How ‘Anomalisa’ Returned Charlie Kaufman to Director’s Chair

Charlie Kaufman honored at Palm Springs Film Festival for collaboration with 10 Directors to Watch selection Duke Johnson.

Anomalisa Charlie Kaufman Duke Johnson
Courtesy of Paramount

In the 35 years since Charlie Kaufman graduated NYU film school, Woody Allen has directed 35 big-screen features. With the arrival of the aptly named, exquisitely unique “Anomalisa,” Kaufman’s count stands at two. But what a pair!

When it comes to directing, Kaufman’s career track has been as unconventional as the films themselves. “I spent my twenties and the first year of my thirties trying to figure out what to do,” says the Variety Creative Impact honoree. “I saw people I knew working, and I heard the idea that you can get in as a screenwriter.”

So he wrote, first for television, then trying his hand at features. With those early spec scripts, he landed an agent, but lost the battle to helm them himself — a visionary cursed by the sheer originality of his ideas.

“To a certain extent, I’ve been very fortunate with my screenplays. starting out with Spike (Jonze) on ‘Being John Malkovich,’” he says. “Spike was enormously respectful and didn’t cut me out of the process whatsoever, and I had the same experience with Michel Gondry.” Working with those two visionaries, Kaufman was able to see his vision for “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” realized, earning Academy recognition for all three films.

Jonze was actually supposed to direct “Synecdoche, New York,” as well, Kaufman confides, but “Where the Wild Things Came Along,” so Kaufman finally got his chance. The film premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2008, mere months before the economy cratered, stalling whatever “heat” he’d generated.

“The scripts that I was trying to get going were no less eccentric than ‘Synecdoche,’” Kaufman says, but the gatekeepers (not exactly big risk-seekers to begin with) had gotten especially gun-shy. For example, he wrote a satire called “Frank or Francis” about the curious phenomenon of internet conversations and “the unmoored anonymous anger that lives there.” It’s not a musical exactly, but it happens to feature a fair amount of singing — “like way too much singing,” Kaufman says.

When characters type in message boards or online forums, their comments are conveyed via song. “I’m always trying to find ways to capture the subjective experience, so I used snippets of songs, which are very much tied into the reality of the movie. It’s not a musical in the conventional sense, more like a voiceover,” he explains. Kaufman had figured out all of the lyrics at the script stage, and the plan was for longtime collaborator Carter Burwell to do the music.

“We were looking for $17 million at the time,” he recalls. “I cast really really big movie actors in it, like seven or eight of them, since that’s what I was advised. But we couldn’t get anyone to do it.” Producer Anthony Bregman even pitched him an idea — shoot the film in Romania for $11 million — which Kaufman loved, especially given the perversity of doubling Eastern Europe for Hollywood (in and around which much of the film takes place). But they still couldn’t raise the money.

In short, nobody wanted to take the risk. “It’s like there’s a gatekeeper that’s keeping anything that’s different from ever being seen,” Kaufman observes, and yet the irony is clear: “If you make something that’s unprecedented and it does really well, then there will be a million other people trying to make that movie,” he says.

In the interim, Kaufman admits, things have gotten dire at times. He has taken jobs for hire, doing an uncredited polish on DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and one of the “Shrek” sequels. These days, he says, “I’m working on a novel, which is something that I thought might be another avenue for me.”

Since “Synecdoche,” the project that came closest to being realized was a series called “How & Why” that he developed for FX. “We got the go-ahead to shoot the pilot, but we didn’t get picked up. That actually exists in the world,” he says.

So does a bizarre side project that led him back to the director’s chair — a pair of staged radio plays written at Burwell’s behest. In 2005, while Kaufman was struggling with the “Synecdoche” script, the composer approached him and the Coen brothers about writing a one-act for which he would conduct the score.

Kaufman wrote “Hope Leaves the Theater,” while the Coens submitted a play called “Sawbones,” which repped the other half of the evening. The double bill played in New York and London. But when the production traveled to Los Angeles, the Coen brothers were no longer available, so Kaufman cooked up another piece, entitled “Anomalisa,” which was presented under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli.

In the L.A. audience was old friend Dino Stamatopoulos, who begged Kaufman for a copy of the script and later approached him with an idea as unconventional as “Anomalisa” itself: What if they were to take the script, originally designed to be read onstage by three actors — David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan — and transform it into a Kickstarter-backed stop-motion movie?

According to Duke Johnson, a young but talented animation prodigy who came aboard to co-direct, Kaufman was skeptical that they would be able to raise the money. And then they made history, as “Anomalisa” became the single most generously funded film project in the crowdfunding site’s history.

“When you have the level of self-confidence and vision, that there’s no competitiveness with collaboration. Anyone can have an idea,” Johnson says. “He’s the smartest guy in the room, so he puts a spin on things that make things better.”

And in turn, “Anomalisa” has transformed the conversation around Kaufman, reminding the industry what a singular and essential talent he is. “I would say the jury is out,” the director says modestly, though it’s no small feat to have raised the money direct from admirers and fans to make such a film in total independence — a liberating realization for an artist who fought this hard to direct the two films he has made to date.

“If you’re making something within the system, there’s sort of a sameness to the stuff that’s out there and the possibilities of what you can do,” Kaufman says. “I think it would be a lot richer and more diverse world of film if there was more license to explore.”