Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has built a cult following with 'Being John Malkovich', 'Adaptation', 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and 'Synecdoche, New York'. In his new film, the stop-motion animated Anomalisa, co-directed by Duke Johnson, he gives us the baleful Michael (voice of David Thewlis), a successful-but-direly-lonely motivational speaker, who spends a single night in a Cincinnati hotel, and possibly meets the woman of his dreams, Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), only to end up squirrelling up in his head, and questioning the nature of his attraction to her. Equal parts humorous, tragic, and surprising (there is an extended – and graphic -- sex scene that set the critics assembled at TIFF ablaze), the film is perfectly representative of what makes the 57-year-old so endearing to his cadre of devotees. The film has won or been nominated for countless awards. Its up for 'Best Motion Picture - Animated' at the Golden Globe Awards this Sunday. Piers Marchant, a film critic and arts writer, recently spoke with Kaufman in a swank hotel room in Philadelphia in support of the new film, touching on everything from the film's early origins as a staged radio play, to why a unicorn sex scene simply wouldn't work on camera.
Charlie Kaufman, Co-Director, writer, producer and Duke Johnson Co-Director,producer. Photo credit: Todd Williamson/Getty Images
What's the genesis of the idea? How did the film come to be?
What had happened was I had done this kind of a staged radio play in Los Angeles in 2005. It was with the same actors, and this guy named Dino Stamatopoulos, who was a friend of mine, happened to be in the audience. He really liked the play and in the subsequent years, he founded an animation studio where Duke [Johnson] works as a partner and a director and they were looking for something to do at the end of 2011, and Dino had my script.
As you had written the script, you assumed it would be a live-action piece?
Well, it was, because it was performed as this stage play and that was the intended use of the script. It was designed to be heard and not seen, and there were lots of things in there that I didn't want to actually make concrete, like it was never explained what was physically wrong with Lisa in the play, so the idea was people in the audience would have different ideas of things like that. So when they came to me and said they wanted to do it, I said it was okay if they could raise the money, thinking that it was never going to happen – and then it did, and we started working together about how we could make this thing visual.
Your work often involves some significant surreality, so I'm always interested to see your characters interact with the baffling world around them. As far as we see here, Michael just drinks too much, though certainly other drugs factor into your films a fair amount. Is there a kind of thought process to that sort of detail, as far as character conception? It seems as if alcohol would maybe be more of an outgoing thing where something like weed might turn the characters more inward?
I didn't intellectualize it. I saw Michael getting drunk, and maybe because he's in a hotel and there's a bar and so that's the reason for him to meet with the other women. I like that he gets progressively more drunk as the night goes on. I think that's interesting dramatically: His lack of control when he goes into the toy store.
Because of the out-there nature of some of your work, I'm sure you're constantly having to field questions about your own personal beliefs about drugs. I know you live in a state where medical marijuana usage is legal. To me, it feels as if its almost becoming a non-issue. At this point, there doesn't even seem to be that kind of controversy about it anymore.
It doesn't seem like there is. In addition to people being allowed to do what they want, which I believe, if it's not hurting other people, there seems to be a lot of medical benefits and uses for it, and people should have access to it if they need it. I think it should be legalized.
The brilliant thing about your films is the way you use these peculiarities and bits of imaginative realism to reveal something incredibly, deeply real. In any good drama, what we really want as an audience are those moments of authenticity, when we recognize something we might not have otherwise seen in ourselves. It seems as if the degree of difficulty in achieving that sort of reaction in a stop-motion animation piece gets raised considerably.
There's something about it that I think gives it a special focus as an audience member that you wouldn't have otherwise, because you know on some level that this is artificially created, and so things that are very small, and gestures that are small, and movements which are small, which is mostly what this movie is mostly made up of, are fascinating to watch in a way that if an actor were doing it, it would just be ignored: He just scratched himself there, but if a puppet does it, it's, "He scratched himself! Just like a person!" I think that really served this movie because it is really small in terms of what happens and the interactions between the people.
Which brings us to the sex scene. What I found interesting about it is the way it was going for realism, I mean, it's animated, you could have done anything – you could have made them turn into unicorns.
We did that in an earlier cut, but it didn't test well. [laughs]
I'm always fascinated by the idea of specific place in films. Out of curiosity, was there a definite reason why you chose Cincinnati? Did that help you better articulate your vision?
I was looking for a city in the Midwest when I wrote it. I don't remember why I chose Cincinnati. I have no idea. As to the second part of the question, I think we weren't really hung up on making it look like what the city really looks like. I think the place we were trying to create is the place that is no place, that is every place. We wanted that hotel room, when the door opens and you see it for the first time for everyone to go, 'I've stayed at that hotel, I know that hotel.' That was the creepiness of modern American culture we were looking to explore.