Interview: Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Talk About Their Incredible ‘Anomalisa’

Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor

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Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman. Photo Credit: about.flipboard.
We haven’t seen Charlie Kaufman in seven years. In 2008 the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind released his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, a sprawling epic about life, death, love, art, gender, and just about everything else. It was both his “biggest” movie – the film follows a theater director who recreates a life-size model of New York City inside a warehouse – but also his biggest failure, a box office bomb that puzzled most critics (despite being a stone-cold masterpiece). Now he’s back, with a new beard, haircut, glasses, and more importantly the best film of 2015. The stop-motion animated Anomalisa follows motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis, giving one of the best performances of the year through just his voice) during a night at the Fregoli Hotel in Cincinnati. Stone is a man completely disconnected from the world, so unable to connect to anyone that he sees everyone else as having the same exact face and voice (Synecdoche’s Tom Noonan). That all changes when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person who appears unique to him, and Stone tries desperately to finally make a connection. Like all of Kaufman’s films it’s both tragic and hilarious, and completely unique, even when compared with Kaufman’s other films. We sat down at a roundtable interview with Kaufman and his Anomalisa co-director Duke Johnson, and spoke with them about Kickstarter, keeping audiences in the dark, and how you make “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” a depressing song.
Questions asked by Emertainment Monthly are marked with an asterisk.
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The puppets voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.
It was a radio play originally first, correct?
Kaufman: That is correct.
[Editor’s note: Anomalisa was first written for Carter Burwell’s experimental theater project Theater of the New Ear, where original radio plays would be performed in front of an audience, sound effects and all. Anomalisa was one of three performed, with another written by Kaufman and one by the Coen Brothers.]
How did you come up with the idea that you not only wanted to turn it into a film, but this particular type of film with this kind of animation?
Kaufman: I didn’t. This was something that I did, and it was over, and I had no interest in doing anything more with it. I mean, because of that, because it was designed to be a radio play, I wasn’t going to try and translate it into some other form. Duke was a director, I guess still is, I don’t know what you’re working on at this time… [Kaufman and Johnson laugh] Johnson: This is our thousandth interview of the day, apologies.
Kaufman: [Duke was] at an animation company called Starburns, founded by Dino Stamatopoulos and Dan Harmon [Editor’s note: Stamatopoulos and Harmon are producers on Anomalisa], and Dino had been in the audience in 2005 and he founded and started this animation studio and they came to me. I could’ve just said that one sentence; they came to me in 2012 and said “would you want to make this into a movie?” and I said “if you can raise the money, let’s do it.”
And you guys used Kickstarter for that?
Johnson: We did, so, we – we approached him, and said “hey, can we do this?” and he said “sure, if you can get the money,” and then we said “okay, we’ll talk to you later!” and then we went off and we were like “shit, how are we going to get the money?” And we looked around, and explored a couple options, blah blah blah, long story short, somebody was like “Kickstarter,” and so we did a Kickstarter.
*When you guys announced the Kickstarter originally you had said that it was going to be a 40 minute short-
Johnson: Originally, we didn’t say anything. [laughter] And then, what happened was, is, we started to get a little paranoid, because the script for the actual – we found out the actual sound play/radio play/stage performance was about an hour-ish, or an hour and ten minutes-ish. And so, we looked at the script, and there was no real scene direction, you couldn’t really judge, because it wasn’t written like a screenplay really. So we’re like, people are thinking this is a feature, we don’t want to mislead anyone, so let’s just play safe and tell them it’s 40 minutes, that way our bases are covered, and then once we realized it was starting to be a success and it was going to happen, Charlie and I started talking and we realized, well, once you, you know, the stage performance was just like talking, because there’s no visual, I mean it wasn’t… it was all dialogue because there was no purely visual stuff, because it wasn’t visual, it was just the sound stuff, so once you add that visual stuff in the in-betweens it would expand to feature length, and then we’re like “hey, it’s gonna be twice as long!” but it was really always going to be. I could’ve said that shorter as well [laughs].
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Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman on set. Photo Credit: The LA Times.
How did you guys decide on the style of the puppets, because there are a million different ways you could go, with the look of the film, like, what was that process like?
Kaufman: We wanted them to emotionally expressive, and, um, we didn’t want them to be the kind of conventionally stop-motion, with big eyes and kind of elven features and big hands, because that didn’t serve our purpose, and we had a difficult time kind of finding a design or who could move away from those designs, because their experience is in doing this, so we found real people and we hired a sculptor and sculpt maquettes of these people, and, um, then they were, you know, built, based on these people, they were molded and 3D printed faces. We were looking for something, um, that felt… I don’t know what the word is I can’t think anymore. What’d it feel like? Good? It felt good? [laughter] I mean, we didn’t want it to feel silly, that might be a partial answer, we wanted it to have a gravity to it, a sensitivity.
Johnson: Yeah, we recorded the voice performances first, and that was very… the actors just like, delivered an amazing performance, they really moved us, and it just felt like a very small, intimate, authentic kind of emotional experience, and we were looking at these character designs, and like he said all this kind of cartoony stuff it just felt somehow inauthentic to us, and so the more we sort of pushed to towards that, it lent itself more towards naturalism as well.
Kaufman: And it became more difficult because of that, I mean the eyes are big for a reason, the eyes on our puppets are like, between my fingers there, you know, because the whole head’s like that big, so, um, they’re very hard to animate, and it’s very important that they’re animated well or the puppets aren’t going to look like they’re alive, so, it became very complicated.
[Editor’s note: the next question contains spoilers for late in the film.]
One of my favorite parts of the film is the morning after when they’re eating breakfast, and Lisa’s face starts to morph into the ones that Tom Noonan’s characters all have, and the voice starts to overlap. How did you come up with the idea that every side character should be voiced by Tom Noonan or have the same face to convey the mundanity of everyday life?
Kaufman: As that stage play, well, it was all audio, and Tom Noonan was playing every voice, and for that part of the play Lisa starts talking at breakfast, and then Tom’s voice sorta creeps in, and then by the end of the breakfast, um, so that was something that we came into it with, because it was in the play, and then obviously the visual analogy would be for the face to change, so we made that choice.
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The puppet voiced by David Thewlis in Anomalisa. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.
*So on that same point, when you performed it onstage people would be able to see that it’s Tom Noonan doing all the different voices…
Kaufman: Yeah.
*But, when we’re watching the movie, there’s no particular moment I feel like where we’re actually specifically told “oh look, they all have the same voice.” So, how did you decide how to reveal that, letting people kind of gradually realize it, did you think about changing that at all?
Kaufman: I think we were… we didn’t know when people were going to realize it, and we didn’t even know if people are going to realize that all the faces are the same, because when we made the faces, and we put them into different hairstyles and genders, it wasn’t even immediately clear to us that it was all the same face. But we figured that people would eventually hear it, and certainly, you know, you’ve got these issues of a male voicing a female character which would be sort of an indication that something is amiss. So, the question is how long were we going to let people…
Johnson: Like, how did we decide on when, how did we…
*I feel like other people making this movie might have gone with a more obvious, very clear moment early on, but I like the way it plays out here.
Johnson: We were aware that people might find out at different times, and we embraced that, particularly with the visual part, we though that might take longer than the voice. Seems like the voice would come to people… I mean this was I think our assumption-
Kaufman: We didn’t know, we didn’t show this thing to anybody until I’m sure we were actually done, so, but I mean that is the thing that comes up a lot when you’re working with studios is that, I mean, I’d say especially with my stuff, I’ve had this conversation a lot about my movies. How long can you keep people in the dark about, like in Eternal Sunshine, how long can you keep people in the dark about what’s going on, you know, and it’s like, I feel like that’s sort of an anxiety that studios have, and my feeling is that that’s really cool, and that people feeling like they’ve discovered something for themselves in a movie as an audience person, I mean, that’s like the best thing in the world. We didn’t have anybody telling us in this thing that we had to do it any other way, so we were able to sort of let it be and see what happened.
Johnson: We have had like a couple instances when there’s like a grandma in the audience or something-
Kaufman: It’s always grandmas.
Johnson: One was a grandma, I remember one grandma in particular who was like “I don’t understand, why did his wife at the end have a man’s voice?” [laughter] She literally said that, and I was like “Oh, shit, she missed it.” I think 99% of the people…
Kaufman: What we do get sometimes is “why did you decide to voice the women with male voices?” which is sort of the same question, or at least could be seen as the same question.
Johnson: Well, the difference is that she thought it was only that moment, she didn’t get it until that moment.
Kaufman: But I’m not sure that those women that asked that question about why we had the females voiced by males understood that all the males were also voiced by the same male.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.
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Shooting Anomalisa. Photo Credit: sfgate.
I know that in the stage play the movie that is at the hotel is Casablanca, which is obviously more expensive than the movie you used, My Man Godfrey, so how did you decide on it aside from the fact that it’s in the public domain?
Kaufman: Yeah, I mean we were looking for something that’d be kind of iconic, and it was a well known movie, and it was a fun scene, it was one shot, through a doorway, that was really good for animating and uh, so yeah, that was the reason. I think on the list of public domain movies we saw it was the one that jumped out to us as like “wow, that’s public domain?”
It was a great excuse to show my fiancée that movie for the first time, I was like “you don’t know what this is?!” [laughter]
Kaufman: So you watched it with her?
Yeah, yeah.
Kaufman: Did she like it?
Oh yeah, she enjoyed it quite a bit.
Kaufman: It’s a great movie.
Johnson: I love the contrast of just this extremely joyous expression of love moment, and then it cuts to Michael and he’s like, nervous. [laughter] Kaufman: But the thing about this movie which, we’ve never talked about, but the reason that Casablanca is good for the play is because the dialogue is really recognizable, and My Man Godfrey would not have been. But, but My Man Godfrey is better for the movie, yeah, and that’s just an accident really I think.
The film obviously had a more unconventional approach in being made just starting off as a radio play, was there anything else along the journey here that sets this film apart from others you’ve been involved with?
Kaufman: I mean I think it has the form that it has, and I think maybe the simplicity that it has because it was a radio play… I don’t generally write things that feel like… I mean I think it’s got things that are recognizable as mine in them, but the simplicity of the construction and the limited locations and that sort of thing I feel I needed this to be understood as a non-visual thing. And so I think it’s really cool, I mean I’m happy that that happened, because it got me into a chance to explore a different kind of screenwriting really, myself.
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Anomalisa. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.
*So you directed Synecdoche before, and that was your first time directing a feature, but obviously animation is super super different, right?
Kaufman: I directed this before Synecdoche. As a play.
*Right, of course. But so even more so than, play, live action, animation… what about those differences did you find refreshing, challenging, etc?
Kaufman: Well, I mean, it was an enormous learning curve, and I didn’t know anything about how an animated film was done, I mean I had done animation as a kid, but an actual professional production it was all new and exciting to me. And I was terrified of the idea that… I don’t even know if we talk to you guys about how this thing is very front loaded, that you know, we do that animatic before, it’s pretty much edited before you make it, um, which is never the way I’ve worked before on anything I’ve worked on, because so much is figured out in post production, and, you know, I was really scared of that, because it doesn’t allow you to explore the way, at least I thought at the time, what you need to explore when you’re done with the shooting, and, but, I love it, and I love the sort of having to focus and think about movement and trying to understand movement and also kind of choreographing things in a much more rigorous way than you would with live actors. It’s made me think a lot about movement, and takes a long time which isn’t great, I’m an impatient person, you know. We’ve talked about doing another movie, and I really want to, but it also scares me that well, you know, if we do it now, if we start it now, it’ll be four years at the earliest before we’d be done with it, and we’re not starting now, so… but I really want to do it again.
One of the most heartbreaking scenes to me in the movie is when Lisa sings “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” and I find that to be so brilliant because it’s such a fun, upbeat 80s song, and you managed to turn it into this song that conveys just like, longing and yearning and kind of conveys how lonely she is. How’d you pick this song for this scene?
Kaufman: It was a different song in the play, it was “My Heart Will Go On,” you know, from Titanic, and we couldn’t get the rights to it, so we were looking for something else, and this was one of the possibilities we had been thinking about, other songs, they have kind of a slow, like um…
Johnson: “Evergreen,” “The Rose”?
Kaufman: “The Rose,” yeah. And you know, when Jennifer sang this one it was just clear that this was the song we should use, for the reasons you said, you know. So we had these sort of serendipitous calamities that, you know, we got better stuff from it.
Is the closing song part of the play as well, or was it just for the movie?
Kaufman: No, I wrote it for the play as well, but you just hear it in the background in the bar scene in the play, but we decided to use it as the, well, you know.
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Anomalisa. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.
You’ve mentioned that a lot of times that you find a movie in post production, with a movie like this how much of that spontaneity is lost with it as this much more collaborative process with the animators and everything?
Kaufman: I think that’s the thing, I think the animators are the thing that make it collaborative, you know, because they are the actors in this thing, aside from the voice performers, and they’re very sensitive and very skilled and they have ideas and they’re able to implement them. So you’re really not doing it by yourself ever, in any movie.
But you mention the animatic having to be set so far in advance, was there room for spontaneity on the set to come up with ideas?
Kaufman: Yeah, I mean I think there was some, there were changes that were made, there were things that were added, altered, but we couldn’t do multiple takes of anything, sometimes we’d have to go back a bit if something was messed up a bit.
Johnson: The storyboards are still drawings of like, you know, a man, standing there for long periods of time, and maybe he moves across the screen and changes position a couple of times, but all the performance and nuance of the body movements and what he’s doing exactly and the facial expressions, all that stuff has to be figured out and a lot of it is discovered along the way.
Kaufman: And there’s lots of really long takes too, so they have to be filled with movement.
*So this was one of two different play that you wrote for the Theater of the New Ear project; have you thought at all about adapting “Hope Leaves the Theater,” maybe for animation or…?
Kaufman: I mean, “Hope Leaves the Theater” is a play in which Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage play, among other characters, themselves, and I don’t want to see a stop motion version of them, you know, I would have to do it live action, but it also is very stylized, and so I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know how it would be done. So the answer is probably no.
This interview has been condensed from its original form. Anomalisa is now playing in limited release and will expand during the rest of the month.

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