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This weekend we’re watching: The wacky world of Wes Anderson

This weekend we’re watching: The wacky world of Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The acclaimed film director’s extraordinary movies seem dipped in fantasy and otherworldly experiences. Another one is on the way.

Last Halloween, a young couple was walking hand in hand, she in a collared dress and he in a Scout uniform, like Sam and Suzy from Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom. As a Wes Anderson fan, they caught my eye and I wondered about the choice of outfits: Like Sam and Suzy, did they have a secret correspondence? Had they eloped aged 12? Did they climb across a church roof in a thunderstorm? They might have just liked the movie. Anderson has that effect on people; you want to live out his stories.

While some filmmakers impress with the versatility (like Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian-French film director, writer and producer behind the 2016 sci-fi movie Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) or by throwing out the rule book and reinventing cinema (Jean Luc-Godard), Anderson is an auteur, that category of filmmaker with a highly recognisable style. Quentin Tarantino’s style is unsubtle, eclectic, eccentric; Scorcese’s includes a persistent sense that downfall is imminent.

Anderson’s films are easy to spot, yet hard to pin down. His stories are wistful, made up of things most people haven’t experienced; his characters are flawed yet innocent. And there’s something precise about each of them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like a postcard from the 19th century aristocracy and The Life Aquatic so resembled the adventures of Jacques Cousteau that they were forced to acknowledge him in the credits, in a message that read, “In Memory of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and with gratitude to the Cousteau Society which was not involved in the making of this film.”

Anderson’s approach to a film is akin to someone playing with a dolls’ house. The structure is often the same, he just redresses the rooms, moves the furniture around. This is partly why he is often accused of making the same film over and over again and why there is something consistent about his characters. They’re all a little quirky and nostalgic: Mr Fox in the eponymous film misses his years of carefree banditry; in The Royal Tenenbaums, the Tenenbaums are adults who haven’t left childhood; Steve Zissou (of The Life Aquatic) can’t reconcile his younger successful self with the frumpy middle-aged man he has become and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s octogenarian clientele hope to revive their youth by sleeping with Monsieur Gustave.

It’s all a little over-the-top, a little surreal, and behind the mishaps the characters lose and find themselves again ﹘ like the Whitman brothers (of The Darjeeling Limited) who smuggle opiates aboard a train, steal each other’s clothes, buy a snake and, predictably, fight. This is inexcusable behaviour from three middle-aged men, but their father has died and they don’t know how to conduct themselves.

Particular actors are another common thread in Anderson films. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody are recurring stars and the only Wes Anderson film Bill Murray hasn’t been part of is Bottle Rocket. Though they change roles, the actors tend to play the same off-kilter person each time.

Murray is a melancholic businessman in The Darjeeling Limited, a washed-up oceanographer in The Life Aquatic and a disillusioned industrialist in Rushmore. Wilson is an exuberant heist-adventurer (Bottle Rocket), an addict cowboy (The Royal Tenenbaums) and an overzealous older brother (The Darjeeling Limited).

Anderson seems to cast actors based on their persona and comedic charisma: Ocean’s 11 made George Clooney the ideal Mr Fox, a bandit; and something about Ralph Fiennes’s meticulous demeanor as Monsieur Gustav recalls Count László de Almásy of The English Patient.

There is a line Anderson draws between actors he recasts and those he doesn’t; Fiennes and Clooney (who appear only once in the director’s filmography) were hired to play a specific character, whereas Schwartzmann, Wilson and Murray come back because they texture the story.

Anderson’s specificity extends beyond characters and actors. There’s something iconic about his camera’s dramatic zooms, his perfectly parallel tracking shots (as the camera moves with the subject) and his whip-pans (when the camera turns quickly on its axis). His world exists at right-angles to itself, which allows him longer takes (the length of a shot) because the scene can continue with a simple camera movement.

Anderson says that he prefers keeping the camera rolling, but consistent action requires a lot of preparation. Before the scene begins, the camera must be positioned with an unobstructed view and where actors move must be clearly marked.

Credit here goes as much to the director as to his longest standing director of photography Robert Yeoman. Yeoman has been working with Anderson since Bottle Rocket (1996) and much of the films’ trademark style finds its origin here. Dialogue in motion (walking and talking) and action across levels (near and far from the camera) occur briefly in Bottle Rocket, but these features have become standard parts of Anderson’s toolkit.

Yeoman’s collaboration with Anderson began one day after he found a handwritten letter in his office, in which Anderson asked him to read a script he had written. The collaboration has lasted more than 24 years and Yeoman has been quoted saying that it’s become easier to anticipate the director’s requirements.

For example, Anderson likes to centre-punch his shots, with much of the action taking place at eye level. This constant need for symmetry has led Yeoman to lay down tape at the corners of the stage, so when Anderson inevitably asks if they’re shooting “square to the wall” he can point to the markers.

Then there are the sets. The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like it was shot inside a hilltop hotel but was filmed in an abandoned department store, with every prop and decoration being specially built.

Adding to the difficulty of the staging, the movie features the hotel in two time periods. Rather than strip everything down and redecorate when scenes from one era were complete, the designers decided to build on top of the first set. The purple 1920s hotel decor is hiding the ’60s orange beneath.

Standing in the snow, off set at The Grand Budapest, Murray commented, “He really makes movies a living experience.”

Now, the trailer to Anderson’s next film, The French Dispatch, has been released and it reveals that the plot follows three stories published by a newspaper. The movie promises to deploy everything that makes a Wes Anderson movie recognisable: an incredible cast, including Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux and Frances McDormand, nostalgia, quirkiness and an innate ability to create the extraordinary. ML  

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