"It Could Only Be Charlie": A Conversation With 'Anomalisa' Directors Charlie Kaufman And Duke Johnson

Anomalisa is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. It's a singular experience, a stop-motion animated drama that slowly reveals why it could have only been told in this style. Simultaneously bleak and brutally honest and genuinely hilarious, directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson have made a movie that touches a nerve. Anomalisa is a stunningly made movie about ordinary people, a visual treat set in the most mundane setting imaginable, and a story that asks you to discover empathy for characters who are painfully human... despite being 3D-printed puppets. As of this morning, it is now an Oscar nominee for for Best Animated Film.

Since it topped my list of the best films released in 2015, I was thrilled to speak with Kaufman and Johnson as Anomalisa expands into more theaters this week. You can read the complete interview, and watch a new featurette delving into the making of the film, below.

That featurette, titled "It Could Only Be Charlie," offers a quick look at the cast and crew of Anomalisa as they discuss working on the movie. As the title implies, the emphasis is on Kaufman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Anomalisa, his second film as a director after his bleak and stunning debut Synecdoche, New York, is very much one of his movies – cut through the inherent quirk and the stylization and you'll find something beautiful, moving, and bittersweet.

Anyway, here's the featurette, which features Kaufman, Johnson, and actors David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh as talking heads.

Since Anomalisa is the kind of movie that gets you in a confessional kind of mood, I'll admit up front that I was genuinely on edge to be speaking with Kaufman, whose work I've long admired, and Johnson, whose stop-motion animated Christmas episode of Community is intimidatingly good television. But as you'll see in the conversation that begins on the next page, they put up with me well enough, sharing the crowd-funded origins of the film, the secrets to telling a story this personal, and a few tips for filming a great puppet sex scene.

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.

anomalisa interview

When I first saw Anomalisa at Fantastic Fest, a friend described the humor of the movie as a life preserver in a hurricane. When you make a movie like this, how does the comedy come out? Do you strategically place it to keep things from getting too heavy or are you just natural comedians?

Kaufman: I don't know what a natural comedian is, but I like funny things and I like writing funny things and that appeals to me. It's always been part of my work and it probably always will be. It's got to come organically out of the piece that I'm working on. You can't just put in jokes. I've written for sitcoms and I've written jokes that are just jokes for jokes' sake. On my own stuff, I don't want to do that. I want it to feel organic.

Johnson: It just occurred to me that when we were translating the stage play to a feature film, there was stuff that had to be added, visual stuff to fill out the silences between things. Almost all of the things that we added were jokes. They ended up being humorous things. I don't know what that means.

While the movie is very funny, it taps into some dark truths. I don't want to ask if it's inspired by you guys in any way, but it does feel like you're staring at a confession. How do you tap into that kind of storytelling?

Kaufman: My obligation as a writer is to be honest and to say things that seem true to me. In doing so, I make myself vulnerable and naked. If I don't do that, I'm not doing my job. So I do that. I try to do that. I do it as well as I can in the moment I'm doing it. I always try to get better at it. What anyone has to give in a world of creativity is themselves. If you're not giving that, you're not doing it.

You never let David Thewlis' Michael Stone off the hook for some really unhealthy behavior. He's a fascinating trainwreck of a character. Were you ever tempted to make him more more instantly relatable or, dare I say, likable?

Kaufman: I would never be involved in any production that would try to make any character more likable. This goes back to the thing I said just previous to this. It's the wrong thing to do. It's thinking about the eventual audience and not the work that you're doing. Not being true. We had zero conversations about making anyone likable. I think some people are more likable than other people in this movie. You say this is damning of Michael and I feel that's your interpretation of it. I'm not saying you're wrong. In fact, I'm saying you're right. That's your interpretation of it. That's not the only interpretation of it. That's an interpretation of it. I try, and Duke tries, to have things be layered enough that what you bring to it as a viewer is supported. Your interpretation is going to be supported. This movie doesn't come to any conclusions about anything. It puts Michael through a weekend. From his point of view, you get to see that weekend.

The sex scene at the center of the movie could have been silly. It could have been Team America. Instead, it's realistic and moving in a way that most live action sex scenes are not. So, I have to ask... how do you make a great stop-motion puppet sex scene?

Johnson: Lots of Silica! I think that... I don't know the secret to making a great stop-motion sex scene, but I can tell you that what we did is just try to remain true to the characters and the scene and the emotional trajectory of that moment. The scene starts with them entering that hotel room and it culminates with them having sex. We wanted that moment to feel authentic to that progression and for it to be a natural progression to get there. Once you're there, how they're interacting with each other should feel like Lisa and Michael interacting with each other in that moment. That's just what we tried to be. Be honest.

What does the set look like for a movie like this? How do you stay sane when you're literally only getting seconds of footage a day?

Johnson: I've blocked it out of my mind. You're spinning many different plates. You have the animatic, which you've worked out ahead of time. All of the creative design and development is worked out ahead of time. The blueprint of the animatic exists, which is basically an edited version of the movie. You know what you're aiming for. You've spent months talking through every beat of the film and how you're going to achieve it and what you want each character to feel from one moment to the next. It's really about having to execute that. There are hundreds of technical challenges that have arisen and all of the stages are in various degrees of production. You're just running around, dealing with a bunch of tedium. You should already know at that point what you're attempting to achieve at least.

Since I only have time for one more question, I've got ask – what are you two working on next?

Johnson: I'm actually interested in live action as well. I plan on doing a live-action film next. But I'm not done with animation and Charlie and I and our producer Rosa Tran have talked about doing another animated film if the opportunity presents itself.

Kaufman: I'm working on a rewrite of a script that I wrote and I'm working on a novel. And that's all I'm doing.

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Anomalisa is in theaters now.