Award-winning writer, director and Pasadena resident Charlie Kaufman releases ‘Anomalisa,’ a stop-motion animation feature film initially funded via Kickstarter

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/17/2015

In his first foray into animation, Charlie Kaufman’s new stop-motion film “Anomalisa” has been called “the most human film of the year” by Esquire even though “it doesn’t star a single human.”

This should come as no surprise to fans of the Pasadena resident’s screenplay masterpieces: the eerie “Being John Malkovich,” the neurotic “Adaptation,” the downright beautiful and moving “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and the devastating “Synecdoche, New York,” which Kaufman also directed.

“Anomalisa,” co-directed by Kaufman and NYU and AFI film grad Duke Johnson, is scheduled for limited release in theaters on Wednesday, Dec. 30, putting it in the running for the 88th Academy Awards. The script was originally written under Kaufman’s nom de plume Francis Fregoli as a sound play in 2005. The “Fregoli delusion” is a rare disorder in which a person believes different people are a single person, exemplified in the film by one actor speaking all roles that are not the two main characters.

The play was performed that year by the same actors as the film version (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan) at UCLA’s Royce Hall as part of composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear project, along with Kaufman’s companion play “Hope Leaves the Theater” (starring Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep). A New York performance earlier that year included a third play by the Coen brothers called “Sawbones” (starring Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also starred in Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”).

“Anomalisa” has won several awards, including the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and has received rave reviews. In September, Paramount Pictures bought distribution rights to the film for $5 million.

The 90-minute movie follows inspirational speaker Michael Stone, who checks into a Cincinnati hotel called Al Fregoli while facing an existential crisis. He’s thinking of leaving his wife, so he calls an old flame named Bella who he walked out on years ago, but that predictably doesn’t go well. Then he meets Lisa at the hotel bar and they connect over a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Puppet sex and love ensues.

The film’s existence has an unlikely history that is perhaps a sign of the times. Unable to find a studio to produce the film, Johnson’s production company Starburns Industries launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise initial funds. They raised $400,000 from 1,070 people.

“This technique gave us complete freedom,” Kaufman told the Pasadena Weekly in a recent interview. “Aside from the fact that we were limited by budgetary issues, we had complete artistic freedom within that framework. There was no reason for anyone to make this movie, for any studio to invest money in a stop-motion animation for adults that’s R-rated. It doesn’t have any of the things that people expect or think are necessary in stop-motion.”

The Kickstarter campaign caught the attention of Keith Calder at Snoot Entertainment, who financed the rest of production, which took more than two years. Johnson said the animators had a goal of shooting two seconds per animator per day, which was about a minute per week.

Kaufman said the puppets in the film were modeled on real people.

“We tried to design them so that they could have subtle, nuanced emotions,” said Kaufman, “and also movements, the ability to do that. They’re more or less human proportions, which is something that you don’t see in stop-motion generally. Certainly not in mainstream kids’ stop-motion.”

Typically with animation, voices are recorded first, but what was not standard of “Anomalisa” was that the actors’ voices were recorded all together as if it were a play, which it was originally.

“The actors are usually isolated and they do take after take,” said Kaufman. “We did it as a performance. It was much more intimate, because of the surroundings and because of the use that we were going to put it to.”

He said there is very little difference between the original play and the final film in terms of dialogue, but that there is an “enormous world of difference” in terms of what they added visually.

“Because it was a radio-like play, the dialogue was sort of condensed, with very little space between things,” said Kaufman. “We added a lot visually in terms of visual jokes and character movements and characters being described by their body movement as opposed to just by their voices.”

Johnson, who directed the all stop-motion animated Christmas episode of the television show “Community” in 2010, said he was inspired as a filmmaker by Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine,” so it was “a dream come true” to work with Kaufman. Johnson described the experience as “really wonderful, rewarding and fulfilling.”

“‘Eternal Sunshine’ told a story in a way that seemed at the same time totally unique and original but also timeless and relatable and it was funny and beautiful and moving,” said Johnson. “It just revealed everything that was possible within the medium of filmmaking, of good cinema.”

Kaufman has lived in Pasadena since 1999, which gives him some respite from the turbulence of Hollywood.

“I like that Pasadena is an older part of Los Angeles and it seems to be somewhat separate from the film business,” said Kaufman. “I lived in Silver Lake before, which felt more ‘in it’ than I wanted to be. I also like Pasadena’s big trees.”

Kaufman said he does most of his writing at home. He once rented an office in a building in Pasadena, but it didn’t work out.

“I thought it was going to be good, but it just seemed like another lonely place where I went and sat,” he said.

He tries to write every day, and though he’s not always successful he is always working on something in his mind.

“Which isn’t always a good thing,” he added. “But it seems to be the way I work. I’m always tossing stuff back and forth in my head, but the writing comes slowly and with difficulty, usually. It can be frustrating and depressing. It’s long and it’s lonely and it requires a lot of self-discipline,” which is why he has enjoyed breaking that up with the very social experience of directing.

Kaufman is currently working on a rewrite of a screenplay for a studio as well as his first novel.