Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Charlie Kaufman: Oh the humanity

Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tells Dominic Corry why he's turned to animation for this latest film.
A scene from the movie, Anomalisa.
A scene from the movie, Anomalisa.

The most dazzlingly original screenwriter of the modern era, Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman followed his acclaimed screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by writing and directing 2008's Synecdoche, New York, an insanely ambitious, multi-layered examination of the creative process starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Oscar-nominated Anomalisa is his first release since and he's still breaking new cinematic ground. Written and co-directed by Kaufman (with Duke Johnson), the film is a darkly comic adult drama presented in the medium of stop-motion animation, a process usually reserved for fantasies like Coraline and family comedies like Wallace & Gromit.

Anomalisa's unique status in modern cinema almost seems to suggest Kaufman felt there was simply nowhere else left to go in live action filmmaking after Synecdoche, New York.

"Apparently that occurred to a lot of other people, but no, that didn't occur to me," Kaufman tells TimeOut during an exclusive sit-down at Starburns Industries in Los Angeles, where Anomalisa was made.

"I've written scripts since then. I mean, I have lots of things I would love to do in live action. At the same time that I was agreeing to this, I was trying to get a whole bunch of other live action things off the ground that I couldn't. So you throw your stuff everywhere and you hope something happens, and this was the one that happened. And I'm surprised about that."

Anomalisa focuses on Michael Stone (voiced by English actor David Thewlis), an ennui-plagued middle-aged man who arrives in Cincinnati, Ohio to give a seminar about customer service.

The film takes place almost entirely in the blandly upmarket hotel where he is staying, a location detailed with nightmarish, unprecedented verisimilitude.

When TimeOut meets Kaufman, he and Johnson are in the middle of a promotional tour that has seen them pretty much living inside these kinds of hotels for the previous three months.

Kaufman says that making Anomalisa has not changed his conception of such places.

"Because the hotel that we designed [in Anomalisa] was based on the resonance that we had before. But we do notice a lot of shower issues and door card issues."

Adds Johnson: "It's like the hotel gods are paying us back."

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Photo / AP
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Photo / AP

Kaufman originally wrote the story as a sound play - a staged performance with no action, which goes some way to explaining why it wasn't adapted into a live action movie. "I'd written this not to be seen. So by definition it wasn't supposed to be seen, or it was supposed to be seen as something that was disconnected from what you were hearing. It was supposed to be actors reading on stage, it was specifically designed for that.

"So my feeling at first was that I didn't know what it would gain [becoming a movie], I knew what it would lose. But once we started working on it, it became more and more clear to me that this was, almost accidentally from my point of view, a really good form to do this story in. If it were to be done. I think we were fortunate in that it came together in ways that I don't think we could've foreseen really. "

In the play version, every character except Michael and Lisa, the young woman he meets in the hotel, was played by legendary character actor Tom Noonan. The effect is amplified in visual form in that every character except for Michael and Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Anomalisa has the exact same face, man or woman, in addition to them all being voiced by Noonan.

It's one of the film's many artfully unnerving qualities, not least of which is the tangible artistry of stop-motion animation, a process which can evoke a heartbreaking sense of humanity.

"I think that there's a fragility to the characters," Kaufman says of the benefits of stop-motion. "There can be, depending on how the characters are made. And also there's a handmade quality, if you don't remove it, which sometimes they do, in kids' stop-motion. The presence of the animators is really felt in the movement of the material and the hair. I mean we have characters that are literally broken which I think contributes to that feeling of vulnerability."

That vulnerability informs the section of Anomalisa that is generating much of talk about the film - a prolonged sex scene that is equal parts tender, awkward and human.

Although it seems crazy to think that a filmmaker of Kaufman's standing has to resort to such measures, a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to get Anomalisa made.

"Everything in Hollywood, in this business, is based on looking at precedents, and going: 'Okay well that made money, we'll do that'. But if you're going with something that doesn't have a precedent, a small animated movie - I mean small in the gestures and the locations and the way it feels, it's not a traditional in-your-face kind of cartoon, and it's for adults. ... you can't bring kids to this. So are they adults gonna go by themselves? Who knows?"

Who: Charlie Kaufman
What: Anomalisa
When: Opens in New Zealand cinemas today

- TimeOut

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