'Anomalisa': How director Charlie Kaufman crafted the animated awards season contender

'Anomalisa' centers on a man on a business trip who is disillusioned with life and who encounters a young woman who stands out to him as an anomaly.

Paramount Pictures/AP
'Anomalisa' stars David Thewlis (l.) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (r.).

Painstakingly crafted over more than three years with occasional appeals for crowd-sourced financing, the stop-motion animated film "Anomalisa" was, ironically, the easy movie for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

"I had been sort of going through a tough time for several years trying to get things going," says Kaufman, the writer of funny, melancholy meta movies like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." ''So the idea that this was going to get going didn't seem realistic to me. The funny thing is, this was easier than anything I've tried to get made since 2008 because it actually happened."

Kaufman had reason to be skeptical. He wrote "Anomalisa" as a radio play for the stage, with just sounds and dialogue. Starburns Industries, a stop-motion animation outfit formed for a "Community" special, approached Kaufman in 2011 about turning it into an animated movie.

Never one to be overly optimistic, Kaufman went along, doubtfully. "I wasn't against it," he says. Duke Johnson, who helmed the "Community" episode, came aboard as director. While Kaufman struggled to find traction for his other projects, the slow toil of stop-motion proceeded. (Such is the pace that there aren't dailies but "weeklies.")

The resulting film is one of the most original movies of the year, a regular of top-10 lists (including this writer's) and year-end honors. After its enthusiastic festival debut, it was picked up by not some indie label, but Paramount Pictures. The film is now in theaters.

Made entirely with puppets, "Anomalisa" is about a lonely man (David Thewlis) on a business trip away from his family. He's a star of customer service whose disillusionment with life has gone so far that everyone he encounters appears the same to him. Actor Tom Noonan voices every other character but one: a homely young woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who stands out to him: an anomaly.

"Anomalisa" is a rare exception, itself. In a culture that often drifts toward uniformity, "Anomalisa" is uncommonly human, written by one of movies' great enemies of conformity. It can be staggering to see emotions and interactions (even sex), rendered more familiarly with puppets in miniature hotel rooms, taxis, and bars than most live-action movies even dare.

"I've struggled with it my whole life, the bull---- of the worlds that are presented to us that are unlivable or unattainable. It adds to a lot of depression and unhappiness and alienation that people feel," Kaufman says. "The only way I know how to fight that is to just represent in my work myself or my thoughts, my worries, my feelings. If you show yourself and somebody else feels connected to that, then they're connected to something that's real. When I have that experience watching other people's work, it makes me feel relieved."

Kaufman, 57, arguably the most renowned screenwriter of a generation, and Johnson, a 36-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker, don't share a sensibility so much as an eagerness to ignore, subvert, and distort convention.

Whereas most animation is compelled by fantasy, Johnson was excited by the mundane of "Anomalisa." Most are scenes that would never be animated, like an eight-minute phone call made from a hotel bed.

"That's, like, the first thing in the textbook of things you do not animate," Johnson says. "And that took months to do."

But stop-motion, in particular, has its own unique qualities, Johnson adds, with its own mood, with real spaces, light, and gravity.

"We did the opposite of things you normally do with animation," Kaufman says. "We kept things like breaths and all the sort of overlapping that the voices do."

It was a new world for Kaufman, but he's well acquainted with the wry backdrop of customer service in the film. When he was younger, he had jobs answering phones about wet papers and missing sections for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and selling tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. He also worked in a book warehouse and was a doorman for an apartment building.

"Nobody was seeing anybody," he says, recalling the impersonal nature of those jobs.

It's easy to see in Kaufman's movies a great fear of homogeneity: Malkovichs everywhere, Noonan's voice all around. His movies are radical, heartfelt exceptions to perceived storytelling rules. Kaufman, who has sought to direct again after 2008's "Synecdoche, New York," is currently working on a novel as well a rewrite for a studio.

"The idea that 'Adaption' was made by Sony is the thing I think about," he says. "That is a movie that would never be made by a studio now. They just wouldn't. It wouldn't occur to them. And I've had people at the studios say to me: 'I'm sorry to say this, but we need to know what the commercial is.'"

And yet it was a studio that came calling once "Anomalisa" became a hot property on the festival circuit, a surreal ending to a quixotic project.

"There's always people saying: You can't do this. We came up against it in this a lot," Kaufman says. "The answer is always: Why can't you do this?"

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