Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
It's a daunting experience meeting the man behind films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
When you hear the name Charlie Kaufman, you imagine a hyper-intelligent, taciturn and sensitive individual, analysing your every word and body movement. Instead we are met by a humble and assuredly intelligent artist, eager to be understood. Kaufman has created some of the finest cinematic experiences of the last few decades and his latest work Anomalisa co-created with animator Duke Johnson offers a new twist on his inimitable approach to storytelling. The stop-motion animation follows the life of protagonist Michael Stone, a man defined by the isolation he feels from the people around him. Anomalisa has been critically applauded worldwide for its raw and truthful portrait of loneliness that is both disturbing and captivating in equal measure. In an age where emotional depth in Hollywood is often overlooked, Kaufman yet again brings to us his courageous and unique voice.
I know you’re very busy promoting the film. How are you feeling?
KAUFMAN: Sleep deprived.
Has sleep deprivation ever helped you in your work?
KAUFMAN: No, it doesn’t help me. It makes me sour and angry. I’m not any of those things right now but it could turn on a dime so be careful.
Okay I’ll try to be nice.
KAUFMAN: The first day we came here we had to do a thing at the BBC. They have these glass security doors that swing shut and we were walking in a line and I was the last one, I wasn’t paying attention and I guess the guard didn’t notice that I wasn’t through. It’s glass so of course I don’t see it and it smashes me directly in the face. That was a bad day. And I was already in kind of a bad mood.
JOHNSON: I think it was an assassination attempt.
KAUFMAN: It was really bad. And then we had to go on live TV and what was amazing about me was, and Duke can attest to this, no one could tell that I was in a bad mood. But anyway I’m feeling better now.
That sounds harsh. So let’s talk about Anomalisa. I felt physically winded after seeing the film, it’s deeply moving. I love your work Charlie but sometimes I almost don’t want to see it because it’s just so confronting.
JOHNSON: It’s funny you say that because I have the same feeling about stuff that I truly love. It’s demanding of the audience. It requires something of you.
KAUFMAN: That reaction you described is what I hope for, that people leave the cinema and have that kind of feeling. I remember leaving movies when I was younger and just not being able to talk to anybody. That’s my favourite movie going experience.
Which films have given you that experience?
KAUFMAN: The most recent movie that comes to mind is Breaking the Waves. That was an experience where I remember coming out and not knowing quite what I had seen but feeling a shift of some sort within me.
JOHNSON: For me it was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
So in the movie we have this protagonist, Michael Stone, who is deeply disturbed. He goes through life with a feeling that something’s amiss. I know you took inspiration from the psychological disorder Fregoli Delusion but I’d like to go a bit deeper and ask, where does Michael really come from? Are certain scenes inspired by real moments in your life or do you look at other people’s lives to pull things from?
KAUFMAN: I think everything that anyone makes comes from themselves. I see things outside of myself that I respond to, just as you see things outside of yourself, as you saw this movie and responded to it. I don’t want to be evasive but I also don’t want to be too specific because I feel like your reaction to this movie is yours. For me to come in and say – “well this is what I was thinking and this is who this character is” – that doesn’t allow you to retain the experience that you had. Part of what we tried to do in this movie was have it layered in a way that people could come out of it and feel as if it was speaking to them. For me to say, “this is who I am and therefore this is who Michael is” wouldn’t make sense.
I understand that you don’t want to limit what people can take away from the film, but I’m so intrigued by your protagonist and the things you’re trying to say through him. Duke maybe you can shed some light on it?
JOHNSON: Yeah so here’s what it’s all about. . .
JOHNSON: No, I can’t explain. There’s this great quote from Kubrick where he basically says that films deal with emotion and the fragmentation of experience and that therefore they are hard to some up verbally. That’s kind of the thing. Maybe it’s for other people to try and articulate the meaning. The expression is the film. It doesn’t come with liner notes.
I wish it did. But I’ve written my own liner notes in my head anyway.
KAUFMAN: As you should. And your notes are completely valid, as are anyone’s, including the people who despise the film. . . and there are some of those people.
JOHNSON: I love that you’re shocked by that.
I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. The film made me feel anxious and self-aware and I can understand that some people don’t like that. But that, for me, is what your work is about and it’s important because there’s not enough people out there doing it. Actually Charlie you made a very moving BAFTA speech a few years ago that deeply affected me as well. It seemed as if you were speaking for so many lost souls out there. Is that really how you felt at the time?
KAUFMAN: With the BAFTA speech, I knew I was going to be doing it and I really wanted to stop myself from doing it in a self-serving way. I spent months trying to get through that whole, “I’m going to be impressive to people” thing, which is the natural tendency when you go on stage anywhere. You want people to like you and think you’re smart or whatever. But I tried to not do that, and if it was affective it was because I was saying, “I’m not going to do this. I’m going to try to be useful.”
But that’s Michael in Anomalisa. The way you’re talking now, I feel like that’s him. Like you’re saying, “I really don’t give a shit about what people think and I’m going to present this character – “
KAUFMAN: But I do give a shit about what people think! That’s the thing. That’s why it’s hard for me and I want to get past that. I care about what you think right now. I care that when I don’t explain what the movie is about that I’m disappointing you. I worry that I’m being an asshole or I’m not being clear in the way that I’m articulating why I don’t want to do that. I care desperately about it but when you hide the fact that you care desperately about it you’re being dishonest. It’s like trying to pretend you’re not a human being. And we do a lot of that, pretending we don’t care. Probably there are people who really don’t care, but I do and I want to get past it.
"Even if you’re trying not to be yourself, you’re revealing yourself by how you hide. Everything is autobiographical."
Charlie Kaufman on revealing himself through his movies • Synecdoche, New York
I guess what I’m hinting at is that there is an almost hereditary connection that runs through all of your films. Listening to you talk I could close my eyes and see any number of your characters speaking.
KAUFMAN: That’s the only thing I can do. I guess I could do things that aren’t truthful but even if you’re trying not to be yourself, you’re revealing yourself by how you hide. Everything is autobiographical.
Charlie I heard you were originally going to go into neurophysiology?
KAUFMAN: Not originally but after I gave up on trying to be a writer the first time I moved to Wisconsin and studied there, but it never happened.
Does that background in science inform your work?
KAUFMAN: Yeah, I read a lot about psychology, science, brain function and stuff like that. The Fregoli Delusion inspired this film, Cotard’s syndrome comes into Synecdoche, New York.
Duke, what did you learn from working with Charlie?
KAUFMAN: I taught him Algebra.
JOHNSON: [laughs] No. But I learned a lot. One thing that comes to mind is his bravery in his approach to the material. Not letting outside influences affect him, just being able to stay true to the original intention in the face of everything.
Charlie you’ve been in this business for a long time, thirty years roughly?
KAUFMAN: My first professional job was in TV in 1991 so what’s that?
JOHNSON: Twenty-five years. Algebra!
Is it getting any easier?
KAUFMAN: It’s getting harder in terms of getting things made. I’ve been struggling to get things made for years.
But you’re such a renowned writer. What’s the issue?
KAUFMAN: My movies don’t make money. And also because I want to direct. Synecdoche, New York didn’t make money so that doesn’t encourage people. I think probably if I went back to working with Spike [Jonze] or someone like that then it would be easier to get things made.
"It’s a hate-hate relationship I have with Hollywood."
Charlie Kaufman on getting his movies made.
Would you say Synecdoche was a failure for you?
KAUFMAN: No, it was a great success for me. I did that movie. I did it. It was a really hard movie to make and I’m proud of it. But it was a commercial failure and that’s what counts in this business.
So moving forward would you say that you have a challenging relationship with Hollywood?
KAUFMAN: Challenging? It’s a hate-hate relationship I have with Hollywood. I don’t like the business aspect of it but I need the business aspect to get things made. I’m writing a novel at the moment because it doesn’t cost anything, so maybe that’s another way I can do what I want to do. I don’t know what my future is in Hollywood.
I know this film was very hard to get made. It took three years and a crowd funding campaign. Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
JOHNSON: I think we’re both proud of the way the film turned out and how it looks, so I wouldn’t change it in that sense. But we definitely learned a lot from the experience. You make mistakes along the way and learn how to do things differently in the future.
KAUFMAN: We could have done the film for less money but that being said, the fact that we did it for the amount of money that we did is unheard of. Even with the mistakes that were made it’s enormously inexpensive for what it is.
How expensive was it in the end?
JOHNSON: It ultimately ended up costing around eight million dollars. At least that’s what it says on IMDB. By comparison Sean the Sheep was about 37 million dollars.
When you both watched the finished film for the first time, were you able to take away something from it as an audience member? Did you learn anything from it?
KAUFMAN: I learn something from other people’s reactions and that’s what I love. When people come and tell me what the movie is about, when they talk about it or write about it in a way that is surprising, that’s when I learn something. That’s a great part of the experience for me and not something I want to give up by cementing what the meaning is.
I get the feeling that you’re sensitive to people’s reactions.
KAUFMAN: I’m sensitive to them and I love them. Well, I don’t love the ones that are insulting but that comes with the territory. I love the ones where people explain something about the movie that I hadn’t thought about but that seems true.
Thanks Duke and Charlie for your time.
Anomalisa is out tommorow in the UK in cinemas.
All pictures courtesy of Curzon Films.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
I saw that movie on the plane, I haven’t seen it for ages. It’s an incredible movie.