Moviemaking is a fundamentally collaborative process. But even by the standards of this all-hands-on-deck medium, Charlie Kaufman is a born team player. Possessed of a radical and almost limitless imagination, Kaufman cut his teeth in the writers’ rooms of network television, before breaking into Hollywood by penning the feature directorial debuts of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Michel Gondry (Human Nature), and George Clooney (Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind). These films belong both to their screenwriter and the filmmakers who brought his vision from page to screen; they are unique syntheses of sensibilities. All of which is to say, Kaufman works well with others, even if his neurotic, existentially terrified characters do not.
But Anomalisa, Kaufman’s second film as both writer and director, is collaborative even by his standards. For one thing, it’s a feature-length stop-motion project, meaning that you can add a team of tirelessly toiling animators to the long list of crew members required of any professional production. Secondly, it’s an adaptation of another collaboration, a live radio play Kaufman worked on with composer Carter Burwell. And finally, unlike his first feature, Synecdoche, New York—probably the closest we’ve yet gotten to crawling straight into the man’s brain, Malkovich-style—Anomalisa has a co-director: Duke Johnson, the animator behind the Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and the puppet episode of Community.
For a Kaufman project, Anomalisa is relatively straightforward, which is one key to its emotional power and clarity. Checking into a Cincinnati hotel that would make Jacques Tati proud, a depressed motivational speaker (David Thewlis) makes a connection with a mildly disfigured young fan (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Scoring initial funding for the project through Kickstarter, Kaufman reassembled the cast of the play—including Tom Noonan, who voices all the other characters—and reportedly remained fairly faithful to his own source material. Even so, Anomalisa absolutely feels like the product of two visionaries, with Johnson bringing the writer-director’s sad-sack characters to miraculous life and creating a whole lived-in world for them to stagger through.
The A.V. Club sat down with Kaufman and Johnson in Chicago to talk about their their soulful, seriocomic love story, the nature of co-direction, and the back-breaking labor of stop-motion. Meanwhile, the irony of discussing a film about the lonely anonymity of hotel rooms in a lonely, anonymous hotel room is never remarked upon.
The A.V. Club: Let’s talk the logistics of co-directing. Is it as simple as you, Duke, handling all the technical work with the stop motion and you, Charlie, handling composition and performance? Or are those lines more nebulous?
Duke Johnson: Nebulous. I came into it with more technical background knowledge, but that was kind of irrelevant, because you have a technical director, you have fabricators, and you have people that are experts at the technical stuff and you can approach it from any way that you want. We approached it very cinematically, not really limited in our sense of the approach to the aesthetic.
AVC: What does a day on set look like?
DJ: Well, Rosa [Tran] is the producer, and she and I were on set together all day every day. And Charlie was there the whole time for pre-production and post-production. But also I talked to him, like, 20 times a day during production. We went through the whole movie and talked about the shots, we edited the animatic together during pre-production, and we went through all the beats of the characters. And before we shot, we did the voice records, of course. Then, before every shot was launched, we would discuss the direction we were going to give to the animator. It takes weeks to do a shot and through the whole process, he was getting sent the shot and we were reviewing it and making changes. But only one person needs to be there every day.
AVC: How long did it take to shoot the whole film?
DJ: Two years.
AVC: Two years. Wow.
Charlie Kaufman: Three years all together, with pre- and post-production.
AVC: How much did the script change from stage to screen?
CK: The big change in the script, really the only change in the script, was the description, the visual description, because it was a radio play. There was just dialogue and music and Foley artists, so what is this going to look like? What is this sort of situation? What’s wrong with Lisa, what’s physically wrong with her? That stuff was never explained [in the play]. What do all these people with the same voices look like? And then adding visual stuff—buttons on the phone, the non-dialogue gags.
AVC: Assumedly, it plays differently as a radio play than a film, because—and I’m tiptoeing around something you figure out maybe 20 minutes into the film—the “same voices” thing isn’t clear on screen immediately, the way it would—
CK: Yeah, the conceit becomes obvious early on and that made it… I don’t know if we have to tiptoe around it anymore, it’s everywhere. That made it easier for Tom in a way, because you know once he did the movie, he had to control his voice more. Not that he was doing funny voices, but you could see him on stage and you obviously can’t see him in animation. Plus, it’s played differently. The sex scene is played differently because it’s just the actors across the stage from each other, so that played very funny in the stage play. It plays intentionally very differently in the movie.
AVC: The reactions to the sex scene are really interesting. At Toronto, where it screened in September, there was some laughter at first. Then people sort of lean into the sentiment of it and get over the fact that they’re seeing felt figures do that.
CK: It’s funny that you said “felt.” Did you read that somewhere else or did they look felt to you?
AVC: I think it’s a combination of the two. They’re not felt, are they?
CK: They’re not felt. That’s interesting.
DJ: A lot of people say that.
CK: I’m wondering where this felt myth came from. [Laughs.]
AVC: What are they made out of?
DJ: The faces are 3-D printed out of a material called… [Shouts across the room.] What’s the material called, Rosa?
Rosa Tran: Gypsum powder.
DJ: Hardened gypsum powder. So they’re, like, hard.
CK: But they have a texture to them that I think makes them maybe feel like felt. They look soft, but they’re not.
DJ: Yeah, and the bodies are silicon.
AVC: You’ve said, Duke, that at a certain point you wanted for the audience to stop feeling like they’re seeing something artificial and start feel like they’re watching people. But the source material has that very deliberate artificial quality. Can Anomalisa function both ways, using a distancing device and getting audiences invested?
CK: It seems like it’s working that way for most audiences. So I guess so. Maybe it’s a tightrope walk, but we tried to make everything grounded, we tried to make the characters as real as we could, except that they’re clearly not human, you know? Their facial expressions make them feel real; they’re nuanced and small, not the grand gestures that you would normally see in stop motion. I don’t know, it seems to be that people go in and out of it, maybe in a way that’s good. [To Johnson.] I don’t know, what do you think?
DJ: It’s interesting because I don’t think anyone would ever watch the movie and at one point forget that they’re animated.
CK: But people do say that.
DJ: But I think it means, “I got pulled into the emotion of the story” and with the characters, but the same thing happens in live action, right? Whether it’s Brad Pitt up there, if there’s a good moment up there and you get pulled into the emotion, you’re not thinking, “Oh, that’s Brad Pitt. He’s an actor and he’s famous.” That’s kind of the nature of storytelling, right? You sit around the fire and tell a story and you can get sucked into that story. If it has emotional authenticity, you can get pulled into that experience.
AVC: Duke, is it fair to say that this is the most ambitious thing you’ve ever worked on?
DJ: That is fair to say. By about 500 billion times. [Everyone laughs.]
AVC: How are the challenges different day to day compared to something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole?
DJ: [Laughs.] Not even, like… Frankenhole is, like, 10 seconds of animation a day. This was two seconds of animation per day per animator if we were lucky. That was the goal, never happened. On the sex scene, it was like nine frames a day and then the next day, you’d cut back 12 frames and I don’t know how that got done. Everything was super ambitious—the camera moves and the tracking shots and the dolly shots and the motion control. Having these characters come to life and feel like people and not move like animated characters. Having them move like people move and figuring out how people move and having these puppets do that. Finding the animators and finding the money and lighting a set in a cinematic way, which makes it pitch black on the monitor so the animators can’t see where to stick the pin and then they miss the eyeball and scrape the 3-D printed face then, there’s a scrape and you have to… I mean, it was just the hardest thing. I’ve never worked in a coal mine or anything. [Laughs.] But this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done for sure.
AVC: When you fund a movie through Kickstarter like this, does that relieve you of the responsibility to anyone? Are you just answering to yourself?
CK: Yes, though [Kickstarter provided] just the money to start it. We ended up getting a lot more financing from a guy named Keith Calder, and we also had the arrangement with Keith where we were making the decisions, which he was fine with. Any decision we made in this movie was one that we made without anybody overseeing us.
AVC: How long did you work with the actors doing voice-over?
CK: Three days.
AVC: Did they tackle the parts differently than they did on stage?
CK: Yeah, I think they did, because sort of instinctively, we just made it smaller. The play was theatrical and it was in a giant auditorium and you’re interacting with people laughing and stuff like that. [With the film] we’re sitting in a studio together and the actors are just sitting in a circle together. So it’s smaller.
AVC: Did it become more subtle?
CK: I think by smaller, I mean more subtle. But also quieter. I think not as presentational as a theatrical piece. What did you think, Duke?
DJ: I think it was exactly that. It became more intimate.
AVC: Is the film’s fictional hotel, the Fregoli, based on a real hotel?
CK: It’s a real hotel. It’s just a hotel that I saw when I was in Cincinnati doing the play. It was called the Millennium and they wouldn’t let us use the name for this, so we changed it. I’d never been to Millennium, so for all intents and purposes it was fictional hotel. And there really is a zoo in Cincinnati!
DJ: The actual layout of the room, we were just researching hotel rooms.
CK: Trying to find that generic quality.
AVC: A lot of the comedy is predicated on the absurdity of staying in hotels.
CK: And also sort of all the loneliness that comes from that.
AVC: In the past, Charlie, you’ve sort of chafed at people looking for autobiographical meaning in your work. But I think one of the reasons that happens is that your movies convey a powerfully acute understanding of loneliness.
CK: Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had a lonely moment in my life. [Everyone laughs.] I mean, I don’t talk about specifics of my personal life, but I think everything I do is based on my experience in the world in one way or another. So, of course, I’ve been lonely.