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
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.'