Charlie Kaufman on latest film Anomalisa, forgotten film scripts and having to crowd-fund for new projects

The mind-bending genius tells James Mottram about his Hollywood wilderness years, and superb comeback

Next month, when Charlie Kaufman arrives at the Oscars as a nominee for his new film Anomalisa, he could quite easily stroll up the red carpet without turning a head.

In the period since his last work, 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, the mind-bending writer and film-maker has almost become Hollywood’s forgotten man; it’s as if the industry has suffered a collective memory wipe, like the lovers in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005.

Where has he been? “I was sitting in a room for the past seven years,” he says, only half-joking. The 57 year-old Kaufman’s world-weary demeanour bears all the hallmarks of struggle, something that’s defined much of his life. When he graduated from studying film at New York University in the early Eighties, he spent years writing spec scripts that went nowhere. Eventually, he won hand-to-mouth gigs penning sketch comedy for television. 

His first produced script, for 1999’s Spike Jonze-directed Being John Malkovich, about a puppeteer who finds a portal into the titular actor’s head, immediately marked him out as a true original.

But these past years have been frustrating. He’s written three screenplays and three television pilots, getting to direct one of the latter – the intriguing-sounding How and Why, with Catherine Keener and Michael Cera. Dispiritingly, all were rejected. “I couldn’t get things made,” he sighs. “I wasn’t silent by choice.”

One of his shelved scripts, Frank or Francis, centred on a feud between a film director and a blogger, and had a galaxy of A-List stars attached, including Eternal Sunshine’s Kate Winslet and Nicolas Cage, who played Kaufman and his fictional twin, Donald, in 2002’s self-reflexive movie Adaptation, his second collaboration with Jonze. Jack Black, another who had committed to it, told me it was “the most brilliant, original look at the Hollywood industry and the sickness that is celebrity”. 

So, why didn’t it get made? “You never really hear the truth from anyone,” says Kaufman. “But I can speculate.” He then lists the reasons, from the commercial failure of Synecdoche – a masterpiece whose absurdly ambitious premise, about an absurdly ambitious theatre director trying to recreate his entire life, was never likely to result in big box office – to the “eccentric” telling of Frank or Francis. “Like everything else in the script, it was crazy,” he says. With much of the story set around the internet, characters burst into snippets of songs, internally, as they type, he says. “Which,” he adds, “I thought was funny.”

This is typical Kaufman, the most atypical of filmmakers whose one-off ideas are as far removed as possible from Hollywood’s cookie-cutter confections. Anomalisa is his first foray into animation – a beautiful stop-motion tale set in a Cincinnati hotel over a weekend, centring on Ordinary Joe Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an expert in customer service, set to give a keynote speech at a conference but struggling with a bout of depression. 

You could almost imagine Kaufman basing Stone’s malaise on his own despair. For Anomalisa, he and his producers decided to raise an initial $200,000 via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. The pitch brought in more than double that but it still defies belief that Kaufman has to resort to such financing.

“It’s shocking,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starred in Synecdoche and has returned for Anomalisa. “Every actor in the world wants to work with him.”

Money, though, talks in Hollywood. Synecdoche took just $4m worldwide, a fifth of its budget. “Since [then], it’s gotten hard for me,” shrugs Kaufman. “But it also got hard for everyone. Movie studios are making very predictable, conventional movies, and I tend not to write big movies or what are perceived as big movies. So, it becomes harder and harder.”

Thankfully, the sob story stops here: for Anomalisa, co-directed by Kaufman with animator Duke Johnson, has drawn rave reviews, and claimed a clutch of accolades, including a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, plus Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. In the Oscars race, it is second favourite, and is duking it out, David-and-Goliath style, with Pixar favourite Inside Out, a film set in the mind of a child that surely owes a debt to Kaufman’s own cerebral explorations in Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine.

Curiously, Anomalisa started life as a “sound play” for composer Carter Burwell’s Theatre of the New Ear series in 2005; it saw actual Foley artists, who typically create sound effects for films, do their thing live on stage as actors read their lines. Kaufman originally wrote another play, Hope Leaves The Theater, for the series, which appeared on a double bill with a piece by the Coen brothers. However, when it transferred to Los Angeles, the Coens pulled out and Kaufman filled the second slot with Anomalisa. 

When Kaufman was approached by old friend Dino Stamatopoulos – the founder of animation company Starburns Industries – the idea to turn Anomalisa into a stop-motion tale began to hatch. He was initially resistant, believing that visualising the story was the very antithesis of its “sound play” origins, where audiences are encouraged to use their imaginations. But when Kaufman met Starburns’ Duke Johnson, who oversaw the Emmy-winning stop-motion episode of TV sitcom Community, he became convinced.

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“It’s very different,” he says, comparing animation to live-action. “There are elements of directing live actors, because you do the voice recordings, but puppets don’t do anything other than what you tell them to do. There’s no interaction.” It took over two years to shoot – with each animator shooting about two seconds a day. “It’s really painstakingly slow,” he laments. With the puppet faces created via 3D printers, the result is startling, tender and beautiful. No CGI is used; everything is tangible – the clouds in the background sky, for example, were made of cotton. 

It’s easy to imagine Kaufman enraptured by the dozens of miniature sets; as a child, raised in Long Island, he spent hours in his engineer father’s office “awed” by his work. Indeed, Kaufman has a thing for offices. In Being John Malkovich, there is the cramped space on the 7 1/2 floor where the Malkovich portal is found; in Anomalisa, Michael encounters the opposite – a giant basement office that requires a golf cart to cross it. 

It’s touches like these that show that Kaufman, for all the frustrations he’s endured, hasn’t lost his sense of humour. Nor has his absurdist streak deserted him. Aside from Thewlis and Jason Leigh, who stars as Lisa, the telesales girl who Michael falls for over his soul-searching weekend, all the other characters – male and female, young and old – are disconcertingly voiced by Synecdoche star Tom Noonan, and have the same faces.

Inspired by the delusional condition known as the Fregoli Syndrome, which causes the sufferer to believe everyone else is the same person, this expression of Michael’s alienation is classic Kaufman. Like many of his characters, Michael feels ripped from Kaufman’s soul, right down to his own anxiety about checking into a hotel. “I worry about who my neighbours are going to be in hotels,” he confides. “Am I going to have noisy people next to me?”

Such confessions endear you to Kaufman, who is married with a daughter, lives in Pasadena, but would rather have his eyeballs torn out than talk about his personal life. Same goes for the novel he’s currently writing. What’s the subject? “I won’t say.” How close is it to being finished? Another sigh. What about those rejected screenplays and pilots – could they be picked up? “I hope so,” he says, blankly.

‘Anomalisa’ goes on general release on 11 March

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