‘Anomalisa’: How the Year’s Best Animated Film Made Stop-Motion Feel Real

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, co-directors of the exquisite Anomalisa, talk about life, love, and what inspired their animated masterpiece.

Paramount Pictures

“This is the part of the interview where we talk about what we ate,” Charlie Kaufman narrates, seated next to his Anomalisa co-director Duke Johnson in a moderately bustling Silverlake café one afternoon in late October.

In your standard celebu-profile, he knows, every single minute observation is laden with import. Which means someone, somewhere, will inevitably ponder the existential significance of the fact that the man behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York ordered breakfast eggs over easy for lunch.

“I’m keeping all of that in mind,” he jokes. “All the time.”

The most serendipitous pairing of collaborators to hit Oscar season didn’t know each other before destiny partnered them on the animated film of the year, a stop-motion masterpiece about an emotionally adrift author who makes a rare connection with a stranger while in Cincinnati on business.

Anomalisa’s treasures are tragicomic and exquisite, its beauty deeply human. Following its modestly handsome but fleshy protagonist, Michael Stone, through a series of mundane interactions from a simple cab ride to an ill-conceived drink with an ex to the moment he meets an unassuming woman who brings his crumbling world to life, it paints a picture of human isolation and identity in acutely perceptive brushstrokes. There is meaningfulness in the minutiae, which reminds me that although Kaufman and Johnson have read recent reports declaring that processed meats will be humanity’s undoing, both order bacon anyway.

The duo partnered up when producer Dino Stamatopoulos and Community guru Dan Harmon spearheaded a $400,000 crowd-funded budget on Kickstarter to produce Anomalisa, adapted by Kaufman from a drama he’d scripted and staged. Originally he’d designed the “sound play” to be heard, not seen on a screen.

Re-recording the re-envisioned tale with his three actors—David Thewlis as the ennui-filled Michael Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan voicing everyone else in the world—Kaufman and Johnson spent two years meticulously shooting the film with a crew of stop-motion animators. It took another year to complete before Anomalisa premiered this year to critical acclaim at Telluride, Venice, and Toronto en route to an awards season berth.

“We were just trying to achieve something that was honest and faithful to the source material and to the voice records that we did,” recalls Johnson, tracing their course to the beginning of the shoot. “That influenced all the conversations we had from that point on about what it was going to look like and what it was going to feel like. We wanted it to be a moving experience. We wanted to bring these characters to life and make them feel real, to make their interactions feel authentic.”

Johnson, a longtime Kaufman fan, came to Anomalisa with a background in animation and credits including Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. For Kaufman, who directed 2008’s also-ambitious Synecdoche, New York, it was an entirely new way to work. “It was very choreographed,” he muses. “You’re not interacting with the puppets, really. You’re interacting with the animators. Puppets don’t bring their own thing to it.”

“Some animators will argue that they have gremlins or evil spirits living inside them and they’re fighting against them,” adds Johnson. “But that hasn’t been proven. We actually had to burn sage in the stage once to rid it of evil spirits, because there was one animator in particular who was convinced that his set was affected by gremlins that would come in at night and mess with the lights, or mess with the puppets.”

Through the Anomalisa shoot, Kaufman and Johnson might not have been shocked to discover tiny creatures screwing up the production, they joked. Leaky ceilings damaged sets constructed out of wood, which also warped when extreme heat hit their studio causing fluctuations in the exhaustively detailed miniature settings.

“You lose animation time,” laments Johnson. “In animation it’s all about producing seconds. That’s where all the money goes. So an animator sitting around is anxiety-inducing—just seeing them, you know, hanging out at the craft service table eating Goldfish.”

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There’s an uncanny familiarity in Anomalisa’s characters, which were designed to be authentically imperfect, the directors explain—asymmetrical, unlike most puppets forged for stop-motion animation. Pudgy human bodies were also important for Michael and Lisa to have. As the audience spies on their most intimate moments—the flash of an utterly average penis, flashing unashamedly right out of the shower, two normal human bodies entangled in flagrante, silicon on silicon—the nakedness alone is a subtle confrontation.

Kaufman and Johnson took pains to map out Anomalisa’s much-talked-about sex scene with a tender touch. “They’re real people,” says Johnson. “They’re real characters. How would they be in this moment? What would Lisa be feeling? What would Michael be feeling?”

They weren’t sure how an audience would react until the first wave of discomfited giggles, and an ensuing hush, came over the very first screening. “I remember there was a real kind of silence at that point in the movie and I was concerned that it was because people were bored,” says Kaufman. “I didn’t know how to gauge what that was. Afterward it was one of the big things people talked about—how real it was, how emotional it was, how difficult it was to look at because they felt like they were invading these characters’ space. That was a really good sign, that they were thinking of these puppets as real as they were watching it.”

“I was just hoping that they weren’t going to laugh,” Johnson adds. “I like that they laugh when the cunnilingus starts. She’s like, ‘Oh, don’t, wait,’ and he’s like, ‘But I want to,’ and she’s like, “OK, go ahead.’ There’s a chuckle there. And then you actually see these POVs of what’s going on and there are some chuckles there. It’s an awkward laughter. By the time the lovemaking starts happening, people are just silent.”

Team America, this is not. “I think in a way that’s maybe a relief for people,” says Kaufman. “Because it would have been a betrayal of the characters otherwise.”

It’s tempting, as with any of Kaufman’s film, to read into the mind of the author. In a way, they’re all Being Charlie Kaufman. How does he feel about the notion that viewers will be tempted to infer from Anomalisa, the tale of a middle-aged author unable to forge human connections and wracked with turmoil, some reflection of Kaufman’s inner being?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Kaufman says, pausing. “When I write things, I try to be honest. So in that sense I’m being honest. I think people who don’t know me think that I’m something more eccentric than I am. That’s my sense when I read stuff about myself—that for years I was a recluse, and that was what was said about me, that I’m really odd in some way. I don’t know.”

Next to him, Johnson smiles. “Are you odd?”

“Maybe I am, but I don’t think I’m odd in a mysterious way,” Kaufman answers. “I’m self-conscious, I’m uncomfortable, but I don’t know…”

“I think, knowing you personally now, there’s a lot of you in your work—but it’s not the way people tend to make broad generalizations,” offers Johnson. “Like, AnomalisaCharlie, do you feel like you can’t see anybody? Do you feel like you can’t connect to people? That’s a little extreme. I think it’s more like a mining of emotional truth. I’m guessing, but I feel like in order to get that kind of emotional realism in writing you have to mine it from some kind of personal understanding of how emotions and experience work.”

They contemplate the array of reactions they’ve heard after taking Anomalisa across the country and beyond. I wonder if men and women have had strongly divergent reactions to Anomalisa and its protagonist.

“You know, the interesting thing about the reactions is that they’re all over the place and when we speak to people, they’ll thank us for things,” says Kaufman. “Sometimes they’ll say things that are surprising and interesting. A lot of women have said that they’re Lisa. Several women have talked about how they suffer from depression and that this movie shows what depression feels like.”

“Michael happens to be a middle-aged person, but I wasn’t trying to make a mid-life crisis thing,” he continues. “That just happens to be this character. I’m going to take it one step farther from saying I don’t think he’s middle-aged by necessity—I don’t think he’s male by necessity. I think it’s a human condition to not be able to see other people, for various reasons.”

Whether Anomalisa reads as optimistic or pessimistic about love and relationships is in the eye of the beholder, depending on one’s perspective. I ask Kaufman and Johnson if they consider themselves more cynical or hopeful about the universal themes that bring Michael and Lisa together—human connection and love.

Johnson, who is in a relationship, laughs. “Are those two things mutually exclusive? I feel cynical and hopeful. It’s that feeling of, it seems impossible that you can really find true love and connect with somebody and have it last for all time. To have a happy family with children and you hold hands and you just can’t wait to see your wife—I mean, that seems so unfathomable. But I still have hope for that.”

Kaufman has been married for “I don’t know how long.” He takes another deep pause before answering.

“I don’t know. I think that one of the reasons that we can’t see other people is that we have these expectations that they’re this thing that is constant,” he says. “And you need that thing, but it can’t be. People are constantly changing. In order for any relationship romantic or otherwise to be able to sustain itself, it has to be cognizant of that. Michael had a great time with Lisa and wants it to be yesterday, but it’s today now. He doesn’t know how to do that.”

A theme of anguished disconnectedness runs through Anomalisa, which is set in 2005 and deliberately features few traces of digital communication. That should come as no surprise to Kaufman followers.

“I have a lot of feelings about the Internet, what it does and what it’s doing,” he says. “I feel it’s definitely a way that people aren’t connecting, but are pretend-connecting. It has its own set of specific issues and one of them is the anonymity that you can hide behind to express whatever anger or outrage you need to express. It’s scary. The aggressiveness with which people talk to each other online is something that can’t exist in actual conversation. I can’t picture it.”

Kaufman teases a new project he’s working on, “about the society in which we live. Sort of a satirical nightmare… with jokes.” He’s also still open to seeing his screenplay Frank or Francis produced, even though the musical comedy about a director sparring with an Internet blogger famously fell apart during pre-production years ago.

“I think the reason that it stalled was that no one wanted to hire me as a director after Synecdoche,” says Kaufman. But Anomalisa’s success, he ventures, might help give the project new life. “I’m not going to turn things down,” he says. “If someone wants to make something I’ve written, I’m going to let them."

"I wrote it because I needed to write something and I felt like I had been wasting a whole lot of time reading about Synecdoche—nasty stuff,” he says. "I thought, well, how do I justify this and not feel like I’ve wasted this period of my life?”

The impetus for writing Frank or Francis, however, still resonates in Kaufman’s views on commentary and criticism in the Internet age. “I don’t like feeling that things are applied to me that are not true, motives or tensions or things that,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do about it and I can’t engage, so it’s a frustrating thing to me because it affects my feelings about my work and it affects my livelihood.”

Anomalisa has racked up critics awards and a Golden Globe nomination, and is vying for Oscar gold with a 96 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, Johnson admits he’s only read a few Anomalisa reviews in full.

“Movies are a weird thing,” he says. “For years I was in this bubble, on this dark stage every day making this thing that nobody in the world knew about. You’re making this thing and you put your soul into it, and you work so hard on every little details. And it just goes out into the world and people can look at it and go, ‘Eh,’ if they want to. You’re extremely vulnerable. You’re exposing yourself. You’re making choices—everything in there is a choice, and those choices are on display for people, and you can be judged on those choices that you made.”

Kaufman nods in agreement. “I think it is infinitely easier to hate something than it is to love something,” he says. “There is a tendency to hate things that comes from a place of dismissal and superiority. And when you love something, and you have to explain why you love something, you have to make yourself very vulnerable because someone’s going to tell you why you’re wrong and why you’re an idiot. I think that there’s a value in critics making themselves vulnerable… the idea that you can say, This is what this movie did to me and I’m trying to express it to you—and in doing so, I’m laying myself bare.”

"Then,” he concludes with a concession to the film critics of the world, “it becomes something valuable.”

For the record, Johnson ordered the breakfast sandwich.