Interview

Sophie Monks Kaufman

Illustration

Riika Sormunen

Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson: ‘We didn’t know if we were ever going to finish this movie’

One of America’s most lauded screenwriters and a maestro of stop-motion animation have teamed up for Anomalisa.

Charlie Kaufman writes elaborate worlds to express his tormented inner life. He sharpens despair into comedy and finds hope in metaphysical inventions. He’s given us a portal into John Malkovich’s body (Being John Malkovich), a screenwriter who becomes obsessed with his subject (Adaptation.) and a memory-erasing service for the broken-hearted (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Most ambitious in scope was his first bash at feature directing: 2008’s Synecdoche, New York explored the futility of the art-cannibalising-life cycle via a never-ending play conceived by Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Anomalisa is as intricately developed, but its story – about a lovelorn and sexually frustrated customer service stooge – takes place within a micro, hand-built universe. Kaufman has teamed up with animation prodigy, Duke Johnson, to direct a Kickstarter-funded film about lonely stop-motion puppets.

LWLies: Was any of the world of Anomalisa live-action or was it all built?

Charlie Kaufman: Everything is built. Michael is the largest puppet and he’s exactly a foot tall. So the sets are built in proportion to him. You have little hotel room, little staircases, little hallways.

Duke Johnson: Part of the reason we were able to do this for the budget that we did is because the general scope of the world is relatively small. Most of it takes place in a hotel room. We did have some expansive sets: the airport terminal, things like that.

CK: The office.

DJ: It was like 30 feet.

CK: Because we needed him to be really small.

Where are they now – Michael and the hotel room and everything that you built?

DJ: Burbank, California.

CK: We had a marketing meeting with Paramount when they took the film. Duke brought in Michael and Lisa puppets – there’s a bunch of them – just because they hadn’t seen them yet. They just stood there on the table and it was really sad, because you suddenly realise that they’re not alive. After looking at them for so long moving in the movie, they’re just these puppets. Beautiful puppets, but they’re puppets.

At some point, we’re all going to be like little lifeless puppets anyway.

CK: That’s true. That’s sad. That’s kind of brought me down that you said that.

The eyes jump out from all of the puppets as if silently screaming for help. How do you build an eye that looks so sensitive and real?

CK: Explain how big they are.

DJ: Michael is 12 inches tall. His head is about an inch so you can imagine how big his eye is within there. We looked at glass eyes because there are some very intricate glass doll eyes but nothing that small. We ended up 3D printing the core of the eye and the iris – every iris – is individually hand-painted by this guy with a monocle. Then it’s cast in this mould. The white of the eye is a type of silicon that’s self-repairing. Then there’s a layer of resin that goes over the top. You get depth like a real eye from the clear resin into the iris. The way that the animator moves it is they have to stick a pin in the white of each eye and move it the thickness of a hair, and then they have to do the same thing with the other eye, because they’re not connected. They have to match them one frame at a time otherwise they look cross-eyed.

 

“I remember how old I was when I discovered theatre. I was in third grade. That really changed everything in my life.”

 

How do you create the effect of them drinking their little cocktails?

DJ: It’s a series of martini glasses, maybe 10 of them. There’s hard resin liquid in each one. They just swap it out for a different one and it gets less and less and less.

Did you have a favourite part of making this film?

CK: You answer it first because I have to think. Unless you can’t and then we’ll both be quiet for a minute.

DJ: One of the greatest parts of the experience was working with one of my heroes. I learnt a lot from working with Charlie about the creative process in general. That was invaluable to me.

Are there any specific examples of what you learnt?

DJ: How to be brave when you’re being creative. Focusing on how to find truth in the moment and how to focus on the character’s experience. You have to be able to communicate your ideas to people. Charlie’s very good at that. He’s very articulate. Okay, more coming to me. Being able to look at something and find what’s interesting about it. God, I’m not being very articulate but it seems resonant to me.

This is the core of the creative drive: you have something that you really want to say but it’s so hard to find the way that doesn’t sound stupid.

DJ: So many times you feel like something doesn’t feel right. Then Charlie would be like, ‘Well, maybe this’ or ‘What about this?’ and I’d be like, ‘Ahh, that’s fucking brilliant! That’s it.’

Is it ideas that Charlie would have or is it just expressing the ideas right?

DJ: Being able to articulate. A lot of the time you can feel something intuitively but being able to articulate what that is or even start that conversation is a skill. Also, being open to other people’s ideas and being able to draw out of people what their contributions are. As a filmmaker there’s a sense of being an auteur and ‘everything must be mine’ but that’s really not the best way. Filmmaking is an extremely collaborative process. People come to you and they have their own ideas. Being able to stay true to a vision but also take the best of what other people can contribute is a skill.

Did you think about what your favourite part of the process was?

CK: I can’t really. I think my experience of this movie that I liked a lot was the sense of perseverance that went into it. It was a really taxing and stressful process because we didn’t know if we were ever going to finish it. Along the way there were just these moments of morsels – a puppet design or a set design or a particular shot or a fragment of a shot that came in that was like, ‘Oh my god’. That keeps you going. And that we did this on our own without any safety net and that it got done and it got done in a way that we were both pleased with, like, in retrospect, that experience is my favourite part of it, looking back and going, ‘Oh wow. We did this’ and ‘Good for us.’

Is it like a version of that Dorothy Parker quote ‘I hate writing. I love having written’? Do you hate moviemaking but love having made movies?

CK: No. Like I was saying, there are moments where it’s like, ‘Oh that’s so cool, that’s so cool.’ ‘Oh we did that.’ ‘Oh that works,’ but you still don’t know what the whole thing’s going to be. I feel more like Dorothy Parker does in terms of writing. Writing is really hard for me and I don’t enjoy it a lot. I don’t know if I love having written but if I’ve got something done, it’s a relief. ‘I hate writing. Having written is a relief,’ maybe is my quote.

With each of these morsel moments, did they accumulate in significance until at a certain point you though, ‘This is going to come together how I want it’?

CK: No, because the pieces are so small. They spend so much time on a few seconds of film. It’s a lot like making a movie before you make it. You have to say, ‘This is how much we’re shooting here.’ ‘We’re not doing five takes of it’ because it might take a month to shoot one shot. I don’t think I was sure until we started putting it together in post-production. Sometimes there’s a shot that you really aren’t happy with and you’re focused on it. Then when you see it in context, whatever the flaw in it that you saw doesn’t matter any more, but you don’t know that at the time it’s like, ‘Oh my god is that going to be awful’ and then it isn’t.

DJ: Not to get too new-agey but there’s almost a sense of destiny that a film has, or a life of its own that it takes, where there are flaws within it but that flaw somehow contributes to the overall experience of the film in a unique, specific meaningful way. There are things like that that are weird, that feel magic… The magic of cinema!

So you just come to utterly believe in what you’re doing?

DJ: What’s the alternative? The train has left and you’ve committed to years of your life in this extremely difficult process. You have your doubts and there are times when maybe you want to give up or something just seems too hard but there’s no choice. You have to just keep going towards this objective. That was my experience.

It sounds like it was more stressful for you, Charlie. How do you manage stress?

CK: Depression. I don’t know if that’s managing it.

How do you manage depression?

CK: I have a dogged attitude, which isn’t great but it’s all I got so I just try to keep going.

DJ: Do you think that making art… I have a question now.

Go for it.

DJ: Do you think that making art, creating, expressing is a way
of treating depression?

CK: Maybe. Probably better than the alternative. I don’t know if it’s a therapy thing for me but I haven’t tried not doing it so I don’t know the answer. But it’s what I do because, in addition to everything else, it’s how I make my living so I can’t really stop and I guess that’s good.

I produced a panel called, ‘Can Creativity Help Tame Mental Illness?’

CK: What was the conclusion?

The concluding thought was that expressing a thing can help you manage it, the way identifying a thing can help you manage it, but it doesn’t take care of it forever.

CK: I do think that there’s a value or a therapeutic value in putting something in the world that is truly you and having other people feel that it’s true to them. That makes me feel less lonely. That’s not a strategy or anything but it’s a result that’s good for me.

Has it always been the way you managed or was there a time when you managed in a different way?

CK: Managed depression?

Yeah.

CK: I’ve always been in the theatre, or written, or made films since I was a kid.

Do you remember how old you were when you first wrote something that meant something to you?

CK: No, I remember how old I was when I discovered theatre. I was in third grade. That really changed everything in the trajectory of my life. It became my passion and my focus. It was weird because it was a school play and I had been forced to be in other school plays and I hated it. I was really shy and I was really terrified. I remember I was in a play in second grade where I had like two lines and I had to tie somebody up. I don’t remember what the play was about but I remember I figured out that if I stood behind the person I was tying up when I said my line, no one would ever have to see me. That was my plan and that’s what I did. But for some reason in third grade I did a play and I played a character that was really unlike me. I played a rooster in a hen house who was very blustery and cocky. I got laughs and it was like something changed. You know, the whole world changed and that’s all I wanted to do.

Was it the fact of doing something so out of character or was it getting a response?

CK: It was getting a response doing something out of character. It was getting to be somebody that I wasn’t and getting laughs. God knows what it really was because I was in third grade – were people really laughing or was it parents being nice? I don’t know. But to me, at the time, it was like, ‘Holy cow. This is life-changing’ and it became my focus for years. It was all I wanted to do.

Is it now the same, so with Anomalisa, is the reward hearing people say that they understand it and therefore understand some part of you?

CK: It’s not as clear to me any more. It’s not as immediate and direct as performing on stage. It’s removed but I certainly do get some sort of something out of people responding. It feels more serious now and not necessarily in a good way. When we did this as a play, it was like no money and we just put on a play, and it was for two nights and no one got paid and it felt like high-school to me in the best way. I loved it. This is harder and longer. It’s not the same. I can’t get it back.

What will be your new thing after this?

CK: What am I going to do professionally, is that what you mean?

I guess that’s what I mean. Are you going to explore these themes that you’re talking about, of things getting worse?

CK: Things getting what?

Worse. Or feeling heavier. It sounded like you’re saying that things are getting heavier.

CK: Yeah. I don’t know. You’re making me rethink everything.

I’m sorry.

CK: No, it’s cool. It’s good.

What’s it like to hear your co-director talking like this?

DJ: Status quo.

CK: I feel like we haven’t had this particular discussion yet, have we? Have I told you about the rooster?

DJ: Not specifically about the rooster but about you performing in plays as a kid and loving that. This is what the experience has been like – conversations about everything. We do some work and then it digresses into long conversations about art, history or opinions on things. Then it gets back on track and you do some work and that’s all part of the process.

Are you two planning to work together again?

DJ: We’ve talked about it.

CK: We’d like to do another animated movie at some point. We both have other things we want to do individually as well. We’ll see. This was an interesting experience for me. It whet my appetite to try other things with it – try to explore it more as a form.

Read More

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Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s meditative drama is the spiritual cousin of the late Belgian director’s 1974 debut.

Anomalisa

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Beauty and tragedy abound in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s melancholic stop-motion treasure.

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