This interview first appeared in Variety’s Sept. 7 Venice Film Festival print daily.
When filmmaker Duke Johnson saw “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in 2004, it changed his entire idea of the kinds of movies he wanted to make. He had just graduated from film school at NYU and finally he had a clear direction for what he wanted to do with his life. “I literally said it was my dream in life to direct a Charlie Kaufman movie,” he recalls.
Flash-forward 10 years later, he’s working at animation studio Starburns Industries in Burbank, Calif., and a mutual acquaintance, writer and producer Dino Stamatopoulos, had a Kaufman script in hand. “Anomalisa” was based on a 2005 “sound play” developed by the Oscar-winning scribe at the behest of composer Carter Burwell, featuring actors on a bare stage reading their lines to the audience, and it became an instant passion project for Johnson.
Kaufman, meanwhile, had hit a few road blocks since his 2008 directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York.” Funding fell through for “Frank and Francis,” a musical focused on the film industry and bloggers particularly. “I’ve been trying for a really long time to get it to happen but there’s no one knocking down the door to make it,” Kaufman said. Then there was the pilot for FX series “How and Why” that wasn’t picked up despite star presence from Catherine Keener and Michael Cera.
So it was time to get back in the saddle with a project. But “Anomalisa” seemed to Kaufman an unlikely proposal.
“I said to Dino, ‘If you can raise the money, sure,’” he said, never having expected the $400,000 Stamatopoulos was able to cobble together through crowd-funding site Kickstarter. “Then Duke and I sort of set about the task of trying to figure out how to translate this thing that was explicitly designed to not be seen (into a film).”
The result is a stop-motion meditation on banality only Kaufman could conceive, a film featuring explicit sex between puppets, finely calibrated humor and a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that might even draw tears.
“It was kind of cool that we went into this thing so long ago and worked under the radar, not knowing if it was going to work or be good,” Kaufman said. “Then we’re finally here and, you know, people are responding to it. That’s very satisfying. And we did it on our terms, completely outside of any system. We had no one to answer to except ourselves and it was great.”
“Anomalisa” world premiered in Telluride over the weekend before screening in Competition in Venice this week.