Charlie Kaufman’s upcoming film Anomalisa gets its name, as you may have guessed, from a spin on the word anomaly.It is perhaps something of a self-referential title (though in the film it’s a mash-up of the word and a character’s name), as Charlie Kaufman’s films are often lauded for their anomalous nature. Sadly, a lengthy interview in Vulture that just ran today proves that in the current film climate, films like his are becoming even more scarce as mid-level movies disappear. The answer to getting Kaufman’s projects made isn’t as simple as switching over to television.
It was reported back in 2012 that Charlie Kaufman had written a pilot for HBO, which would star Catherine Keener. It was also reported that he’d written a pilot, How and Why, for FX. It is now almost 2016 — and as you can tell, nobody’s wandering to water coolers (or, let’s be real, Slack channels) to discuss last night’s episode of Charlie Kaufman’s singular, poignant and upsetting existential vision.
In the interview, Kaufman explains both what his HBO show would have been — and why it ultimately never was. The show was a butterfly effect-based idea that’s been explored onscreen in the past — through the likes of Run Lola Run and the far less formally interesting Sliding Doors, and oh yeah, also by The Butterfly Effect. But a sort of anti-serial drama sounds like a particularly perfect format for it. Kaufman said:
The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman [who would have been played by Keener], she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route…In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is.
Hearing Kaufman talk about his excitement for the premise makes it especially frustrating that it wasn’t picked up, as it hints at a particularly deep and meticulous exploration of essential personhood, and whether or not it’s at all separate from the events acting on it. Kaufman also discussed how he would have played around with form:
There’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-ha moments.
But ultimately, he says, HBO liked the first episode and asked for a second, but were baffled by how different it was from the first — despite the fact that difference was exactly what Kaufman was going for. And if you’re wondering why Kaufman didn’t take it elsewhere, well, he did — to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AMC, and Sundance — and nobody bought it.
He says that “TV is having a sort of renaissance,” but that it’s “a kind of a misnomer,” and that he doesn’t “think anyone’s doing really experimental TV.” He cites Breaking Bad and The Knick as extremely “well done” shows, but longs for more “exploration” — though he does have one example of an American show that to an extent fulfills that desire — Louie. (And on British TV he cites Peep Show and Black Mirror as shows he thinks are pushing the envelope.)
Luckily, he happens to be in the midst of writing a novel — which presumably would be far easier to get published than a TV show is to get made — and he says he’s continuing with it despite (to no one’s particular surprise) “paralyzing fear.”