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Charlie Kaufman and the 10-year odyssey to bring Anomalisa to the screen

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On Sept. 16, 2005, Charlie Kaufman presented a three-person “sound play” at UCLA titled Anomalisa, accompanied by Carter Burwell’s music. It was the story of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a successful but increasingly depressed customer-service guru who suffers from a rare disorder called Fregoli syndrome, which causes him to perceive everyone — from his young son to the employees at a Cincinnati hotel — as the same face and voice (Tom Noonan). Everyone is numbingly identical — everyone except Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an otherwise ordinary sales rep whom Michael can see and hear clearly, a characteristic that leads to romance.

After two performances, the show was over, and no one involved expected anything more. Ten years to the day, Paramount acquired distribution rights for a stop-motion animation version of Anomalisa and gave it an awards-friendly limited release date of Dec. 30.

“I loved doing it as a play,” said Leigh, during a post-screening panel at the Toronto International Film Festival. “But then it was over and I was very sad, I think for all of us, that we didn’t get to do it again. So we all were sort of hoping somehow it would have another life.”

Not necessarily everyone was eager to resurrect it — Kaufman for one. He never envisioned it as anything more than the spare “sound play,” and he certainly wasn’t thinking of puppet animation in 2012 when his colleague Dino Stamatopoulos (who played Community‘s StarBurns) suggested that possibility and introduced him to Duke Johnson and the artists at StarBurns Industries.

My initial reaction was reticence,” says Kaufman. “This was designed not to be seen, and I liked the idea that you’ve got one Tom onstage playing all these different parts and we’re just asking the audience to imagine what that looks like. But I said to them, ‘If you can raise the money, sure,’ thinking that nothing was ever going to happen with it because that’s been my experience for the last seven years: that nothing ever happens with anything.”

Johnson, 36, had directed the “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode of Community and was well versed in the Kaufman oeuvre. “I already knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but Eternal Sunshine specifically solidified what movies were capable of, and what type of thing I wanted to do,” says Johnson. “Charlie was a hero of mine, for sure.”

Johnson wasn’t the only Kaufman obsessive out there. In July 2012, producers pushed the button on a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds and the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. They reached their goal in a week and eventually raised more than $406,000 to get the project off the ground. Kaufman went back to the script and helped to build the fuller world that he and Johnson now had to create visually.

“We just kind of hit the ground running, and the biggest challenge we faced is what does this thing look like?” says Johnson, who directed the film with Kaufman. “How does that change [what Kaufman wrote] and how does that become a movie?”

The puppets that StarBurns Industries conceived were sculpted clay maquettes with face-replacement animation, inspired by the new performances of the three actors. Kaufman and Johnson recorded them together before their puppet avatars were even designed. “We had them in a studio together, and we did it like a play,” says Kaufman. “You can’t do the job where Jennifer comes in one day and David comes in three days later. It’s performances, it’s intimate, it’s people having these moments together.”

“The performances were so powerful to us and so authentic and soulful that that’s what we went into the puppet design with in our minds,” says Johnson. “So we just tried to make them feel like the performances felt.”

The physical model for Michael turned out to be Johnson’s ex brother-in-law; Lisa was based on a woman spotted at a Los Angeles restaurant; and the ubiquitous face that Noonan voices was based on an amalgamation of StarBurns employees so they had a generic face that would work as both male and female. The puppets are extremely realistic; they had to be for the sex scenes. 

(Yes, the sex scenes.)

Michael is so entranced by Lisa’s singularity and he doesn’t want their time together to end. They have an intimate night together in the hotel, revealing they are not censored Ken and Barbie dolls. Their erotic activity will certainly deliver the film an R-rating when it arrives in theaters. “We weren’t like, ‘What can we get away with?'” says Johnson. “It was more like, ‘How do we just make this feel real? If you would see it, let’s not hide it.”

“There’s no intention to make puppet sex a joke,” says Kaufman. “We wanted to have these two characters interact the way two characters would interact in real life. Every effort was made to make that intimate and real.”

Mission accomplished: “I even forget they’re puppets, especially during the sex scene, which is so incredibly embarrassing,”  Leigh said after the screening. “Even though it’s not my body, it’s not my face, it feels like the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever done.”

Despite some periodic Kickstarter news updates, Anomalisa was completely a mystery for almost three years until Toronto announced it as part of its 2015 lineup. Telluride got the honor of hosting the world premiere, and the Venice Film Festival awarded it its Grand Jury Prize last weekend. The animation adds a layer of artistic brilliance, but it’s the film’s beating heart that makes it so poignant. In one unforgettable scene, Michael urges Lisa to sing something — anything — and she self-consciously but beautifully performs an old Cyndi Lauper song. “I feel like there is something amazing about her voice in this thing,” says Kaufman. “I just find her so charming and so sweet. You just kind of fall in love with her.”

You did not have to go far in Toronto to hear audiences making the argument that it’s Kaufman’s best movie yet. And though Johnson and Kaufman are slightly chagrined that their secret is out, that few moviegoers will get the same unfiltered experience as the festival crowd, they’re also extremely excited to share Anomalisa with the rest of the world. “It came from sort of no expectations,” says Kaufman. “That it did happen, and that we got to make this under the radar completely on our own terms is really one of the highest points of my professional life.”

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