Anomalisa: Behind the Scenes of Charlie Kaufman’s New, Brilliant Animation

Anomalisa_1_kaufmanThe first animated film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson began its life as a play in 2005, as part of composer Carter Burwell’s adventurous Theater of a New Ear project, bringing together Oscarwinning writer-directors Charlie Kaufman and Joel and Ethan Coen for a double-bill “sound play,” performed in New York, London and Los Angeles.

For these performances, Carter Burwell, who wrote the score for Kaufman’s screenplays’ BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION and many of the Coen Brothers’ films, assembled a chamber ensemble, performing live accompaniment alongside Foley artist Marko Costanzo’s sound effects, as Kaufman’s “Hope Leaves the Theater,” starring Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep.

The Coens’ “Sawbones” unfurled on a barren stage with actors reading their lines from stools in the style of old-time radio plays.  In Los Angeles, due to scheduling conflicts, the Coens’ play was replaced with “Anomlisa,” written by Francis Fregoli, the pseudonym of a writer who was revealed to be Kaufman.

On stage, “Anomalisa” told the story of motivational speaker Michael Stone — a British man living in Los Angeles with his wife and young son — who travels the U.S. giving rousing speeches to customer-service professionals. On a dismal stopover in Cincinnati, he meets Lisa Hesselman, a socially awkward sales rep from Akron who is one of his most devoted disciples.

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis, “Anomalisa” is a feat of storytelling in terms of what it reveals and what it does not.

In the audience of the Los Angeles production were husband-and-wife executive producers Keith and Jess Calder, who had assembled features including FAULTS, THE GUEST and YOU’RE NEXT under their Snoot Entertainment banner. “I enjoyed ‘Anomalisa’ as a theatrical experience because the presentation of it borrowed so heavily from film techniques, with the orchestration and the Foley artist,” Keith Calder says. “It was very evocative and played with the idea of loneliness and love and what it’s like to be a person — universal themes that can work in any medium. There was a sense of disconnection in the stage version that I thought would be well suited to feature-length filmmaking.”

After the stage script fell into the hands of Dino Stamatopoulos, a co-founder of Starburns Industries, Inc., — alongside Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s “Community” —  “Anomalisa” began its transition to the screen, taking shape as Kaufman’s first animated film and Starburns’ own initial foray outside television. Launched in 2010, Starburns is a groundbreaking production studio specializing in stop-motion and traditional 2D animation.

The company won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation for “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” an episode of “Community” filmed entirely in stop-motion animation. Duke Johnson, its director and producer, who also worked on Stamatopoulos’ Adult Swim programs “Moral Orel” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole,” was chosen to bring ANOMALISA to life as an animated feature for the big screen. “There was a lull in the studio after we had finished producing a special for one of Dino’s shows,” Johnson explains. “We were thinking of new projects and Dino had this Charlie Kaufman script — I’m a huge fan of Charlie’s work and jumped at the chance to be involved.” Producer Rosa Tran (“Robot Chicken,” “Frankenhole”) joined the creative team, working alongside Kaufman and Johnson as ANOMALISA entered the animation phase.

Kaufman, who is notoriously tight-lipped on the subject of what his works are about, preferring audiences to draw their own conclusions, jokingly admits that ANOMALISA — in its animated incarnation — is “about an hour and a half.” After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Kaufman and Johnson and Tran set about assembling a team of stop-motion specialists who could bring to animated life the trials and tribulations of Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman and what happens to them at the Fregoli Hotel. The theatrical script for the most part remained the same. “The characters are the same, the actors are the same, the script is the same — almost exactly,” says Kaufman.” Adds Johnson: “The script felt from the beginning like it could be animated — it lends itself to the medium.”

Kaufman and Johnson worked together to create ANOMALISA’s distinct look and feel. With Tran they sought out the best talent in stop-motion, bringing together technicians specializing in sculpture, molding and casting, costume and hair design, scene painting, set dressing, and puppet animation, the intricate process of recording the movement of the foot-high puppets that became the film’s characters by staging them in poses and readjusting them for each photographic frame. They hired cinematographer Joe Passarelli, who worked on Starburns’ “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole,” for his experience outside the stop-motion realm — while ANOMALISA remains an animated project, its story unfurls in a world that feels decidedly real and mundane, from the innocuous clothing worn by the characters to the humdrum hotel suites, corridors, cocktail lounges and convention halls that contain them.

The ANOMALISA team strove at every level of production to make the world of the story appear real, with designers focusing on minute details like the characters’ glistening eyes, coarse features, thick hands, and otherwise lifelike demeanors. “We wanted the bodies to seem real,” says Kaufman. “The puppets are tiny and required very precise movements with pins on the part of the animators to bring life to the eyes. Our goal was to make the characters feel soulful and expressive.” The filmmakers’ deliberately left the seams on the faces of Michael, Lisa and other characters to set the animation apart from typical stop-motion fare, in which two separate face plates on a character — the forehead and the lower face — are often painted out digitally to create a more polished, anthropomorphic look. Kaufman and Johnson preferred a warts-and-all approach, in keeping with Michael Stone’s existential predicament. “When you’re looking at big-budget animated movies that do this, the puppets are finessed in post production to the point that they are interchangeable visually with computer generated characters,” Kaufman states. “It’s very hard to tell the difference. We didn’t want to fight against the materials we were using. Symbolically and metaphorically, this creative decision played into what we were trying to do and say in the movie, so we opted to keep the seams intact.”

Also intact, making a seamless transition from stage to screen, are the same core cast members from the sound play —Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis. Opting again to remain mum about his intentions with the film’s unique voice-over strategies — certainly ANOMALISA is unlike any movie you’ve heard before — Kaufman says only that he was elated to work with his ensemble again, after performing the stage version exactly twice. “We got together, we did this thing, we worked very hard, and then we went our separate ways,” he remembers. “We all enjoyed the experience and it was done purely out of love — there was no money in it for anyone. It felt like doing high-school theater in the best possible way. No one was there for any other reason than they wanted to be there, and with that comes a kind of thrill. I wanted to do it again with them.”

Executive producer Keith Calder became involved with ANOMALISA as early as 2012, after seeing the stage version and agreeing to provide a large portion of the film’s financing following a successful meeting with Kaufman and Johnson and the rest of the Starburns team. He was already a fan of both directors’ work. “I’ve loved Charlie’s writing since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and I thought Duke’s animated “Community” special was incredibly well done — groundbreaking TV in that it was a fully stop-motion animated episode of a live-action sitcom,” he says. Calder’s Snoot Entertainment has produced features across a variety of genres and formats, including horror movies, documentaries and CG animation, but a stop-motion feature was new terrain — and a welcome addition to the company’s eclectic slate. “There was a huge appeal for us producing something in a medium we hadn’t worked in before,” says Calder, who advised the ANOMALISA team during every phase of production. “The confluence of stop-motion, Charlie Kaufman and Starburns Industries made this project attractive to us across the board.”

On screen, ANOMALISA fits in seamlessly alongside Kaufman’s signature works, including BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, modern classics featuring hapless but wholly unforgettable protagonists enduring the long night of the soul under surreal, darkly comedic circumstances. With its play-on-words title infusing the writer-director’s profound love of wordplay and language, ANOMALISA addresses typically Kaufmanesque themes of isolation, loneliness, melancholy and depression, and the search for connection — or “a sort of hope for connection,” as Kaufman puts it.

For Kaufman and Johnson, the biggest challenge in bringing ANOMALISA to the screen in the stop-motion format was figuring out how to create something visual out of a project that was specifically conceived not to be visual. “Some of the major conceits of this piece are written so that the audience has to make them up,” concludes Kaufman. “Without being too specific about what those things are, figuring out how to translate that through images became a long, complex process — so it was exciting when this started to feel like a movie and not a sound play. Certain things play differently when you put them on a screen than when you put them inside an audience’s head, like in the staged version. It’s hard for us to think of ANOMALISA as that other thing now.”