Charlie Kaufman Gets Animated

Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan talk about the Oscar nominated animated feature, Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman is “a genius”, enthuses actor Tom Noonan. He has “an imagination unlike anyone,” gushes actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. We're talking at the Venice Film Festival, where Kaufman's second directorial outing, Anomalisa, has just screened, and their comments are irrefutable.

Co-directing with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa takes Kaufman into the world of stop-motion animation, with stunning results. However, the Being John Malkovitch writer hasn't suddenly gone child-friendly. Anomalisa's story of Michael, a depressed inspirational speaker who has a brief encounter with Lisa, a shy telesales agent, touches on grown-up themes, is peppered with salty dialogue, and features full-on puppet sex.

Anomalisa began as a stage play read live by Noonan, Jason Leigh and David Thewlis. When Johnson received the script, he was thrilled. “I could see how it could be stop-motion in the sense that it wasn’t specific to anything," he says. "And I thought it would be really exciting because it wasn't like anything I had seen before in that medium.”

Taking “the pulse” of a couple of studios, Johnson realised they'd have to fund the project independently. Studios are conservative by nature, agrees Kaufman. “As an executive you get fired for making an eccentric decision that doesn't work . . . If you make a superhero movie and it doesn't work, you were right to try.”

He started talking to Johnson about how to translate the play following the launch of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign to raise seed money. Left alone, they were able to follow their own vision. Using 3D printed facial components, expressive lead characters were created. When naked, Lisa (Jason Leigh) and Michael (Thewlis) look like animated Ron Mueck sculptures. They had to be “fleshy”, says Kaufman. “Not idealised. Just real human.”

In a typically Kaufmanesque touch, Michael is experiencing a psychological condition based on Fregoli Syndrome (the protagonist of his directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York, had Cotard's Syndrome), which causes him to see everyone (except for Lisa) as the same person. He is bored by life, which Kaufman regards as depression.

It's like a removal from life, which I experience quite often. I feel like there's a numbness that Michael has that I certainly recognise.”

Explaining his approach to writing characters, Kaufman says: “I think everyone has a mental disorder. I think everyone has got a subjective psychology and just trying to get inside that and create somebody struggling, it seems like the only way to present a human being.”

A talking point of the film is likely to be Lisa and Michael's realistic sex scene. Tender and awkward, it has an erotic charge that the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey could only dream of. Kaufman believes its power comes from us seeing “the entire experience, from the flirtation until the end of the experience. That is unusual in a movie, and I think that is what gives it some of its tenderness and it’s vulnerability.”

This takes the movie deep into adult territory, and reminds us that animation wasn't always for children. When I mention the success of Ralph Bakshi's saucy Fritz the Cat, Kaufman says that while it was released in 1972, “that was a hundred years ago, in terms of what's happened to the culture since then.” Could Anomalisa make a difference?

If it’s successful there’ll be a hundred Anomalisas,” he says drily. “Until they stop making money.”

Ultimately, Kaufman has never followed a formula, he hates labels (like Kaufmanesque), and has never followed fashion. And he is not about to start now.

I just keep stumbling. I try to do something new, I don’t exactly know how to do it, and I get frustrated. I get depressed. And I have to keep stumbling because somebody’s paid me money. I can’t stop stumbling. I just keep doing it and eventually have something to turn in, and see what happens.”

One of his strengths is that no matter how strange or surreal his films become, the feelings, anxieties, emotions, and fears that characters like Lisa and Michael experience are always recognisably part of our shared human experience.

It doesn’t feel foreign,” says Jason Leigh. “He somehow taps into something that is so universal, and yet so out there, that it blows your mind.”