Venice lesson learned today: While Charlie Kaufman will talk about a lot of things, the meaning of his movies is not one of them. Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated brainteaser he directed with Duke Johnson that received raves just a few days ago in Telluride, debuted here in Competition tonight. At the press screening this morning, there was applause and laughter throughout. But when the press later wanted to get inside Kaufman’s mind, he wasn’t going there. “I don’t really like to say what things are about. It sort of invalidates your experience of it which is as valid as my experience of it. This is for you, it’s your film.” That got a lot of applause, too.
Originally written as a “sound play” which was performed on stage by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan – who all transferred to the screen – it was brought to life as a film thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. It’s seeking a U.S. distribution deal and certainly has awards potential if it can sneak into the corridor this year. The story sees Thewlis as Michael Stone, a Brit living in LA who’s just landed in Cincinnati for an overnight stay ahead of a speech he’ll make in the morning. Stone is a motivational speaker, a specialist in customer service, and boy is he depressed.
Thewlis keeps his Lancashire accent, but each of the other characters speaks in the same monotone (male and female, all voiced by Noonan). When Stone hears a woman’s voice (Leigh), he freaks out, seeks her out and falls hard. Insecure about her looks and smarts, Lisa is a kind soul and a customer service rep who Stone calls an anomaly — hence the title. A scene in which she sings a slow rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” practically had the Venice audience on its feet.
Stone, it looks like, is having some kind of Fregoli delusion, a syndrome which causes the sufferer to believe that different people are in fact a single person. Fregoli is the name of the hotel Stone checks into and where he has a nightmare that’s one of the 90-minute film’s most buzzed-about sequences.
While each of the characters has visible demarcation lines on their faces just like real puppets, the stop-motion is seamless. It’s so real in fact, that a sex scene between Michael and Lisa feels positively R-rated. Leigh said she’s known Thewlis a long time but this is the first time they’ve worked together. “To be able to do these really intimate scenes together was like a dream. The room was very dark. We could hear everything but we couldn’t move around a lot. The stillness made it even more intimate.” Voicing the sex scene “was almost embarrassing because it was so intimate and yet we weren’t touching each other. It was like going into a really warm pool.”
Kaufman said using stop-motion “allowed us to further the same-voice idea in a way we couldn’t do with a live film.” He called the process “a handmade work, an intensive thing.” Johnson is a stop-motion specialist (the “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” ep of Community is among his credits; Dan Harmon is an exec producer here). He felt the script “lent itself to the medium; like adding a dreamlike quality and seeing humanity and emotional interaction through that lens would make sense.”
Asked about his films being classified as meta-cinema, Kaufman said, “I never really approach a film like ‘I’m going to do this or that technique.’ I just trying to be specific for the story that I’m telling. What can I draw on? If I use something meta-cinematic, it’s not because that’s what I do, it’s because it serves the purpose.” I came away with the impression that Anomalisa was one of Kaufman’s more straightforward works, even if it’s penetrating and haunting and leaves you asking questions.
On the question of why use customer service as a running theme, Kaufman, who said he’d done a lot of phone work in his time, told an anecdote. Calling AT&T last week to put an international plan on his cell phone before heading to Italy, he turned the tables a bit on the customer service representative, and as part of the usual script when “Gene” from AT&T said, “How are you today Charlie?” Kaufman responded by asking him the same question. “The guy was so excited and we had such a nice conversation. We ended up talking about sports and weather and Minneapolis. I hope he didn’t get fired because they’re supposed to turn over calls, but it went on for 25 minutes and it felt so good. It was me realizing there was another person on the end of the phone. We don’t think they’re real and they don’t think we’re real. Usually the customer is the enemy and you have to pretend to like them but you hate them.”