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To portray human alienation, Charlie Kaufman turns to puppets in ‘Anomalisa’

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Idiosyncratic filmmaker Charlie Kaufman is known for writing such unique films as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — as well as both writing and directing the mind-bending “Synecdoche, New York.” With his latest film, Kaufman said, “I’ve again tried to give the audience something new.”

Joined by his co-director, stop-action filmmaker Duke Johnson, Kaufman was discussing his new movie “Anomalisa” (opening Friday), which utilizes stop-action animation to spin the tale of a highly successful but desperately lonely man who possibly meets the love of his life on a business trip to Cincinnati.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is the famous self-help author of a book titled, “How May I Help You Help Them?” At a convention of customer service professionals, where he’s the featured speaker, he meets Lisa, a very bland baked goods sales rep from Akron. They engage in a one-night affair that is depicted very graphically on-screen.

“I know, everyone asks about the puppet sex,” said Kaufman, as Johnson nods and smiles next to him. “But all of that is part of what we were trying to convey. The awkwardness of those moments are equal to the awkward, lonely, disconnected aspects of Michael’s life, as well as those around him.”

That disconnection is further exemplified by the fact all of the other characters in the film — with the exception of Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) — are voiced by the same person: Tom Noonan. “Michael’s sense of feeling trapped and his dealing with Fregoli syndrome is what makes that work,” explained Johnson, citing a psychiatric disorder in which a patient believes different individuals are actually the same person in disguise.

“That’s why all the other puppets, besides Lisa and Michael, have the same face too,” added Kaufman with a sly smile.

Charlie Kaufman (right) and his “Anomalisa” co-director Duke Johnson. | Scott Gries/Invision/AP
Charlie Kaufman (right) and his “Anomalisa” co-director Duke Johnson. | Scott Gries/Invision/AP

Added Kaufman, “Human alienation is a theme I continue to be intrigued by. There are so many examples of people being disconnected in real life, I felt using these puppets in stop-action animation was a perfect way to convey that.”

“Anomalisa” was originally written as a staged-reading production, and Kaufman revealed he was initially reluctant to transform it into a film.

“In the live play, I loved how there was a strange disconnect between the actors and the audience, since Tom [Noonan] was playing all those other characters [as he has re-created now in the film version]. Plus Jennifer and David had verbal sex — standing across the stage from one another. I thought having that happening on-screen would lose what I was trying to accomplish on stage.”

A key to making Kaufman happy with his film version is how the puppets in “Anomalisa” are showcased. As Johnson put it, “even though you know they are not real and there is that awkwardness and stiffness about them, I do believe we’ve made them seem more real than one would think beforehand. The point is, they are not computer-generated. Human beings are manipulating them constantly, and that alone imbues them with a stronger sense of humanity than you’d realize.”

Kaufman nodded vigorously in agreement. “That manipulation of the puppets is what adds the existential aspect to this film. I love that. I love the fact that whole aspect further demonstrates how our society today is more alienated and out-of-touch with true humanity than it ever has been. Think about how computers and the rest of the devices we use in so-called social media actually separate us from each other, rather than connect us.”

“So much of what we call connecting is anything but.”