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: