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Why ‘Anomalisa,’ 2015’s last big movie, is also its strangest

On the set of the animated stop-motion film,

On the set of the animated stop-motion film, "Anomalisa." Credit: Paramount Pictures

The last major film released in 2015, “Anomalisa,” is also the strangest. A drama about a mentally disturbed author who has sex with a naive fan, “Anomalisa” is an R-rated, stop-motion animated film written and codirected by Charlie Kaufman, the Massapequa-born filmmaker behind such dark comedy-dramas as “Being John Malkovich.”

As Kaufman’s co-director, Duke Johnson, puts it: “It’s not Pixar.”

That’s an understatement. One of the movie’s strangest aspects is its three-person voice cast: David Thewlis is the author, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the title role and Tom Noonan (1986’s “Manhunter”) is credited as “Everyone Else.” Kaufman says he never wanted this odd project to become a movie in the first place. It was originally staged in 2005 as “sound play” read aloud by actors (the same ones in the film) with music and audio effects.

That’s what “Anomalisa” still is, in a way, albeit with arresting visuals by Johnson and the animators at Starburns Industries, a relatively new production company. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, they raised about $400,000 — a paltry sum compared to the $60 million budget of the typical stop-motion film — and worked on the 90-minute movie for three years. Using 3-D printed figurines, the animators tried to complete two frames of film, the equivalent of one-twelfth of a second, each day. Production wrapped this past May.

Noonan, who plays all supporting roles in the film — every man, woman and child — says he spent days in a sound studio conversing with himself, providing background chatter and even re-creating the old movies that play on a hotel-room television. “It was important for me to know my cues,” says Noonan, “so I memorized the greater part of the script. When you hear me, I’m cuing myself.”

“Anomalisa,” which opened in Manhattan on Dec. 30 and comes to theaters nationwide Jan. 22, is one of the few R-rated animations ever released by a major studio (1973’s “Heavy Traffic” and 2001’s “Waking Life” are memorable examples). Paramount Pictures is clearly taking a gamble with this one.

“The cool twist at the end of this is that we got a big studio to come in,” says Kaufman. “It’s enormously encouraging, and not just for us. If they’re happy with the results of this movie in the marketplace, it’s going to be helpful for a lot of small movies.”

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