The genesis of Anomalisa, the new stop-motion animation movie from writer-director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, dates back to 2005 when Kaufman was doing a series of sound plays with Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers. The plays were basically stage radio plays with musicians on stage and actors reading scripts along with a Foley artist. Kaufman had written one, and the Coens had written one. Kaufman wanted to take the production to Los Angeles and the Coens couldn't go, so he had to write a second one to replace theirs.
"I was under the gun," says Kaufman in a conference call with Johnson. "I had read about the Fregoli delusion, which is the belief that everyone else in the world is the same person under disguise. I thought it was interesting metaphorically and kind of interesting in terms of a sound play. It would allow me to have one actor play many parts, and I couldn't afford to have many actors anyway. I liked the idea that there would be one person playing all these characters that the other character interacts with until late in the play when a third voice is heard."
Kaufman recruited David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play the two main characters, Michael Stone and Lisa "Anomalisa" Hesselman. He enlisted Tom Noonan to play everyone else in the play. The same set of actors reprise their roles for the film.
"They're three of my favorite actors," says Kaufman. "When I was looking to cast the play, I approached people I liked and who I thought would be fun to do something with. I didn't really know them at the time. I had seen work they had done that I really admired. They ended up being nice people too."
One of the main motifs in the play/movie is the concept of customer service. The plot centers on Michael, a lonely man who has written a best-selling book about customer service. At a conference on the subject, he meets and falls in love with Lisa, a customer service rep attending the conference, because she doesn't sound like everyone else.
"I think it's funny that there would be somebody who is a celebrity in that field," says Kaufman, adding that he worked in customer service for many years. "I know the field so it was an easy thing for me to draw on. It has an ironic element in that this character can't really interact with people in a real way. That's arguably the type of interaction you do as a customer service representative."
The choice to use stop-motion animation stemmed from the fact that Johnson was working at an animation studio called Starburns Industries. He and one of the owners, Dino Stamatopoulos, had talked over the years about wanting to use stop-motion to explore more adult stories. He got a copy of the script for Anomalisa that he passed on to Johnson, who loved it, and encouraged him to explore it as a movie project.
"The challenges were creating something new," Johnson says. "We weren't drawing from any sort of references. We were forging our own aesthetic and our own approach and figuring out what that is and what that looks like and how to achieve this emotional authenticity."
As strange and trippy as the movie is, it achieves a high level of emotional intensity and resonance. The movie made the festival circuit last year; it opens at the Cedar Lee on Friday. While on the festival circuit, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. It also was just nominated for an Oscar. Given that Johnson and Kaufman had to self-finance the film to get it into production, the accolades certainly serve as vindication for their work.
"So much time was spent on this," says Kaufman. "If it had disappeared without a trace afterward, it would have been very difficult for all of us. That it's getting positive attention is vindicating or something. It's certainly a relief."