CS Interview: Building Anomalisa with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

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CS chats with Anomalisa directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson discuss their powerful stop motion feature, now available on Digital HD

Critically-acclaimed and nominated for an Academy Award, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson‘s astonishing stop motion feature, Anomalisa, today comes home on Digital HD. The road to Anomalisa has been a long one, however, with Charlie Kaufman having originally scripted the story more than a full decade ago. Initially written to be one half of a special “sound play” dubbed “Theater of the New Ear,” the unique style of performance was the brainchild of composer Carter Burwell, who designed the aural environments for both a Charlie Kaufman scripted play, Hope Leaves the Theater, as well as its double feature partner, the Ethan and Joel Coen-scripted Sawbones. When “Theater of the New Ear” came to Los Angeles, scheduling problems led to Sawbones being replaced with a new play, Anomalisa.

Although the script for Anomalisa is credited to Francis Fregoli, that’s a witty nom de plume for Charlie Kaufman (who previously shared a writing credit on Adaptation with his imaginary twin brother, Donald Kaufman). The Fregoli delusion is a psychological disorder in which someone believes that all people outside of him or her are really a single person in disguise. Naturally, that paranoia is at the heart of Anomalisa, which enters the mindscape of a self-help author desperate to find a singular human connection in a world where everyone else looks and sounds exactly the same.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson for a chat about what it took to bring Anomalisa to the big screen.

CS: How did the two of you wind up meeting and deciding to collaborate? 

Duke Johnson: Our eyes locked across the room and we just knew (laughs). We were brought together by a common friend and collaborator, Dino Stamatopoulos, who Charlie knew because they wrote together on “The Dana Carvey Show.” I knew him because I direct his stop-motion TV shows and work at his animation studio in Burbank, Starburns Industries. Dino was in the audience of the stage performance of “Anomalisa.” He had acquired a copy of the script from Charlie. In late 2011, Starburns was looking for something to produce in stop-motion. Dino mentioned the idea of “Anomalisa” being a possibility. Dino approached Charlie with the idea and Charlie was open to it. Dino introduced me to Charlie and we started talking about it.

CS: I know that the script didn’t really change from the stage play version, but does turning it into a film make it a very different animal?

Charlie Kaufman: The dialogue didn’t change for the most part, but the movie is completely different. The original play was designed to not be seen. The dialogue, which reveals what is going on in this world, is somewhat ambiguous intentionally. Just as an example, what’s specifically wrong with Lisa is alluded to, but it’s never specified in the play. People in the audience could have different ideas. They could imagine what they imagine. The idea of different versions of the story existing in all these different minds really appealed to me. When we decided that we were going to make it into a movie, we had to change that. We had to figure out what things look like. We had to figure out what was wrong with Lisa. We had to figure out what all these people who sound the same look like. Then there’s the specifics of the designs of the puppets and the set and all that stuff. You’re adding all this physical stuff that isn’t in the play, which is basically just dialogue, foley and music. Any kind of physical gag in the movie is added, like the guy out the window masturbating. The buttons on the phone at the hotel, that joke was added. Things like that. It ends up being a different animal. In addition, the play was before an audience and there was a lot of interaction. The actors there aren’t really engaged physically. When they’re having sex, for example, they’re literally 25 feet apart. They’re just moaning. In front of an audience, that plays pretty funny. In the movie, it plays really different. There’s a funny way to do it, but we didn’t want to. We wanted it to feel true an honest. There’s an expectation when you’re doing puppet sex that it’s going to be a joke and we really wanted to play against that expectation.

CS: Overall, there’s an incredible balance of sadness and humor. Can you talk a little to what it’s like to maintain that balance without going too far in one direction or another? Does that fall into place naturally or is there a lot of trial and error?

Duke Johnson: There were definitely some things that took time to figure out. The thing about animation, though — especially low-budget animation — is that you really don’t have a lot of experimentation. The shots are so time consuming that you kind of have to know in advance how things are going to work. We changed timing of things. We wanted to play funny in different ways. The buttons on the phone, for example, is something that we played with. That’s the kind of thing that’s easy to play with in post production.

CS: How important was it for you to keep the same cast as the stage version?

Charlie Kaufman: For me, it was almost a deal breaker. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen if they said no. There was no question that I wanted to approach them and ask them. I felt like they had ownership of those parts. We had such a fun experience doing the play that I certainly would have never not offered them the parts. If they didn’t do it, we probably would have gone ahead, but I would have been sad about it.

CS: How do you wind up picking Cincinnati for the setting?

Charlie Kaufman: I’ve been asked that a lot and my answer is that I’m not really entirely sure I remember. It was 2005 that I wrote it. I think that it was somewhat arbitrary. I’ve never been to Cincinnati. I like the way Cincinnati sounds. I like the word. I wanted Lisa to live in the middle of the country. Ohio seemed like the kind of place she’d be from. Other than that, there was no particular reason.

CS: Anomalisa was initially crowd funded. Do you find that the landscape is changing as far as what it takes to realize a story like this? 

Duke Johnson: It does seem easier to make films nowadays and on a smaller level. Micro-budget films. There was a film last year, “Tangerine,” that was shot on an iPhone. This film probably wouldn’t have gotten made without Kickstarter. Or at least it would have been much harder than it was. Kickstarter got us started. But along with this new wave of new films being easier to get off the ground, it seems proportionally more difficult to get to mass audiences.

CS: As far as finding distribution?

Charlie Kaufman: Yes, but also getting people in seats. It’s really difficult.

CS: Do you think you would ever bring Anomalisa back to the stage?

Charlie Kaufman: I know that Jennifer really loved playing Lisa and she wants to do it again. We’ve talked about it. I think the problem is that there’s no money. When we did it the first time, no one was being paid. That includes the musicians and Carter [Burwell] and the actors. It was kind of this serendipitous moment where everyone was available. The idea that everyone’s schedule is going to allow for that again is unlikely. But we have talked about doing new versions, Carter and I. Even the Coens expressed the idea of doing new plays. That might be the way it goes. Then we could cast new actors and it would be easier to coordinate than trying to figure out how to redo something.

Click here to order Anomalisa at Amazon

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Weekend: Dec. 12, 2019, Dec. 15, 2019

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