10 Directors to Watch: How Duke Johnson Came to Co-Direct Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’

Stop-motion director's collaboration with Charlie Kaufman opens possibilities of fulfilling his live-action dreams.

10 Directors to Watch
Portrait: Courtesy of Monica Schipper

“I didn’t have any particular affinity for stop-motion when I started,” admits Duke Johnson, who was raised in St. Louis, by a single mother, “a huge classic movie fan” who encouraged her son’s creativity, enrolling him in classes for acting, painting and sculpture on the side. He even took a Jim Henson puppet-making workshop.

“My mother wasn’t supported in her endeavors, so whatever it took, she would find the money to send me to these courses,” says Johnson, who discovered his true passion while taking a summer film class at Columbia U. “Once I picked up that Bolex, I was sold. Still, Johnson had no idea how to pursue his dream, stubbornly setting his sights on NYU — or bust. The school actually turned him down twice before allowing him to transfer in as a sophomore.

“I was the first in my family to graduate college,” says Johnson, who dreamed of directing live-action movies, but ended up waiting tables for three years in New York — a frustration that led him to grad school at AFI. Finally, “I felt like I could make something, but I still didn’t know how.” 

When an offer to direct an episode of a friend’s stop-motion TV series, “Moral Orel,” came along, he seized the chance to prove himself. “After working in the medium a little bit, I fell in love with it,” he says. “You have characters in three-dimensional space. You light it, you block it. It’s an amazing practice ground for honing your craft as a filmmaker.”

Johnson’s talents led him to become a partner in Starburns Industries, helming “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole” and an animated Christmas episode of “Community.” And then “Anomalisa” came along, giving Johnson a chance to partner with one of his idols, Charlie Kaufman, on a project that combined his animation experience with the sort of material he most admires.

“I’m going to make a live-action movie next,” says Johnson, who optioned a book and is reading scripts. “I’m not going to say goodbye to stop-motion forever, but I have to be true to my intention, which is to tell live-action stories.”

Age: 36
Influences: Charlie Kaufman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, John Cassavetes
Agency: ICM Partners