Just in case anyone ever phones you up and asks if you wanna meet writer/director Wes Anderson at a café near the Albuquerque train station in a half-hour for a brief interview, the correct answer is yes. Even if he isn’t your favorite filmmaker (and he’s definitely in my top 10), he’s a smart, soft-spoken guy with a good vocabulary and a disarming fashion sense.
Decked out in a green corduroy suit and a pale blue pajama top, Anderson was using Albuquerque as a rest stop on his way to Chicago. Apparently, the guy picked up the train-travel bug from his last film, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. While waiting on take-out at Gold Street Caffè, Anderson dished about his newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. An old-fashioned, stop-motion animated film based on the kids’ book by Roald Dahl, this film would seem like a major departure from Anderson’s artfully composed, dryly humorous indie films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). Or not.
Your work has always been described as very “literate.” What made you choose a children’s book as the first book you actually adapted for film?
It was the first book I ever owned—[that] was technically in our household and considered my personal property and had my name in it. I still have that copy of the book. So it’s sort of been with me for many years.
I just had this thought to do a stop-motion movie and [Fox] was the automatic choice for me. I knew I wanted to do a stop-motion movie with fur, and that was right there. Also I loved the idea that it’s a Roald Dahl. I’m a huge Dahl fan and have been since I was a kid, and that had an appeal to me. Noah Baumbach [co-writer of The Life Aquatic] and I wrote the script together; and when we started working on it, quickly we decided that we would base the character [of Mr. Fox] not just on what was in the book—because the book is very short—but to make him sort of our version of Roald Dahl himself. We wrote a lot of it at his house in Great Missenden in England. That was fantastic because we got so many ideas from that.
You recorded the voice cast almost like a radio play, with all of the actors in one room. That’s not exactly traditional.
We recorded the actors on this farm [in Connecticut] rather than in a recording studio. One great thing that happened, one example of something that we got out of just that process, was that George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman, these guys all have a scene near the end of the film where they see a wolf in the distance and he’s up on a hill and they’re watching from a motorcycle. We were recording the scene, we’re next to these woods, and there’s a breeze; it was toward the end of the day. It was an amazing atmosphere. We start to record their dialogue and I thought, “You know, somebody should be the wolf. We should get somebody to go off there and be the wolf so they can watch him.” And Bill Murray is not in that scene, so he’s standing there with his hands in his pockets, and he said, “I can do that.” So he went out across the meadow and up onto the top of the hill and he started playing this wolf. You got the feeling that he had practiced this. He was so good as the wolf immediately. He had its movements and he was very emotional. He doesn’t have any lines or anything, but he gave a remarkable performance. Uncredited.
I took out my phone and I videoed him, a tiny figure on my telephone doing this. We watched it later and you could see it, you got all the language of it from there. So we brought that to England where we were animating the film, and I showed it to the animator; and our animator for that scene duplicated Bill Murray’s performance as the wolf. That’s something that would never have happened if we were recording in a studio. There were things like that all throughout the process that became a part of [the finished film] that came partly from the fact that we hadn’t done this [type of film] before. We were working in a kind of peculiar method.
So there’s something to be said for coming to this “unschooled,” as it were.
Yeah, I think there is. Also, the way we staged the scenes and shot them. I worked with a storyboard artist to get very detailed sketched versions of the shots, and that was all based on how I would want to shoot it as a live-action movie. It wasn’t based on any animation experience. In some ways that was challenging for the animators; but in the end, we accomplished it. So I think the style of it is a bit unusual. It’s not staged and shot the way an animated movie would be. There’s lots of very, very long takes, with many animals, many puppets going at once. When you do that, you might end up finding that a scene that we could have done in a month takes nine weeks to animate. But the end result was exciting for us.
You weren’t on the set every day supervising shots, were you?
What happened was I thought that I was gonna make the script and plan the shots and work with my production designer, work on puppets, get it all ready, and then hand it over to a team of animators who would then spend a year, a year and a half, whatever it took, animating it. And I would go direct another movie during that time. As we got going, I realized I was never gonna be happy with the movie unless I could get in on everything and that it was gonna take much more of my time than I thought. So we made this system where—wherever I was in England or I was sometimes in France—I could sit at my computer and I could [supervise the work]. We had 30 units going at once, and I could look through each camera on the 30 units, and I could talk to the animators on that set and say, All right, let’s do this, let’s do that.
I know you do a lot of detail-oriented hand-drawing yourself when mapping out films. When you did your writing at Dahl’s estate, did you find any of his original drawings and take inspiration from them?
In fact, when we looked at his manuscripts, his archives were in the billiards room. They’ve now moved them into a museum. But when I first started going there, the archives were in—as they say—the snooker room. I looked at amazing things like journals filled with one-line descriptions of stories that he never wrote. You read it and you’re like, That would have been a good one. His mind was unbelievable.
But also in there was a yellow legal pad that had Fantastic Mr. Fox across the top. And in his pencil longhand is written this story. We’re sitting next to the little hut where he wrote each day. We read the manuscript, and it had a different ending. For the movie, we used the whole story [in the published book]. But the ending of the book occurs about two-thirds of the way through our movie. Then we say “and then this happens,” and we continue. Well, the ending of the movie is the ending of this yellow notepad version. We just took that ending and made it the ending of the movie and it fit.
It also had, by [Dahl]—cut out with scissors and taped on with Scotch tape—his drawings that were his instructions to the illustrator. So it was the original yellow legal pad version of the book as illustrated by Roald Dahl. You’ll see at the end of the movie there are illustrations of animals pushing shopping carts. [Those] were pasted in [to Dahl’s original manuscript]. That was really something that was a thrilling part of adapting the book and sort of adapting his life, joining his life for this period.