Interview: Wes Anderson
Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first book oddball director Wes Anderson owned. Here he tells Anna Rogers about his dark, anarchic and fun film adaptation
Texan born director Wes Anderson is renowned for making highly detailed and idiosyncratic films populated with slightly neurotic, child-like characters (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited). Seeing him in person, you realise that he wouldn’t look out of place in one of his own cinematic creations: even the light-brown needlecord suit he wears matches exactly the attire of his latest protagonist, Mr Fox. Prone to avoiding eye contact and nervously fidgeting with his hands, his demeanour is completely unassuming, at least until I ask him his reasons for choosing such a pain-staking form of animation (stop-motion) to make his newest feature film. Suddenly, he lights up, becoming more like an animated schoolboy who’s been invited to explain his latest hobby.
‘All of those Eastern European films, like Irene Starewicz’s Le Roman de Renard, they were my inspiration for this,’ he says. ‘To me, the story of Fantastic Mr Fox is like that of Robin Hood. There’s definitely a political aspect to the narrative because it’s about freedom – that boundary between wildness and civilisation.’
Certainly that ‘political aspect’ is a strong part of the rich cultural history of stop-motion animation. Fantastic Mr Fox shows a debt to many older animated films with political agendas, particularly the stop-motion work of Czech filmmakers during the 1970s and 1980s including Jan Svankmajer whose workshop was shut down in 1972 by the Communist authorities. It’s now difficult to separate the form from this historical context, something that Anderson has used to his advantage in bringing the sense of anarchy and freedom at the heart of Dahl’s story to the fore.
Political allusions aside, stop-motion was also important in allowing the notoriously pedantic director to reach his zenith in terms of ‘the details of filmmaking’. While he admits that stop-motion was not the easiest option, it was the most suitable for him personally. ‘Because the pace of making the film is that much slower, I had so many opportunities to work on different aspects of the production process; I was able to refine things on this film in a way that I haven’t been able to before.’
Though stop-motion afforded Anderson the opportunity to be even more specific – the rich reds, blues and yellows of the film’s palette are testament to his accuracy; you won’t see green anywhere – Anderson claims the process was not all that different from making a live-action film. ‘I really tried to shoot this film in the same way I would have shot any other. Stop-animation is already part of my arsenal as a filmmaker anyway so it’s not like this was completely unknown to me,’ he states. What he found slightly different however was the task of directing animators as well as actors. ‘I realised that the animators kind of have to become the actors. I also noticed that no two animators will follow directions in the same way, so the personality of these guys has contributed as much to the characters as what the actors themselves brought to the movie.’
While Anderson was determined to remain faithful to the spirit of Dahl’s book – it is his favourite children’s story and the first book he ever owned – the plot and characters had to be changed and expanded to make it into a feature. Happily the darker aspects of the novel have survived translation to the screen, but audiences might rankle with the decision to include American accents in the film, perhaps to the detriment of the novel’s cultural context. For the director, this was borne out of a need to acknowledge the limitations within which he had to work. ‘Noah Baumbach [Anderson’s writing partner] and I are American and we wanted to write what we know. So, we made the decision to have the animals talk in American accents and have the farmers talk in British accents, but so much of the story is really universal anyway.’
This choice may have been necessitated by Anderson’s use of actors who have become synonymous with his oeuvre. The director continues to write parts for his films with his stalwart crew in mind. In the case of Jason Schwartzman, who was cast relatively late in the production process as Ash, Mr Fox’s teenage son, the actor reveals that he was reading drafts of the script while making The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson four years ago. ‘He gave the script to me and mentioned that I might like to try voicing one of the parts, but he was never specific about which part it would be. In the end the part of Ash seemed like the right choice to both of us.’
The casting of the role of Mr Fox himself was also relatively easy for Anderson. ‘The fox is suave and sophisticated and I thought, “Cary Grant would be good.” But obviously, that wasn’t possible and then my mind jumped immediately to George Clooney.’ Indeed, Clooney is perfectly cast as the urbane, handsome and athletic Mr Fox and he admits that he had ‘so much fun’ making the film with the crew, he too may become an Anderson ‘regular’.
While Fantastic Mr Fox has all the hallmarks of the director’s style, he is quick to acknowledge that the film is the result of a truly collaborative effort. He praises the effort and imagination of the workforce at the Three Mill’s Studio in London where the film’s shots were painstakingly pieced together. Bill Murray also speaks fondly of his experience of the ‘British aspect of the film’s production’, even venturing that ‘this film could not have been made in America, it could only have been made in England.’ Clearly, all the cast and crew have warm memories of their time making the film. ‘It’s just a celebration of everyone who was involved in the project,’ adds Murray, ‘we all just loved making this’. Perhaps, in the spirit of the anarchic Mr Fox, there is no better recommendation.
Fantastic Mr Fox is on general release from Fri 23 Oct.