Charlie Kaufman, 57 years old, sits on a couch across from me at the Eliot Hotel. He’s in Boston to promote his latest movie—Anomalisa—which began its life onstage. Sitting next to Kaufman is Duke Johnson, a younger man who co-directed the picture with him. Johnson has a face as clean as the hotel’s lobby. Kaufman, other hand, is wearing an oversized beard that obstructs all but his loudest expressions. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not unkempt. But he has the appearance of a man who’s been through some sort of wilderness.
To hear Kaufman tell it, Anomalisa exists as a film because it was the only route leading out of those woods. (For the record, the movie-version is animated with old-school stop-motion techniques, using new-school puppets.) But let’s jump back a bit. Even when it was written for the stage, Anomalisa was born of pragmatic necessity. Composer Carter Burwell originally invited Kaufman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen, to write a “sound play,” which would be read aloud by actors seated at a table on a stage, in front of a live audience. Anomalisa wasn’t on the original double-bill—it was written only after the brothers Coen were forced to bow out of a second engagement. At first, Kaufman didn’t even put his name on the text. It was credited to the author “Francis Fregoli.”
“Because of the premise of the evening, I would only have three actors,” Kaufman explains. “I didn’t want to be limited to having three characters in the play. So I was thinking of a way to have one actor play very many people. But I also didn’t want that actor to be changing their voice. I felt there was something interesting about that. And I had read about the Fregoli [delusion], so I latched onto that.”
Remember the references to Fregoli, because we’ll be coming back to that later. Anyway: Given that Burwell contributed the score to the feature-film version of Anomalisa, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t upset about the loss of his audio-only conceit. But for Kaufman, that was reason enough to retire the whole text.
“I don’t think Carter was concerned, but I was concerned,” he claims—and the emphasis is on the “I.” “I wrote Anomalisa around the idea that you wouldn’t ‘see’ it. There are ideas and imagery in there that I wanted people to come up with on their own. The piece was made for that purpose, and I didn’t want to repurpose it. I had no ambitions for this thing [as a film] after the play. It was done.”
What made it undone was a team of producers who approached Kaufman with the idea to adapt Anomalisa using their preferred method of animation. The writer-director had a prolific 2000s—he wrote Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and others, while making his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York—but the 2010s hadn’t been so kind. Multiple projects failed to grow beyond his own notebooks, with the reason always being “financing problems.” Before Anomalisa released a few weeks ago, it had been more than seven years since a Charlie Kaufman credit was seen on a movie screen.
“We were lucky in that when we approached [Kaufman] with the idea of adapting this with stop-motion, he said, ‘See if you can get the money first, and then we’ll talk about it.’” That’s how Johnson remembers it, at least.
“No,” Kaufman interrupts him. “I said, ‘If you can get the money, then we’ll do it.’ I didn’t need much convincing. One of the reasons that I accepted the idea was that I was desperate to get something made.”
This all might serve to make Anomalisa sound like an also-ran. That is not the case. “This thing,” as Kaufman keeps calling it, is among the most provocative works of his career. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a retail guru weathering a Cincinnati stopover, during which he talks to both a distant wife and a furious ex. They’re each voiced by Tom Noonan. So is everybody else. Michael keeps claiming that he has “psychological problems”—and if you accept that we’re experiencing his point-of-view, it’s hard to disagree. Everybody in his life has the same face, the same voice. But after clashes with girlfriends present and past, he meets the woman of his potential future: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh.) She has an unspeakably beautiful voice. Which is to say that she doesn’t sound like Tom Noonan.
Back to that aforementioned condition: It’s defined as being “a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person.” And it’s no leap to connect that to the film directly. The name of the hotel Michael stays at throughout the narrative is “The Fregoli.”
“The impetus for using [Fregoli delusion] is just that I read about it,” Kaufman notes. He’s quick to clarify: He’s deeply invested in the psychology of his characters, but Anomalisa is not a film about a medical condition. “I’m not literally doing a movie about the Fregoli delusion. It’s just interesting to me as a metaphor. If there’s a reference to it in the text, it’s because I think it’s amusing to throw that in—not because the character is actually suffering from the condition.”
Then Kaufman adds another observation, one that implicitly offers an insight into every project he’s done to date. He tells me that if the movie were “just” about a character suffering from the Fregoli delusion, then Anomalisa would be completely bereft of mystery. Which is probably also connected to the reason why we’ve spent this whole interview discussing process and production. Kaufman hates—refuses, actually—to talk about anything under the surface of his own work. On the fact that the story, set in 2005, features some jarring references to American foreign politics, he has this to say: “I have reasons that those are there, which I won’t ever explain.”
There’s Kaufman’s literary side showing—he expects his audience to do some of the thinking for themselves. The central auditory conceit of Anomalisa is just mystical enough to provoke us all into having personal readings of the material. To some, it’s a Kafkaesque comedy about the pure terror of having your psychological software misprogrammed. To this writer, it’s a movie about a specifically male psychological flaw—the inescapable connection between sexual excitement and new sensations. (In other words: Nothing old becomes new again.) To others, it may well just be a character drama about a schlubby man who seems to be a rather lousy lay. However you read it, the movie’s existence—so random and unlikely, at every step of its creation—strikes us as a blessing.
“I wasn’t expecting it to happen.” Kaufman is talking, once more, about the scenario that led to this text becoming his second feature film as a director.“If I had been in the midst of a more successful streak, I might have said no.” He stops himself wryly, then gestures toward Johnson again. “But they caught me in a down decade.”
ANOMALISA. NOW PLAYING. RATED R.