There’s something inherently weird about meeting Charlie Kaufman. Not that there’s anything particularly odd about Kaufman – if anything, he’s strangely normal. But, instead, it’s the madcap version of Charlie Kaufman that I’ve developed in my head over the last 15 or so years. You know, the Crown Prince of Surreal, cackling to himself, completely shut off from the rest of the world, brewing some idea or another that will make normal human beings like me question my entire existence.
Then there’s the real Kaufman: Friendly, not particularly shy, engaging, with a dry sense of humor. When I walked into the room for this interview, it was Kaufman’s co-director on Anomalisa, Duke Johnson, who I engaged with first because Johnson and I happen to share a hometown. And you can probably guess what that’s like, with us trading stories of what schools we went to. It’s after about two minutes of this that Kaufman says, “I’ll come back in like 15,” then darts out the door. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. Kaufman then tiptoed back in, “I was trying for a joke.” I then felt bad for not laughing.
Where do we start with the masterpiece that is Anomalisa? (Which will hit theaters in late December.) It’s almost impossible to explain, but I will do my best by only using 82 words: Anomalisa uses surreal stop-motion animation to create the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a traveling businessman who is in Cincinnati for one night. One of the quirks of Michael’s life is that everyone who surrounds him sounds exactly the same (almost all the characters in Anomalisa are voiced by Tom Noonan). Michael then meets Lisa (who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the film becomes a quirky, sad, touching love story that only the mind of Charlie Kaufman could give us.
Here’s the trailer, which at least hints at this film’s brilliance:
Here’s a sad fact: No one wanted to make this movie. Kaufman and Johnson had to use Kickstarter to raise the funds to get it made. Here’s another sad fact: As Kaufman reveals below, he’s had a lot of trouble getting anything made lately. Sure, if he handed off his films to more bankable directors, we’d probably have had two or three Kaufman movies over the last seven years, but Kaufman, understandably, wants to direct his own movies. It’s a small miracle we have Anomalisa.
Kaufman is incredibly candid, detailing how difficult it’s been for him to get movies made, both recently and even as far back as Being John Malkovich. Ahead, I got to spend what turned out to be a decent amount of time with Kaufman and Johnson, at least enough time to go back to the early days of Kaufman’s film career and why it’s become so difficult for even a genius like Kaufman to get a movie from page to screen.
Charlie Kaufman: Would you like an M&M?
No, thank you.
Kaufman: They’re not weird or anything. They’re just regular M&Ms. They’re just pink.
Kaufman: Don’t think that we’re…
I interviewed Jack Black recently and he mentioned he had seen Anomalisa. Then I remembered he was supposed to be in your Frank or Francis.
Kaufman: Yeah. And that also didn’t get made. So, there you go.
Could that still happen?
Kaufman: It could still happen. It would have to be reinvented, though. We had a whole cast and we were headed into pre-production. So, I’d have to get people back and who knows if they would be interested anymore. But, at this point, we don’t have any money, so that’s a secondary concern.
But you didn’t have money for Anomalisa, either.
Kaufman: Maybe this changes things for everybody. For Duke and for me, maybe we can make stuff now?
Why was this so difficult to get made? You’re Charlie Kaufman, you’ve made some of the greatest movies over the last 15 years…
Kaufman: Well, I’ve had a very hard time. I haven’t been able to get anything made since Synecdoche, New York. I’ve been struggling. I’ve written a bunch of stuff.
You just named a movie people love. I don’t understand why.
Kaufman: Well, apparently somebody understands it because they haven’t given me any money.
As an outsider looking in, we are all in a lot of trouble if you’re having trouble.
Kaufman: Well, you can look at the film business and sort of see there are certain things that are being made and certain things that aren’t. And I guess I’m one of those things that isn’t.
Are you encouraged by what happened here?
Kaufman: I’m really encouraged. It’s a great thing. It’s this thing we made completely under the radar and we struggled to make it and nobody had any interest in it – and now people like it. So, that’s great for us. It’s great maybe for other movies that people might want to take a chance on.
How did the Paramount sale happen?
Kaufman: We showed it at Telluride, then we went to Venice and showed it there. We got an award in Venice, then we took it Toronto and it happened while we were in Toronto. But whatever was going on behind the scenes with Paramount, I have no idea. I think the sales people knew something was brewing before Duke and I heard about it. By the time we heard about it, we got a phone call from them, and we are in hotel room with the sales people and agents and Paramount was on the other end. It was like midnight or something, so it was really cool and surprising. We weren’t expecting that.
So, Charlie Kaufman wrote it, when and how does Duke Johnson come on board?
Duke Johnson: I’m a partner at the studio Starburns Industries — we started the studio to make the stop-motion animation episode of Community. And Dino [Stamatopoulos] said, “Hey, I have this Charlie Kaufman script.” And it turns out Dino was in the audience of the play when it was originally produced in 2005.
Kaufman: And I know Dino from The Dana Carvey Show.
Johnson: And Dino was a big fan, loved it. And he had pestered Charlie for the script, and eventually Charlie gave it to him and he read it – just for his own enjoyment. But now he was like, “Maybe we can make this into a movie.” I read it, loved it. We approached Charlie about doing it. He said, “Yeah, if you can raise the money.” We went off and we did the Kickstarter and we raised a little bit of money. So, it looked like, Okay, this is going to happen. And then immediately from zero, there are no designs or concepts of what this is going to be — Charlie and I got together and started talking about it. So, we were both, from day one, involved in every step of the process.
Kaufman: And Rosa Tran, too. We want to mention Rosa. She kept the thing alive.
The animation is very difficult to describe. At times, it looks real. At times, it looks otherworldly.
Johnson: It was very hard to pull off.
Kaufman: It was a very painstaking process for the production — and, you know, being constantly chased by money people and animators leaving and having to replace them and things falling apart, having to be put back together. The thing that Duke and I wanted to do was create something that felt subtle and nuanced and naturalistic and not like kids animation. So, that required a certain kind of level of craftsmanship on the part of the designers and the part of the animators. That was sort of unusual, and that adds to the realistic quality, but also the surreal and otherworldly thing, as you said.
There’s a scene where a couple is arguing in the hallway, but all they are saying back and forth to each other is “Fuck you” over and over. This is the hardest I’ve laughed all year.
Kaufman: That’s in the play. He’s passing in the hallway and I don’t remember exactly how we did it. We did it with the microphones. It’s kind of interesting, actually, we had him walking down the hallway, but we’d have the people coming close, then drifting off into the distance. Why I did it, I don’t remember. I thought it was funny.
That’s an answer.
Kaufman: Yes, that’s an answer.
I accept that answer.
Kaufman: [Laughs] Good, because if you didn’t accept that answer, I don’t know what else to give you.
Why Tom Noonan’s voice? What makes it perfect to be the voice of everybody? It’s pleasant.
Kaufman: It’s a lovely voice, but there’s something a little bit wrong with it. But I don’t know what it is. It’s almost too nice, or something. I love Tom as an actor, so that’s basically why I cast him, but I wanted a voice that was really specific and memorable — so that the idea that everybody was the same person would be conveyed. Tom’s voice and his delivery and his inflections are very specific, so it carries through to all of his characters.
When you watch with a crowd, is there a point where most of the audience gets it?
Johnson: One thing I love about it — and this was a conscious decision that we talked about — people get it at different times. It’s not like that’s the moment you connect the dots. For some people, it’s very early on. Some people, they start questioning it early on and it’s not confirmed until the very end.
Kaufman: It’s harder now because so much has been written about that aspect of the movie. I feel like we don’t get to see an audience experience that revelation the way we did in the earlier days. Maybe I’m just imagining that everyone knows now, but I feel a lot of people know.
Johnson: People come up to us still, even like last night…
Kaufman: Really? Someone said something about it?
Kaufman: Oh, cool. Not to me. No one talked to me after. It was all directed at him.
Johnson: Not true. There were lines of people, as you could imagine.
I can imagine. I could imagine waiting in a line and being intimidated by you, though.
Duke has the nice Midwestern face and Charlie Kaufman is Charlie Kaufman. You have a nice face, too…
Kaufman: [Laughs] I was going to say, what face do I have?
But I noticed the voice sort of early, but not right away. It was the bellhop…
Kaufman: When I notice it as an audience member, it’s when the bellhop speaks immediately after the manager. “Hello, I’m Dennis.” That’s the first time we have two of them right next to each other.
Johnson: That’s amazing to me, because there’s already been the voice on the plane.
Kaufman: Well, maybe you know they are all male, but you don’t know they are all one person?
It’s too late now, but would you have rather people hadn’t written about that?
Johnson: It’s not an M. Night Shyamalan movie. There’s no twist ending. You can reveal things and it’s still a movie about two characters who interact with each other.
Kaufman: Except one of them is a ghost. [Kaufman reaches into the M&M jar.]
Johnson: You touched them all!
Kaufman: [Laughs] Well, more for me.
Do you actually like directing, or do you just not like some of the choices that were made on the movie you didn’t direct and want to make sure it’s done correctly? There’s your quote about George Clooney on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Kaufman: What was the quote? I want to make sure it’s correct.
That you wish George Clooney would have come to you with some of the changes he made.
Kaufman: Right, okay. That’s fair.
Is that why you directed Synecdoche, New York?
Kaufman: I enjoy the process. I went to film school. I have a really extensive background in theater. I did a lot of acting — I love working with actors. I love visual things. I always intended to be a writer who directs and a director who writes. You know, I got an opportunity, finally, with Synecdoche to do it.
Why did it take so long?
Kaufman: First of all, I couldn’t get into the business at all. And when I got into the business, no one wanted to make Being John Malkovich. I certainly wasn’t going to be given permission to do it. Spike Jonze came along…
He was a young guy, too, at the time.
Kaufman: But Spike was enormously successful. He was the biggest video director at the time. And he wanted to make this movie and it got made. I mean, it got made for a price — it wasn’t an $80 million movie, but it got the money to make it. Eventually, when he didn’t want to make Synecdoche right away — he wanted to make Where the Wild Things Are first — I didn’t want to wait. I said, “Can I just direct this?” Asking him if he would step down. He said he would, so I got the opportunity.
Could you envision not directing one of your movies now?
Kaufman: I could envision it, but it’s my preference to do it. I want to do it. And it’s probably one of the reasons it’s been difficult to get anything done in the last seven years, because I’ve attached myself as the director to the things I’ve written.
So, if you had given your scripts to other directors, you could have gotten two or three movies made in that timespan?
Kaufman: Absolutely. Just because I had the most extraordinary cast for Frank or Francis. Extraordinary. I mean, it was like crazy. And the reason I kept hiring more and more crazy, well-known people was because it was the only way I was going to get any money. Even then I couldn’t get money.
I don’t understand how that happens.
Kaufman: Well, you know, 2008 was a disastrous year for the economy. Everything changed in the business after that. No, really. Sony Pictures made Adaptation. Not like Sony Classics, Sony Pictures made that movie. They would never make that movie now. It’s impossible for them. It’s a different business. And if Synecdoche made $100 million, it would be a different issue. But, it didn’t.
Was it harder to get movies made back then? Or just different? Being John Malkovich made $30 million, but back then you could put two famous people on a poster, like John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, and people would show up. That doesn’t work anymore.
Kaufman: I think what happened with Malkovich, it started to get a lot of advanced press. It did really well at the Venice Film Festival and people were talking about it, so people went to see it. I think the same thing happened with Adaptation. Around the same time, Human Nature did no business. I think the reviews weren’t as good.
So, it’s harder today?
Kaufman: I think it’s harder. I think it’s harder and I don’t think the studios make those mid-level budget movies anymore. And there are so many people who are making movies now who can’t get any kind of distribution, so the market seems like it’s flooded. It’s just a different environment. I mean, I don’t know if Malkovich gets made now.
Certainly not the way it got made then.
Kaufman: And it was also under the radar because the companies were changing hands and nobody was really paying attention while that was made – and I think that served the movie really well. But, you know, Adaptation was a studio movie with studio oversight, and Amy Pascal was amazing with us in letting us make that movie. And also saying, “Here’s your budget if you want us to leave you alone. And here’s the budget when we won’t leave you alone.” So, Spike took the budget where they’d leave us alone and they honored that.
Is what you did with Anomalisa the future of making movies?
Kaufman: I don’t know. It’s really dangerous to do it this way. We just didn’t have a choice.
Johnson: It’s really hard, too. It was unbearably difficult because we didn’t have the support of a studio or people with endless amounts of money. There were several times during production we thought the movie might not ever get finished. We lost animators because we couldn’t afford their rates. People signed on to work on the movie because it was “Charlie Kaufman,” it was stop motion, they just wanted to be a part of it. But they’d do a couple of shots, then they were ready to go make five times the rate on something else. It was just really hard begging, borrowing and stealing. Well, not stealing.
But is it fulfilling that you actually pulled it off?
Kaufman: It’s enormously fulfilling. We feel really proud that we did this, against all odds. But I think what Duke said is true; it’s an exhausting and stressful, traumatic experience. And every moment you’re thinking it’s just going to collapse. So, it isn’t what you want to do, but we did it and it’s a great thing.
You mention it being hard without a studio being involved, but is there any way a studio lets you include a scene of a puppet having sex with another puppet?
Kaufman: There is no way a studio would have ever made this movie. And that’s one of the main reasons, but there’s a bunch of other reasons. It’s not an animated movie for children. There’s no precedent for that in mainstream culture. Who is going to go see this? They don’t know what it’s going to look like. We didn’t know what it was going to look like.
You wonder who is going to see this, and I honestly don’t know. It could be a lot of people.
Kaufman: We don’t know, either.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.