Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

We spoke with the Oscar nominees about their new film, its beginnings, and the slow stop-motion process.

Paramount Pictures

Thematically, Anomalisa fits nicely into writer/director Charlie Kaufman's portfolio of philosophical cinematic musings that include Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman wrote the first two, directed the last, and returns to the director's chair for the second time with Anomalisa. Only this time, he's partnered with 36-year-old Duke Johnson who brings animation expertise gleaned from his work on Adult Swim's Moral Orel

The collaboration is a first for Kaufman, but he's certainly relied on the help of others in the past. Both Spike Jonze (Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine) were able to meld with Kaufman's mind and create his visions onscreen. Anomalisa, about a depressed writer's journey to Cincinnati for a conference and the events that take place, may not seem as ambitious as those other films, but looks can be deceiving. The puppets used in the stop-motion animation film alone are each works of art. And Kaufman and Johnson have created something entirely unique that took years to build.

After seeing the film, we were more than excited to speak with both Kaufman and Johnson at a roundtable interview back in November. Here's what we learned:

Anomalisa started as a sound play for Carter Burwell...

Charlie Kaufman: That's right.

...But it wasn't actually the initial one. It was Hope Leaves the Theater?

CK: That's right. It was "An Evening with Hope Leaves the Theater and Sawbones," which the Coen brothers wrote. And they couldn't go to Los Angeles with Sawbones so I had to write a second play and that became Anomalisa.

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

How'd you come up with the idea for Anomalisa?

CK: I was trying to figure out a way to use three actors. And, since it was a staged radio play, I could only get three and I wanted to use one actor to play a lot of parts. I read about something called "The Fregoli Delusion" which is the belief that everybody else in the world is the same person. And I thought that was a metaphorical, interesting way to talk about loneliness and a lack of connection with other people. 

You've done that before with Cotard in Synecdoche, NY. Is that something you look for or just come across?

CK: I read a lot of stuff like that and it's always fascinating to me and sometimes it sparks ideas. Yeah I did it with Cotard and I've actually got it with something I'm writing now. It's something that's just like, "Oh that's cool." I like to write things that are subjective for people's perception. A lot of times how people see the world and integrate with it can be seen through malfunctions.

You've had so many successful collaborations in the past. What brought the two of you together?

CK: Duke worked at Starburns, the animation company that produced this movie. He's a partner and a director there, and my friend Dino Stamatopoulos saw his play in 2005 and liked it and, at Starburns, they were looking for something to do and approached me. I didn't know Duke, but it was a good collaboration and it worked out.

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Duke Johnson on set. (Paramount)

Why was Duke the right person?

CK: I didn't know he was the right person. He was the person who was going to be doing it there. If I accepted that they could do it, he was the person. We met and liked each other and embarked on this thing not knowing each other. And it was fortunate we ended up liking each other. I like Duke, he doesn't like me (laughter).

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

Duke Johnson: It's a growth process.

CK: It just kind of worked out, I think.

Could you talk about how you work direction-wise?

DJ: We did everything together from day one. We recorded the actors together. They had done the play so they were familiar with the piece. Charlie had directed them and originally cast them so they came with that familiarity. But there were some adjustments with the format, going from a theatrical piece to a more contained cinematic piece. We were both present for that and all through pre-production, artistic development, storyboarding, and editing. I was present throughout the day during physical production and Charlie would come in from time to time but I spoke with him 1000 times a day, texting and emailing every shot. Because, you know, it progresses by second.

CK: And the animators... we had to sign off on everything. Early on in the process they said to me " You have to respond within 20 minutes." (Laughter).

DJ: Because you can't have animators standing around. That's where all your money goes: paying the animators to produce seconds of animation. So that was our most valuable thing. And, we've talked about this before when this question comes up, the cool thing about animation is you're able to collaborate with another director in the sense that major creative decisions come up, like the light and design and costumes and stuff you have to time to have a discussion about it. 

Is that what it is, a second or two a day?

DJ: Well, they had a goal of two seconds a day per animator so they didn't always hit that. Some people would get eight frames, some would get zero, and some would get fifty if we were really lucky. But yeah, we had an average of about a minute a week.

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

Why did it makes sense to tell this story with animation rather than live action?

CK: I think that's an answer that we came to in the process of doing it. It was decided that it was going to be stop-motion because that's what they (Starburns) did. So if we raised the money, that's what it would be. There are a bunch of reasons we figured out in the end. It has a quality that lends itself to the story being told. There's a dream-like quality to stop-motion, at least in the way we did it, and there's a sense of fragility to the puppets, a sense of claustrophobia. What else... I think it works in terms of Tom Noonan playing all the different characters. if we had the same voice coming out of a bunch of different actors or if we quadrupled or quintupled Tom all over the place it would've been distracting, but it's almost subtle that these are all the same faces. I think that really works... It would be weird to see Tom's face on a little kid. It would be like that thing in Invasion of Body Snatchers, you know, the dog with the human face thing... Not that little kids are dogs or anything like that. (Laughter)

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

It would also look like Malkovich. Did you consider that at all?

CK: No, I didn't. People have brought up the similarity to Malkovich but I didn't think about it. It was just a solution to the issue of how to present this visually... We kept the handmade quality (of the puppets). We kept in seams. We kept the chatter, where you can see threads on fabric or the hair moving. The imperfections of manipulating these puppets is present in this form, which we really liked.

Was there a decision made between you two to make Michael and Lisa look different from everyone else and more realistic?

CK: Yeah and one of the reasons that happens is that those are based on actual people in the world. And the Tom Noonan faces are sculpted from an amalgamation of a bunch of people because we were trying to figure out a face that would work with females, males, and children. Picking any specific male or female didn't seem to work so a bunch of people who work at Starburns were put into Photoshop and this generic face came out.

One other thing that reminded me of Malkovich is how the puppets would sit still and do nothing. Could you talk about that: puppets doing nothing, almost listening?

CK: Yeah, we wanted to do a type of stop-motion that was very subtle and nuanced and where the movements weren't the standard thing you see with stop-motion which is very theatrical and broad and that's why we made the faces and bodies look the way they do. We wanted human features as opposed to puppet features. It was a man in a hotel room, basically, so a lot of your time in that world is sitting around ordering food, looking out the window. There's a focus you can get as an audience on a puppet doing those things as opposed to a human doing them because on some level you're going, "Oh, there's a puppet in there." Since this is a small story taking place in a small environment it's about a guy whose life isn't very interesting, it allows you to look at that where otherwise you might not be able to.

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

Jennifer Jason Leigh is such an iconic actress. What were your first impressions of her?

CK: God, I've been watching Jennifer for a long time. Probably Fast Times, but I've always loved her and thought she was fascinating to look at. I remember being particularly fascinanted with her in The Hudsucker Proxy. What she does in that movie is so extraordinary to me. The way she captures that cadence and time period. It's so precise how she delivers her lines and they way she moves. I think it's brilliant. I was thinking of her when I approached her, although this character has nothing to do with that one. I just felt Lisa was more along the lines of how she actually is. Which I wasn't sure of, but she's a lovely, warm person.

DJ: Yeah, Fast Times. It's embarrassing to say, but I was probably in love with her a little bit. I remember it was all about Phoebe Cates, but I was like "Really? How do you not love Jennifer in this movie?" And I loved her in a movie called Rush. She was amazing in that, and also Hudsucker Proxy I've seen a thousand times so I was a really big fan. Working with her, she has such a vessel to the soul. She has a very authentic way of being in the role and it feels so honest it's very moving. 

CK: Very natural, it almost feels like she's not doing anything. We were all blown away.

Were David Thewlis and Tom Noonan your choices from the beginning?

CK: They were the only people I went to so yes. I was like, "I have this opportunity to call people I've always loved and don't know!" And they all said "Yes." Everyone understood there was no money, so they all understood. So everyone who was there was there because they wanted to be. The other play I did was with Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage and they all said yes and I was like, "Wow. Now I have to direct Meryl Streep!" (Laughter). 

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
All images courtesy of Paramount

Charlie, do you think depression is a sign of intelligence?

CK: I don't know. I've heard people people say that, but I don't know.

...It seems like a lot of your characters come out of some inner turmoil that could be seen as depression.

CK: So it would be kind of self-serving for me to say "Yes, depression is a sign of intelligence."


CK: Depression and short-stature are a sign of intelligence (Laughter).


CK: No, I don't know. I imagine all types of people suffer from depression. 

I wanted to ask about storytelling. Charlie, you've talked about how stories change over time in lectures and interviews. Could you talk about what's changed since the days of the play to now?

CK: It's pretty close actually. The dialogue is almost identical. We added all the visuals—the jokes and gags that aren't from the dialogue that are added. But yeah, started in 2005, kept the dialogue, changed the song, changed the movie on TV from My Man Godfrey to Casablanca, just because of copyright. 

Talking Adult Animation & 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.