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Anomalisa: how Kickstarter got Hollywood's most original writer back on the big screen and Oscar bound

Eight years since Synecdoche, New York, visionary filmmaker Charlie Kaufman finally returns to where he belongs

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Anomalist feature

When a sixty-day pitch for Charlie Kaufman’s new movie Anomalisa went up on Kickstarter in 2012, most fans didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Looking to raise $200,000, the attached production company, Starburns Industries, saw more than double this hoped-for amount come in from those willing to see the next work from the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Yet is says something about the short-sightedness of Hollywood that the man who penned the exceptional Spike Jonze movies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation has had to resort to the crowd-founding website for seed money. 'I’ve been trying,' explains Kaufman, who has been absent from our screens since his 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. 'The business has gotten really hard.'

To quote from the Anomalisa Kickstarter pitch: 'The entertainment industry is filled with incredible scripts, written by incredible talent, that have not or will never get made.' Since Synecdoche bombed in cinemas, Kaufman’s written three screenplays and three television pilots, directing one. None have been greenlit – including Frank or Francis, a musical set around the film biz, despite an attached A-list cast including Nicolas Cage, Kate Winslet and Jack Black.

In a world of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings, it almost defies belief that Kaufman’s original mind has been largely ignored these last few years. 'I think people have very mixed feelings about genius,' says Tom Noonan, one of the stars of Synecdoche and Anomalisa. 'They love it and they really fucking hate it. To have somebody doing what you wish you could do and be celebrated for it brings up a lot of resentment and resistance.'

Whatever the case ('you never really hear the truth from anyone,' sighs Kaufman), it’s a huge relief that Anomalisa got going. Resolving to turn it into a full-length feature in the wake of the Kickstarter success, Kaufman joined forces with animator Duke Johnson, who oversaw the Emmy-winning stop-motion episode of TV series Community, 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas', to co-direct this story about a motivational speaker, Michael Stone, who is spiralling into a personal depression.

Set over one weekend, as Michael arrives in a Cincinnati hotel to give a keynote speech, the film’s very contained nature points to its origins, a 2005 stage production. Performed live as part of composer Carter Burwell’s Theatre of the New Ear, a series of sound plays with Foley artists creating sound effects live on stage, it was like watching a radio drama unfold. 'You’re creating this imagery,' says Kaufman, 'hopefully, in the audiences’ minds.'

Anomalist feature

When Kaufman’s friend, Dino Stamatopoulos – the founder of animation company Starburns Industries – approached him to turn the play into a film, he was initially resistant. 'Translating it into a visual thing was almost antithetical to what it should be,' Kaufman admits. 'But once we started working on it, it felt like it was becoming something beautiful – and that seemed beautiful to me. It was its own thing. The play existed and this existed.'

In the case of the film, the animation is so detailed it appears computer-generated; in fact, there wasn’t a pixel in sight. The puppets are all tangible; the faces all created using a 3D printer. 'I want people to know how hard it was to do this stuff,' says Johnson. 'There was no computer animation in the entire movie. People say, "What’s outside the windows – is that computer animated?" We built that city. We built those buildings. We lit them with individual lights. The clouds are made of cotton!'

There were overlaps with the original play, of course, not least with the cast returning to voice the characters – including British actor David Thewlis as Michael and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, the shy telesales agent our anti-hero meets and falls for during his long dark weekend of the soul. 'For me, it’s about the search and the longing for intimacy – for a really unconditional love – and how transitory that is,' says Leigh.

The third actor in Anomalisa is the aforementioned Tom Noonan, voicing literally everybody else. 'When we did the movie, Charlie wanted it to all sound very similar,' says the actor, touching on the film’s thematic interest in the Fregoli Syndrome, a real-life delusional condition that causes the sufferer to believe everyone else is the same person (nodding to that, Kaufman wrote the play under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli; the film’s hotel is also called ‘Fregoli’).

Perhaps amid Anomalisa’s many layers is the idea that Hollywood is prone to such a syndrome – where everyone sounds the same. Thankfully, after the wilderness years, Kaufman’s unique voice is finally being heard. Winning the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Anomalisa has since been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature – a category usually dominated by younger fare. One thing about Anomalisa is for sure; as Kaufman says: 'It’s not for children.'

Anomalisa opens in cinemas on Fri 11 Mar.

Anomalisa

  • 5 stars
  • 2015
  • US
  • 90 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
  • Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

When painfully despondent customer service expert Michael Stone (Thewlis) meets Lisa (Leigh) at a conference, hers is the only voice that doesn't sound to him like everyone else's. A meticulous blend of the surreal and the sombre, achingly melancholic, philosophically ambitious and magical.

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