Venice: ‘Anomalisa’ Director Charlie Kaufman on the Expressiveness of Stop-Motion Animation

"Feeling shy and self-conscious is not foreign territory for me,” said Jennifer Jason Leigh of her character.

One of the most buzzed about titles in Venice this year is the stop-motion animation film Anomalisa from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, not least because it was partially financed on Kickstarter, raising over $400,000 which at the time in 2012 was the highest amount raised for a film.

The film started as a stage play in 2005 written by Kaufman under the pseudonym Frances Fregoli. David Thewlis stars as Michael, a celebrity motivational speaker who wrote the book on customer service who can no longer cope with the loneliness in his life. He suffers from Fregoli syndrome, “in a metaphorical, symbolic way,” according to Kaufman, believing that every other person in the world is the same person.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Lisa, the singular voice in the crowd, for which Michael falls overnight head over heels for. Tom Noonan miraculously plays every other person, and the mark for Michaels’ wrath.

While half a dozen journalists told Kaufman their interpretation of the film and asked him for validation, he shot each one of them down, refusing to explain one meaning to the film. “This is for you. It’s your film,” he told the assembled journalists, pleased that there were so many various takes on the movie.

While the animation created limits on Noonan, who couldn’t physically express changes in each character, he got around it, explaining, “I just had to do everything really internally and not communicate anything sort of obviously.“

With all puppets having the same face, it proved to be a cost-effective coup for production. With hundreds of 3D-printed separate top and bottom halves of faces, animators were able to create thousands of different looks.

And through animation, audience goers were able to completely immerse themselves in the story. “We couldn’t have 1000 Toms. It would be so distracting that it would overwhelm the idea,” said Kaufman.

While stop-most animations paint out seams in post-production, the directors wanted the film to have that handmade feel, to show the real process of animation. So they kept the themes in, to the point where one scene literally involves a character losing face. “In doing that the thinking of the mechanical nature of people, or saneness of people, was not lost on us, and we utilized it,” explained Kaufman.

Leigh, who plays the anomaly Lisa, thus Anomalisa, had to sing in three languages in the film, including a Cyndi Lauper song which caused the press screening to erupt into applause. “It was scary but also kind of wonderful to me,” she said of the experience.

Her character, who hides physical scars, constantly apologies for being stupid and ugly when she feels Michael’s attraction toward her. “Feeling shy and self-conscious is not foreign territory for me,” said Leigh. “So it was easy for me to connect to Lisa in that way. She’s so simple and so ordinary but so lovely. I just fell in love with her when I read the script.”

Lisa also manages to fall on her face twice in the film, something everyone on the panel could seem to relate to.

“I fell on my face once when I was skiing and had someone ski over my head,” said Kaufman. “And then once I fell on my face in an ice-skating rink, and had somebody skate over my finger.”

“That’s my worst fear,” chimed in Leigh. “I rocked myself out of a window and I broke all the glass, but I was unscathed, when I was about four. I’m sure I’ve fallen on my face several times metaphorically but I’m sure I’ve forgotten all those times.”