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Charlie Kaufman breaks hiatus on own terms in 'Anomalisa' at Telluride

Charlie Kaufman breaks hiatus on own terms in 'Anomalisa' at Telluride
Charlie Kaufman, right, with co-director, animation guru Duke Johnson. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

It's a mystery as vexing as the purpose of the seventh-and-a-half floor: Where exactly has Charlie Kaufman been?

For nearly a decade beginning in 1999, the screenwriter was a phenomenon, turning out blazingly original work such as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Synecdoche, New York" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

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And then he went quiet. In the last seven years, Kaufman has had not a single produced script land in theaters or on the air. The most prominent references to him were in absentia, as with a cultish 2010 episode of his friend Dan Harmon's "Community," in which a character created a self-referential film in the Kaufman spirit.

At a premiere Friday night at the Telluride Film Festival, that will change, as the writer-director breaks his long artistic silence. And in a manner befitting a man who once gave a co-screenwriting credit to a fictional brother ("Donald Kaufman" in "Adaptation"), he will do so on his own deeply idiosyncratic terms.

Kaufman is reemerging with his sophomore directorial effort "Anomalisa," a stop-motion animation picture about loneliness and connection that's aimed squarely at adults. It is a film that, to try to describe the indescribable, merges the banality of the American business trip with the profundity and weirdness of a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Co-directed with the animation guru Duke Johnson (a real person), "Anomalisa" both announces the return of a man who has grappled with existential dilemmas and places the latest manifestation of those struggles on-screen.

"Life. I'd say life is my inspiration," Kaufman said succinctly when asked what inspired the work, before offering a more elaborate comment about his reluctance to discuss plot details on the record.

Indeed, the less disclosed about "Anomalisa," whose meaning and pleasures are designed to sneak up on you, the better. Suffice it to say that the film concerns a British-born inspirational speaker named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who, on a soul-sucking business trip from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, has fraught encounters with a number of women, including the confidence-challenged Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The film also uses sound in what could be called a unique and thematically relevant way.

Dotted with David Lynch-like touches, "Anomalisa" appears for a time to have similarities to the redemption found in that director's "The Straight Story" before it wanders somewhere darker. Ultimately, it is about a man who should be happy but isn't, and the unlikely place he feels he might find happiness.

"I guess people will say it's based on me," Kaufman said when asked whether it was fair to see the constantly searching and at times discontented Stone as a screen surrogate. "I don't think I want to address that. I welcome people's interpretations. Everyone writes from personal experience, directly or indirectly. Maybe it's because of 'Adaptation' that people make these assumptions. But it's fine if people want to think that. I wrote the character. He is a character."

Animation for the film, which was crafted using puppets on 18 soundstages at the animation studio Starburns Industries in Burbank, is at once stylized and photorealistic. Though "Anomalisa" features some surrealist touches — and a choreography that might be characterized as fluid slow-motion — the characters generally move and gesture as they would in real life, even down to how they poke around a new hotel room.

"We wanted people to at times forget they were looking at something animated and just get wrapped up in the scene," co-director Johnson, a junior partner at Starburns, said in a separate interview. "The challenge we felt with so much animated stuff is that you're always conscious of the animation, and we kept asking, 'What if we could escape that? What would it be like?'" There is something both handmade and high-tech about it — all the puppets, for instance, were created by 3-D printer.

The film has an unusual history.

At the behest of the composer Carter Burwell, Kaufman wrote "Anomalisa" as a "sound play" a decade ago, staging it in Los Angeles, London and New York. The piece seemed destined to be seen by just a handful of people.

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But Kaufman friend Dino Stamatopoulos, who along with Harmon is one of the founders of Starburns, pushed the director to turn "Anomalisa" into a film script. Kaufman resisted for a while, and for good reason. The play was performed not with traditional acting and blocking but by a stationary cast reading lines with someone else adding sound effects — hardly the raw material for a cinematic feast.

In part to placate them, Kaufman told Stamatopoulos that if the producer could raise the money he would consider the project, never really thinking it had a prayer. Stamatopoulos then went out and raised $400,000 on Kickstarter, and would eventually garner a lot more than that from Keith Calder, a movie producer and son of record-industry veteran Clive Calder. Kaufman came around.

Rosa Tran, one of "Anomalisa's" producers, described byzantine mid-production struggles that would seem fitting in, well, a Charlie Kaufman movie. At one point an animation machine was in danger of being returned because the company had no forklift to move it. Producers found a generous person down the street who loaned them one. (The film was made with a very small group of confidantes and no outside input ; it is currently seeking U.S. distribution.)

This kind of shoeleather style is, in part, by design. Now in his mid-50s, an age when many filmmakers have reconciled themselves to making movies within a system, Kaufman remains unwilling to compromise. There is something endearingly throwback about the filmmaker, whose stubborn artistry and direct style of speaking stands in contrast to the sun-always-shining public demeanor of today's executives and directors.

These past seven years have not been, he stresses, a hiatus of his choosing.

"I've tried. I've tried," he said, emphasizing the words plaintively when asked why he hadn't had any work produced. "I'm constantly trying."

Financing fell through for a long-gestating script he wrote called "Frank or Francis," about the culture of critics and Internet commenters, despite the interest of potential cast members such as Jack Black and Steve Carell. He made an FX pilot that didn't get picked up. He sold what he calls an "odd, by design" pilot with Catherine Keener attached to it to HBO, but it failed to get to a greenlight.

One of Kaufman's main battles within the industry has been with how much his work should be immediately grasped. Kaufman enjoys throwing the viewer off kilter and making them work to orient themselves, a tendency he admits could be fatal in mainstream Hollywood.

"It's always been a push-pull with studios, this kind of thing of 'How long can we let audiences go without letting them know what's going on?' The executives' theory is at a certain point people are going to say 'Forget it,' " Kaufman said. "And for myself watching a movie or a TV show, I want to feel like I'm discovering something. Otherwise it makes me bored and distrustful."

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The advent of more experimentally minded streaming services like Netflix and the increase of original-programming efforts on cable has not changed his luck, or his mind.

"I think there are really good and great TV shows and a kind of energy there now, with the writing very good and the acting very good," he said. "But I think these shows are perhaps not as far-reaching in terms of subject matter and tone as they might be. I don't know if I'm seeing things that are that unconventional in terms of presentation."

Then, apparently realizing that could come off as sour grapes, he said: "Of course it's easy for me to sit here and say they don't want [my shows] because they don't want to change. Maybe my work isn't good, or it's too weird or not well-constructed. It feels weird and braggy to say they don't want them because I'm too wild."

Some of the split with Hollywood began with "Synecdoche," a movie that explored an artist's own search for identity and meaning. With a broad sweep and a last section that doubled back on itself with a kind of epic melancholy, the film polarized critics and fans, inspiring both passionate defenses and sharp criticisms. It also wasn't seen by many people.

Kaufman admits that the reaction to the movie — his first directorial effort — hit him hard.

"I'm pretty sensitive, but some of it was really, really mean, some of it was dismissive and some of it felt like it was the opposite of my intentions," he said.

He said he doesn't buy the notion that age mellows you, on issues like this or any other.

"Life is a struggle, and you have deal with that. There are constant interactions with people in your life you don't understand. I don't think any of that changes as you get older. At least it hasn't for me."

He continued. "But I feel less concerned about [the public criticism] than I used to," he added, when asked how he felt on the cusp of "Anomalisa" about to be released to the world. "In retrospect I would rather have what I did with 'Synecdoche' than a movie everyone loves. Because then I feel like I really did something."

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