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‘Anomalisa’ Filmmakers on Animated Sex, Their ‘Impossibly Low’ Budget, and the Sad Impatience of the Studio System

'Anomalisa' Filmmakers on Animated Sex, Their 'Impossibly Low' Budget, and the Sad Impatience of the Studio System

“What is it to be human, to ache, to be alive?” asks the lead character in the animated feature “Anomalisa,” from two directors, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and stop-motion master Duke Johnson.

The R-rated feature broke out at the fall festivals and was scooped up by Paramount Pictures’s acquisitions team, who loved the movie and decided to open it in time for awards consideration, competing against Pixar’s beloved “Inside Out.” Many Academy members—who boast a wide variety of tastes—value this visually stunning, slightly avant-garde and distinct hybrid as something unique and special, not unlike “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which did miss the Oscar mark. 

READ MORE: Paramount Mounts an Awards Campaign for Charlie Kaufman Fest Breakout ‘Anomalisa’ 

Kaufman has been nominated three times (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and won for the latter ten years back. This movie is far more accessible than his 2008 directing effort “Synecdoche New York.” 

“Anomalisa” is a straightforwardly simple and relatable story about Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a brainy, married, British, L.A.-based motivational speaker on customer relations who is bored and depressed. He checks into a Cleveland hotel that we can all identify. It’s called the Fregosi (referencing a Syndrome in which someone believes that everyone is really the same person in disguise) and sure enough, Stone sees and hears everyone (voiced by Tom Noonan) as the same. He engages in a flirtation with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an admiring conventioneer, who looks and sounds unique. They have hot sex—and then what?

Sure enough “Anomalisa” landed rave reviews when it opened at year’s end, and nabbed an Oscar nomination (which should boost its modest box office), even though it starts off with a jarring “fuck,” signaling that this puppet movie is NOT a family picture.

READ MORE: David Ansen’s Toronto review.  
I sat down at Sneak Previews with Kaufman, Johnson and producer Rosa Tran. 

Watch a new featurette on the “Anomalisa” filmmakers, “Working Outside the Studio System,” above.

Anne Thompson: This movie was independently produced, despite Paramount distributing it. It was a fall festival pickup. This started out as a little radio play. Tell us about the beginning.

Charlie Kaufman
: In 2005, I was part of a theater called “Theater
for the New Ear” with Carter Burwell and the Coen brothers. Carter did the
music, the Coens wrote two plays, and I did this. We performed it at the Royce
Hall at UCLA, with the same cast, and the idea was a staged radio play. Carter
was onstage with his musicians, there were Foley artists, and the actors were
onstage, reading scripts. A friend of mine, Dino Stamatopoulos, was in the audience, and he liked it.
Subsequently, he founded an animation studio called Starburns Industry with
Duke and Rosa. They were looking for something to do at the end of 2011, and
they approached me to turn it into a stop-motion film.

How far is this movie from what you originally did? You have
the same voices and the same composers.

Kaufman: The same actors; the same dialogue. It was decidedly
non-visual. The idea was that it would be created within the minds of the
audience, so that was how and why it was written—with one person playing many
parts, because I thought that was a good conceit for the form. We had to give
that up in order to make something visual. So we made it visual, but the
dialogue and the story is the same.

With these felt puppets, I’ve never seen animation that looks
quite like this. And to keep things “Brechtian,” you let us see that they are real puppets. You move the puppets one frame at a time, but you also use digital aids? 

Johnson: They’re not felt. We’ve heard that. It has to do with
the cinematography adding a softness to the material, which is hard, and it
creates a soft look.

Are there other movies that look like this?

Johnson: Not that I’m aware of, no. But there are other movies
that use this type of animation, called “replacement animation,” where you have
bottom pieces and top pieces and there are millions of possible pieces to
interchange to create the illusion… There are visual-effect enhancements in the film, for things like removing
rigs, and there are green screens for out the window, but none of the
performance or character animation is digitally enhanced at all. It’s all
puppets being moved one frame at a time.

I once visited the set of a Henry Selick stop-motion movie with little costumes and
sets, and what seemed like a director for each room. What were your mechanics?
How many sets were going at once?

Rosa Tran: We shot in a studio in Burbank with eighteen stages at
the height of animation. Our stages range in different sizes, from 20 by 30 to
8 by 10 to 25 by 32. Each stage is a different location, and, by the end of
animation, we had eight identical Michael hotel rooms. There are different
shots happening on each of the stages, and we had thirteen animators going.

How did you interact with one another, in terms of

Kaufman: We took turns. The thing about animation — and
especially the animation that we did, which is very, very low-budget — is that
it’s front-loaded, in terms of what work is, because you can’t do multiple
takes of a scene. It sometimes takes months to do a scene that you’re looking
at onscreen, so you get one shot of it. So you do something with storyboards to
the voice records, which we recorded first, so we get a very clear sense of
what the shots are going to be and what the animators are going to do from
moment to moment and shot to shot. So Duke and I work on that. We worked on the
puppet design and the production design together. We dissected the piece,
discussed what the characters are going through at different points, and then
went into production. As Rosa said, different animators are in those rooms;
Duke and Rosa are there every day for the two years of production. It was every
day, and it was long days.

Did they send you stuff?

Kaufman: They sent me stuff every day, and we talked every day
and we emailed every day, and we shot reference footage for different things we
needed to see — with real people, sometimes with ourselves — to decide what we
wanted something to look like and help animators understand the moment. So we
did that, and after that we did post-production, which is putting the stuff
together and sound design. The thing about animation is that everything is calculated.
There’s nothing accidental, and there’s nothing you didn’t plan — including the
sound, because there’s no production sound at all. So everything that you hear
is placed afterwards. It’s quite this meticulous process and it’s pretty

It must be very gratifying for a control freak.

Tran: Or a creative person.

Johnson: Same thing, I think.

Kaufman: I feel like it’s not a control-freak thing, and I’ll
tell you why: it really is, of the things that I’ve worked on, the most
collaborative form. You’ve got Michael, or any of the characters: that
character, that performance, is created — in addition to the voice performance
by David Thewlis — by many animators. These are people who are very creative,
who really are actors, and what they’re acting with is something outside of
their body. So it’s a very technical skill, but it’s an emotive skill. They
understand psychology as well as physics, and you’ve got to give it over to
them, in a certain sense. So you’ve got, like, maybe eight different people
creating Michael — that character alone.

You took this to Kickstarter. What made you think you could
pull this off?

Tran: Once Charlie agreed, we were trying to find financing, and
we went to a couple of places to get financing, and it didn’t work out.

This is a name Hollywood screenwriter and director. He’s a
name who should’ve been marketable.

Tran: They wanted to turn it into a TV series, in parts, and we
weren’t interested in that. These guys wanted a feature, and we said, “Okay.”
Someone suggested a Kickstarter, and it was really new at the time, so we said,
“Let’s just go for it.” We printed 20,000 postcards and we drove down to Comic
Con, and we were standing on the corner, handing out postcards, trying to get
people to pledge.

How much money did you raise?

Tran: $406,000.

That’s a lot. So you found some other investors and you were
able to get on your way.

Tran: Yes.

When you first did a radio play, why were Thewlis and Jennifer
Jason Leigh the right voices?

Kaufman: It just comes down to I had
an opportunity to do a play and I
had an opportunity to work with people I really liked. I mean, I didn’t know
them personally; I knew their work and really liked it. I cold-called both of
them and said, “Do you want to do this?” They both said yes, as did Tom Noonan,
who plays all the other characters. So it was a thing. I felt like they
were right for the characters, but I was mostly like, “Oh, that would be really
cool.” So I tried and they said yes.

And Carter Burwell composed “Carol.”

Kaufman: And “Mr. Holmes.” It’s a big year.

How important was the placement of the first “fuck” to letting
the audience know exactly what they were seeing?

Kaufman: The first… you mean the first word? [Audience laughs]
Because I was going to say there’s really only one “fuck” in the movie. I mean,
I think it’s, like, the third or fourth word in the movie. That’s the script in
the play. It had nothing to do with anything other than “that was the script.”

I guess there are just rules about animation that you guys are

Johnson: I have a tiny little story about the first “fuck” in the
movie. So we had filmed some of the cunnilingus scene. Every week, we had
something called “weeklies,” which is our version of “dailies” — because it’s
slower — that we show every Friday. People invite their family and their
friends and they come and they eat pizza and watch the stuff. That week, we
knew we had some of that scene, but there were some kids — people were bringing

Tran: Because people had also done a Lego spot.

Johnson: We did little commercials while we did this movie — to
keep the lights on. So people were bringing kids. We were going to show the
Lego spot; we were going to show clips from the movie besides the oral-sex
stuff. So we set that stuff aside — no problem. Lights go down, the kids are
sitting there, and it turns on, and we had “fucking, fuck, fuck, fuck,” where
it’s said, like, twelve times. Totally forgot about that shot.

How long did it take to shoot the sex scene?

Kaufman: Six months.

That’s a long time. You took it very seriously, and I love it.
I know I’m not alone in thinking it’s one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever
seen. Tell me about what is about live-action that makes sex so terrible and
animation that makes it so great.

Kaufman: We have some theories. [Audience laughs] We’ve been told
by some people that they feel more connected because they aren’t actors — because
they’re not looking at Brad Pitt and somebody else onscreen. They’re not going,
“That’s Brad Pitt pretending to have sex,” or, “What’s it like to have sex with
Brad Pitt? What about all those people who stand around? Is it a closed set?”
You’re not thinking about that. If it’s erotic, it’s not by intent. It’s not a
decision that’s made in movies. It’s an extension of this emotional story between
these two characters. It starts when they go in the hotel room and it ends when
they turn off the lights. It’s a complete sort of moment from that to that,
which you don’t really see in movies. They’re also very regular-looking people,
which isn’t something that you see in movies, and if they were, people would
say, “Oh, I don’t want to look at those bodies.” So, in that sense, it makes
people maybe feel like they relate to it more. We don’t turn away from it. We
just hold back. It feels very intimate; it maybe feels like we shouldn’t be
there. You’re in somebody else’s space. And I think, also, because people are
expecting it to be funny. They’re expecting it to be “Team America” puppet sex,
and that’s just what people expect when you do puppet sex. And it’s not, and I
think that takes people aback a little bit.

We do connect with them very early on, and we’ve all been in
that hotel room. Which hotel room is it? Did you model it on some real hotel

Johnson: We based it off several. We did research on hotel rooms
and drew from our own experience. I stayed in a hotel downtown.

Tran: He checked into the Biltmore. In the play, it’s originally
the Millennium Hotel in Cincinnati, but we couldn’t get the rights to the
motel, so we changed the name to the Frigoli, and then we still modeled; we
looked at the hotel in Cincinnati, so we went downtown, he checked in, took a
whole bunch of photos, brought them back.

And we’ve all been in that moment where we think we’ve found
someone special, and then we realize they aren’t. To me, that’s the really
heartbreaking scene.

Kaufman: Not that we didn’t see it coming.

The music is really important, and Burwell is telling us all
sorts of things. What is he trying to accomplish?

Kaufman: I think the thing to keep in mind about the score for
this is that it was for the radio play, originally. I mean, it’s been adapted
for this, but it was filling in a lot of narrative space, because there were no
visuals, and it was doing a lot of extra duty in that form. So I think, because
of that — in a good way; in a way that we all like — it has a theatrical feel
to it, which is not a typical film score. What is it doing? I hope it’s serving
the scenes; I think it’s serving the scenes. We were very careful with how we
placed stuff, not to overpower stuff.

When people use the term “Kafkaesque” to describe your work,
what does that mean to you? And do you agree that it is?

Kaufman: I mean, I don’t think about that. I don’t know.

Why is it being applied? It’s a particular, hyper-real kind

Kaufman: Yeah, but I think there’s something dream-like about
Kafka’s work, but set in this sort of… dream-like stuff set in this sort of
mundane reality. Maybe that has something to do with it. I don’t know. I like
Kafka a lot, and he’s very important to me, but I don’t think, “I’m going to
write something Kafkaesque.”

No studio would’ve made this, and I think one of the things
that’s great about animation is that you can do whatever you want. And you did.

Kaufman: You mentioned before that it breaks the rules of
animation. I think the way we think about animation is that it’s a form, not a
genre. It is applied mostly to kids’ movies in this country, but we hope that
that’s going to change, because it’s such a beautiful opportunity to explore
movement in different ways, and story. That’s how we chose this movie. Not to
be defiant; just because we like it.

Was the mirror scene particularly difficult?

Johnson: It was, as a matter of fact. We had at least three animators working on that scene over the course of several months. The way stop-motion exists is, it exists in a three-dimensional space, but they’re animating it — the curves and arcs that they’re animating are for a two-dimensional plane, so it’s sort of like a cheat. It’s like a fake. But if you have multiple reflections, like the shower door and mirror, they’re really sort of animating multiple planes simultaneously. So it looks good in this plane or doesn’t in that plane, so they have to adjust and find something that works in all angles. They move very slowly, and, also, the big, sort of emotional component to that moment that we wanted to get just right.

Can you do lots of takes?

Johnson: Not at all, actually! It couldn’t be more extreme to the opposite. All of the money that you spend on a movie is for animation seconds, and so we had a quota of seconds that we had to get, and it was just the minimum that we could do to get the film done. That’s why it’s all front-loaded. That’s why we do an animatic, and the animatic tells you exactly the shot and what it’s going to be to the frame, and you have to animate and hit those frames. There is no take two. Occasionally there is a cut back, where you’re seeing it progress every day, and it’s not quite working, and you cut back a few frames to adjust that action or movement. That’s our version of a take two, but a shot takes months and months and months, so there’s no way you can do that shot again.

This is a new way of telling the story, and Charlie, you’ve been bucking the system in many ways. It’s a limiting system, and I heard you say you’d have never been able to make “Adaptation” in the current world.

Kaufman: Oh, yeah. I think it’s astounding that someone made that movie. Movies like that are not being made by studios now, so, yeah, it’s changed. Everything has changed a lot since 2008. Now we’ve got a system where they make giant, giant movies for giant, giant amounts of money and, hopefully, giant, giant returns. There’s no patience for those movies anymore, and the smaller entities can’t afford to make those movies, so it’s micro-budget movies or tentpole movies, and it’s difficult.

Some are calling Hulu and Amazon and Netflix a new order, a new freedom. Is that your sense of where things are?

Kaufman: I mean, it hasn’t been for me. I’ve tried to get pilots picked up and TV series. I got to make a pilot, actually, for FX, but they didn’t pick it up. Other than that, I’ve pitched things and sent scripts of mine, and they haven’t bought them.

So they’re being a little more conservative than we’d like.

Kaufman: “Synecdoche” certainly didn’t help my career. I mean, also because I want to direct, and since then I’ve tried to direct the stuff I’ve written. It would’ve been easier for me, because I’ve written a few screenplays, and it would’ve been easier for me if, you know, Spike did it, or something — but this is what I want to do, so I’m holding out.

Do you want to do more animation?

Kaufman: I would love to, we’ve talked about doing stuff together a lot. If the money is available, we’ll do it.

Let’s open it up for questions.

Audience member: It has an intimacy that we don’t normally see
when a play’s brought to a film.

Kaufman: I don’t think any of us really like filmed plays. We wanted to make a movie. It’s in a very few locations and sort of
small, like in a theater piece. We wanted to make it cinematic; that was very
important. It’s also not generally something you see in stop-motion animation,
because it’s lit in a very broad way, so the animators can get in there, but we
lit it like a movie so animators can stick their hands in and move the puppet.

Audience member: How big were the models?

Tran: 1/6. Michael is twelve inches tall, and Lisa is ten and
three quarters.

Audience member: I have a hard time imagining the nightmare
sequence done for a radio play. Was the way it was animated how you had it in
your mind when you wrote the play?

Kaufman: That scene is
very specific. The dialogue is very specific in that scene, so a lot of the
visual stuff that we
have in that scene is mentioned in the dialogue. So that sunken meeting area:
“Don’t go that way. Go this way. Use the golf cart. I just got this fish tank
with Irish fish.” We used that as
a guide to build that scene. I have a room full of secretaries in the play, a
lot of typing sounds. The way we were on the stairs wasn’t in the play. It was
an old man or something who said, “Excuse me, son,” but that was a better
visual, so we used this.

Audience member: What was the final budget? Also, how do you
get what you consider the right music for background?

Kaufman: I think it’s about $8 million. That’s impossibly low for
animation, and we can tell you stories. It’s different for other movies, and
because it was a play that I worked on with Carter in a very short amount of
time, he wrote the music and I directed the actors and we combined them and
made some adjustments, but it was pretty much what Carter wrote. We applied it
to this and saw where it fit and where it didn’t fit in this new form, but, in
the past, I’ve been very collaborative with composers. They have ideas and play
stuff and you say, “Maybe a little more this way.” I’m not musical, so I don’t
have the terminology, but I can talk about the emotion or what I’m looking for
at a certain moment, and certain people are really, really good at being able
to turn that into something musical. For me, it’s been kind of an exciting
process. But this one came ready-made, to a certain extent, because of our past
experience with the play.

Johnson: In this case, there was some stripping-away; just
reducing. It was originally for a sound thing, and, like you said, it brought a
lot of the narrative qualities.

Kaufman: And, of course, the timing is completely different than
it was in a play, so pieces had to be reduced and extended for those reasons.

Audience member: On IMDb, I read a quote of yours to the
effect of, “I don’t know what the hell a third act is.” If you actually said
that, what did you mean by that, and can you relate it to this film? Because I
thought the third act was short — on the abrupt side.

Kaufman: There’s this idea that screenplays should be structured in this
three-act form, and that’s the form that all screenplays are structured in. “We
need to have this happen by page 30, and have this happen by page 60, and this
happen at the end.” I don’t think about that; I don’t subscribe to that and I’m
not interested in that. I think every thing is its own animal, and one of the
biggest things you have to think about, as a writer, is the structure, and the
structure should be specific to the piece that you’re working on. It’s not that
I don’t care about structure; it’s just that I’m not going to adhere to some
sort of generalized form of that. 

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