Charlie Kaufman is smiling and joking. That’s not the same as being upbeat, and as we — plus Duke Johnson, the “Being John Malkovich” creator’s cohort on his new film, “Anomalisa” — speak he’ll dovetail into despairing, even hopeless commentary on the world. But he does it with a smile, even laughter, and it’s slightly disarming to be joking about Guy Fieri and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with a guy who famously depicted a fake version of himself as a relentless downer in “Adaptation.”
Still, he did have to be coerced into making “Anomalisa,” only the second Kaufman script he has directed himself, after 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York.” It’s based on an old work: a 2005 play that consisted of actors speaking in darkness, with no visuals.
“I didn’t want to make it as a movie,” Kaufman confesses. “It was designed to be heard and not seen.” But he gave in, especially once they happened upon the idea to do it entirely in stop-motion animation. But the story — following Michael, a depressed motivational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) — was a hard sell, and he and Johnson had to do it independently, on the very cheap.
“When you’re making a stop-motion animation film, the puppets are the most expensive part of the process,” Johnson explains. They only had $100,000 for all their many, many puppets. By contrast, Laika, the studio behind “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” spends $80,000 on a single puppet. They had to start shooting with less than ideal puppets. “They broke constantly. It was very challenging getting the style of animation we wanted out of cheaper puppets.”
Kaufman liked that they were fragile. “It does give it a feeling of imperfection that you don’t get with computer or cel animation,” he says. “There’s a handmade quality to it we really liked. It makes them feel vulnerable and real.”
The plot finds Michael, during a hotel stay, becoming obsessed with Lisa, a shy, ordinary woman, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who mysteriously sticks out from the pack. But every other character is designed almost but not quite the same, and every one of them, male or female, is voiced by Tom Noonan.
“Most people don’t even know it’s the same voice actor when they see the movie, because they’re used to having puppets having similar features. It creeps up on you and it doesn’t overpower the smallness of the story,” Kaufman explains. Why he chose Noonan, the actor often cast as psychos in the likes of “Manhunter” and “Robocop 2,” Kaufman says, “I think he has a very identifiable voice. There’s something soothing and creepy at the same time about his voice. Having David do all the voices wouldn’t make sense, because his accent is too specific. Tom’s voice is specific but also generic.”