Interview: Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson talk Oscar-nominated ‘Anomalisa’

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Anomalisa tells the story of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help author, who finds the world around him bleak and lifeless. To him, everyone literally has the same face and same voice (Tom Noonan). This featureless life, however, gets a hint of color one night while he’s on a business trip and he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is in every way different. From face to voice, she’s a breath of fresh air, one that he so desperately needs. Over the course of one night, we see what it means to be lost, to be found, to be human all from a pair of stop-motion puppets.

This Oscar-nominated animation feature promises to be a strong contender this awards season. Co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson effortlessly blend their two strengths to make a memorable piece of art. Kaufman whose works include Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind has his signature melancholic, but hopeful themes. On the other hand, Duke Johnson’s work in animation, including a fully stop-motion animated episode of Community, brings lifeless characters to life on screen. The result is Oscar-worthy.

Below, they give us a glimpse of the movie, of the character and of themselves. When you’re done learning a thing or two about stop-motion, read the review of the film, and catch it before Oscar comes to town.

How did the concept for this movie come about?

Kaufman: I had written it as a stage radio play. It was performed in 2005 with the same cast in Los Angeles with musicians and Foley artists on stage while Carter Burwell conducted the musicians. That’s how it started. I was trying to figure out a way to do something with a large cast, but with only three actors. So I decided that one of them would voice a lot of people. That concept would be kind of interesting to see.

Was there ever a time in which you considered using real actors to play the roles?

Kaufman: No, because they approached me and [StarBurns Industries] makes stop-motion, where Duke works, so I wasn’t planning on making this into a movie at all. It was a play, and I was done with it, so that was the given—that it would be stop motion.

What’s the process of making a puppet animation film like? How long did it take?

Johnson: It took three years from the decision to make the film to the total completion of all the post-production. The way that animation works is making an animatics first. The very first thing we did was record the actors’ voices because their performances set the tone for everything else you do after that. Then, you cut together an animatic, which is story boards cut together with the voice records. After, you put in temp sound, and it’s like the whole movie edited to completion in advance because the animation process is so time consuming and labor intensive and expensive you want to know exactly what you’re going to animate before you do that. You do all the design, then all the fabrication is done in advance, and then you start animating. We animated at a rate per animator of two seconds of animation a day. We did about a minute of animation a week. All the sound design and everything happens in post-production like a typical film. Although unlike a live action film, you don’t have any production sound. It’s just the voice records and then everything else is created.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

What was the thought process behind the aesthetic features for each of the characters: Michael, Lisa and everyone else?

Johnson: We decided early on after recording the voices that we wanted it to be emotionally authentic so it sort of lent itself towards realism. And we based the characters off real people. Michael is based off of a real person, and so is Lisa, and the world character is sort of amalgamation of a lot of different people combined in Photoshop. All three of them were interpreted by a sculptor into a play maquette. The seams in the faces and the way the faces look is a function of the type of animation— with replacement faces. Typically, when that’s used its painted out digitally after the fact, but we decided to keep it because we liked the way that it looked. We liked displaying openly that this is a stop motion piece and it lent itself to a certain tone of the film. It had sort of a dreamlike quality and an awareness of the animators and of the whole process. And it added elements to the characters as well, like a fractured quality and a vulnerability.

What was the inspiration behind the character of Michael Stone?

Kaufman: As I said, I was looking for a way for one character to voice a lot of people. I’d read about something called the Fregoli delusion, which is the belief that everyone in the world is the same person. And I thought that was, as a metaphor, an interesting idea for a character who can’t connect with other people, who has the inability to see other people as people, and so that was the inspiration for him.

On the surface, the story may look dark, but how you view the world is ultimately up to you. At first, I think Michael is sympathetic, but then you realize everything around him is a result of his perspective. Did you two want that to be the case? For the audience to sympathize with him and then disapprove of his behavior?

Kaufman: What we wanted and what we hoped for is that there’s enough layering in the story and in the way that it’s told. That way you can draw your own conclusions at the end. And we won’t say because we want people to interact with the film and as you did, have your own conclusion. And your conclusion is correct because it’s your conclusion.

Do either of you see Michael Stone in yourselves?

Kaufman: Yeah, definitely. I mean not literally because it’s a figurative thing, but yeah, certainly. I think I see him in other people as well. I think it’s a common problem to not be able to see others, to be stuck inside your head, to be lost in a world that’s very alienating.

Johnson: I absolutely and I think I can say it—and Charlie will probably feel the same—that we see ourselves in Michael and Lisa. I identify with Lisa a lot as well.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

What was the biggest challenge making this film?

Kaufman: Duke can correct me, but I think for both of us it’s money. It was really difficult to make it for the money that we had. We kept running out, production almost came to a standstill many times. It took a long time, obviously. And I’d say [money] was it for us.

Johnson: Yeah, I mean it was. You can break that down and get more specific. For instance, we had goals that we wanted to meet, a certain level of animation, a certain quality of emotional experience. Trying to achieve that with the limited resources we had in a very technical medium was just challenging.

If there’s one thing you want audiences to take away from the film, what is it?

Kaufman: I just want people to take away an interactive experience. Whatever that is for them. That’s what I would like.

Johnson: Yeah, I mean. I don’t mind what their interpretation is. I want them to have their own opinion in the film, but I would like them to be involved in the emotional experience of the movie. I’d like them to be engaged and come away thinking about it and wanting to talk to people about it

Kaufman: And pay [laughs]

Johnson: Oh, and I’d like people to pay. [laughs] Yeah, as opposed to downloading it illegally because I’d like to make more movies like this and nobody will allow us to do that if it doesn’t make money. 

Anomalisa is in theaters now.

Alejandra Torres is a 21 year old from Miami, Florida. She graduated from Florida International University with a degree in English Literature. She loves books, television, and movies. Some of her other favorite things include: leftovers (food—not the show), cookie dough, and her pet poodles, Benji and Bella. She hates Miami traffic but loves XM radio, so basically, it’s complicated. In a battle between contacts or trendy, oversized glasses, the latter wins because lets face it, contacts are a lot more dangerous than some people might think. Her latest binge victim was Parks & Recreation. She “literally” got through six seasons faster than the Millennium Falcon kicks into warp speed. Her favorite shows include: Game of Thrones and Pretty Little Liars—because it doesn’t matter whether a girl is from Dragonstone or Rosewood, fashion is key.