A round table on Wes Anderson
Jack Brandon: To begin, how were you all introduced to Anderson’s films?
Danny Hensel: I saw a trailer for “Moonrise Kingdom” before I was interested in film. When I finally watched it, it was so different than anything I had seen. The dialogue and character interactions were surreal, and I immediately became interested in Anderson’s films and film in general. When I realized that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was about to come out, I got into his catalogue and watched them all.
Stephen Satarino: For me, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” existed when I was child, before I knew what a director was, but I was super into it. “Moonrise Kingdom” really got me when I was older.
Max Michalsky: I remember I went with my mom and younger brother to the theater, and the first movie we wanted to see was sold out, but we instead went to see “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and I was taken aback by it. It was so unique in almost every regard. I didn’t care that much about movies at that time, so watching Wes Anderson was so overtly different but still accessible. It was what prompted me to consider movies an art form. I found “Grand Budapest” to be a moving film. I don’t think Wes Anderson gets enough credit for that, I think people pigeonhole his films into being heady or cold. There’s always this human thread running through them. I think about the traditional Wes Anderson dialogue, speaking matter-of-factly and deadpan.
Sydney Cohen: I remember being struck, for the first time with “Grand Budapest,” at such an overtly stylized film where every element and miniscule detail is perfectly placed, and this gorgeous symmetry I had never seen before in a feature length film, and I was just awestruck by it. Anderson has such a distinct brand that it’s very impressive, and “Grand Budapest” imprinted on me the ideas of directors having a specific style.
Jack: So what I’m getting is that Anderson’s films are very stylized and artistic, but not necessarily inaccessible. Why do you think that is?
Stephen: Thematically, he deals a lot with finding the family or people coming together. I think that’s necessarily accessible.
Danny: All of his movies borrow from concepts and tropes that we’re very familiar with. For example, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a heist movie, and with George Clooney as the voice actor, who has played heist characters before, he makes the film easy to read. When we combine that familiarity with the genre and the actor, and put it in a context where it’s quote-unquote artistic, or maybe deadpan, we can still buy into the emotional weight that the film holds because we’re able to recognize their settings and contexts from other viewings. There’s a line in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that breaks me every time — “in the end, they shot him.” They don’t show the death, and it’s delivered very simply with no affectation. It still obliterates me because knowing the context, the historical setting, the characters and connecting with them from the world he’s established and the one the audience lives in.
Max: I think there’s a relatability, too, especially in the presentation. If you look at “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” or “The Royal Tenenbaums,” they are all presented as if the audience is being told a story. There are often narrators or third parties are observing the events of his stories. Anderson almost builds in company for the viewer, and I think that’s a really big thing that makes it easy to feel. It almost goes back to being a kid and being told a story by your parents.
Danny: Interestingly, I think theatre and plays factor into a lot of his works, like in “Rushmore,” where the main character Max is a playwright, in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” where Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is an award winning playwright from a young age and in “Moonrise Kingdom,” when Sam and Suzy meet for the first time.
Stephen: The book motif is present too. I heard Wes Anderson wanted to write novels when he was in college, and that shows itself.
Sydney: The essence of childhood and playfulness is also an attractive thematic thread present in all his movies. There’s a juxtaposition between the deadpan delivery and the themes at play.
Jack: Going back to the idea of style and form, Anderson’s work is very much about control, in the way that he dictates the symmetry and curates the color of each film. Do you found it restricting in any way?
Sydney: It interacts with theatre, in how you would construct a scene on a stage. I feel that way when I watch Wes Anderson movies, in that each scene is an overt performance, like all the set pieces are specifically placed in a stage.
Danny: He has so many fully visualized worlds, and I feel controlled by him, but he is responsibly showing me everything he wants me to see. It’s like going to a really high quality restaurant and having a chef who knows exactly what you want to eat out of a five course meal and presents it to you in exactly the order you want to have it. There’s other food, sure, but you don’t want it in that moment. You just want to eat what the chef gives you. It’s a little limiting, because there is such a tight control he places on actors, the performance and the camera movement, but when it’s so delightful to watch it, I don’t really mind losing that control.
Jack: When is he at his best, then?
Becky: “The Royal Tenenbaums.” I think what Danny was saying about world-building makes a lot of sense, like in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” you have all these heist themes, and I think in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” all the characters have so much substance and they’re so well developed that you feel for every single one. It’s silly and quirky, but it still has emotion to it. I think in some of his films, the aesthetics are distracting, like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was a little too much Wes Anderson for me. We get it, there’s a pink hotel and there’s a bellboy, and there’s whimsy and nostalgia, and all these other things you’ve never seen before but you feel like you have. But I think “The Royal Tenenbaums” does a good job of making it more than the aesthetics and giving the characters more.
Max: Talking about “The Royal Tenenbaums,” I’ve been thinking about the scene where he tries to kill himself, and Elliott Smith is playing, and asking where does that fit in Anderson’s modus operandi?
Stephen: I think a lot of people don’t give him enough credit for doing daring things with his characters. People get distracted by his aesthetic, and oftentimes the stories themselves are pretty compelling. I love that scene because as far as color palettes, a lot of the film is oranges and yellows and greens, and that’s just a blue scene, except for the red of the blood.
Danny: It reminds me of the pirate attack scene in “The Life Aquatic.” When I first saw it, (it) was super jarring, but the more and more I watch it, I appreciate it. Right before Bill Murray becomes an action star, all the crewmates are praying to themselves, up against the wall, at gunpoint. On first viewing, it’s a little strange, but the more I watch it, it’s so harrowing. It’s this moment of emotional realism in a movie that is formerly anything but. It’s visually a very strong blue, but after that scene, the color palette becomes a lot more natural. I tie those two together because Anderson is known for having emotionally distant characters, but there are those really important moments of emotional realism that I always feel like pays off.
Stephen: There’s also the end of “Moonrise Kingdom,” when they’re on the top of the church, and it’s black and white with a blue filter thrown over it.
Danny: It’s a really strong blue, it’s like experimental film blue.
Jack: Back to this idea of idea of form, “Isle of Dogs” is stop-motion, and it’s not Anderson’s first venture into the form. It’s an interesting medium for someone who is as exact and precise as he is.
Sydney: For “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I love an adult movie in a kid’s format. I think it’s so impressive and fascinating and consuming when you watch these little characters perform a heist. I think “Isle of Dogs” will do the same, especially with the cultural specificity of Japan, and I’m interested to see how it does it.
Danny: It’s interesting to see it as a method of control, because he starts using it in “The Life Aquatic,” and then again (in) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in small amounts. Obviously in a movie about aquatic life, when the animals are hard to control and he creates so many of them, it’s useful that he uses it to create this world. I can’t imagine CGI in an Anderson film. Stop motion fits the niche of not quite real, but if you don’t look closely, it will seem real.
Sydney: The tactility of the figures matches up with Anderson’s aesthetic.
Becky: I think there’s this analogue thing about it, too. Anderson loves being back in time, the super nostalgic and the retro. The first animations were stop motion.
Sydney: Animation is such an interesting medium. I saw “Kubo and the Two Strings” a couple of years ago. It looked like origami, but it was animation, and I think Anderson does something similar with the physicality of his figures. He takes pieces of his film and makes them part of the animation, which is impressive.
Danny: I think for practical considerations as well, there’s no way that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” would have been live action, and the same goes for “Isle of Dogs.” I could not see that existing. I feel that any other form of animation wouldn’t fit his style.
Jack: But I feel that the narratives in those films are fables, and these characters are very human, and you could just as easily take them back from the animal world that Anderson put them in.
Max: That’s one thing I’m interested to see in “Isle of Dogs.” We talked about Anderson’s interest in the old fashioned, but “Isle of Dogs” is set in some dystopian future, and I’m curious about what he does with that. I think that’s something we haven’t seen from him.
Jack: Similar to that, a lot of Wes Anderson’s films deal with childhood on the small scale, but “Isle of Dogs” looks at it from a wider lens, in terms of state control and other people.
Sydney: I’m excited to see him tackle larger things, like institutions and government bodies, but he’ll likely stay in his wheelhouse and talk about childhood and relationships. Based on the trailer, with the boy and his dog, which is a very sentimental pairing, it will probably be close to home. However, the cast list is enormous and full of talent. Anderson has a big pull on people he works with. I’m obsessed with the voice talent.
Jack: As a final question, what are Anderson’s contributions to film?
Becky: I think he’s a great example of textbook auteur theory, like you watch the opening credits of the film, you know it’s a Wes Anderson film. He has such a definitive touch to his films that harkens back to another time of filmmaking and directing. If we could see inside Wes Anderson’s brain, it would be pastel and pretty.
Stephen: I don’t know if he’s pioneering a genre or anything, but I do think he will be one of the most influential filmmakers.
Jack: Do you think Anderson is innovative?
Max: I do, but not in the way we might expect. When we think innovation, we talk about something new in technique, but he has created new things with very old tropes and aesthetics. With everything needing to have a reboot nowadays, I think that Anderson brings things from the past without being derivative. He has existed entirely outside of that, and resists the need for film to be sleek or current, and I think that choice is innovative. In the next 15 or 20 years, it will be interesting to see the films of the children he’s influenced.