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Monday, January 11, 2016

Director-Producer Charlie Kaufman Animates Our Alienation in Anomalisa

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2016 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Two is the loneliest number: Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) only alienate each other in animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa. - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Paramount Pictures
  • Two is the loneliest number: Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) only alienate each other in animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa.

In Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa, which opened Jan. 8, customer service expert and author, Michael (David Thewlis) lectures reps across the country on how to assist others. But off on an overnight business trip in Cincinnati, he struggles to survive his immense loneliness without doing himself, his family and the women he encounters, including baked goods saleswoman Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a major disservice.

SF Weekly spoke to Kaufman about the inspiration behind this poignant, beautifully filmed and scored story, how stop-motion animation served this project and the hardest aspects of working away from home.  

What inspired Anomalisa?

I was trying to figure out a way to use three actors. Since it was a stage radio play and I knew I could only get three actors, I wanted to use one, Tom Noonan, to play a lot of parts. I read about something called the Fregoli delusion, which is the belief that everybody else in the world is the same person. So I thought that it was a metaphorically interesting way to talk about loneliness and a lack of connection with other people.  

Could you explain why you decided to make all the characters except for Michael and Lisa look and sound the same? 

No, I won't spell it out. It was a device I used because it was a radio play and I was trying to use voices to create a certain feeling. But what it signifies is up for grabs.

Why was Duke Johnson the appropriate person to embark on this project with?

Duke worked at Starburns Industries, which is the animation company that produced this movie, and he's a director and a partner there. And my friend Dino Stamatopoulos saw the play in 2005, and he liked it. He launched Starburns, and they were looking for something to do, so they approached me. Fortunately, it was a good collaboration and worked out.

But I didn't know that Duke was the right person. He was the person who was going to be doing it there. If I accepted that they could do it, he was the person. We met and we liked each other and we sort of embarked on this thing, not knowing each other. It was fortunate that I think we ended up liking each other.

Why tell this story via stop-motion animation as opposed to live action?

I think that's an answer that we came to in the process of doing it. We decided that it was going to be stop motion, because that's what Starburns did. So if we could raise the money, it was going to be stop motion.

But I think there were a bunch of reasons that in the end we figured out. It has a quality that lends itself to the story that's being told in terms of there's a dream-like quality to stop-motion animation, at least in the way we did it. There's a sense of fragility to the puppets and a sense of claustrophobia. I think it works in terms of figuring out Tom Noonan playing all the different characters. We had the same voice coming out of a bunch of different actors. If we had quadrupled or quintupled Tom all over the place, it would have been very distracting. But it's sort of almost subtle that these are all the same faces here. I think that really works. It would be weird to see Tom's face on a little kid.

Other than the stop-motion animation, what changed from play to film?

It’s pretty close, actually. The dialogue is almost identical. We changed the song and changed the movie he watches on TV. My Man Godfrey was Casablanca in the play, but we couldn't get the rights. There was very little change other than that.
Jennifer Jason Leigh played Lisa Hesselman onstage and voices her in the film. As a red-blooded American, who wasn't long out of college when Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released, what was your initial impression of her?

Gosh, I’ve been watching Jennifer for decades. Not just Fast Times, but I’ve always loved her. I’ve always thought that she was very fascinating to look at. I remember being particularly fascinated with her in The Hudsucker Proxy. What she does in that's so extraordinary to me. When she captures that cadence in that time period—it's so precise the way she delivers her lines—and the way she moves is brilliant. I was thinking of her in that when I approached her, even though that character is nothing like this one. I think Lisa is more like she actually is. Not in terms of personality, but she's just a very nice, lovely and warm person.

Part of moviemaking involves press tours around the world. I imagine that life on the road might make you feel as lonely as Michael on a business trip. What's the hardest part for you?

Keycards don't work [laughs]. The traveling I’ve been doing has been hard. I've been traveling through great distances and time zones overnight and sleep has been hard and answering the same questions has been hard. But traveling with Duke Johnson and our producer Rosa Tran has made this tour far less lonely. 

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Joshua Rotter


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