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.”
The films you'd expect to have won a Best Picture Oscar that actually haven't
The films you'd expect to have won a Best Picture Oscar that actually haven't
1/15 Citizen Kane (1941)
Long revered as one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles' debut - a film à clef focused on tycoon Charles Foster Kane - was just another nominee back in the day, losing out to How Green Was My Valley.
2/15 Vertigo (1958)
Not only did Alfred Hitchcock never win an Oscar (save for his memorial award in 1968), neither did any of his films - one of which is Vertigo, a classic that won Sight & Sound's once-a-decade greatest films of all time poll in 2012.
3/15 The Graduate (1967)
One of the films that kickstarted the New Hollywood Cinema, The Graduate may have won director Mike Nichols an Oscar, but ultimately lost out to Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the night.
4/15 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The crème de la crème of Hollywood filmmakers would have you believe that Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi classic remains one of the most influential pieces of cinema there is. The Academy didn't agree, however, nominating Kubrick for Best Director and awarding the visual effects in favour of even considering 2001 for Best Picture.
5/15 Taxi Driver (1976)
Despite not winning the main award, the Academy showed they had good intentions by nominating Taxi Driver in four categories - that both All the President's Men and Network also lost out to eventual winner Rocky shows that, ultimately, it never really stood a chance.
6/15 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious Vietnam War epic received a grand total of eight nominations, but only went home with two prizes (for cinematography and sound) losing out to drama Kramer vs. Kramer.
7/15 Raging Bull (1980)
Of all the Oscar blows dealt to Martin Scorsese over the decades, none landed harder than Raging Bull's losing out to Robert Redford's weepie Ordinary People, an oversight many consider one of the Academy's most infamous.
8/15 Blade Runner
Another sci-fi classic overlooked by Oscar was the hugely influential Blade Runner which didn't even get nominated in the Best Picture category. That Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi The Martian received seven nominations could signal how the Academy are finally taking responsibility for their past errors.
9/15 Goodfellas (1990)
Having awarded both The Godfather parts I and II Best Picture in 1972 and 1974 respectively, you'd think Scorsese's gangster classic stood half a chance; but no - Kevin Costner's directorial debut Dances With Wolves was the most appealing choice for voters.
2012 Getty Images
10/15 Pulp Fiction (1994)
New talent on the block Quentin Tarantino's second feature won him the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes - a success he failed to match back on home turf; while he won an Original Screenplay Oscar, Pulp Fiction got beat by Forrest Gump.
11/15 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
...and it wasn't the only one. Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's prison-set novella The Shawshank Redemption also fell victim to Robert Zemeckis' Oscar-friendly Forrest Gump. We don't see that film sitting atop the IMDB top 250 though, do we?
12/15 Fargo (1996)
You may think it was remiss of the Academy to shun Fargo but it did come pretty close to winning, its chances bolstered somewhat by seven nominations and two wins (Actress for Frances McDormand and Original Screenplay for the Coen Brothers). It lost out to The English Patient.
13/15 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Having won Best Director five years previous for Schindler's List, everybody expected Steven Spielberg's next war epic to scoop all the top awards. Cue Shakespeare In Love upsetting the establishment.
14/15 The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher's generational Facebook drama got shunned in favour of British patriotism in an Oscar two-horse race for the ages that ultimately saw The King's Speech crowned winner.
15/15 Boyhood (2014)
For last year's Oscar race, you were either team Birdman or team Boyhood (not forgetting outside bet Whiplash, of course). Each represented a different facet of movie-making that posited them as favourites; that Richard Linklater's labour of love - shot intermittently over 12 years - failed to win may still come as a surprise.
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.
“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 MarchReuse content