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.