstage, and there's a disconnect between what you're seeing and what you're hearing, and that's part of the design of the piece. For example, during the sex scene, it's just Jennifer [Jason Leigh] and David [Thewlis] sitting separated by 20 or so feet, moaning, and that plays in a certain way, by design. And obviously, that has to be thrown away. What's physically wrong with Lisa is never specified in the play. What all these people who sound like Tom Noonan look like is never specified. So the idea of the play, for me, was that it allowed the audience members as individuals to be seeing a different play at the same time as they were hearing the same play. I liked that. So when [Starburns] came to me, I was like, "Well, I have to throw this thing out that is part of the design of the play, and what's gonna replace it?" But I didn't say no. I said, "Yes, if you can raise the money." I was open to it, but that was my concern.
What gave you the most technical problems as you were designing the film together?
Duke Johnson: Well, a lot of different technical problems came out of a lack of money. But mostly, specifically, it came out of a desire to want to have the most articulate-able puppets and the broadest range of emotions for the character performances. Typically, with low-budget stop-motion, you can get away with a cartoony style. But we wanted to have this authentic human experience, that's what we were going for, so it lent itself more toward a realistic aesthetic. So the level of nuance and detail goes up, so we had to figure out how to make these puppets relatable in a way that made that possible. Typically, stop-motion puppets can cost upward of $80,000. We had $100,000 initially to design all the puppets in the movie. So we had to find creative ways to do that.
How did you handle problem-solving around the big questions that came up, like creating skin that moved naturally for the nude scenes, or starting the film with a visually realistic cloud bank?
Johnson: Well, first you have the idea, and then you sit around with your creative team. And the interesting thing about the people in stop-motion — well, maybe it's true for live-action as well — but people like the production designers, character designers, and costume designers, they're very much aware of the functionality of stop-motion, as well as the aesthetic design aspect. So everything has to look a certain way and be able to function in a certain way, and also be able to function in a practical way. They're all very skilled in engineering how these things are going to work. So for example, you say, "We want these characters to enter the lobby and go inside the elevator, come out of the elevator, go down the hall, go into the room, and we want that all to be one shot." Then the crew figures out how to engineer camera moves that resemble a SteadyCam from a live-action film. That's not something that exists in stop-motion already, so how do you build that? How do you make the set modular, so walls can be removed, so animators can access the puppets? You just kind of have to figure out how to do it as you go.
The production studio Laika prefers to have individual animators tackle entire scenes, to enhance the continuity and give the scenes individual character. When I interviewed the directors of The Boxtrolls, I found out they had one ballroom scene done by a single animator who worked solely on that for 18 months. Do you prefer that method? Does it matter to you?
Johnson: That's ideal. It's an ideal scenario to keep one animator on a scene, because animators are like designers and actors. They have their own skill sets, and their own styles. But we didn't really have the luxury to do that on this film. We had animators coming and going, because we couldn't really afford to pay Laika rates. So we could only afford to keep animators a short period of time before they had to move on and take higher-paying jobs. And we didn't have the luxury of time — some of the scenes in this movie are extraordinarily long. Like, the hotel-room scene took the entire two-year duration of production to shoot, and we did it on multiple stages. So we had to put a lot of time into establishing these characters, and how they move, and what their specific character traits are, so all the animators could create a sense of solidarity.
Some people writing about the film have assumed everything Michael sees and experiences is metaphorical, and some have assumed this is all happening, in the most literal way possible. It certainly seems deliberate that you don't spell it out within the story, but it does affect how viewers will read Michael's character. Does it matter to you whether people read it one way or the other?
Kaufman: I think we are open to people having their interpretation. We feel like we've designed the film so people can interpret it the way they will, or with what they bring to it. So I don't think I have a problem with [people reading it either way]. Although I've described this as a movie from the point of view of Michael, struggling with his inability to connect, so, maybe I fall on one side of that fence.
Johnson: I want people to take from it what they take from it. I think if they're able to connect to it on a level beyond what's obviously there at the surface, that's good. Because I think the film is very layered. I think there's a lot going on. It feels very rich to me.
Kaufman: Just to maybe take this a little further, I feel that there's a kind of — it makes the movie moot. I'm not trying to dictate what people think about this movie. But if you say it's just a world where everybody is actually the same, to me, there's nothing there to think about. That doesn't interest me as a story. Why this person can't connect, why this person sees people as interchangeable, it allows for a conversation.
For me, one of the most significant things is the fact that Michael doesn't see Lisa and fixate on her, he hears her distantly, through a door. It isn't just a shallow, obvious lust. What went into deciding to stage it that way?
Kaufman: Well, it's important to realize that the genesis of this thing was a sound play, a stage radio play. So I was only using voicing. So when I started to work with the idea of everyone being the same to Michael, the voice was all I had to convey it. That being said, I think it is very important to me that Lisa is not somebody you would pick out of a crowd, visually, or in any way, other then that she's distinctive to him at that point. There's not like, "Oh my God, look at that woman!" She's an average person in an average body. It isn't about that. It isn't about spotting her and going "Oh my God, I'm a shallow man."
There's been so much analysis of Michael's final moments with the doll: the specific folk song it's singing, the fact that they're both puppets and he might be realizing that, the fact that it's the only other speaker in the film he perceives as having a woman's voice. What's most significant about that scene for you?
Kaufman: Everything is intentional. Especially in a movie that's animated. There are absolutely no accidents, because it's happening one frame at a time. So yes, it does have a female voice. It is an animatronic thing. It is specifically Jennifer's voice, which may not have been understood — she isn't credited with voicing it. But she's the person who sings the song. In the play, you would see that it's Jennifer singing. But what the doll signifies, and what the metaphor is, is something we'd rather leave for people to discuss and draw their own conclusions about.