Friday, April 12, 2024

Behind the scenes with Wes Anderson

Behind the scenes with Wes Anderson

By Jackie Daly. Photography by Valérie Sadoun

FT: 11/04/20204

You will instantly recognise a Wes Anderson movie. The American filmmaker behind The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a true auteur. His symmetrical, colour-saturated worlds are portals to the idiosyncratic, his scripts odes to oddballs and eccentrics, brought to life by ensemble casts. Actors such as Edward Norton and Bill Murray return to work with Anderson time and again – as do those who apply their craft behind the scenes on the sets, props, puppets and more. “It’s a family: a circus of people with all kinds of talents, coming together to create Wes’s vision,” says architecture and design photographer Valérie Sadoun, who has been capturing those artists at work since 2016.

Where do Anderson’s worlds begin? “I would say every movie starts in a different way,” says the 54-year-old screenwriter and director from a secret set location. Unable to speak in person during work on his new production, he responds to questions in voice notes, in his distinctive Southern timbre inflected by a Texan drawl. “One story began with a man wrapped in bandages whom I saw in a church in Rome. Another with Akira Kurosawa [the Japanese filmmaker and painter]. Another began with my high school. The world of the movie comes out of the story and the setting and all the research around it. Usually, once I am starting on something, anything I encounter I am more or less pillaging for ingredients. A museum or an encyclopedia or another movie: they all become more or less victims to be stolen from.” And how does he feel about his work being identifiable from a single image? “It depends what mood I’m in!”

Anderson’s sets require months of painstaking preparation. Take, for example, the desert-scorched vistas of his 2023 movie Asteroid City, in which a train chugs across a dusty landscape towards a cluster of red rocks. The scene’s artificiality, what Anderson calls a “desert-desert”, was conceived in miniature before construction began on the gigantic set in Chinchón, Spain. All the sign and lettering detailing involved hours of handpainting by artists Vincent Audoin of studio Lettreur & Gold and François Morel of Morel Enseignes, both Paris-based specialists who have become a familiar double act behind the scenes.

The pair had previously teamed up to paint the old-world shopfronts, vintage signs and lettering seen in the 2021 anthology The French Dispatch, which was shot on location in the “cartoon city” of Angoulême. “It was a kind of dream when they contacted us to take part,” says Audoin. The job found the pair working nonstop, in all weathers, for four and a half months. “It was intense, enlightening, magical,” Audoin adds. “We had the same excited feeling when we heard we’d be working on The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar [2023] – and we’re now on our fourth Wes adventure!”

Anderson is a serial collaborator. “It’s a crazy, huge process,” says Audoin. “Even if Adam Stockhausen [the production designer] is creating and managing a lot for Wes – from design to construction, to decoration work and props – Wes has the final approval. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock. When Wes starts, everything is already set in his head. Nothing is shot if there’s a detail missing.”

I ask Anderson what drives his appreciation for artisanship. “They’re the best of the best. We do a lot of painting!” he says, with the deadpan humour of one of his movies. Likewise, he says of his long-term cast of actors: “If you are lucky enough to have managed to get in touch with some of your favourite actors: well, keep in touch.”

On set, Anderson fosters a sense of camaraderie: “I love a theatre company or a troupe, and I love stories about them,” he says. Sadoun has been friends with Anderson for 20 years and they bonded over a shared obsession with architecture. “I had just returned from photographing architecture in Japan,” says Sadoun of her introduction to his sets. “So when they were shooting in London’s 3 Mills Studios, where they did most of the animation for Isle of Dogs [building 240 sets and 44 stages on site], Wes said to me: ‘You have to come because it is all the architecture that you love.’ It was incredible. From then on I kept going back.”

Anderson “loves” architecture. “I grew up wanting and planning to be an architect,” he says of his early life in Houston, Texas, when he also began writing plays and shooting Super 8 movies with his two brothers. “I love a movie with somebody who has a drafting table in their living room,” he adds – a nod, one assumes, to those early years when he had his own drafting table and would arrange instruments carefully around the edges.

He cites “Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano”, the architects behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris, as inspirations. But to capture the vision for Megasaki City in his stop-motion film Isle of Dogs, he and his team turned to the Japanese architect Kenzō Tange and American Frank Lloyd Wright as references for the film’s retrofuturistic cityscapes.

Erica Dorn has four Anderson films under her belt as lead graphic designer. She takes her cues from the production designer but also has direct contact with Anderson himself, who has sent her down many rabbit holes. She remembers one suggestion that they present Roald Dahl shorts using Dahl’s own handwriting: “Dahl’s handwriting was illegible at times. We went through many rounds of research and development,” she recalls.

Anderson’s eye is famously exacting, but Dorn relishes the process nonetheless. “Every time you do a new film or even a new set you have to become an expert in a very specific area of design. You’ll go from 1950s Midwestern America to a 1920s French prison, each a different world,” she says from Berlin. “There’s tons and tons of research: archives, the films made at that time, what fonts were used and how things were printed and produced.” Dorn has grown in confidence with each project: “After doing a couple of films, I’m starting to get my stride and I’m developing a shorthand – I’m learning to speak Wes’s visual language.”

A huge part of what underpins that language is Anderson’s devotion to the handmade. Arch Model Studio’s Andy Gent, the puppet master behind Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) has played an important role here. For Isle of Dogs, his team of 70 puppet fabricators handcrafted more than 1,000 characters (and 2,000 background characters): it’s believed to be the largest number of puppets created by hand for a stop-motion film.

Architecture is realised in miniature by another collaborator: Simon Weisse, the Berlin-based model- and prop-maker, once dubbed “the real star of Anderson’s films”. His team takes on anything from streetscapes to landscapes. Among their many Wes moments is the chugging train in Asteroid City, complete with its tiny cargo, and the 9ft-tall by 14ft-long miniature of the hotel façade in The Grand Budapest Hotel, conceived by Anderson with Adam Stockhausen, who took home an Oscar for the film.

Models (a vital tool in the architect’s repertoire) are integral to Anderson’s style – “We don’t really ever use computer-generated effects,” Anderson says. The aesthetic (and the scripts) are not to everyone’s liking, but most get him (the evidence is out there on TikTok, Instagram and at a recent exhibition of “accidentally” Wes-esque places).

It’s difficult for Anderson to pick a favourite movie from his past projects – his perfectionist tendencies get the better of him: “I don’t really prefer one over another. But there are degrees to which there is more I wish I had managed to fix or get right in the first place on some or all of them,” he says. “I think Isle of Dogs is one that I don’t look back at and see lots of mistakes. And I loved writing it with Roman [Coppola] and Jason [Schwartzman], and I loved our cast, and I loved our animators and puppet makers, too.” Is there anyone Anderson would like to work with that he’s yet to meet? “Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg,” he says. “But then what would my job be?”

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