Interview: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson on ANOMALISA
Following his work on films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman quickly become a household among cinephiles. He later went on to win an Oscar for writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After his directorial debut, the divisive Synecdoche New York disappointed at the box office, Kaufman’s name disappeared from the screen. He went on to film a pilot for FX called How and Why, which was ultimately not picked up. He also failed to fund his audacious screenplay Frank or Francis, which was once set to star Jack Black, Nicolas Cage and Jacki Weaver. After an seven year absence, Kaufman finally returns with Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated film co-directed by Duke Johnson. We spoke with the filmmakers in anticipation of the film’s Blu-Ray release.
Scene Creek: When did you decide that Anomalisa should be a film? Why stop-motion?
Charlie Kaufman: The funny thing is that I decided that it should never be anything else besides what it originally was. I liked that it was just this staged radio play thing and I’d written it to be that, to be a non-visual thing. When it was doen in 2005 I had no interest in trying to figure out another form for it. What happened was, there was this guy named Dino Stamatopoulos who was a friend of mine who happened to be in the audience in 2005 and he really liked the play. He went on to found an animation studio called Starburns industries, where Duke is a director. They were looking for something to do in 2011 and had a copy of the play. They approached me, it was their idea to do a stop-motion version of this, not mine.
SC: Duke, what was your response to the material?
Duke Johnson: I was a big fan of Charlie’s previous work, so it was kind of a dream come true for me. I remember the moment I was in Dino’s office and we were trying to come up with ideas for things we could do next. Dino mentions that he had a copy of this Charlie Kaufman script for Anomalisa and I was shocked to find that. I didn’t even know that Dino knew Charlie. If you could have an independent screenplay by anybody, you would want it to be Charlie Kaufman. I read it and I loved it. It was exciting.
SC: People seemed to be very struck by the animation in the film. It often seems startlingly real. What was your initial approach?
DJ: I think that people are shocked by how real it looks because they’ve never seen anything in stop motion that looks this real. That said, it doesn’t look real, it just looks as real as anything they’ve seen in this medium. It’s not like photo real. Also, I don’t think it’s as absolutely real as we could have made it look.
CK: Our interest was that we wanted to do something that for adults. So immediately you throw away that cute character type stuff that you see in kids stop-motion animation. We had the story and we had these performances and that called for something that was small and nuanced, in terms of the animation. The way the puppets looked and the way the set looked had to be in keeping with that. I think that was sort of the motivation for what the movie ended up looking like.
DJ: It is stylized though, it has it’s own unique style and aesthetic.
SC: Why did you decide to crowd-fund the project?
DJ: We were just trying to find money to get it made. We pursued some more traditional avenues but it wasn’t looking good, either because it was involving more than we were willing to get on board with. Once you go to a big company and they offer to give you money it comes with a whole branch of people that are suddenly involved in the process. How long it needs to be and what it needs to be rated. Not that there were people lining up to give us money, but from some of our initial conversations we realized that this was something that needed to be made independently. Just to preserve the material basically. Kickstarter was a new thing and it was suggested to us to try, so we gave it a shot.
SC: Charlie, it’s no secret that you had trouble getting funding for Frank or Francis. After the success of crowdfunding this film is that something you would try for that screenplay?
CK: I think Kickstarter came with some issues for us in terms of what was required in attending to the Kickstarter. There are a lot of people involved. Also, we got $400,000 from Kickstarter, which is a lot, but it’s not close to what we needed for the movie, and it certainly wouldn’t be close to what I would need for Frank or Francis. So no, I haven’t thought about it. I’m hoping that I don’t have to go back to Kickstarter again for something. Not that there weren’t great things about it, but it’s a burden.
SC: So are you done with Frank or Francis, or is that maybe something we can hope to see in the future?
CK: There’s always someone trying to raise money. It’s always sort of happening and never coming to fruition. I don’t have any expectations that the money is ever going to come through, but I guess since people are trying maybe it will. I’d like it to.
SC: Can you talk about the idea of having Tom Noonan as the voice of everyone in this universe besides Michael and Lisa?
CK: Originally when I went to all three actors for this, I was thinking, “Oh, these are actors it would be really cool to work with.” I didn’t really know any of them so I sort of called them cold. I obviously knew who Tom was, I liked his work a lot and I liked his movie What Happened Was… a lot. I thought for the world voice I wanted someone who had a specific tone and inflection; someone who would be recognizable from character to character. The whole thing that I told Tom was that he couldn’t change his voice. I didn’t want him to do different characters. There’s something kind of maddening about it. There’s something soothing but also a little bit terrifying about Tom’s voice. My belief was that by the time Jennifer spoke – because she’s silent on stage in the play for the first twenty minutes, she’s just sitting there – that it would be such a relief that you would feel as an audience what Michael felt. That thank god there’s another voice. That was a lot of what I was thinking when I asked Tom to do it.
Anomalisa is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.