anomalisa interview

Anomalisa began its life as an audio play. Whose idea was animation? What convinced you?

Kaufman: It was done as what we call a stage sound play in 2005. It was actually done on stage with [composer] Carter Burwell and a foley artist and the cast reading the script. That was the end of it, as far as I was concerned. A friend of mine named Dino Stamatopoulos was in the audience that night and he subsequently founded an animation studio in the intervening years. That’s where Duke Johnson worked as a director. Dino had a copy of the script because he liked it and he approached me in 2011 asking if they could make it into a stop-motion movie. It wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t my idea to make it into any kind of movie. It was their idea.

Were you hesitant that your play wouldn’t work as a film, let alone an animated film?

Kaufman: I was not hesitant. I was reticent because I had written it to not be seen. That was built into the construction of the piece, that it was in non-visual form and that obviously would have to be given up. It wasn’t about it being stop-motion, it was just about it being visual. But I was trying to get things made and I was having a very difficult time, so they caught me at a time when I was pretty much open to trying to do things. This was just another possibility. So I said yeah, if they could raise the money. They were able to get the money to start it through a Kickstarter campaign and Duke and I started working on it as an animated film.

Duke, was your stop-motion episode of Community your calling card for this job? Did you pursue it or did it come to you?

Johnson: I was working at the animation studio in Burbank, Starburns Industries, and we had been working on animated television, like you just said. Dino Stamatopoulos and I were talking in his office about what we wanted to do next and Dino mentioned that he had a copy of this script. I read it, I loved it, and we approached Charlie. I don’t know if I needed a calling card so much as I was one of the people approaching Charlie to ask permission to do this as an animated film.

How do you two collaborate as a duo? Is one of you the big picture guy and the another all about the small details? The movie has a very personal, singular vision.

Johnson: We did everything together. We did all the creative direction. All of the creative development and all of the creative choices were made by the two of us. Animation is very front-loaded, so we did all the designs aspects and all the character designs and costume design and production design. They were all based on conversations that Charlie and I had during the creative development of the movie. We showed each other references, we talked on the phone, we talked in person, we edited the animatic together. When problems arose, we discussed it and came to a conclusion. The singular vision –

Kaufman: Is actually double vision.

Johnson: It’s actually double vision.

The cast is tremendous. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan were all in the original play, right?

Kaufman: Yes, they were in the original play.

How do you direct actors in a movie like this? They’re baring their souls, but you can’t correct on the fly. Their performance won’t be finished until so much time later.

Kaufman: Well, the first thing you want to do is get really, really good actors. Then you kind of let them do what they do. They had done the play, so they had a lot of familiarity with the script. We rehearsed with them for a day and then we recorded with them for two days. We did it all together, which is an unusual thing in animation. We did it as a play in chronological order and in real time. Doing the voice recording for the animation was all about bringing down the theatricality of the live performance to a more intimate kind of form. They’re just very good. They were so good that we were able to use their voice performances to inform everything else. Everyone who worked on the film after that, the fabricators and the animators and everybody heard those performances and it put everyone on the same page about what this thing was going to look like and what it was going to feel like. They were very important to the process.

The look and animation of the film is beautiful, but it’s intentionally set in one of the most mundane settings imaginable – a hotel. How do you go about making a location like this visually appealing?

Kaufman: The interesting thing about this world is that it’s a hotel, which is designed to be visually appealing but is also completely generic. Everybody who sees this movie has stayed in that hotel room. It’s a pleasant room! It’s just every room. It’s every hall and it’s every lobby and it’s every bar. All of those things have a pleasant aesthetic to them. The mundane aspect comes from representing them as totally and completely as possible with the production design. That’s the choice that you make. The recognition that audiences have, the miniature perfect version of what everyone is familiar with, is the visual thrill. And it’s beautifully lit by our DP Joe Passarelli and that contributes to the appealing look of the production.

Because of the setting, you spend the first few minutes of the movie wondering why this is animated. And then you start to notice little details, especially how Tom Noonan is incorporated into the movie, and you realize that it could only be animated.

Kaufman: We feel that animation is a form that works really well for this movie. Our larger question, when that question comes up, about why this is animated, is “why would it not be animated?” Why not? It’s just another way to make a movie. You can do anything with animation. It’s got its own set of characteristics that are apparent, especially stop-motion since it’s got a handmade quality, if you don’t erase that from the process. We felt that this added a soulfulness to that. Duke and I, and probably Dino and [executive producer Dan Harmon] as well, are trying to push the idea of animation as a form, not a genre forward. Because it is. There should be a diversity of animated films out there and there isn’t.

 

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