Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson aren’t exactly the most obvious of creative pairings. Charlie Kaufman is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), while Duke Johnson is best known for his work in stop-motion animation with Moral Orel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and directing the Community stop-motion episode Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas. Thankfully, they both came together to create the truly unforgettable Anomalisa, which was my favorite movie of 2015 (check out my full review), and is now available on Digital HD.
The story follows a successful self-help author named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who can’t escape the mundane nature of his life while on a business trip to Cincinnati, until he meets a unique young woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Literally every other character in the movie is voiced by Tom Noonan, which is just as strange as it sounds. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s rather tough to describe how brilliant it truly is, but the story’s origins are even more bizarre than this seemingly-simple premise.
A decade ago, Charlie Kaufman was approached by composer Carter Burwell to write a play for a unique stage experiment, which featured actors reading from a script on stage, Carter Burwell providing the music and a number of foley artists creating various sound effects. The Coen Brothers wrote one play, and Charlie Kaufman wrote another, but when the show moved to Los Angeles, the Coen’s dropped out, which lead to Charlie Kaufman writing another play, and that’s how Anomalisa was born.
While Charlie Kaufman made his directing debut with Synecdoche, New York in 2008, this project was his first foray into stop motion, teaming up with Duke Johnson to direct, in his feature directorial debut. Duke Johnson works for Starburns Industries, a stop-motion company lead by Dino Stamatopoulos (the actual Starburns from Community), and with the help of financing through a Kickstarter campaign, the movie went on to get an Oscar nomination for Best Animated feature.
I recently had the chance to speak with both Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson over the phone about Anomalisa. We spoke about the movie’s unique origins, a bizarre condition known as the Fregoli Delusion that heavily influences the film, the small crew of animators they had to work with, and much more. Take a look at our conversation below.
I saw this at AFI Fest last year, and I was really blown away by it. I remember when you were doing the Q&A, you mentioned that this originated as a live stage radio play. Can you talk about how that came about? Were you approached by Carter Burwell about that, or was this story something you had thought about turning into a feature before that?
Charlie Kaufman: No, what happened was Carter was approached by the London Royal Festival Hall in London to do an evening conducting his different film scores. He wasn’t interested in doing that, because it seemed like repetitive and sort of dull to him, and he’s really not into film scores, when they aren’t attached to movies, as music. So, he thought it would be cool to do an evening where it was kind of a combination of voices and music and he approached the Coen Brothers and he approached me, to write the words. We ended up deciding to do this sound play thing, where we would have actors on stage, and Carter would be there, and there would be a foley artist. The idea would be to create the imagery in the minds of the audience. So, we did two of them, one the Coen‘s did, one I did, and we went to New York and London with them. The Coen‘s didn’t want to go to Los Angeles with theirs, and I wanted to go to Los Angeles with mine, so I had to write a second one to fill out the evening, because there was only one left. That’s when I wrote Anomalisa. It was the second one I wrote. We did it at Royce Hall in UCLA. We did two performances and that was the end of it. That was the show. A friend of mine named Dino Stamatopoulos was in the audience in one of the nights, and he really liked Anomalisa. He approached me in 2011, and at that point, he had an animation studio where he was doing a show called Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and such. He and Duke, who was the director, they were looking for something to do, and they approached me about Anomalisa, and that’s how it came to be.
I was doing some research while writing my review last year, and I came across the “Fregoli Delusion,” which is the name of the hotel, and it was just fascinating to me. Had that been a concept that was always floating around in your brain, or that you were always fascinated by?
Charlie Kaufman: No, I was looking to write something for the second play, and I had to write it kind of quickly, because we were going to do this evening, and there was no other play. So, I was looking for something to do. I knew I could use a very small number of actors, so I settled on three. I had read about the Fregoli Delusion during this period, and I thought it would be cool to have one of the actors play all the parts, but not change his voice, not like he was doing different characters. It sort of felt like it spoke to the second character’s actual inability to actually see people, as specific separate individuals. So, it really all happened at once. It wasn’t something I had in my bag of tricks, or anything.
Can you both talk about turning the stage script into a feature, and how much went into that? Sadly, I wasn’t at the Royce Hall performance, so I don’t know how long that stage play was. Can you talk about the transition of turning that story from the stage to the screen?
Duke Johnson: Well, the stage performance was a non-visual thing, or, at least, it wasn’t visualized in the traditional sense of you are seeing what you are hearing. All of the visuals had to be decided upon, what these characters look like, what this world looked like, but, also, the stage performance was just kind of dialogue, and music and sound effects, but no real staging and scene direction and the gaps between the dialogue. So, all of that had to be figured out.
Charlie Kaufman: It was about an hour, the stage performance. So, when we were adding stuff, like Duke was just saying, all of the choreography and staging and stuff like that, it filled it out.
One of the things that really fascinated me about the movie was, in a world like this, where everyone does look and sound the same, it kind of throws the traditional conventions of vanity out the window. There’s that that scene where Lisa is surprised that Michael wants to have a nightcap with her. To me, that was kind of mind-blowing, because you can’t really tell, I guess, just from looking at these characters, that one would be more attractive than the other. It’d be different if you had two actresses who were dressed differently and one might not seem as appealing as the other, but for me, it was mind-blowing because I hadn’t seen any of those characters any less or more appealing than the other. Was that a dynamic that you were trying to push the envelope with this story?
Charlie Kaufman: I think the idea was that Emily, who was Lisa’s friend who you were referring to, was only seen… I mean, when you’re in the audience, you’re seeing this through Michael’s perspective. So, you’re always seeing Michael’s version of Emily. In fact, at the end of the movie, you see Emily as not seen by Michael, in the very last shot. But, I think to us it wasn’t really about making Lisa extraordinary or Emily extraordinary. It was more about that, for some reason, Lisa is a person that Michael can see. As ordinary as she is, she’s extraordinary to him, at that moment, because he can see her. There’s a lot of this sort of this, thinking about what it is to fall in love with somebody, and what projection is, and all that sort of stuff that happens in romantic relationships, and when that sort of falls away, what you’re left with. It was very important to me that the object of Michael’s affections and desires, be a very ordinary person. If she had been a lion tamer or a gymnast or some weird thing like that, it would have gotten lost. It would have just become about, ‘Oh, look at what this person has going.’
I actually had the chance to visit Laika a few years ago. They have this huge stop-motion facility, and they have literally hundreds of sets they were working on, for ParaNorman. This movie obviously has a lot fewer characters, but the process is so labor-intensive. Can you talk about how big of a team you both had, as far as the animators and people working on the sets, throughout the production?
Duke Johnson: It was about the size of Laika’s craft service table (Laughs). We had 18 stages at most, and 13 animators working at any given time. We had about 30 animators that worked on the film, because they sort of came and went over the course of the two years, but 13 working at one time. It’s very small, by comparison to Laika, for example. We had, total, maybe a 100-person crew, maximum.
Is there anything you’re working on in the future that you can talk about?
Duke Johnson: I’m doing small stuff, like a music video. I’m doing a music video for a group called Die Antwoord. That’s fun, but yeah, I’m trying to get a live-action film off the ground, and that could take anywhere from a few months, to the rest of my life.
The Oscar-nominated Anomalisa is currently available on Digital HD formats everywhere, before debuting on VOD formats March 29 and on Blu-ray and DVD May 3. While the filmmakers wouldn’t say what they have brewing next, after seeing Anomalisa, one can only hope that they bring another unique story to life with stop-motion animation. Will you be adding Anomalisa to your Digital HD collection this week?