The AFI FEST Interview: ANOMALISA Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson – American Film Institute

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The AFI FEST Interview: ANOMALISA Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Visionaries Charlie Kaufman (SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK) and Duke Johnson (COMMUNITY) have come together to create the unique and wonderfully idiosyncratic ANOMALISA, a stop-motion film centering on a customer service guru’s bizarre night in a Cincinnati hotel while on a book tour. AFI spoke with Kaufman and Johnson, an AFI Conservatory alum, about the film.

AFI: The origins of this film began with a sound-play experiment. How did that project then become ANOMALISA? 

Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman: In 2005, the Coen brothers and I collaborated with Carter Burwell on an evening of two sound-plays, which were essentially actors reading on stage along with musicians and a Foley artist.  We performed these in New York and in London.  We had hoped to perform in Los Angeles as well, but when the Coens were unable to do that performance, I had to write a second play to fill out the evening. This was ANOMALISA. There were two performances at Royce Hall and that was the end of it.  A friend of mine named Dino Stamatopoulos saw ANOMALISA at that time and was taken with it. Over the intervening years, he had asked me for a copy of the play just to read for his own enjoyment. I finally gave him a copy, maybe in 2011. In 2012 he approached me to ask if his animation company, Starburns Industries, could make it into a stop-motion film. I said if they could raise the money, it would be fine.  They raised seed money on Kickstarter, and Duke Johnson and I began work on translating this intentionally non-visual play into a visual form.

There are only a few main set pieces in this film, and just three voice actors. What was the appeal of keeping it simple and stripped down? 

Duke Johnson: We wanted to focus on the intimate and honest emotional journey of the characters.

CK: The original play was only three actors by design. This was just employing the same conceit — and the same actors.

Duke Johnson
Duke Johnson

The voice cast (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan) is brilliant in this film. 

CK: It comes down to casting people whose work I loved. They were three actors who I’d always wanted to work with.

Something that’s resonating with audiences is what this film has to say about the nature of relationships.

Duke Johnson: What seems to be resonating with audiences is also what I related to in the script. Exploring our desire to connect and how we connect are universally relatable ideas, but the specificity with which this story is told makes it feel very personal.

CK: I just try to explore ideas that interest me. This was one. 

The film draws so much humor from banalities (ordering room service, puttering around a hotel room, etc.). What about this idea appealed to you?

CK: I think more and more, people in this country spend their time in “non-environments” — generic, interchangeable, “pleasant” spaces. It seemed to be the place to set this particular story.

This film feels semi-autobiographical. There’s a link that can be seen between an author on a book tour and a filmmaker doing the rounds on the festival circuit.

CK: I take it as a good thing that the story seems “semi-autobiographical” to you. It suggests to me that you’re finding some authenticity in it. I have, of course, stayed in hotels and attended film festivals, but these are characters in a movie.

DJ: I started this project relating to [the character] Michael’s emotional experience, but it’s hard, after traveling so much and staying in so many hotels that all seem to blend together, not to find parallels to his physical journey as well.

ANOMALISA screens at AFI FEST 2015 on November 10 and 11.

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