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Frame-By-Frame, Filmmakers Make The Mundane Miraculous In 'Anomalisa'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, we’re featuring two films nominated for best animated feature at the Academy Awards ceremony, a week from Sunday. The movie “Anomalisa" is an existential love story about loneliness and disconnection. It uses stop-motion animation and doll-sized, realistic-looking puppets. All the sets are handmade, miniature versions of the world around us - everything from planes and taxis to a hotel room and city streets.

In December, Terry spoke with the film’s directors, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind." “Anomalisa is about a middle-aged man, Michael Stone, who flies to Cincinnati, where he's scheduled to speak at a conference of customer service representatives. Although he's an expert in customer service, he can’t connect emotionally with anyone – not even his wife and child. Everyone looks and sounds the same to him, literally, until the meets Lisa, a woman with a unique face and voice. But it's hard for her to connect because a facial scar has left her feeling disfigured and ugly. So she’s astonished Michael invites her to his hotel room for a nightcap instead of choosing her more attractive friend, Emily. Michael’s voiced by David Thewlis; Lisa by Jennifer Jason Leigh.


JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: (As Lisa) Most people don't really like to look at me too much because, you know...

DAVID THEWLIS: (As Michael) I think you're lovely.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) No, you don't. I've always done phone work because I'd never get hired to work in a store or restaurant or...

THEWLIS: (As Michael) How did it happen, if it's OK for me to ask.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) I don't - I don't like to talk about it.

THEWLIS: (As Michael) May I kiss you there?

LEIGH: (As Lisa) Oh my God. Oh my God, no. Oh God.

THEWLIS: (As Michael) Sorry.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) You're not like a pervert or something - like some weird version of a chubby chaser

THEWLIS: (As Michael) No.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) I just don't understand why you'd want to kiss me there.

THEWLIS: (As Michael) Because I like you.

LEIGH: (As Lisa) Why? I mean, I'm not smart like Emily, and I'm ugly. You're a really smart guy. You should like Emily. I don't even understand a lot of the words in your book. I sat there with the dictionary. I try to learn, but I'm never going to be smart, and I'm ugly.

THEWLIS: (As Michael) I find it enormously charming that you read any book with a dictionary next to you.



And that's a scene from "Anomalisa." Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Charlie Kaufman, let me start with you. How would you describe Michael Stone's state of mind? He wants to connect, but everyone looks and sounds the same to him - with the exception of Lisa.

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: Yeah, his state of mind, I guess, is an inability to connect with people. I don't know other than that what to say. I mean, he's a depressed person, and he's obviously very lonely because of this and very frustrated and, I think, angry.

GROSS: He stays at the Fregoli Hotel. Of course, I googled Fregoli and there's actually something called the Fregoli delusion which is - Charlie, do you want to describe the delusional belief that's given the name Fregoli?

KAUFMAN: Yeah, it's a belief that everyone else in the world is the same person in disguise.

GROSS: ...Is one person disguising themselves as all these other people?

KAUFMAN: Yes. It's usually the result of some sort of organic or traumatic brain problem. And in this movie I used it kind of metaphorically. I wasn't intending for Michael to actually have this condition, but it interested me. The name comes from an Italian quick-change artist who apparently - because I think it was from maybe the late 19th century, early 20 century, so I don't think there's any record of it - but apparently, he was amazing at changing his costumes onstage, immediately, in front of people, without them understanding how he did it.

GROSS: And how did you find out about this?

KAUFMAN: I have a tendency to read about syndromes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAUFMAN: And (laughter) so, you know, I look up things like that, and I'm fascinated by them, you know, as actual things in the world, but they also seem psychologically interesting to me to utilize.

GROSS: So you have all the characters with the exception of the two characters that we heard. The rest of the characters are all voiced by Tom Noonan. And it's very disorienting at the beginning of the movie because a woman's speaking, but you're hearing Tom Noonan's voice, and you realize, gee, Tom Noonan's voice seems to be, like, every voice. And then you start to understand that you're seeing and hearing things from the main character's point of view. It's a really interesting decision for you to have made to have all the characters with the exception of Michael and Lisa have the same voice.

KAUFMAN: Yeah. I mean, the reason that I came to this is because it was originally a radio play – or a staged radio play. And I was trying to utilize voices in kind of an interesting way. And it was a very low-budget production - I could only afford to cast three actors. So I thought, you know, what if one person plays all the other people? And, you know, I'd read about the Fregoli thing, and it seemed to sort of lend itself to it. So that's where it originally came from. And of course, it carried over into the film, and the faces are all the same, which was not an issue in the play but it was something we decided on here.

GROSS: So another part about the story I want to ask you about before we get to the animation, the character of Michael is a customer service guru. You know, he's written a self-help book for customer service agents. He's giving a speech at a customer service conference. And the speech he makes - I just want to play short excerpt of it - is really fascinating because it's like he knows all the platitudes about customer service, about always smiling and, you know, recognizing that everybody is unique. But the speech becomes for him this kind of, like, existential crisis (laughter). He's bringing all these other things into. So I just want to play an excerpt of the opening of his speech to the customer service representatives.


THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) Always remember the customer is an individual, just like you. Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they've all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches. What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive? I don't know. What is it to ache? I don't know. What is it to be alive? I don't know.

GROSS: OK, not the kind of self-help pep talk you'd expect at a customer service conference. Charlie, to prepare for that, did you read the platitudinous self-help books in addition to thinking about the more existential things you wanted to get in there and the kind of just like mental health issues the character's having?

KAUFMAN: No, not really. I have a lot of experience in customer service. I did customer service work for probably a decade. So when I decided to give Michael that job, I did it for a couple of reasons because I had the experience but also because I thought it was funny that there would be somebody out there whose career this would be, to be a customer service guru. I subsequently found out that there actually is somebody out there - I heard him on NPR - who goes around and talks about it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAUFMAN: So I thought I invented it, but I didn't. And yeah, so no, I didn't. I mean, you know, I didn't really have to do much research.

GROSS: What kind of customer service rep were you?

KAUFMAN: I worked at the Roundabout Theatre dealing with subscribers. I worked at the Metropolitan Opera selling tickets. I worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis answering customer complaints about delivery.

GROSS: Animation seems perfect for this story because it's about a character who's trapped in his head, who's not living in the real world and is kind of having a dissociative experience. Do you both see it that way that this is, because it's kind of going on in someone's head, that to be able to create the world from scratch is a good opportunity?

KAUFMAN: I think that there’s something about this type of animation that communicates fragility and humanity and brokenness in a way that other types don't necessarily because it's all handmade and because it's an imperfect process. You can see the signs of the animators. You can see the remnants of them on the puppets. You can see the way the puppets move, but you can also see chatter on the clothing, where the animators have moved them. You can see it in the hair.

GROSS: Duke, can you explain the kind of stop-motion animation that you use in this movie and how everything in the movie is handmade? From the airplane and the taxicab to the people, to the hotel room, the cityscape - everything is just miniatures that have been made by artists and animators.

DUKE JOHNSON: That's correct. We fabricate everything. Everything that you see on the screen is made by hand. It's all in one-sixth scale, which is Barbie's scale, for frame of reference. So all the locations and sets and cars and - it all exists in real three-dimensional space. None of it actually physically moves in real time. Everything is static and the puppets are posed in various static positions in a sequence over the course of a series of frames. And when the frames are played back in real time, it creates the illusion of movement.

GROSS: Kind of like - what are they called, the flip things?

JOHNSON: Yeah, flipbooks...

GROSS: Like a flipbook...

JOHNSON: ...Or a zoetrope...

GROSS: ...Yeah.


DAVIES: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson speaking with Terry Gross. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to Terry’s interview recorded in December with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Their stop-motion animation film, "Anomalisa," has earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.


GROSS: Duke, when you're shooting these - what is it? - one-sixth size, one-sixth ratio.

JOHNSON: That's correct, yeah.

GROSS: So everything is, like, a sixth of the size it would be in reality.

JOHNSON: Yes, for example.

GROSS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: I was just going to say Michael is our tallest character. He's 12 inches, and that's the equivalent of being 6 feet tall.

GROSS: So just so we can visualize how this is done, are all the sets, like, on a table? Or are they on the floor? What kind of angle does the photographer have to get to to be able to realistically shoot these miniatures sets?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so basically we have a big empty warehouse where stages are created, different stages. In our case, we had 18 that are separated by sheets of duvetyn that are hung from the ceiling. So you have these sort of black rooms created out of this duvetyn fabric that's used in filmmaking because it has no bounce quality for light. Like, if you create a room out of duvetyn, it's - there's total blackness. And you have a blank slate to introduce light and create the atmosphere of your choosing. So you have separate rooms divided by this black fabric. And they're anywhere from 15 feet by 15 feet to 40 feet by 20 feet or something. And there's a set in each one of these stages. And there's an animator. And, you know, for something like the hotel room, in our case the hotel room is a large part of the film. So we had to build several hotel rooms. We had eight. And they would be on various stages, and sometimes different parts of the same scene would be animated simultaneously by different animators on multiple stages because the process moves so slowly. It can often take weeks or months to animate a single shot. What happens is we go in, and you pose the puppets. You sort of stage it as you would with live-action, and then you set the camera angle. And you secure it into place, typically with glue, actually. You actually glue the camera into place so that it doesn't move and you can't bump it over time. And then the cinematographer lights it, you know, just like you would a live-action set. But it's just on a miniature scale. It almost looks like a blueprint or a diagram of a live-action set.

GROSS: One of the really difficult things that the animators had to do was animate Michael's naked body. And there's a scene that - it's actually kind of funny. He's in his hotel room and he takes off his clothes and goes into the shower. And as happens so frequently in a shower in a hotel where you haven't stayed before, you don't know which direction is hot and which direction is cold and how to set the water. So, you know, first it's way too cold and then it's way too hot. And he's just, like, really angry at the shower, until it gets just right. Then he steps out of the shower, and you see, you know, a full-frontal naked body. And it is so realistic looking. And you even see - as he moves, you see his genitals gently move back and forth in the way that that they do in real life. And I can't imagine how, like, technically complicated that must've been, considering you're working with little Barbie-doll sized puppets. How - really, how do you get that kind of anatomically-correct movement?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, these animators are particularly skilled in understanding biology and physics and how things move. We intentionally designed these puppets to feel like real people in the sense that they have average bodies. That plays a big part into the authenticity of the moment. They don't look, you know, like they're modeled after some iconic form or archetype. It's just sort of average and asymmetrical and irregular and specific. You know, there was one animator that was asked to animate that moment. And he decided that he couldn't do it because he felt that the main character resembled his father...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: ...And that that would be too awkward for him to do. But it is particularly difficult to animate a naked puppet because the puppet itself, there's nothing - there's no clothing or material to sort of hide behind. You can see the body, it's there, it's exposed, and every subtle movement will be realized by the audience. That particular moment is difficult because he's wet when he gets out of the shower and, you know, that wetness is a type of lubricant that has to be consistently added every frame or every sequence of frames because it dries over time. You know, his body has hair in it, and the hair isn't actually animatable, so you have to sort of move the body without disturbing the hair. You know, all of these subtle features, but just trying to get naturalistic movements and make it look like it's really existing in space, like it has the proper amount of gravity and weight and movement.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie where the woman who's voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh and who is certain that she's ugly and therefore unlovable. Michael asks her to sing a song because he thinks she's really special and she says she likes to sing but only when she's alone. And he kind of, like, convinces her to sing. And she sings "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," but there's such melancholy in the song. It's, like, the saddest version ever of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." She sings it from the point of view as somebody who would love to have fun but probably never has and fears that she never will. She wants to be the one who walks in the sun but is confident she never will. Charlie, how did you choose that song and decide to find the sadness within it?

KAUFMAN: In the play, it was a different song. The song was "My Heart Will Go On" from "Titanic." And we couldn't afford it, so we were scrambling to find something else for Lisa to sing. It was actually - we were already at the recording session, so - and we hadn't decided on what it was going to be yet. And we had ideas of songs that might work and "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" is one of them. And so at the time, you know, there's an uncertainty about which way to go because it was this other thing before. But once Jennifer sang it and we realized - you know, what the significance is for her character and, you know, with the way Jennifer did it, it became clear to us that that was the song to use and, you know, that's the way Lisa would sing it. So we - we had her do it that way.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much and congratulate you on the film.

KAUFMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, thank you so much.

KAUFMAN: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.


LEIGH: (Singing) Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I want to be the one to walk in the sun. Oh, girls they want to have fun. Oh, girls just want to have - that's all they really want – some fun. When the working day is done, girls, they want to have fun. Oh, girls just want to have fun

DAVIES: “Anomalisa” has earned an Academy Award nomination for the best animated feature film. Terry spoke with directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson in December. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film, “A War.” This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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