Leave it to Charlie Kaufman, whose films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and others) concern the construction of human life and how people’s minds work, to make a surreal meditation on the crippling cycle of loneliness and restlessness in gorgeous stop-motion. With Anomalisa, Kaufman has created a living, breathing world from the ground up. The characters are fragile puppets whose seams and parts are laid bare along with their souls.
The story, about a man whose family life and mental state are collapsing in on themselves, was originally conceived as a radio play 10 years ago. It would take seven years for Kaufman to adapt it, directing alongside newcomer Duke Johnson. Starburns Industries, the venerable animation studio behind the film, also has its prints on Anomalisa producer Dino Stamatopoulos’ cult series Moral Orel, episodes of which Johnson directed, and the cartoon Rick and Morty. Johnson and producer Rosa Tran offered to run a Kickstarter to mount a full-fledged animated project — on the condition that Kaufman would come on board if the Kickstarter met its funding goals. The campaign received more than double what it asked.
Playboy caught up with Johnson and Kaufman, along with voice actor Tom Noonan — who also starred in Synechdoche, New York and voices dozens of characters in Anomalisa — the morning after the new film’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
How did this project come together?
Charlie Kaufman: We had done a play in 2005 with Tom Noonan and Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Thewlis. Dino Stamatopoulos, who is a member of Starburns and a friend of mine, saw it and liked it a lot. He’s been pestering me for the last 10 years, and I finally gave it to him.
Duke Johnson: I think he wanted the script because he was a fan and he wanted to read it for his own enjoyment. And then after the studio did the Moral Orel special [i.e. “Beforel Orel: Trust,” which Johnson directed], we were looking for projects to produce and he brought it to me.
Why do you think Dino saw it as a stop-motion feature?
Johnson: Dino is really interested in stop-motion that’s not for kids and that pushes the boundaries of what stop-motion can do. He’s of the mindset that it’s just another medium to tell stories with.
Why your specific story, though?
Kaufman: I honestly think it had more to do with the fact that he had this stop motion company and he’s just interested in that stuff. It took us a while to figure out how to take this play, which had no visual component to it — it was a sound play, with actors standing on stage reading scripts with foley artists and musicians — and in the movie, for example, the fact that there’s this one person playing all these different people is a whole different concept when you see it and translate that. The idea that it was originally something that had to be created in the audience’s mind was something that I liked about it. I had to get used to the idea that that was going to go away. But in the end, it became something that worked very well with stop-motion because we were able to create identical characters for Tom. All those characters have exactly the same face. That’s something we couldn’t have done in a live-action movie without it feeling gimmicky. The dreamlike quality of it lends itself to stop-motion.
As a writer, was that refreshing for you — to create this whole new visual world?
Kaufman: It was really exciting. It was scary. It wasn’t really clear that we were going to be successful. To embark on this thing and start to figure it out… I’ve never worked in this medium before. And when we started getting the dolls in I was so thrilled.
Tom Noonan voices a number of characters in this film. And there’s a few scenes where he play various characters that are even talking over each other. How much of those characters and that background dialogue was scripted?
Kaufman: We improvised. In some of them Tom just spoke and told stories. Others, I was in the booth and Tom would hear me in his ear and we would pretend we were at a bar or something. It was actually a lot of fun.
Tom Noonan: The thing that’s tricky for me is that when we did the stage play, the audience saw me and knew that I was the same person right away. So I could go a lot further in latitude. I could use voices that were slightly funny or slightly character-y. There’s a bit with Bogart in it that’s not in the movie now, where I’m imitating voices on TV.
Kaufman: We couldn’t get the rights to it. Although you do do that in the movie. And you do that very well. And when the picture’s put to it, it looks amazing.
Much is written about how the film, and Charlie’s work in general, is difficult. I find this strange, as I find a lot of your work fairly accessible, and this one has a pretty clear character arc.
Kaufman: Yeah, there was a review this morning that said it may not find an audience because it’s too challenging. I don’t know. There’s these twists and turns in it, but the movie plays pretty straight to me. I mean, I guess I don’t know what it’s going to do in the box office.
I don’t mean like box office success, but do you enjoy it when people say your work is difficult?
Kaufman: It’s a difficult question. When a review that says something off-putting or something that would make people not want to see the movie, I don’t appreciate it. I’m not trying to do that with my writing. Presumably that’s how they perceived it. I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t write thinking about any of that stuff. I think of how to construct something that interests me and see where it goes.
One of the visual signatures of the film is the puppets’ faces being split in half in the middle. What was behind that decision, beyond the aesthetic choice that everyone sort of looks identical?
Kaufman: The discussion we had was mostly that we liked the handmade element of it, that’s mostly painted away in big budget animations. And it doesn’t look like anything at that point. So we just wanted to show the process. And then it became something sort of metaphorical and lead to sort of different moments in the movie where we exploit those.
Johnson: One thing I find special about that aspect is that you’re literally seeing the scenes of the characters and construction of the puppets, and it’s right there the whole movie. For me, there’s moments where that goes away and these characters become something real, and you’re just invested in the emotional experience of the movie. That was a magical thing for me. The seams are painted out by the audience’s engagement in the moment.
I’m always kind of locked into that idea: Who am I as a person? Am I someone with a soul and personality or am I just a human made of human parts?
Yeah, disjointed. And I suffer from a lot of depression, so at the end, when he’s making this grand speech and seems stuck and doesn’t know what his purpose is for really anything about himself…
Johnson: I get what you’re saying. It’s hard to articulate exactly what it is that you feel in that moment. But that was one of the moments I responded to most when I was reading the script as well. The speech.
And also the focus on these lonely hotel rooms brings up this weird feeling for me. That feeling of waking up in a hotel room and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Kaufman: Yeah, that we were definitely going for.
And that feeling of like, is everyone else the same person? I went through that in high school and I’m sure everyone goes through that in high school. I don’t know if I can relate that to a mid-life crisis.
Kaufman: It only gets better [laughs].
Noonan: People want to get close, they get close, and then they don’t want to get close. That’s how it works. That’s the way life works. You get attracted to somebody. You wish you had them. Then you had them. Then you wish they didn’t. Then they go away and then meet someone else and wish they were someone else and wish they weren’t there.
Do you think that’s just a continuous cycle?
Noonan: Yep, for most people.
For you personally?
Noonan: Of course.
Are you married?
Noonan: I’m in the middle of ending my second one. It happens every day, though. You meet someone and shake somebody’s hand, and wish they weren’t in the room too. It happens every second.
Is there a way to break that cycle, or is that just life?
Noonan: That’s a big question.