Special Screening Of Paramount Pictures' "Anomalisa" - ArrivalsOn 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. Special Screening Of Paramount Pictures' "Anomalisa" - Arrivals“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 Special Screening Of Paramount Pictures' "Anomalisa" - Arrivalsplates 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.” HeAnomalisa AFI Film Festival Screening And Q&A 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.”

Hans Morgenstern

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.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Moonrise Kingdom is not your typical Wes Anderson film. As a long-time fan, I have always thought his films existed in some hyper-real dimension of unreality and loved them for it. But Moonrise Kingdom shows Anderson taking a turn into almost surrealistic territory with a more focused mise-en-scène and a subtle shift in tone. Most of his previous films, even his 2009 puppet-populated stop motion masterpiece Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fantastic Mr. Fox lives up to its title), possess a sardonic, sometimes mean-spirited tragie-humor.  Moonrise Kingdom reeks of so much innocence and purity it exists as a slight detour from Anderson’s usual aesthetic. Despite taking place mostly outdoors, Anderson heightens his usual stagey feel, his actors behave stiffer than usual and he introduces a more atmospheric score, working with Alexandre Desplat for a second time. Long after the film has ended it sticks with you like a pleasant little memory.

The film follows Sam (Jared Gilman), a 12-year-old orphan who has run away from his “Khaki Scout” camp on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965. When Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) finds Sam missing (“Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!”), he gathers the other scouts for a search party. They arm themselves with some scary weaponry for some strange reason. But any sense of foreboding dread is subverted by the perky bounce of plucked string instruments from a classical piece called “Playful Pizzicato” on the film’s soundtrack. Sam has made plans to meet his pen pal Suzy (Kara Hayward). She is also 12 and has run away from her own oppressive atmosphere: her bitter, lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three hyperactive, younger brothers. These two are probably Anderson’s most innocent duo at the center of the drama since Dignan and Anthony (Owen and Luke Wilson in their own debut roles) in Bottle Rocket (1996).

Anderson sets up the action at a leisurely pace, though it still seems to overflow with information. The film starts with neat, symmetrical shots of the interior of Suzy’s three-story, brilliant red home. The camera tracks through large rooms that, through props and the inhabitants’ activities, date the home to its mid-1960s time frame. The family members mostly stay apart from one another. Suzy reads and looks out of the house through binoculars, a not-so-subtle quirk that reveals her longing to escape. The camera explores the home with neat zooms and smooth pans from one room to another, as the boys listen to “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34: Themes A-F” by Benjamin Britten on a portable record player. The exterior, with its perfectly pruned shrubbery and immaculate red paint job contextualize the neatness inside the home. From the outside the house’s paint job seems so polished, it looks like a doll house.

The set pieces throughout the film seem almost fetishistic in the attention to detail that produced them. In a parallel to this introduction of Suzy’s living conditions, Anderson offers an indulgent tour of Sam’s scout camp, Camp Ivanhoe. The scene opens with a kid with an eye-patch (Charlie Kilgore) blowing a wake-up call on a bugle. During a long tracking shot, the camera follows Scout Master Ward making the rounds as he accounts for all his troops. He stops next to one small group of busy boys after another, as they work on projects of various quality and ingenuity. While some practice their bow and arrow skills, others concoct an outhouse with plumbing made of sticks, water pails and a bell. Ward lingers a moment with each group to offer criticism before striding on to the next batch of industrious lads.

Of all the films in Anderson’s career, Moonrise Kingdom mostly recalls Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even the many outdoor scenes have a stagey quality. There are moments of action that include a bloody death and several scenes with explosions, but Anderson has stylized the action, which include quick cuts of still animation, to such an extent there is nothing too horrific about it. The characters also deliver their lines more stiff than I have ever seen in an Anderson film. They may have well been puppets themselves. Here are two short clips that offer a good taste of what I mean:

Though Murray makes his sixth appearance in an Anderson film and Jason Schwartzman his fourth, the film also features many new faces for an Anderson film. Both children in the lead roles make their big screen debuts with Moonrise Kingdom, and they do a decent job. There are also major acting forces new to the Anderson stable besides Norton and McDormand, like Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban. All these new faces delivering the terser-than-usual Anderson lines (this script was also co-written by Roman Coppola) makes for a slightly jarring effect. Some (Keitel and Balaban) do it better than others (McDormand, Swinton, Willis, Norton). But the style of acting does not feel much different from that of the recently hyped Greek New Wave cinema*, which also tells stories as if so aware of the cinematic limitations of representing “reality,” it skips naturalistic acting for the cold distance of human vessels delivering lines. It only heightens the surreal, nostalgic memory of long-past experiences. After all, most of the film follows the two 12-year-old kids at the heart of the film as they try to carry on a passionate love affair of 12-year-old proportions.

Using Sam’s camping skills, they disappear to the hidden inlet they Christian “Moonrise Kingdom.” Suzy reads from her young adult fantasy books like “The Girl From Jupiter,” “The Francine Diaries” and “The Seven Matchsticks.” With their simple, hand-drawn covers the books recall a time before airbrush technique much less Photoshop and the titles offer an evocative, nostalgic quality. She also plays her seven-inch singles of Françoise Hardy on the portable record player she borrowed from her brothers. Sam, meanwhile, offers his life-saving skills he learned as a camper, like putting leaves under your hat to stay cool or sucking on pebbles to stave off thirst. He also fishes their meals, keeps inventory of supplies and paints watercolors of his muse.

The icing on the cake that is Moonrise Kingdom arrives in the form of the majestic score featuring original material by Desplat, another newbie to the Anderson aesthetic first introduced to slighter effect on Fantastic Mr. Fox. Before that, Anderson mostly went to former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh for music that had a more self-consciously precious quality. Desplat’s score has a more subdued quality with a light, sprightly touch and offers a more colorful palette of instruments that Mothersbaugh could never seem to muster. There is dynamism in the quiet moments, lending some subtlety to the mix.

Anderson’s own song selection, again with Randall Poster supervising, also adds a lot to the film’s atmosphere. The music stays true to the era, as all of it existed before 1965. From the era-appropriate French pop of Hardy to the quiet majesty of the early thirties music from Songs From Friday Afternoons by Britten.

Britten’s presence is also significant in a children’s staging of his opera Noye’s Fludde (Yes, the story of Noah’s Ark). Both its music and the on-screen staging of the opera are highlights that play to Anderson’s strengths as a filmmaker. It marks Anderson’s third cinematic detour into staging a child’s play during one of his films. The extravagance of Noye’s Fludde within Moonrise Kingdom, however, figures heavier into the drama than any of the other brief plays, be it a high school staging of Serpico in Rushmore (1998) and a play about animals by one of the children in the Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Beyond the power of the music, it is during a production of this opera when the film’s lovers meet. Also, its dramatic quality compliments the actual storm that will soon affect all the characters of Moonrise Kingdom.

The film does have an odd quality that might seem even more hyper-stylized than previous Anderson films. But it is also one of his more focused films, elevating puppy love between two children to an almost epic quality and forgoing his usual cynical characterizations (even Schwartzman’s teenage Max Fischer of Rushmore seemed more adult than humanly possible). Everything else around Sam and Suzy is just odd noise that only enforces their need to be together. They are both lonely in their own way, and it is their private forms of loneliness that draws them together to form an original coupling that will seem impossible to break.

Hans Morgenstern

Moonrise Kingdom is rated PG-13 and runs 94 minutes. It finally hits a select few South Florida theaters today, Friday, June 22. It plays at the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton. Focus Features invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

*I’m working on an overview for an up-coming mini Greek New Wave film festival at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for “the Miami New Times.” Update: read it here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)