|Interview: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson on "Anomalisa"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The co-directors of the Academy Award-nominated stop-motion animation film discuss the challenges of the craft, outline the difficulties of shooting a convincing love scene involving puppets and debate the eternal question of Cyndi Lauper vs. Celine Dion
Both as a screenwriter ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and as a director ("Synecdoche, New York"), Charlie Kaufman has created some of the boldest films in recent memory by dreaming up breathlessly original concepts and then wedding them to the most basic of human emotions in ways that are alternately hilarious, touching, thoughtful and mind-bending. In his latest film, "Anomalisa," which he wrote and co-directed with Duke Johnson, he has done it yet again and the result is one of the best and most unique films of 2015. The film focuses on Michael (David Thewis), a consumer relations expert who is so alienated from the world that every voice that he hears - from his estranged wife to an overly solicitous bellboy - sounds exactly the same (with Tom Noonan supplying the voice of virtually every other character). Landing in Cincinnati to deliver a speech at a conference, Michael's alienation continues until a single distinctive voice cuts through the din. It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and after the two meet, they spend an extraordinary night together that Michael thinks has changed his life forever. The real question is not so much "Can it last?" as "Can it last through the next morning?" Oh yeah, the entire film is presented in the magic of stop-motion animation, a choice that proves to be utterly inspired.
"Anomalisa," which was just nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, was a special presentation of the Chicago International Film Festival last fall and both Kaufman and Johnson (whose credits include "Moral Orel" and the stop-motion episode of "Community") came to present it. Before the screening, I sat down with them to discuss the film, the challenges of producing such an unusual work and how to go about producing a convincing love scene involving puppets.
Can you begin by talking about the origins of "Anomalisa"? From what I understand, it was first presented about a decade ago as a kind of live theatrical event.
Kaufman: It was like a radio play. We called it a "sound play." It had the same actors and they were on stage reading and there was a Foley artist on stage and Carter Burwell was conducting the musicians. The idea is that the images would be created in the minds of the audience members. It was intentionally non-visual and ambiguous. A friend of mine was in the audience and he had really liked it. Subsequently, he had founded an animation studio called Star Burns where Duke was a partner and director and he came to me in 2012 and asked me if I could make it into an animated movie.
In going from the original stage conception to the screen, did the material change in any significant ways?
Kaufman: Adding the visuals was pretty much the only thing. The dialogue is almost exactly the same as it was in the play. We made it into a movie by adding visual jokes and details like what things looked like and what the characters looked like - all of that was decided after we began to work on the film.
What governed the decision to do "Anomalisa" in stop-motion as opposed to a more traditional form of animation?
Kaufman: Initially, I didn't see it as something that could be visual in any form, so the idea of doing it in stop-motion wasn't the thing that gave me pause - it was that it was going to be a movie and, in my mind, it was meant to be an experience for your ear. I like stop-motion and had no problem with that. Ultimately, it became the right choice and it was sort of serendipitous for us - partly for a bunch of technical reasons but also because it just felt right to do it in stop-motion even though it was excruciating to shoot and took much longer than it might have as a live-action film.
Can you discuss the approach for the design of the characters? On the one hand, you could have gone for a highly stylized approach that might have ended up being a little too cartoonish or you could have tried for an ultra-realistic approach and run the risk of falling into the Uncanny Valley where things just begin to look creepy.
Johnson: We talked a lot about the Uncanny Valley and we felt that a lot of the problems were in the eyes. So we spent a lot of particular attention on the eyes to make them feel natural and to animate their movement in a natural way. We also felt that the Uncanny Valley wouldn't necessarily be that much of an issue because there hasn't really been a stop-motion film that has fallen that way. Uncanny Valley tends to refer to things that involve computers and I think that stop-motion, because of how it is an actual object that exists in actual three-dimensional time and space and because of how there are human beings interacting with these things to create the illusion of movement, has these imperfections in the movement that make them feel organic and since it feels organic, you don't have that off-putting quality. We tried to give the characters eyeliner and to pay particular attention to their movements to make them feel natural.
Kaufman: There are very specific people that they are modeled on - the faces are of real people and I think that helps. There is nothing generic about them - well, except for everyone who isn't Michael and Lisa.
In a lot of stop-motion animation films, you tend to be fully aware of the process all the time that you are watching the film but I have to admit that while watching "Anomalisa," I found myself not even noticing the technique after a while except for the certain parts where it deliberately called attention to itself.
Johnson: We were hoping that people would sort of get lost in the emotional experience of the characters.
As you said, the film utilizes the same three actors that were used during its initial stage presentation. What was it about David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan,besides their obvious talents, that inspired you to choose them in the first place?
Kaufman: I knew I was going to be doing this play and went after people that I really loved and wanted to work with. I didn't know any of them at that point and I just called them up and asked if they wanted to do it and they all agreed. That is really the reason. I think it is possible, and I don't know for sure because I don't remember the chronology, that I changed Michael to be British after David agreed to do it. With Tom, there is something about his voice that can sound sweet and calming and at the same time sound sinister. The reason I wanted Tom for that particular role was because his voice is so specific and identifiable that for somebody who kept hearing that voice, it would be obvious that they kept hearing that voice.
The scene I was most curious about, both from a dramatic and technical standpoint, is the big centerpiece love scene between Michael and Lisa in his hotel room. On the surface, the notion of a sex scene involving puppets sounds like a joke but in this case, it is tremendously risky in the sense that if it goes wrong or turns into a joke, it can destroy both the illusion and the mood of the story. Not only does that not happen here, the scene is actually far more convincing than most recent love scenes involving real actors that I can think of.
Kaufman: In terms of the writing and the executing of the scene, I think the intentions were the same - we wanted to portray these two people in this situation and see how they would interact with one another. The scene really stars when she enters the hotel room with Michael and goes in real time to when they turn off the lights. This is also an unusual thing in most movies - it has a reality to it that you usually don't see in most movies, how they get to the point where they can get naked and get into bed together and have sex. I think from the filmmaking point of view, it was the same intention - how do we make this feel moment by moment how these two people interact with each other in ways that are specific and nuanced?
Johnson: Obviously there were a lot of technical challenges that came up in regards to the puppets, the bedsheets and all the animation stuff but it was all in service to the idea of the natural experiences between these two people. We pushed that first in the blocking and the pacing and performances and then figured out how to do everything else.
From a technical standpoint, was that the hardest part of making the film?
Johnson: Definitely from a technical standpoint and maybe from an emotional one as well. It took six months to animate.
Just before that part is another outstanding moment when Lisa sings this absolutely heartbreaking rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" to Michael. Again, it sounds like a joke on paper but when you see and hear it, you realize that it is the perfect song for this particular character in this particular situation. How did you come up with the idea for using that particular tune?
Kaufman: The play had a different song - it was "My Heart Will Go On" from "Titanic" - but we couldn't afford it. We had to come up with another song and this one came up and was affordable if we used 30 seconds of it. It seemed like a very good choice to all of us for the same reasons that it seems like a good choice to you. Jennifer's performance was so beautiful and vulnerable that it worked. It reflects that character and once we decided that would be the song, we gave Lisa the stripe in her hair because Cyndi Lauper was her hero and that was a tribute to her in Lisa's mind - this fading pink stripe.
Johnson: This is another example of why it was a great thing that we didn't have the backing of a big studio or something when we made it. We were forced to find another thing and it was perfect that it was this Cyndi Lauper song - it makes sense and is so right for her character and her story.
Kaufman: "My Heart Will Go On" would have worked. This is better, I agree, but I am thinking about it now and it would have worked. I think it felt more like a joke because it said something about Lisa's character that that would be her favorite song.
Considering your reputation for creating wild and audacious cinematic concepts in films like "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," when people hear the basics about "Anomalisa," many may hear the words "Charlie Kaufman" and "stop-motion animation" and assume that it is some kind of wild and surreal ride before discovering it is this delicate and intimate story that just happens to be told with puppets. Given that, what has it been like for you to show the film for people and get their reactions afterwards?
Kaufman: I think at this point, since so many people have spilled the beans about it, I am not sure that people are going in as surprised as I would have liked them to be, so I haven't really had that too much. I mean, have you heard anything like that?
Johnson: Well, people say "It's Charlie's most straightforward film"
Kaufman: Yeah, but they don't say that to me - they write that in the articles. Two people have come up to me and said that when it got to the point where Michael's face falls off, they thought it was about to go to this weird place and then it didn't. I think that the probably thought that because of where I might have gone with that. It was just a dream.
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originally posted: 01/19/16 11:44:04
last updated: 01/19/16 12:30:56