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Exploring Things: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on “Anomalisa”

Catching co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson at the tail-end of a whirlwind festival tour that included premiere screenings at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the two writer/directors were still playful and engaged in discussing their masterwork, the stop-motion/animated “Anomalisa.” In the film, based on a play, David Thewlis voices a customer service expert who is traveling on business—another speaking engagement in another town where everyone looks the same and sounds the same. That’s all I’m going tell you because “Anomalisa” works best for those who know the least about it. Suffice to say, Kaufman is once again playing with themes of individuality and what it means to be human, as he did in “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Synecdoche, New York.” He’s still one of our best writers, and “Anomalisa” is one of his best films.

Have you reached exhaustion point yet?

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: Oh, like two weeks ago. Maybe longer.

DUKE JOHNSON: We were pretty exhausted in Europe.

CK: It seems like a thousand years ago, but it probably wasn’t.

You did Venice-Telluride-Toronto. Usually someone skips one.

CK: Yeah. And then San Sebastian. And then we went back to Spain after Toronto. And then Fantastic Fest. We just went to London. We just got back Sunday.

Is it fun?

CK: No! I mean, some of it’s fun. It’s nice that the movie is being well-received. It would be really horrible if it weren’t and we had to do this anyhow.

Let’s talk about that reception. I read a review today that felt like it was trying to place the film’s themes in the context of your career, Charlie. I was wondering how much of that you do when you’re working on a project?

CK: Only afterwards. Only when people write those things. People come up to and me and say things like, “Oh, you like to have a lot of people with the same face.” And I don’t know what they’re talking about. And then it’s like “Oh, yeah, I guess.”

So there’s never “This is expanding on an idea I played with before in X”? Or worry about repeating yourself?

CK: Well, I do now that you said it. There are so many things that block me—to add another to the list? It all goes under the category “Is This Any Good?” Is this any good? I try to avoid it when I’m writing because it makes it impossible to write. But I’m susceptible to that.

And then do you read those analyses after the fact? Do people’s interpretations allow you to see your work in different ways?

CK: Sure. Absolutely. Not only from critics but from people that I meet. People will say things after a screening that it affects them in a certain way, which is why I don’t like to explain what certain things are about. I want them to have that. It limits people’s ability to understand something if I say it’s “about this.” That’s happened to us a bunch on this.

DJ: I mentioned this last night at the Q&A. We have specific experiences where people come up to us and say what it was about to them and it meant so much to them and they connected to it because this is what it was about. And it’s different. And they don’t even say it…some people will say “Is it about this” but other people will say “You’re saying this” and it’s gorgeous; it’s wonderful.

And those are surprising interpretations?

CK: Sometimes it’s surprising, sometimes it’s not, but what I like about that is that they have the authority to say what it’s about and they’re not asking my permission or asking me if I’m right.

DJ: My personal interpretation is that there are a lot of layers and a lot of things going on and some specific thematic through lines will stand out to specific people who can relate to that more.

CK: It’s a Rorschach Test.

Well, then let’s talk about how you create a Rorschach Test. A lot of filmmakers would say “This is the thematic purpose of this piece.” How do you create something for which there are multiple interpretations, multiple thematic purposes?

CK: The way I do it when I’m writing is to look at something as an exploration of something that I’m exploring, and not come to a conclusion. Not say, “And it’s important to love.” Or whatever. “Family is everything.” I’m going to look at this idea about loneliness, or inability to connect. Or an experience in a relationship. And you just explore it. You don’t have a goal in the end when you’re writing it. Let whatever happens happens. And so it starts to be an experience to the person writing it, which helps it be open to other people.

Is that nerve-wracking in terms of process?

CK: Yes! But, so what? It feels honest to me. I try to do something honest when I’m working. My job isn’t to make myself comfortable.

DJ: When we were working together I thought it was a really interesting way to work. I went to film school. What are the themes? What do I want to say with this movie? That’s what you’re taught to talk about, and we didn’t do that with this movie. We would talk about … there was almost sort of an intuitive understanding. I felt I knew what it was about. But we didn’t really talk—this is what this piece is about. This is what Michael is feeling; this is what Lisa is feeling in this moment. This is what he wants. This is what she wants. This is why. We would delve into the character’s emotional experiences very specifically from beat to beat.

But not the overall picture?

DJ: We would talk generally about some things. It’s difficult to connect—the broad themes. But not making a statement about something. Again, just my opinion, I heard somebody say once, Kubrick or somebody, “Great art asks questions but doesn’t give any answers.” I think there’s some truth to that. Exploring ideas.

CK: When I’m writing a script, before I can write dialogue or anything, I have two or three hundred pages of notes, which takes me a year. So, it’s not like “what happens next.” I’ve got things that I’m thinking about but I don’t settle on them. And if I try to write dialogue before then, I can’t. It’s just garbage. There’s a point I can get to where I start writing character and then through the dialogue, after all of this preparation, the thing starts to feel like it’s a character developing through the dialogue. A lot of character traits do come from writing dialogue, but I have to be ready to do it.

Are those notes more intangibles—people seeking connection—or are they more practical—someone’s going on a business trip?

CK: All of the above. Yes, story ideas, but it’s also musing on stuff that I’m thinking about. This leads me to this and this leads me to this. They’re kind of random and haphazard. Often I can’t find anything. Somehow, by doing that, even though I don’t necessarily refer to them in a specific way, I have some sort of architecture in my head.

When you see co-directors on a film, it can be confusing as to who does what? How do you two co-direct a film?

DJ: Charlie and I discussed everything. Every decision that made it into the film. Costume design. Lighting. Shot selection. Puppet design. Character design. Every decision that ends up in the film is a product of our collaborative conversations.

CK: Every shot is reviewed by both of us. We don’t proceed.

DJ: We went through the whole movie before we shot everything and talked about every beat, and then before every shot. You set up the shot, you set up the angle, and then you get direction, and then that shot launches and it usually takes several days. Before we would launch a shot, we would re-discuss, and then the shot would launch. Throughout the process, sometimes things would evolve or change, and we would review it together. And that’s how the whole process went.

How do we integrate the cast? Does the cast have any input in any of this?

CK: I think we had the advantage—we only had three days with the cast. But we had the advantage of them having done the play so they knew the characters. Adjustments were easier than if they had come in cold. We were both there during recording. And we videotaped it, so we had gestures and stuff that they made during the recording that we were able to use as a reference. Their contribution was enormous because we recorded them first. The tone of the whole thing and the design of the whole thing comes out of this three days of recording.

Do either of you work from any cinematic or literary or art inspirations for a project like this?

CK: We talked. We compared stuff. We talked about ideas.

Any influences in particular?

DJ: We had a vision board that had images from different movies.

CK: I don’t really remember what though.

DJ: It’s hanging in my office, but it might not be because of that movie, it might just be a color in that shot or lighting. There was all different kinds of stuff, and a lot of stuff we found on the internet. Painters. All kinds of references. We wanted, specifically, for it to feel cinematic. So we looked at a lot of live-action movies for the lighting and direction, so it would not be sort of traditional animated lighting.

[Getting the wrap-up a few minutes early, I protest politely and Charlie wants to know the next question.] The next one’s pretty long though.

CK: I’ll give a short answer.

It’s been seven years since “Synecdoche, New York.” How has the industry changed?

CK: YES. That’s a long one. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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