In Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Blend Reality With Artificiality

For movie buffs and movie lovers alike, the name Charlie Kaufman rings a bell. After all, he’s the guy behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation. But he and Duke Johnson — the codirector of Anomalisa — seem to just be getting started with delivering fascinating cinema.

Anomalisa is about a self-help author who finds it impossible to have deep interactions with other human beings. It stars David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. The stop-motion film marks Kaufman’s first move into directing animation and Johnson’s move into feature filmmaking. The latter is well-versed in the realm of stop-motion, having worked on shows such as Morel Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, as well as the Community Christmas episode "Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

Though these two filmmakers seem strikingly different, their collaborative work is stellar, and during a recent interview with New Times, it’s easy to see why they mesh. “I disagree with everything he said,” Kaufman says, laughing at Johnson's response to the interview's first question. “This is how it’s going to go.”

The pair jokes about watching The Hateful Eight on an iPhone and makes sly digs at The Revenant when asked about their favorite films of past year. But it’s not all laughs when there’s a mountain of depth to discuss in Anomalisa and the way it blends reality with artificiality.

The conversation begins by addressing the photorealism of the film — it’s a stop-motion that feels shot like a live-action. Johnson explains how they achieved that by treating the animated characters like live actors. 

"There is this differentiation between live action and animation. Animation has its own sort of way that you approach the storytelling visually, and live action has its own approach, and we wanted to kind of blur the lines and not be held to confines of the medium and make it more cinematic, basically," Johnson says. 

This realism extends to the figures they used for the stop-motion work. Kaufman says, “We felt it served the story and added a kind of soulfulness to the look of the thing, and also kind of introduced a broken element to the characters."

Each of the stop-motion characters looks entirely realistic, to the point where their bodies are designed anatomically correct, down to the genitalia. The only telling sign of difference is that they leave the seams of the face masks uses to change expressions and emotions, rather than using CGI to take the seams out, like most filmmakers do. "Once we decided to use them and as soon as we decided to use replacement animation, we started working the idea that the face would come off into the actual story.”

“They’re normal-looking people,” Johnson plainly says of the two main characters, Michael and Lisa, “especially in sex scenes.” Which leads into a conversation about the sex scene in the movie, which is an incredibly tender moment that is as awkward as it is romantic and relatable.

“We were very aware of the sort of expectation that it would be Team America, because it’s puppet sex, and we wanted to dash that expectation. Not because we wanted to counter Team America, but because it didn’t serve the story, and it would have been a betrayal to our characters at that moment,” Kaufman makes clear.

“But I mean, I do want to say, the regular body thing is something that if you did it with real actors, people would be talking about it but in a different way. Audiences would be going, 'Oh my god, I don’t want to watch gross people having sex!' Which is really kind of sad. It takes puppets for people to accept the human body in its sort of normal form.”

In discussing how sex is depicted in the film, there’s another simple rarity involved: a woman receiving oral sex for her pleasure. Kaufman brings up a podcast with Marc Maron they recently did as to why that was included in the film, but it’s Johnson who elaborates on why that’s surprising. “I remember I was reading something about this movie that starred Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood [Charlie Countryman] and they went to the MPAA because — I don’t know if it was him or not — but someone goes down on her and she likes it, and they were going to get an NC-17 if they didn’t cut it. And she was very vocal about how it’s offensive that women aren’t allowed to experience pleasure sexually on film.”

Johnson continues, "I wonder how often average people watch a sex scene in a movie and can relate to it on a very real level.”

Kaufman responds quickly, emphasizing exactly why Anomalisa has the ability to resonate so much with its realism. “Or [how often average people] don’t go home or come out on a date and feel ashamed of themselves, because that’s the expectation. They think that they’re going to strip and look like Brad Pitt or something and hate their bodies [when they don't meet that expectation].

"I think it happens all the time, and we worked a lot on showing that vulnerability.”

Opens Friday, January 15, at Regal Cinemas South Beach and Friday, February 5, at O Cinema Wynwood.

Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter.