I’m sure any number of you will give your reasons why Charlie Kaufman isn’t all that great, and my response will be to call your family and ask them who removed your straight jacket and allowed you to type such nonsense. Even if you don’t like his work, the mere fact that Kaufman is taking the kind of chances that he is as a storyteller (and occasional filmmaker) makes him something of a rarity in the world of movie making. He doesn’t really care about notes from outside influences, and yet he still is committed to making works that resemble nothing else being produced in this day and age.
His screenplays for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, HUMAN NATURE, ADAPTATION, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (for which he won an Oscar), and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (his first directing effort) reveal that Kaufman is a magician, a trickster, a jester, a philosopher, who wants you to both lose yourself in his perspective and perception, while never quite letting you forget you are watching a movie. He is a spokesperson for the outsider who is desperate for love, creative freedom and to be set free of the chains of mediocrity. His characters are perpetually suffering but find ways to turn that inner torment into something utterly unique and useful in their lives.
Kaufman’s latest work as both writer and co-director (with Duke Johnson), ANOMALISA, is a stop-motion animation masterpiece that was born about 10 years ago on the stage as a “sound play” (something akin to a radio play, with actors sitting on chairs and a foley artist supplying the necessary sound effects), starring the three actors who also provide voices for the film (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the incomparable Tom Noonan). The movie explores crushing loneliness, disconnection from the rest of humanity, romance, selfishness in the name of self-preservation, and perhaps even dabbles in mental illness, depending on how your interpret it.
I had a chance in October to sit down with Kaufman and Johnson, who has more of a traditional animation direction background as a helmer behind Adult Swim’s “Mary Shelley's Frankenhole.” He’s perhaps best known as the director of the Season 2 animated Christmas episode of “Community,” titled “Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas.”
Here’s a story I’ve never told before: I first met Kaufman informally in 2010 at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, where he was on hand to discuss SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. At some point during a meal break, I noticed that no one was talking to Kaufman, so I went up and just started talking to him. He was good natured and pleasant and seemed happy to talk; he even told me he read and enjoyed my work, which I immediately believed was just him being polite. But when he revealed to me that he actually knew the story of how I picked “Capone” as my Ain’t It Cool News pseudonym from having read it the one time I mentioned it on the site, I almost did a spit take in the man’s face. It’s not even that good a story, which is why is threw me that he would remembered it. Despite this mind-blowing encounter, the interview we did in October was the first time I’d actually sat down with him on the record, and he continues to be great to chat with. Please enjoy my talk with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson…
Capone: I don’t know if you remember us meeting at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, yeah yeah. We were talking in a hallway.
Capone: I do remember like no one was talking to you for some reason at the thing, but I was like screw it. I’m going to say hello.
CK: Not the first time that’s happened. I’m not sure why that happens [laughs].
Capone: So I’m familiar with the back story of how this started out. I keep hearing it referred to as a “sound play,” but is that any different than a radio play, which I’ve seen done before? Is it basically the same thing with the foley artist and people sitting in chairs, or was it a little more visual than that?
CK: No, it was pretty much that. That’s what we called it. I don’t know why we called it that and not radio play. It was a staged radio play.
Duke Johnson: It wasn’t on the radio.
CK: It actually was on the radio. The first one, not this one. The first one that I did, then the Coens did the other on that evening. It was on Sirius. Sirius financed it. So it was.
DJ: I didn’t know that.
CK: But it wasn’t as good on the radio, because you couldn’t see the interaction of the different stuff on stage.
Capone: Same three actors though, right? When you did it that way? That’s actually great that you were able to preserve that.
CK: Same foley artist, coincidentally. Seriously. It wasn’t by design. The sound guys hired him.
Capone: The fact that you wrote this not as a film, as something that was never intended as a visual experience, how strange was it to then adapt it into something that is so uniquely visual? Was that a different experience for you?
CK: Yeah, it was really different. I was reticent at first, but it became its own thing through the process of working on it with Duke and everybody else, because it was designed to be not a visual thing. It was designed to be intentionally non-visual. So to suddenly make it visual and have to make concrete decisions of what it would look like and loose that ambiguity was hard for me to let go of.
Capone: Did you push back a little at the idea initially?
CK: Yeah, what happened was Duke and Dino [Dino Stamatopoulos, producer] and the people at StarBurns [Dan Harmon is also among the film’s producers] said that they would try and raise the money, and I said okay, but I didn’t think they would, so I wasn’t really expecting it. By the time they raised the money, I was accepting the idea of it, so it was fine. It was good. It was great [laughs].
Capone: So why this story, Duke? Why something that was definitively not supposed to be a visual story, why was this the one that you wanted to make? How did you get it, and then how did you initially conceive it visually?
DJ: For me, I didn’t know about any of that.
Capone: You just got a screenplay?
DJ: Yeah. I don’t even know if at the time when I first read the script if I knew that it was a play, if I knew it was a sound play, I don’t think Dino even told me that.
CK: You knew that there was no description of anything.
DJ: I think I knew it was a play. I think Dino said “It’s a play.” So I didn’t know that it wasn’t meant to be visualized. So yeah, we’re at the studio, and Dino mentions that he has this Charlie Kaufman script, so I read it, and I was reading it thinking of it already as an animated film. I wasn’t trying to see if it could be; I was just looking at it through an animated lens. It seemed to lend itself, maybe because it was all dialogue. The visuals could seemingly be anything.
CK: Yeah, because it was a radio play, for a lack of a better term, there was a lot of description, and it was in the dialogue. So things were described. You’ve seen it, right?
Capone: Yes and I’m seeing it again tonight, actually.
CK: Like Gil’s office was described, and the dialogue was the same. He’s telling him to take the golf cart, he’s telling him about the fish tank, he’s telling him to avoid the sunken meeting area, all that stuff is there. It does help create the visuals.
DJ: Yeah, and reading it I’m thinking, “This is going to be amazing. Gil’s office and the sunken meeting area and this golf cart.” It was funny, it was really moving, and it was scarily identifiable to me and traumatizing in that sense. I was like, “This is the coolest script I’ve ever had the chance to read that I might be able to be involved with in some way.”
Capone: You’ve made one of the most emotional works that I have responded to recently in a context that is clearly artificial. Where did you latch on to that idea that you could tell the most human stories by planting a soul into something that is not reality? That is a constructed reality?
CK: I don’t think about things like that, at least not until afterwards when people ask me that question [laughs]. So I’m like, “Oh, that’s a cool idea. I like that idea. That’s interesting to me. That sounds like it would be a fun thing to play with.” And often it’s surreal stuff or larger-than-life or other-than-life stuff. So I don’t avoid it, but it is just a tool I think that excites me. But the thing that makes it emotional, if it is emotional, is that it’s grounded in my mind in what’s happening to the characters and their emotional states and their interactions and stuff. That anchors it for me. That’s the main thing that I’m trying to do when I’m writing it is explore that.
Capone: This idea of making us very aware of the fact that these are puppets is exemplified by the fact that you don’t bother to erase the lines around the face plate. You want us to see that. It actually figures into the story at times. A lot of animation studios that work in a similar way will erase those.
CK: All of them.
Capone: Yeah, all of them do. Why did you choose to leave those in?
DJ: Well, it just came out of discussions. I don’t think we ever intended to paint them out, but that was definitely an option because that’s typically what people do. It would have been expensive and that was a factor for us thinking early on. But very early on, looking at it, we realized we don’t want it to look computerized or modified. We like that it’s stop motion. We like that you can feel the handmade quality of these things.
Capone: You don’t erase the artist’s fingerprints from it.
DJ: Exactlly. We actually talked about that early on.
Capone: Sometimes you can see things shifting.
CK: Absolutely. And we like that.
DJ: We talk about when you see a sculpture and you can see the tool marks in the sculpture and having that feeling in it because it adds a soulfulness and a dreamlike quality and a certain aesthetic quality that we really liked. So we started to right away embrace that idea, and then we’re like “We should integrate this. It’s becoming part of the story.” The first meeting where we asked “Can we do this?” It was like well, “Can you get the money?” Rosa Tran [producer] and I did the Kickstarter on spec and not knowing it was going to make money. Outside of Charlie, we just did that. That’s how we decided to raise money. Once the Kickstarter hit, once it launched, it started getting recognition. Because we had 30 percent of our goal in like 24 hours or something, it became obvious this was going to get funded. Immediately, Charlie called me, and we started having conversations like “This is happening. We need to start talking about this. What’s this going to be? How long is the script? Is it going to be a feature? What’s it going to look like?”
CK: I’d been struggling for a long time to get something made, so I was like “Yeah, let’s try this too.” I had a whole bunch of things I was trying to do and I thought eventually something might get done, and this happened to be the first one, which surprised me. It took three years.
Capone: I was going to ask you, because it has been since 2008 since SYNECDOCHE, and I kept hearing about things. I think somebody actually gave me a copy of the script for FRANK OR FRANCIS, and I interviewed Jack Black about it at some point, and he was so excited.
CK: Did you like it?
Capone: I did. And once I realized it was a musical, I was even more excited about it.
CK: Put that in your article.
Capone: Oh, I will. Then I heard about the FX pilot [“How and Why”], and I kept thinking something’s happening, but then it never materialized.
CK: We made the FX pilot; they didn’t pick it up.
Capone: So you made ANOMALISA entirely outside of the Hollywood system.
CK: Entirely. And it never would have happened otherwise.
Capone: And now that it’s been at a few festivals, people are responding overwhelmingly positive.
DJ: Paramount picked it up.
Capone: Right. Does that give you hope or does that discourage you when you consider look how much it took to get that little film out there?
CK: Yeah, it was really hard for everybody, but yeah it makes me happy, and of course, even if nothing happens with the movie past this, it’s a success story. We did this thing that we are really happy with, and people are liking it. It was a really taxing experience for everybody. Duke had said the other day, if it’s okay if I say what you said…
DJ: I don’t know what you’re going to say, but you can say it [laughs].
CK: I don’t remember what the context was, but the answer was “As happy as we are with this and the outcome of it, if the situation arose again and we were given the same amount of money and the same amount of struggle, he wouldn’t want to do it.” He would want to do animation again, but the circumstances were just so rough that I think all of us would like to do it under better, easier circumstances.
Capone: We have to talk about puppet sex, because that scene is going to be the most talked about scene, and we really only have one major reference point for puppet sex before this. You don’t play it for laughs. It’s meant to be completely real, awkward, and beautiful. It’s such a sweet scene. That had to be, just from an animating standpoint, that had to be the most difficult scene, because the flesh feels very real and having two puppets together had to be a pain in the ass. Was that the toughest scene just technically to lock in?
DJ: I’m not an animation expert, but there are animators…
CK: But he is a sex expert.
DJ: There are animators that were working on the movie that have been working in stop motion for 30 years who said that it’s the hardest scene they’ve ever seen done in stop motion, because of the things you just mentioned. Naked silicone puppets—silicone is really hard, and it doesn’t compress. We had to invent techniques to make the silicone compress and core out their bodies so their fat would roll. Because with silicone, if you core it out then it starts to bend, and when it starts to bend, it pops. It doesn't bend like a human body bends. Figuring out how to do that. Figuring out how to make sheets move and clothes come off a body, that’s all the technical stuff they had to figure out.
And also, a slow camera move, motion control, shooting it on ones, one frame at a time. Shooting a rehearsal. But then there’s also all the work that went into it. Talking about it, making it emotional, making it feel like the natural progression of those two characters in that moment and how they’re going to react to each other and having it feel nuanced and real. Just what do people do? You think “She’s going to unbutton her shirt now, but if she gets her shirt unbuttoned, his has more buttons, so it takes longer, so what does she do with her arms? All these little things, and how do you find out how to make that feel organic and natural?
Capone: It’s a wonderful scene. I feel like people are going to go pin-drop quiet, if they’re not giggling a little.
CK: They start out giggling, then it goes quiet.
Capone: Okay, I’ll see you tonight. Thank you. Great to see you again.