READ MORE: Review: Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’ is an Animated Identity Crisis
Three weeks ago, Charlie Kaufman was pacing anxiously around a green room at the Palm Theater in Telluride. Just a few feet away, “Anomalisa,” his first directing effort in seven years, screened for only the second time during the weekend festival. It was a big moment.
Barely on anyone’s radar until its Telluride premiere, “Anomalisa” had been shown to hordes of distributors months earlier and still couldn’t find a home. Buyers saw a steep risk in the prospects of a bizarre stop-motion drama about dour moods, heavy regrets and the sexual escapades of a middle-aged motivational speaker who hears every voice in his life as if it’s the same person. The film’s sales agent, however, hoped to capitalize on the incoming exposure of the fall festivals to push for “Anomalisa” to hit theaters before the end of the year. So it needed a home — and fast.
Most of the distributors who saw “Anomalisa” liked it. But they assumed the audience for another peculiar character study from the director of “Synecdoche, New York” as well as screenwriter of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” was inherently limited. Within a matter of weeks, Paramount Pictures would disagree, spending a reported $5 million on the movie after its Toronto International Film Festival screening.
At Telluride, however, Kaufman faced more pressing matters. “Did Meryl Streep get in?” he asked a nearby publicist. Hearing that she did, Kaufman didn’t relax so much as he seemed to drift to another concern. His rep noted that one memorable bit from the movie — when doleful protagonist Michael (David Thewlis) brings the entrancing Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) back to his hotel room, where she delivers an unironic rendition of a Cyndi Lauper song — got a big laugh. “Good, good,” Kaufman muttered, poker-faced as ever.
Kaufman knew he had something different: “Anomalisa” stood out from other movies, including his own, partly because it took 10 years to complete. Originally a radio play produced on a whim for an evening event in Los Angeles — the slot was originally for the Coen brothers — “Anomalisa” technically predated Kaufman’s first directing effort, though he never considered its cinematic potential. “There was no 10 year plan to make this movie,” Kaufman said as he settled into a chair in the Telluride green room. “It was something that we did once. It was never going to see the light of day again.”
For several years, many assumed that fate had struck Kaufman as well. While he professed an interest in developing his directing career, a number of projects failed to come to fruition. After “Synecdoche, New York” faced divided reactions and minimal theatrical returns — it grossed about $4.4 million in theaters, about one-fifth its original budget — “Anomalisa” came together through a series of unique developments, several of which had nothing to do with the writer-director himself.
After the live performance, “Anomalisa” was tossed around by a pair of producers and fell into the hands of Duke Johnson, an NYU film school grad who had only directed animation for television, including an acclaimed stop-motion episode of “Community.” Johnson and producer Rosa Tran organized a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that doubled its goals, at which point Johnson and Kaufman launched a filmmaking process that would consume the next three years. “You get to a point where you just want to crank it out and get it done,” Tran said.
After all that, “Anomalisa” faced an uncertain future. However, while buyers resisted the price tag, sales agents from William Morris Endeavor and CAA saw potential further down the line. “Let’s sit back and wait,” Tran recalled agents telling her. “Let’s screen at festivals and get the word out there about our movie. People will see its value.”
In late April, they started showing it to programmers. “We screen hundreds of films between April and June,” said Toronto’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey. “‘Anomalisa’ was like nothing else we saw. I remember coming out of our screening room feeling shaken and altered somehow, like somebody had peeled a layer of skin off. The film is so attuned to the sensitivities most of us have but never reveal. I wasn’t sure how other people would respond to it, but I knew I loved it.”
Eventually, the patient approach paid off: After critical adoration in Telluride, a grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and further acclaim in Toronto the following week, “Anomalisa” landed one of the biggest deals of the fall festival circuit, with a studio that doesn’t typically cull much from festivals. A movie made with 100 percent creative freedom, beyond the constraints of the studio system, had found its way there anyway.
The “Anomalisa” deal was bested by only one other big sale: STX Entertainment’s $10 million bid for the fast-paced first-person action vehicle “Hardcore,” a movie with built-in commercial potential and franchise possibilities. “Anomalisa” represented a different sort of gamble: You’ve never seen a movie like this before. “Paramount shares the our enthusiasm, love and excitement for it,” Tran said. “They believe in it like we do.”
Those involved in closing the deal were satisfied with the result. “Paramount rallied behind the artistic vision of the film to a near-unprecedented degree in my experience,” said WME Global partner Liesl Copland. “They understood the creative bravado, the humor and the fact that there were multiple audiences for the film. Filmmakers should be so lucky to have this type of response plus the heft of a studio behind them.”
Above all, everyone seems to have believed in Kaufman’s potential except for Kaufman himself. “Anomalisa” was willed into existence by passionate fans of his work, one whom became his co-director. “It was the dream opportunity of a lifetime to be able to work with someone I admired so much,” Johnson said, joining Kaufman backstage in Telluride. So Johnson set about making sure that “Anomalisa” found the appropriate resources. “We did a Kickstarter and were surprised by the amount of attention that it got and the amount of support we received,” he said.
The screenwriter, who tends to stay in his own bubble, played no role in the unorthodox fundraising process. “I really had very little idea what Kickstarter was and how it worked,” he said. “I didn’t want to be involved with raising money, that was their thing. If it happened, I would come on and participate. That was the understanding.” Once “Anomalisa” pulled in close to half a million dollars, the production got rolling. Kaufman, however, didn’t see the show of support as much of a triumph. “I didn’t have any emotional reaction to it,” he said. “I was glad we got the money.”
If Kaufman sounds jaded these days, the frustration stems from a real place. He happened to make the leap from accomplished screenwriter to director with “Synecdoche” in 2008, as the American recession put the pause button on a lot of industries. Whatever mometum Kaufman had developed across many projects, from his Oscar win for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” to his pair of collaborations with Spike Jonze, immediately froze. He wrote three unproduced screenplays in addition to three television pilots, including one that he produced and directed that never went to series.
As a result, he strikes a grim note when discussing his prospects in the movie business. “If things aren’t perceived as having commercial potential, they don’t come out,” he told Indiewire during a live talk in Toronto last week. “Anomalisa,” he added, provided a welcome contrast. “This movie only happened because it happened outside the system,” he said “Only. It never would have happened if I had gone the conventional route and tried to pitch this. No way.”
Eventually, “Anomalisa” grew beyond the limitations of its Kickstarter budget, and the filmmakers found additional resources from producer Keith Calder of Snoot Entertainment, a company that tends to focus on genre fare (Calder also produced the Toronto midnight title “The Devil’s Candy”). On a certain level, however, “Anomalisa” fits that bill. The movie next screens in Austin for outré-centered Fantastic Fest this weekend.
That crowd is likely to respond well. Kaufman and Johnson’s ability to use the animated approach to convey the somber lead character’s fragile mindset creates a hyperreal quality both poignant and wonderfully strange. “We wanted the characters to be realistic and subtle in their performances and their facial expressions,” said Kaufman, who famously avoids deep analysis of his work. In the case of “Anomalisa,” however, the sense of a believable universe coming apart at the seams speaks for itself.
From the opening minutes, the character models show the lines where their faces connect to the rest of their bodies, introducing the artificiality that plagues Michael throughout the movie, as he questions his melancholic state. He attempts to rekindle an old romance, then later connects with a pair of admirers from across the hall, but even the promise of a new beginning feels like an uncertain proposition. The animation technique tells us so.
Later, in an unsettling dream sequence, the dolls literally fall apart — a clever means of acknowledging the artifice and deepening its purpose. “One of the things we talked about was how in sculpture and clay you can see the tool marks or in a painting you can see the brushstrokes,” Kaufman said. “We were interested in that idea, in seeing the construction and the texture, the composition of these things.”
The weak structure of the universe lies at the heart of Kaufman’s work: “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine” all explore the frailty of human consciousness. But “Anomalisa” puts it into a gentler framework, with the focused tale of a man attempting to make sense of his world-weary state.
Even as “Anomalisa” suggests a fresh start for the filmmaker, Kaufman can likely relate to Michael’s conundrum. “The fact that we made something that I think we’re very happy with ourselves pleases me,” he said. “Still, I’m going to try to get money from studios or whoever has it…I’m kind of casting my light in a bunch of different directions because it’s hard to get things made.”
Told that he sounded pessimistic about his odds, even after all these years, the typically straight-faced Kaufman finally smiled. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said.
“Anomalisa” screens at Fantastic Fest on Friday. Paramount will release it theatrically in late December.
This article has been updated.