Just this morning, the adult-only, R-rated animated film, “Anomalisa,” was one of five films nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy. It comes from the brilliant mind of Charlie Kaufman, who co-directed Anomalisa along with Duke Johnson, an up-and-coming talent with experience in stop-motion animation. It may be cliche to claim a movie is “like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” but Anomalisa is just that. Just yesterday – one day before they were nominated for the Oscar – both Kaufman and Johnson were in town to discuss their new film, and I sat down with them both in an attempt to de-construct what some are calling an “instant masterpiece” of film-making and “an essential movie.” Joining me was fellow Detroit Film Critic Society (DFCS) critic, Mike Tyrkus, of CinemaNerdz.com.
Kaufman is more than a slice of eccentricity, and has developed as one of the most unique voices of our time. He is known mostly for his writing, movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He got his start in TV, on shows like Get a Life, The Edge and The Dana Carvey Show. He has now been nominated for four Oscars, this his first as a director (Kaufman’s only other directing effort was the 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York).
Johnson must be living a dream getting to work with his favorite writer in Kaufman. Anomalisa is his first feature directorial effort, having previously directed in television, with a critically acclaimed animated episode of Community as well as on shows like Moral Orel on Adult Swim.
The film uses a form of animation that has never really been seen before. It follows a man who arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service, a man who has terrible trouble relating to others and whose mundane existence is taking a toll. He meets a young girl and over the course of a day-and-a-half, his life is changed, or not. Trust me, any written description of the film’s plot won’t serve it justice. This is a funny, insightful and complex journey through a troubled mind…exactly what we would expect coming from Charlie Kaufman.
The film is actually a screen adaptation of what had been an audio-only stage play of the same name. All three of the original voice-actors return for the film: David Thewlis as the protagonist, Michael Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa and Tom Noonan as the voice of everyone else.
The FULL interview with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson will appear in audio-form on the upcoming episode of the DFCS podcast, Far From Hollywood, which will debut next Tuesday. Following, is some of the highlights from the interview held yesterday:
They shared directing responsibilities on the film more than people know.
Duke Johnson: There’s a common misconception that I was sort of in charge of the animation, and that Charlie was off doing something else…
Charlie Kaufman: I was just off in the corner fretting…
Johnson: We just split the duties right down the middle…
Kaufman: …Not even down the middle. I mean, we did everything together. Split down the middle means that you did this and I did that, but we are the directors of the movie. We made decisions together as a team.
What they think about their press tour and interaction with audiences.
Kaufman: I like when people express what the movie’s about. Often that starts with them asking us what the movie is about, and we’re not answering that question because it’s their movie. It’s for them to react to. And if that starts a conversation with the audience? That’s the most fun for me. I really enjoy hearing people speak about it and how it’s affected them.
Johnson: Yeah, I feel the same way. It’s very satisfying getting the audience’s reaction. Having them feel like it meant something specifically to them. Sometimes they are very passionate about it, about what it meant to them. The first time you see it with an audience, you’re hoping that they laugh at certain parts. So it was surprising to me, in a good way, to see that things sort of worked the way we intended them to. But certainly people have come to us with interpretations of aspects of the film that never occurred to me. And that doesn’t make them incorrect by the way.
Kaufman: No, they can’t be incorrect. There’s no way to be incorrect when interpreting this movie.
How they came up with the unique animation style used in the film.
Kaufman: I mean, I don’t think there was ever a point where we were considering making this cartoon-y. The story doesn’t really lend itself to that. The fact that we wanted an emotional interaction with an adult audience doesn’t lend itself to that choice. The specifics of what it looked like came about over time, through trial and error, talking to designers, and figuring out the best way to approach character development and character design. But I think as far back as I can remember, this wasn’t going to look like The Nightmare Before Christmas or anything. That wasn’t our interest.
Johnson: It did evolve slowly over time. It was not like we had a clear vision in our minds as to what we wanted and then went about achieving it. It was more like we wanted it to feel authentic. We recorded the voices first, that was the first thing we did, and that sort of set the tone for things. And we were like, how can we get the broadest range of emotional reactions in the faces? And that led us to this style of replacement-animation. We wanted them to look real, but we didn’t want them to feel dead and have that uncanny valley feeling, so that led us towards the eyes and trying to find ways to make the eyes feel soulful and alive and articulate. So each step in the process led us towards a new discovery, and each discovery we embraced and encouraged and they led to other discoveries, and that’s how it came about.
Their thoughts on what it would mean to be nominated for an Oscar (the interview was held one day before they actually did receive the nomination).
Kaufman: Well [a nomination] helps the movie. It helps get people to come and see the movie so in a sense that is good for us.
Johnson: On a certain level it’s a validation that people are responding to the movie, and that’s a good thing.
Anomalisa is now playing. Click here for my full review.