Puppet Penises and Human Emotion: Charlie Kaufman on 'Anomalisa'

Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman was stuck. It was 2004, and the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was knee-deep in the screenplay for Synecdoche, New York, a heightened look at life and death that eventually became Kaufman's directorial debut. But the ideas weren’t flowing. So when composer Carter Burwell asked him to contribute an original work for an ambitious live-performance project called Theater of the New Ear, Kaufman buckled. Anything to divert his attention.

This month sees the release of Anomalisa, a stop-motion film adaptation of that original New Ear "sound play." It's a movie that was never supposed to happen, and it also serves as an unofficial companion piece to Synecdoche, New York, which Kaufman finally finished up and released in 2008. Of course, the notoriously coy Kaufman would never be so bullish as to pin down Anomalisa as a companion to Synecdoche, but those lucky enough to watch from the outside can see that the two movies are born from same existential queasiness.

In Anomalisa, customer-service sage Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati for a conference. He’s in a rut; every voice he hears sounds exactly the same (like actor Tom Noonan's voice, to be exact), which amplifies the vice-tight mundanity of life. When he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan whose voice is distinct and melodic, Michael is smitten. Just as the stage became a conduit for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s endless creative pursuit in Synecdoche, a blasé hotel becomes a hotbed for passion and privilege in Anomalisa.

Sitting down with the writer-director is a lot like watching one of his movies: thoughtfulness can lead to insight, as long as you can overcome the awkward tension. It feels like you’ve stuck your nose in someone else’s business. And really, you have, because Kaufman is tight with his inanimate characters. His co-director, animator Duke Johnson, brought them to life. He gave them a human element. They are real, despite being made of plastic.

"When we had... our first marketing meeting, Duke brought in two of the puppets, a Michael and a Lisa puppet," Kaufman recalls. "They were sitting on the table, and it felt really sad to me. Because I'm so used to watching them now live, that to see these still little dolls standing there, that they're not alive, I was surprised to have that reaction."

How did he get that close to them? By building an entire world from the ground up. Here’s how Kaufman and Johnson accomplished it with Anomalisa:

Deciding to turn Anomalisa into a movie

"I think it was a happy accident," Kaufman says of his foray into animation. It was Mr. Show and Moral Orel writer Dino Stamatopoulos, Kaufman’s friend from their days on staff at The Dana Carvey Show, who caught Anomalisa at Theater of the New Ear and imagined it as a feature film. Kaufman clicked with Stamatopoulos' stop-motion outfit, Starburns Industries, whose partners include Johnson and Community creator Dan Harmon.

"It was like, okay, this is what we're going to do, then I think it ended up being thematically interesting for the story that was being told," he says. But Kaufman shrouds his reasoning. "I'd rather leave 'why' to people to have as an experience rather than to articulate."

Paramount Pictures

Finding the face of a troubled man

"When it started to have to be physically manifested, we had to figure out what this thing which was designed not to be seen would look like," Kaufman says. "We had to rethink the conceit."

Michael was the first character Kaufman and Johnson designed. Original designs that were cartoony, exaggerated features and giant eyes. They wanted a more natural look. They searched stock photo sites for average looking middle-aged men to no avail. Too polished. It took a look closer to home to find the perfect model: Johnson's brother-in-law. and that's who he's based on. "His ex-brother-in-law," Kaufman adds.

Dreaming up a drab hotel

Kaufman and Johnson wanted Michael to roam "the hotel room that everyone has been." The carpeting, the wallpaper, and the architecture all gave the setting a dreamlike quality. "The hallways are really, really long, stuff like that," Kaufman notes. "There's this feeling in hotel rooms, when you get there, especially if you've been traveling a long distance on a plane, it's like, okay, you're there, you've arrived at this thing that really isn't anything, and what do you do now? What do you do in that room? I feel that a lot, and I wanted to have that feeling."

Paramount Pictures

Animating a flaccid penis

Anomalisa stands in contrast to Kaufman’s previous work. Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche dealt in magical realism. His new film mirrors life with mannered performances from the puppet ensemble. The directing duo became obsessed with subtleties. "We fell in love with the breathing, and the voices and the characters' breathing," Johnson says. "We thought that it brought a certain life to the interactions and to the characters, so we animated them breathing as much as possible, and that was teasing up the clothing and things like that."

Kaufman and Johnson made a delicate movie. There are long stretches of conversation. There are silent moments where glances say everything. There are sex scenes that need to wash away scarring memories of Team America. And it’s all assembled one painstaking frame at a time. In one scene, the husky Michael cleans himself up for a date with an old friend. He exits a shower nude, his penis wagging in tandem with his bouncing gut. That is stark reality -- a dream come true for everyone at Starburns.

"I remember the animator that animated that moment," Johnson recalls. "He was a guest animator, he was only there for a short period of time, and he was animating an insane amount of frames a day, working, just sweating, because he was just trying to get to that moment where he could animate the penis, because it doesn't happen. You don't get to do that working in stop-motion animation. He was so excited about being able to animate the penis. He was just working so hard to get there before he left."

Paramount Pictures

Bringing his puppets to life

Somewhere along the line, Kaufman earned a reputation as a Luddite loner fighting his way through the Hollywood system. This is a misconception. Yes, he’s fighting -- projects that couldn’t survive the green-light gauntlet include Frank or Francis, a musical about Internet anger, and an FX comedy called How and Why -- but he’s also connected to the world. He scours the Internet. He pictures the world. He interacts with the community (but don’t ask him to say hello to Al Pacino because he worships the guy and was left shaking the one time they shared space).

So when he goes and writes a movie about an aging white guy caught in a shit storm of his own design, he is 1) aware that critics might write it off and 2) OK with sticking to his stories. "What would I write about?" Kaufman wonders aloud. If he writes from the male experience, he’s lambasted "because males are involved with power and whatever." If he wrote about a movie from the female perspective, he’d be lambasted because he doesn’t have that experience. "'Sit down and shut up' is basically what it sort of is."

Anomalisa’s artisan craftsmanship gives way to Kaufman’s mind, and he’s thankful for it. The movie is one big rumination on Fregoli syndrome, an actual, rare disorder in which a delusional person believes people are in fact a single person who changes appearance. "I started thinking about that in a metaphorical way, not what does it mean literally to have that condition, but what does it mean to not be able to connect and see other people, and how does our society create or contribute to that feeling or that inability that we might have or one might have." Michael is more than a mid-life crisis and a dangling penis. Lisa exists on her own path. "I think she's struggling a lot," Kaufman says. "I think she's got a lot of issues of self-worth and stuff like that. I think she's a person."

"I write what I am trying to explore. I am trying to explore it, it's me who's trying to explore it, that's what I do. I'm not writing something that's sociologically stable for everyone to get their little piece of it. I think about things, and this interests me and I'll try to explore it, and there seems something inherently dramatic in it to me, so I'll try to write it."

Here's hoping Charlie Kaufman is never not stuck.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He thinks we're all puppets on the inside. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.