Charlie Kaufman cannot tell you what his mind-bending picture, Anomalisa, is about

Stop-motion animated film cuts to the heart of our longing for intimacy and unconditional love, and could be the filmmaker’s redemption after flop of his ambitious 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 5:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 3:58pm

When Charlie Kaufman wrote the script for Being John Malkovich, the 1999 film directed by Spike Jonze that put them both on the map, it was about a puppeteer who finds a portal into the actor Malkovich’s brain. Now it’s Kaufman who is the puppeteer, pulling the strings on his new film, Anomalisa, a masterful stop-motion adult animation that’s more Jan Svankmajer than it is Nick Park.

The story of Michael Stone (voiced by British actor David Thewlis), a motivational speaker who has arrived in Cincinnati to promote his new book on customer service, How May I Help You Help Them?, the film traces his meltdown over one weekend. Set in probably the strangest establishment since John Turturro checked in to the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink, Anomalisa expertly dissects the heart of the human condition.

Not that the 57-year-old Kaufman would ever state something so directly. “To say what the film is about is something I’m not comfortable doing,” he says.

Fortunately, his cast are. “For me, it’s about the search and the longing for intimacy and for love – for a really unconditional love – and how transitory that is,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh, who voices Lisa, the telesales girl Michael falls for. “There’s a bittersweet quality in that. But there’s always the hope for it, and when it exists, it feels so, so good. It feels like it will last forever.”

Leigh and Thewlis originally starred in Anomalisa when it began life as a staged radio play in Los Angeles as part of composer Carter Burwell’s Theatre of the New Ear series. “It’s what we call a sound play,” explains Kaufman, “which means that the actors were on stage, there was a Foley artist [seen on-stage, providing sound effects] and there were musicians. The idea was there was nothing happening on stage except that and you’re creating this imagery hopefully in the audiences’ minds.”

Kaufman was approached by Dino Stamatopoulos, a friend and the founder of animation company Starburns Industries, to turn the play into a film. His only previous experience of directing was 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, a hugely ambitious meta-movie about an ailing theatre director, and he was hesitant. “Translating it into a visual thing was almost antithetical to what it should be,” Kaufman admits.

After he met animator Duke Johnson – who ultimately became his co-director on the project – he began to appreciate what animation could do for the story. “Once we started working on it, it felt like it was becoming something beautiful – and that seemed beautiful to me,” says Kaufman. “It was its own thing. The play existed and this existed and there’s a relationship, and they’re their own things. I’m fine with it now. I’m happy with it.”

To get the film under way, the producers took the unconventional route of looking for US$200,000 in seed money via crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The campaign raised more than double that; film outfit Snoot Entertainment put up the rest, allowing Kaufman complete creative control. If this sounds dreamy, like Wes Anderson, the fellow filmmaker who similarly turned to stop-motion with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kaufman admits the painstaking nature of a puppet-driven movie took him by surprise.

Anomalisa took two years to shoot, with between 12 and 15 animators working across 18 miniature sets at any one time. “It’s not like a conventional film set. It’s a bunch of little rooms with little sets,” says Kaufman, who reports that two seconds of footage per animator was the daily average achieved.

Would he do it again, if he had his time over? He nods. “I think this is the form that it should be in.”

Some scenes translated brilliantly – not least when Michael ventures to the hotel’s basement, which houses an uncommonly large office. “As a stage play, it was trying to create these spaces that weren’t there. So I wanted to create this office in people’s minds that was so big, that you’d need a golf cart to cross it.” Practically, it meant a 30-foot set. “It was too big to raise off the ground,” says Johnson. “An animator had to crawl around on it, and animate what was happening.”

Other conceits also worked perfectly. Like the fact that all the incidental characters are voiced in the same dispassionate manner by Tom Noonan, a notion that “lends a dream-like quality” to the film, says Kaufman, and would’ve been “distracting” had it been live-action. Or that the joins in the panels of the puppet’s faces are clearly visible, “a correlation”, says Johnson, to “the artifice of these characters”.

Neither Johnson nor his co-director wanted the look to be ultra-sleek; they wanted you to see the seams in their puppets. “We wanted them to be soulful,” says Johnson. “That’s a word we used a lot to describe our intention for how they look, but we also didn’t want to cover up the construction because we didn’t want to polish it too much and make it look like something that it’s not. We didn’t want to hide what it was.”

Johnson, who previously directed an Emmy-winning stop-motion episode of TV series Community, was under no illusion about just how time-consuming the form is. “I want people to know how hard it was to do this stuff. There was no computer animation in the entire movie. People say ‘What’s outside the windows, with the city – is that computer animated?’ We built that city. We built those buildings. We lit them with individual lights. The clouds are cotton.”

When it came to crafting the puppet faces, a 3D printer was used. Michael’s looks were inspired by Johnson’s ex-brother-in-law. Lisa was based on unknown actress Leslie Murphy, glimpsed eating in an LA restaurant. As for the other Noonan-voiced characters, who all share the same “specific but anonymous” face as Johnson puts it, they were taken from an amalgam of employees at Starburns Industries.

Reuniting his actors – Noonan had also appeared in the play – Kaufman took the unusual step in animation of getting all three to record their dialogue together. “It was wonderful and freeing,” says Leigh. “Obviously a lot of animated work is geared towards children, but to be able to do something like this, with just our voices, that is so adult and is so emotional, true and detailed… it was unlike any experience I’ve had.”

Since its unveiling last autumn, where it won a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Anomalisa has gone on to gain Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best animated feature. The hope, for Kaufman, is that it will reignite a career that had been floundering after the box-office failure of Synecdoche, New York. In the interim, he wrote three screenplays and three TV pilots, none of which reached the screens.

Currently, he’s writing a novel, as well as adapting a book for a live-action movie. But would he ever consider going back to Anomalisa, the “sound” play?

“We’ve talked about it. Going on the road with it. The play is a really different experience and it’s really fun. I talked about it with Tom and Jennifer and they seemed interested. Maybe it would be fun. Maybe we could do it now this is getting some publicity.”

Anomalisa opens on April 7

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