Charlie Kaufman on His Puppet-Love Masterpiece 'Anomalisa'

"When everything is smoothed out, it becomes somewhat soulless," writer-director says of stop-motion romance

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Anomalisa; Charlie Kaufman
The couple, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, at the center of 'Anomalisa.' The movie, co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a romantic comedy-drama told entirely with stop-motion animation puppets. Paramount Pictures

Mild-mannered Charlie Kaufman has written some of the loopiest screenplays of the past 20 years, including Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): films about mind control, writing, and erased memories that also hammer out fundamental truths about love and human identity. But Kaufman hasn't released a movie since his divisive 2009 directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. His potential followup film, Frank or Francis — a musical that he says is about the Academy Awards, a robotic screenwriting head, and "this unbridled and anonymous anger on the Internet" — attracted scads of movie stars but eventually fell apart for lack of financing. (Kaufman still harbors hope of getting it made in the near future.)

So when Duke Johnson, most famous for directing a brilliant stop-motion episode of Community, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," wanted to co-direct an animated version of Anomalisa, a 2005 Kaufman stage play, the two men turned to Kickstarter. They raised $360,000 of seed money, just enough to get started on pre-production, storyboards, and puppet fabrication. The three original stars of the play reprised their roles: David Thewlis is Michael, the author of How May I Help You Them?, a book for people working in customer service; Jennifer Jason Leigh is Lisa, an awkward customer-service rep who Michael meets when he comes to Cincinnati to give a motivational speech; Tom Noonan voices everybody else. The movie, hitting theaters today, shows these two lovers' desperate efforts to make human contact, with results that are both sad and delightful.

"It was a leap of faith for me to go into this project with somebody I didn't know," admits Kaufman, who called us from Los Angeles to discuss the origins of Anomalisa, his employment history and why a ragged type of stop-motion animation made sense for the project. "But it turned out wonderfully."

Have you ever worked customer service?
I did it a lot, on and off for 10 years. It was a hard job, no matter where I was doing it. I answered questions about wet newspapers and missing supplements for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. I worked at the Metropolitan Opera selling tickets and answering questions about current and future productions. I'm not against opera, but I wasn't a fan either; I don't think anybody who worked at that job was. In the call room, we had these books with the names of all of these opera singers phonetically spelled out so that we could sound like we knew what we were talking about. The people who called us knew that we didn't know what we were talking about, and they were really mean about it. They had this expectation that somebody answering the phone for five dollars an hour was going to be able to converse knowledgeably about their passion.

Anomalisa felt like you took the idea that when you fall in love with somebody that person feels like the only person in the world — and dramatized the actual consequences of that. Was that a theme that emerged as you were working on it?
To be specific is against my philosophy, because any piece is an interaction between the piece and the person watching it. I don't want to take that away from people watching the movie by telling them what I think the movie is or what it should be. But certainly it's looking at relationships and what it is to fall in love, what it is to be isolated, and what it is to be disconnected from other people. And ... I guess that's all I'm going to say.

Was there anything that you had to leave behind from the stage version to make it work on screen?
Well, the stage version was designed to be a radio play, more or less. So the imagery was all to be created in the minds of the audience members. Obviously, that had to be left behind when we made it a visual thing. That's not a small thing — it was something I really loved about the piece, but it had to be given up. By design, things were left ambiguous in the play because I wanted people to come up with their own visuals. An example is that what, specifically, is physically wrong with Lisa is never [revealed] in the play. Okay, we now have to show Lisa, so what are we going to show? Or even the question of what this world looks like, where everybody sounds like Tom Noonan — that's up for grabs in a sound play.

Charlie Kaufman
Paramount Pictures

When the play was first staged, you used the pseudonym Francis Fregoli — was there a reason you picked that name?
Originally, I had to create all of this story with just voices, music and a Foley artist ... that was the premise. This was a very low-budget thing we were doing: No one got paid for it and because of that, we didn't have a lot of rehearsal time, and I had three actors. I thought that it would be interesting to have a lot more characters but only played by three people. And I'd read about the Fregoli delusion, which is this belief that everyone else in the world is the same person. So I thought that was a metaphorically interesting circumstance for this character to find himself in — not that he literally has that condition, but that it was an interesting way of expressing something about human interaction.

Was there any hint in the stage play that somebody's jaw might be falling off, as David's does at one point?
No, because that wasn't part of the sound play. Once we decided on the type of animation we were going to do, many versions of the upper and the lower face were made to create the emotions and to match the dialogue, with different mouth shapes. The seams are always painted out in other animations that use this technique; we decided to keep them because we liked that it was stop-motion animation. When everything is evened out and smoothed out, it becomes somewhat soulless. We found over time that the quality of keeping it handmade created a kind of vulnerability and soulfulness. So the jaw falling off — which happens only in a dream — was something that came from that type of animation.

Were you attracted to stop-motion animation when you were growing up?
I liked Gumby when I was a kid: There was something kind of weird and dreamlike and a little creepy about it. I like puppets a lot, I think. I did a lot of movies when I was a kid, and different types of animation were among them.

I took a stop-motion animation class in high school, which wasn't really a class — we just got the equipment and we were able to shoot on Super 8 film. I did one three-minute animation with clay, about an artist working with ... a big piece of, I guess, clay. And I built a loft studio out of a cardboard box. It had a skylight and a pipe going up the corner. He was sculpting this mound of whatever it was, and it started to come to life. The concept was pretty basic: The thing came to life and it started turning into all these different things. At one point, it threw him against the wall. I didn't know what I was doing, but I got him off the ground by having little toothpicks under his feet and I shot it from an angle where you couldn't see them. It was clear he wasn't touching the ground as he was being thrown, and I was really proud of that.

Then one of my teachers wanted to show it in his class: I had one copy and he lost it. I was really upset, because of the movies I made as a kid, this was the most accomplished and it was the thing I was the most proud of. I was so clear that I gave it to him and he was so clear that he gave it back to me. And the fact that a teacher was, in my opinion, lying to me to save face as opposed to taking responsibility, it was just really creepy to me.

"I liked Gumby when I was a kid: There was something kind of weird and dreamlike and a little creepy about it."

Are there unproduced scripts of yours that you feel would be served well by stop-motion?
Duke and our producer Rosa Tran and I have talked about maybe doing another one with something else I've written. We would very much like to, but I guess it remains to be seen whether we'll be able to.

All the names of the prepackaged baked goods in Anomalisa — Brownie Balls, Choco-Bricks, Nibble-O's — if scriptwriting doesn't work out, you always have product consulting open to you.
I like doing stuff like that; in Eternal Sunshine, I really liked naming Clementine's hair colors.

What else are you working on now?
I'm doing a rewrite on a script that I wrote for Paramount and I'm working on a novel.

Have you written a novel before?
I have not.

Are you getting your head around it? Is it working?
God knows. I don't know if anything is working until I finish it and then someone says, "Oh, that works." After I finish a script, sometimes I give it to my wife to read to make sure that it's in English before I turn it in. It's such a struggle for me. I'm always worried about what it is that I'm doing.

That anxiety comes through.
I don't know if that's good or not [laughs].

Charlie Kaufman
'Anomalisa' co-directors Charlie Kaufman, left, and Duke Johnson. Todd Williamson

Well, it's part of your voice, so yeah — it's good. What's the greatest satisfaction of your job?
Exploring some idea or emotion, and coming closer to expressing it. I also like writing jokes that are funny. I've always gauged the truth of something by whether or not it's funny, if that makes any sense.

If people come at your work from an intellectual point of view, are they misapprehending it?
I am always trying to find the emotional core, either expressed in humor or expressed in pain. I don't think you get to that intellectually. Once you're there you can start to recognize things and expand on it, maybe intellectually. But I have things that I find really compelling and often I don’t know why, though I go with it anyway. So I guess that's a decidedly non-intellectual approach.

What makes you happy?
Weather makes me happy.

And yet you live in Los Angeles.
Sadly, yeah. But I find myself really invigorated and thrilled by weather when I am in it. I like storms, I like wind, I like snow, I like lightning. I like things that are big. It puts things in perspective.

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