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Interview with the Masterminds Behind ANOMALISA

Posted January 25, 2016 by Charles Nash in Discuss

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It’s been seven years since Charlie Kaufman’s grand, wildly ambitious directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, but his latest work, Anomalisa, was well worth the wait. Teaming up with co-director, Duke Johnson, who specializes in stop-motion animation, the two idiosyncratic artists have crafted one of the best films of 2015. It is a beautifully surreal, yet painfully authentic outlook on love, loneliness, narcissism and, ultimately, “what it means to be human.”

Adapted for the screen from Kaufman’s original radio play of the same name, which he had written for Hollywood Theatre of the Ear, the film centers on a deeply depressed self-help author, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who’s on tour with his latest book. Everyone he interacts with (all of whom are voiced by Tom Noonan) all seem to look and sound the same, accentuating his psychological detachment from the rest of the world. That is, until he hears a voice from down the hall… someone unique.

Following said voice to her hotel room, Michael knocks on her door and introduces himself to a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who just so happens not only to be a fan of Michael’s work, but is in town to hear him speak. Following a round of drinks at the bar, the two begin to fall for one another, resulting in an affair that’s as tender and heartfelt as it is devastatingly sad. They may be animatronic puppets, but Michael and Lisa are more fleshed out than a majority of live-action characters to appear on screen in recent memory, beautifully transcending the common tropes of both animated features and tragic love stories.

I was fortunate to sit down with both Kaufman and Johnson at a round-table interview, where the two of them discussed the history of the production, the process of translating an audio script into a visual medium, and how this film differentiates from their previous work.

 

Anomlalisa was a radio play first, correct?

Kaufman: That’s correct.

How did you come up with the idea that you not only wanted to adapt it into a film, but with this particular kind of animation [stop-motion]?

Kaufman: I didn’t.

Oh! (Laughs)

Kaufman: This [play] was something that I did, and it was over, and I had no interest in doing anything more with it 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 he 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.

(Laughs) No worries!

Kaufman: [Duke was] at an animation company called Starburns, founded by Dino Stamatatopoulos and Dan Harmon… Dino had been in the audience in 2005, and he founded and started this animation studio, and they came to me. I could have just said that in 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. We approached [Stamatopoulos] 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!” So, we went off and we were like, “Shit, how are we going to get the money?” And we looked around… explored a couple options, and, long story short, somebody [recommended] Kickstarter, and so we did a Kickstarter.

[Kaufman laughs]

When you initially launched the Kickstarter, you originally said it was going to be a 40-minute short… 

Johnson: Originally, we didn’t say anything.

[Everyone laughs]
Johnson: And then, what happened was we started to get a little paranoid because… we found out that the actual sound play/radio play/stage performance was about an hour-ish. Or an hour-and-ten-minutes-ish. So we looked at the script, and there was no real scene direction. You couldn’t really judge it 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 we realized it was going to happen, Charlie and I started talking. And we realized, well… The stage performance was just… it was all dialogue because there was no purely visual stuff… So once you add the [visuals] and the in-betweens it would expand to feature length.

 

How did you guys decide on the visual style of the puppets? There’s a million different ways you could have gone with the look of the film. What was that process like?

Kaufman: We wanted them to be able to be emotionally expressive, and we didn’t want them to be… the kind of conventional 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 finding a designer who could move away from those designs, because their experience is in doing this. So, we found real people, and we hired a sculptor to come in and sculpt maquettes of these people… They were built based on these people. They were molded, and [given] 3D printed faces so they felt… Oh, I don’t know what the word is. I couldn’t think of any word that felt good.

(Laughter)

I mean, you know, we didn’t want to be silly… We wanted to have a gravity to it… a sensitivity.

Johnson: Yeah, we recorded the voice performances first… And the actors just delivered amazing performances. They really moved us. It just felt like a very small, intimate… authentic kind of emotional experience. We were looking at these character designs and like [Kaufman] said, all the cartoony stuff, it just felt, somehow, inauthentic to us. So the more we sort of pushed [the puppet designs] towards [more realistic qualities], it leant itself more towards the naturalism.

Kaufman: That became more difficult because of that. Like… (pinches fingers) the eyes for our puppets are like between my fingers there… They’re very hard to animate, and it’s very important that they’re animated well, or else the puppets aren’t going to look alive, so it can get very complicated.

 

A powerful moment of the film, to me, is during the scene that takes place the morning after Michael and Lisa spent their night together, and Lisa’s face morphs into the one that all of the other supporting characters, voiced by Tom Noonan, have. How did you come up with the idea to have the rest of the ensemble be voiced by one actor [Noonan], in addition to them all sharing the same facial features?

Kaufman: As the stage play, it was all audio, and Tom Noonan was playing every voice. And for that part of the play, Lisa starts talking at breakfast and [Noonan’s] voice kind of creeps in… So the visual analogy would be for the face to change…

On that same point, when you performed it on stage, people would be able to see that it’s Tom Noonan, doing all their voices?

Kaufman: Yes.

But, when we’re watching the film, there’s no particular moment that specifically points out how every supporting character is being voiced by Noonan. How did you decide to reveal that, or give viewers hints to gradually realize it? 

Kaufman: We didn’t know when people were going to realize it, and we didn’t even know if people were going to realize that all of the faces were the same, because when we made the faces, and we [applied] the 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’ve got these [instances such as] a male voicing a female character, which would be an indication that something is amiss.

Johnson: We were aware that people might find out at different times [within the film], and we embrace that, particularly with the visual [aspects].

Kaufman: We didn’t show [the film] to anyone until we were actually done. That is the thing that comes up a lot when you’re working with studios… I’ve had this conversation a lot [when it comes to] my movies, about how long can you keep people in the dark… I feel like that’s an anxiety that studios have, and my feeling is that, that’s really cool, and that when people feel like they’ve discovered something for themselves, within a movie, as an audience person, that’s the best thing in the world.

We didn’t have anybody telling us that we had to do this any other way, so we were able to let it be and see what happened.

Johnson: We have had a couple of instances where there’s like, a grandma in the audience…

Kaufman: (to Johnson) Not always grandmas.

Johnson: One was a grandma. I remember one grandma in particular who was like, “I don’t understand. Why did [Michael’s] wife at the end of the film have a man’s voice?”

 

(Everyone laughs)

She literally said that, and I was like, “Oh, shit. She missed it!”

(Laughter)

What we do get [asked] 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… But I’m not sure that that woman, or the people who do ask that question, understood that the males were also voiced by [Noonan].

 

*During a scene in the beginning of the stage play, Michael watches a scene from Casablanca (1942), but in the film, you replaced it with a segment from My Man Godfrey (1936). Was there anything special about that film apart from the fact that it was in the public domain?

Kaufman: Yeah, we were looking for something that would be kind of iconic, and it was a well-known movie. It was a fun scene; it was one shot through a doorway, which was really good for animating… So, yeah, that was the reason. I think on the list of movies that we saw on the public domain, [My Man Godrey] was just the one that jumped out at us. And we were like, “Wow, that’s public domain.”

The reason that Casablanca is good for the play is that the dialogue is really recognizable, and My Man Godfrey would not have been, but [it plays] better for the movie. And that’s just an accident, I think.

 

(To Kaufman) Considering the fact that radio plays are rarely adapted into feature-length films, was there anything in the process of adapting this material into a motion picture that set it apart from other films that you’ve been involved in?

Kaufman: Absolutely. [The film] has the form… and maybe the simplicity that it has because it was a radio play. I think that it has things that are recognizable [traits of mine] in it, but the simplicity of the construction, and the limited locations, and that sort of thing… I needed this to be understood as a non-visual [narrative]. And so, I think it’s really cool… I’m happy that that happened, because it [gave] me a chance to explore a different kind of screenwriting.

 

(To Kaufman) Your previous film, Synecdoche, New York, was your directorial debut.

Kaufman: I directed the radio play of Anomalisa before Synecdoche.

 

Oh, really? Wow. I’m sure that working with animation must have been an incredibly different experience, though. What about working with this particular visual style did you find to be challenging or insightful? 

Kaufman: Well, there’s an enormous learning curve and I didn’t know anything about how an animated film was done. I mean, I’d done animation as a kid, but an actual professional production was all new and exciting to me, and I was terrified of the idea that… I don’t even know if we talked to you guys about [the fact] that this thing is very frontloaded. We did the animatic before… It’s pretty much edited before you make it, which is never the way I’ve worked before with anything I’ve worked on, because so much is figured out in post-production.

I was really scared of that, because it doesn’t allow you to… at least I thought, at the time, explore before you’re done with the shooting. But, I love it, and I love having to focus and think about movement, and try to understand movement, and have to choreograph things in a much more rigorous way than you would with actors.

It takes a long time, which isn’t great. I’m an impatient person… [Chuckles]

(Laughs)
[Johnson and I] have talked about making another movie, and I really want to, but it also scares me that, well… If we start now, it’ll be four years, at the earliest, before we’re done with it. And we’re not starting now, but I really want to do it again.

 

For me, one of the most heartbreaking sequences of the film is when Lisa sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. It’s such a fun, upbeat ‘80s song, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s lovely rendition of it subversively conveys how lonely the character actually is. Did you always have this particular song in mind during the process of writing both the radio play and the film?

Kaufman: In the play, it was a different song. It was “My Heart Will Go On” [by Celine Dion] from Titanic (1997), and we couldn’t get the rights to it [for the film]. So, we were looking for something else, and this was one of the possibilities we were thinking about. And when Jennifer sang [“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”] it was clear, for the reasons that you said. We had these sort of serendipitous calamities that [resulted in us getting] better stuff for it.

 Is the closing song part of the play as well, or did you write it for the film?

Kaufman: No, I wrote it for the play, but you just hear it in the background during the scene at the bar in the play.

 

You’ve mentioned that a lot of times you often find a film in post-production. With a movie like this, how much of that spontaneity is lost on set? Since it seems like a much more collaborative effort to everyone involved.

Kaufman: I think the animators are the thing that make it collaborative, you know, because, aside from the voice performers, they are the actors. They’re very sensitive and very skilled, and they’re able to implement [their ideas]… But you’re never really doing it by yourself, in any movie.

But you mention the animatic having to be set so far in advance, was their room for spontaneity on the set to come up with ideas?

Kaufman: Yeah, there were changes that were made. There were lots of things that were added [and] 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.

[Anomalisa] was one of the two different plays that you wrote for the “Theatre of the New Ear” project; have you thought at all about adapting Hope Leaves the Theatre as an animated film, perhaps? 

Kaufman: I mean, Hope Leaves the Theatre is a play in which Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage, among other characters, play themselves, and I don’t want to see a stop-motion version of them, you know? I would have to do it [as a live-action production], but also it’s very stylized. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know how it would be done. So, the answer is probably no.

 

Anomalisa is now playing in select theaters in Providence and Boston.

[Image source: New York Times]

 


About the Author

Charles Nash