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Charlie Kaufman gets animated for ‘Anomalisa’

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Animator Duke Johnson, left, and writer-director Charlie Kaufman promote their remarkable new movie “Anomalisa.” (Courtesy Scott Gries/Invision/AP)

With his seventh screenplay “Anomalisa,” Academy Award-winning writer Charlie Kaufman once again looks to be courting Oscar gold, only this time it’s in the animated feature category.

Another of Kaufman’s brilliant, beautifully funny existential explorations, “Anomalisa” — opening Friday in Bay Area theaters — began its life as a radio play, performed just twice in front of audiences in Los Angeles.

“But, oddly, the right people saw it,” Kaufman says during a visit to The City to discuss his movie. “That’s where it all came from.”

He was approached by Starburns Industries with the idea of making the play into a feature, though at the time, no one had any idea how to do it — especially given that one of the actors, Tom Noonan, plays every single voice aside from the two leads: Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

“There’s actually something called the Fregoli delusion. It is the belief that everyone else in the world is the same person,” Kaufman explains. “Not that this character has it, but metaphorically it was interesting to me. Unfortunately, I research these things for some reason.”

Making “Anomalisa” as stop-motion animation was an ideal solution. Kaufman prepared the film, directing the early “animatics,” and Starburns animator Duke Johnson, who received co-director credit, took over for the physical animation stage.

Kaufman approved each day’s footage, which usually amounted to 1-2 seconds.

Johnson, who accompanied Kaufman, says they began with a tiny budget of $360,000, raised by Kickstarter.

“We had this sense that we had to hit the ground running. Otherwise we’d blow our money in research and development and then we’d have no movie,” Johnson adds.

Only $100,000 was spent on all of the puppets, an amount that typically would be the price for just one, according to Johnson.

Early on, it was decided to keep the seams in the puppets’ faces, partly to save the money it would cost to digitally erase them, yet partly for a certain aesthetic.

“It was really important for us for this not to feel clean, sanitized,” says Kaufman. “We wanted that lived-in feeling.”

That notion also applied to the sound. The dialogue was recorded in three days, with the three actors assembled together — a rarity in animated movies. From the sessions, Kaufman kept their breathing, overlapping words, everything.

A highlight is when the character Lisa sings a quiet, melancholy rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Kaufman says that hearing it was “encouraging.”

Johnson agrees. “When you’re the filmmaker, and your actors do something and you start to tear up a little bit, it’s like… this could be something special.”


Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan (voices)
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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