Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson on meanings of Anomalisa and awards season ghetto of animation — An IndieEthos Exclusive
January 14, 2016
On an uncharacteristically wet and chilly Tuesday morning in Downtown Miami, filmmakers Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson sit at a round table easily large enough to sit 10 in a windowless conference room of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Though it may not seem ideal, the gloom reflects the atmosphere of the duo’s debut collaboration, Anomalisa. “It’s like winter on the beach,” acknowledges Johnson. “I love that.”
The stop-motion film opens on a rainy night in Cincinnati, so it’s fitting Johnson eases into the atmosphere of the day. The film’s story, written by Kaufman, follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) a customer service expert with a best-selling book entitled “How May I Help You Help Them?” He’s staying at a hotel before a speaking engagement for a group of customer service reps. It’s there that he bumps into Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Unlike everyone else around him, who sound like Tom Noonan and have similar faces (from women to men to children), Lisa is different. She’s an anomaly in Michael’s mundane world. She even has a scar on her face that she hides behind her long bangs.
“Let’s talk about that movie,” says Kaufman, changing the subject from the weather before quickly adding, “I’m tired about talking about that movie,” with a laugh. They are now on the fourth month of the film’s press tour.
Kaufman, 57, is the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). He wrote Anomalisa as radio play, which was first performed on stage by Thewlis, Leigh and and Noonan in 2005. Looking for something more adult for the stop motion repertoire of the animation studio he co-owns, Starburns Industries, producer Dino Stamatopoulos, brought the script to Johnson. As a self-described longtime fan of Kaufman’s work, the 36-year-old animation director took almost immediate interest in the work. “I loved it. I just related to the characters and was moved by it emotionally,” he admits.
Thus, Starburns approached Kaufman to adapt Anomalisa with puppets in mind. Though it wasn’t his first choice for turning his radio play into something visual, Kaufman confesses, he had few choices to get back into filmmaking. “I was looking to get stuff made,” he says. “I was having a difficult time getting anything off the ground, so I gave them permission to try to raise money, and they were able to, so we did it.”
Kaufman says it was only after the film-making process began that the significance of telling the story via the stop motion medium registered. “Once we started working on it in stop motion I think Duke and I discovered why stop motion works for the film. And certainly after people started seeing the movie, I think we discovered even more in terms of reactions from people.”
Before anyone reads too much into what it may mean that the story is told via stop motion, Kaufman clarifies, “It wasn’t about the stop motion that I was reacting. It was about the visual form. I think live action would have had the same reaction.”
Kaufman has long had an aversion to explaining what his films are about. Some mistakenly consider this pretense. What Kaufman really is is a generous filmmaker, inviting the audience to project their own experiences and identities when experiencing one of his movies. He says of Anomalisa, “People are to get from it what they bring to it, how they interact with it, what it inspires in their minds based on their experience of the world. I’m not going to tell people what they should get from it. I was writing about this character who struggles with this particular problem. We’ve had an enormous diversity of reactions, and it’s not even about I love it or hate it, even though that’s part of it for some people … For me to say what it’s about would sort of preclude the possibility of people having that experience, so I’m not going to.”
As with any film that invites interpretation, some will see things they would not ordinarily like to see. At a recent preview screening in Miami, it was reported that a group of entertainment reporters could hardly contain their giggles when Michael and Lisa had graphic, awkward sex. Heads smacked painfully on a headboard and cunnilingus was enacted. On a more surreal extreme, the film breaks the fourth wall when Michael literally comes apart at the seams. Not everyone has liked this movie, as Kaufman noted, but that is to be expected. However, this does not make this film a “bad” movie.
Johnson offers, “There’s a difference between people being repelled by an idea or being offended by something to having a negative feeling about something or thinking that it’s poor filmmaking. Those are two different things. For me, Lars Von Trier, I think, he’s really talented, an incredible filmmaker. I have the utmost respect and admiration for what he does. Sometimes I don’t feel like going to see one of his movies. I’m not always ready for it. It’s not always an enjoyable, emotional experience for me, and it’s hard. His movies always challenge me in a way that I just sometimes don’t want to have that experience. But I would never say that one of his movies is bad, because I think that’s two different things.”
“Yeah,” chimes in Kaufman. “I think a movie is bad when it leaves you with nothing or when you feel that you’ve been manipulated by it to get a reaction that isn’t a real reaction from you, which I think is a common thing. What I think our film does that a lot of films don’t do is that it doesn’t conclude anything, which I try never to do when I write things. It doesn’t say: And so we’ve learned that it’s bad to be this or that it’s good to be this or that it’s important to love people. You can find things like that in it because things like that are there, but there’s hopefully — and by intention — there’s a layering of ideas in the movie.”
But there is something special and inherent in the film’s stop motion. The characters’ movements are never perfectly smooth, and you will notice the seams in the face plates that have to be changed out for different mouth movements or expressions. This is by design, and though the film was meticulously made, there are still glitches here and there, which is fine by the filmmakers. “For me personally,” says Johnson, “I think everything could have been done better as you’re going. For me, it’s my process, striving for some sort of perfection that can never be reached, and then, in the end, it’s so much better because of the flaws, that you weren’t able to reach that perfection. But you still have to go for something to find what it ends up being.”
On an almost subconscious level, these flaws only enhance the film’s human concern and all of its blemishes. Kaufman says, “The flaws are what make it, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t feel it could be better. I mean, obviously, in some objective sense it could, but I feel like I love the way this movie looks.”
The film has received some tremendous acclaim. At press time, it was nominated for an Oscar in the Animated Feature Film category. Prior to that it was nominated for a Golden Globe. Although it was relegated to the animation section to compete only against children’s movies. Says Kaufman, “The thing about the Golden Globes that’s interesting and frustrating to me is — in addition to the fact that the category as it’s perceived in the United States — is that it’s movies for children, and ours is not. In fact, Kurt Russell, in his introduction to animation at the Golden Globes said these are movies all generations can enjoy together, or something like that. Well, at that point I knew we weren’t gonna win.” He laughs.
Kaufman says he hopes that someday people can see beyond animation to consider it in other categories at such awards ceremonies. “Maybe in 2020,” he says. “Animation is like any other filmmaking. It’s a thing and you can make anything you want with it. But it’s been relegated to this sort of children’s movie thing, and it’s frustrating. We’re hoping — we were hoping, and we continue to hope that people start seeing it as a diverse form and not just that one thing.”
“I mean, it’s a movie,” offers Johnson. “It’s just a movie, and above everything else it’s just a movie about this story and…”
“And the thing about stop motion animation,” Kaufman interrupts, “which is like even closer to live action is that it’s actual, three-dimensional filmmaking. It’s not the illusion of light that’s created in the computer or created in drawings. There are sets, and there are actors, and there are costumes, and things move through space, and it’s filmmaking, just very incremental in how it’s done.”
“There’s this thing about the Oscars and the Golden Globes and where does this fit?” continues Johnson. “It’s relegated to the kids table.”
Johnson has worked on many stop motion projects through Starburns, including “Morel Orel” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole” on Adult Swim, as well as having directed the famous Christmas episode for “Community.” He has some experience as a stop motion animator against different animation styles. He notes that cinematography is a key aspect of the medium. However, the animation guild, the Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA), does not have a cinematography category in their awards, the Annie Awards, which is now entering its 43rd year. “This is for animation, but they have don’t have cinematography because animation doesn’t typically have a cinematographer.”
Kaufman adds, “And what Joe Passarelli, our DP did, is incredibly gorgeous and incredibly intricate, and it’s also something that is often not done in this type of animation because it makes it difficult to animate, to have really complex lighting grids, and it limits access to the animators. We have these tiny little grids, and it’s eye lights, and it’s beautiful. It took forever for them to set up.”
Though delicate in its temperament in depicting a man lost within himself, Anomalisa is truly a confrontation on many levels. It’s a confrontation to the limits of the animation genre, and it’s a confrontation of the studio system, which makes it amazing that a major studio (Paramount Pictures) has taken a chance on this movie. It’s truly a film better suited for art houses, as it’s also a confrontation to human existence, feelings and how we value others outside of us. “I’ll take that,” says Kaufman, “but I don’t feel confrontational, honestly don’t, in making this thing. I don’t feel that it’s confrontation, and I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just saying that that is something that I will say: For me it was an exploration of an idea and a way of interacting that I experienced and that I see and that I feel is commonplace, but I don’t feel like it’s a lecture.”
He says you have to keep in mind that there’s no omniscient perspective in the film to judge this character by. It’s an internal experience. There is no room for dramatic irony or anything with that kind of cynicism. “I wrote this from the point of view of Michael’s character,” offers Kaufman. “It’s completely inside his experience, except for the end of the movie … This is Michael’s experience, and I feel like it’s a human experience.”
Anomalisa runs 90 minutes and is Rated R. It opens in our Miami area at Regal South Beach this Friday. It has been slowly rolling out across the U.S. since Dec. 30. For dates in other cities, visit this link. Paramount Pictures provided all images used in this post and invited me to a screening last month for awards consideration.