Charlie Kaufman’s first forays into movies, after cutting his teeth on scripts for TV series, were to write intense, edgy, funny, troubling screenplays that were directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”) and Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). He graduated to both writing and directing in 2008 with the little-seen (but well worth finding) “Synecdoche, New York,” but most folks don’t know that he had already been directing for the stage. Back in 2005, he did double duty on the staged radio plays “Hope Leaves the Theater” and “Anomalisa” as part of the composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear. Now, a decade later, “Anomalisa,” about an ennui-burdened customer relations expert who finds what might be true love with a woman suffering from low self-esteem, makes the jump to the screen, but in the form of stop-motion animation. Amazingly, Kaufman got David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh – the same two people that did the stage performances back in 2005 – as well as Tom Noonan, who voiced the rest of the cast back then, to return to the project. Kaufman only slightly updated the script, and co-directed with stop-motion expert Duke Johnson (“Community” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole”). Kaufman recently made a promotional stop in Boston to talk about the play and the film.
Q: Give me the brief version of how “Anomalisa” went from stage to screen.
A: We had only two performances in 2005, and I was done. The fact that it was gone was part of the fun of it for me. It was designed to be specifically this staged sound play, and I didn’t have any ambitions for it beyond that. But, [animation producer] Dino Stamatopoulos came to me with the script in 2011 and wanted to do a stop motion thing. I’d been trying for a long time to get something made, so I thought OK, this is another thing I’ll try. I had some reticence because it was designed to be this other thing, but I agreed to it. Then, Duke was brought in. We got some money from Kickstarter to get us going, then more money came in from [producer] Keith Calder, and that allowed us to continue working on it for the next two and a half years.
Q: Did you ever visualize it as a film?
A: I hadn’t visualized it as a film at that point. But, I was open to it because I was trying to get stuff made. I had no expectation that this one was actually going to land. I figured this would be another aborted thing. I had a series of them at that point, and I didn’t feel like I had much of a future in the business, doing what I wanted to do.
Q: So, did you direct the voice performances, and then have Duke direct the puppets?
A: No. Once we signed on to do the movie together, we did everything together. Duke was there every day managing the production. I was there occasionally during production, but we were also interacting on the phone and sending me footage to look at and discussing what was and what wasn’t working.
Q: You’ve said in the past that you don’t necessarily have to LIKE the characters you write, but you have to BE them. Was that the same thing in this case?
A: Yeah, that’s how I write. But, I would add that I have to like them if they like themselves, because I’m being them, and I have to hate them if they hate themselves. If they’re conflicted about themselves, I have to be conflicted as I’m writing. Otherwise I’m writing from the outside and it starts to become commenting as opposed to exploring a person. I try to write from the subjective point of view.
Q: Is this some sort of therapy for you?
A: No. (laughs) I do therapy separately. I’m still as screwed up as I’ve ever been. But I’m trying to be honest, and [in my writing] I’m trying to express something in the world as I see it at any given time.
Q: I love the idea that Tom Noonan does the voices for everyone except the two main leads, and thought it was hilarious that he sang opera as Joan Sutherland on someone’s iPod.
A: We don’t get laughs on that the way I thought we would. I thought people would love it, and maybe they do but they’re just kind of loving it silently (laughs).
Q: The film features a really creepy antique Japanese doll that starts to sing near the end. What is she singing?
A: It’s a Japanese children’s song. It’s about the peach boy.
Q: I thought it might be something sinister.
A: It might be.