Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Q&A: ‘Anomalisa’
“Anomalisa,” a stop-motion film directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and animation maestro Duke Johnson, began its life as a staged radio play written by Kaufman and performed in L.A. “I wanted to use three actors, and I was trying to figure out a way to use one actor to do a lot of voices,” divulges Kaufman at a recent post-screening Q&A. “I’d read about something called the Fregoli syndrome, which is a syndrome in which you think everybody else in the world is one person, and I decided that was an interesting sort of metaphor to explore.”
The play starred David Thewlis as Michael Stone, an author of books on the subject of customer service who fails to connect with others. While on tour, he falls in love with the one woman who doesn’t look or sound like anyone else, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Both Thewlis and Leigh reprised their roles for the film, along with Tom Noonan, who provides the singular voice of the various other characters.
“I was kind of reticent when I was approached by these guys to do it as a movie because the idea of it was the imagery would be created in the mind of the audience members,” admits Kaufman. “I liked the idea that different people in the audience would have different ideas. So when they approached me, I thought I had to throw away what I liked about this thing. But I went ahead with it anyway, and as we got into it and started to work on it as an animation, we found new things together and it started to become its own thing.”
Johnson came aboard the project through the animation company Starburns Industries. “We had reached a point in the studio where there was a lull, and we were looking for something to do next.” He was given the script by Dino Stamatopoulos, cofounder of Starburns and one of the films producers. “For me, because this was written where it’s just these people sitting on stage — there’s no scene descriptions or anything, there’s just dialogue — it could be anything. It lent itself to animation in my mind.”
That freedom of interpretation led to long discussions about what the film should look like. Before a single puppet was created, the actors returned to record their vocal performances. “We were really moved by this performance that they gave,” reveals Johnson, “so then our conversations about what this was going to look like was in preserving that sort of honesty and nuance that we had experienced in the voice recording. So we looked at all different kinds of character designs, and it just kept going more towards this more realistic kind of feeling.”