As the director and co-writer of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson quickly developed a unique voice as a filmmaker: urbane, collegiate and lovingly humane. With his first animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, opening this week in Nashville theaters, that voice rings louder and stronger than ever. Working with stop-motion animation seems to have given Anderson a new energy and vitality, while providing an ideal venue for his cartoonist's eye and symmetrical compositions.
Adapted from a Roald Dahl short story, the film centers on a vulpine family led by Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a suave rounder whose incorrigible fowl-poaching ways spell trouble for his kin and his neighboring burrow dwellers. It's widely been reported that Anderson directed the film by email, watching the slow progress of its animators on London sets from his Paris headquarters.
But that's not the only unconventional thing about its production. Rather than having the actors (including Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray) record vocal tracks in a studio, he brought them together to a farmhouse and encouraged them to act out their parts, even digging into the ground when necessary. Earlier this month, the Scene spoke to a nervous but extremely articulate Anderson as he awaited the film's release in New York.
Scene: How early in the filmmaking process do you begin thinking about music?
Wes Anderson: Well, it varies from one film to the next. This time, we had a song in the middle of the movie, performed by Jarvis Cocker [as a puppet]. We were thinking about that while we were writing. On other movies, I've sometimes had scenes where I knew the music before the dialogue. This one, less so.
You've taken on quite a daunting task directing a movie like this. When you sat down and planned it, what did you think it would be like?
I didn't really grasp what I was getting into. I planned to write the script, record the actors and supervise the puppets and production design. I thought I would have a plan and hand it over to a group of animators. It was extremely naive of me to think that way. In order for me to be happy with it, I was going to be involved in a million decisions every day of the shoot. I needed to work out a system for that. Once we had it going, it was all-consuming but fun. I really enjoyed the process. Not only would I like to do another stop-motion animation film, but there are aspects of the process I would use in a live-action film.
There have been reports about you directing the film by email. Could you elaborate on how that worked?
This kind of stop motion is one of the oldest animation techniques, but without the most recent communication technology, I don't know if I could have been able to get the movie made the way I wanted, which involved a system that allowed me to look through the camera on each of 30 sets. There was a continual stream of clips going back and forth, an accumulation of information. With this, there are 30 shots going on simultaneously but very, very slowly. There are also many sets and puppets being designed. I also had my editors with me. We made a cut of the movie as they went along.
Can you talk about the importance of the voice recording process?
I value the spirit of adventure, starting the movie as though we were on location. I felt that vibe from the actors. They were excited to be together.
What about developing new characters for the screenplay?
In the book, Mr. Fox has four children and they don't really have names or individual identities. In the film, we wanted his son to have his own story. I can't say exactly where it came from. My younger brother, who plays the cousin in the film, thinks it relates to my issues with my older brother. I didn't have that in mind at all. I don't know what the inspiration was.
What appealed to you about the Roald Dahl book?
I liked that Mr. Fox is not only the hero, who rescues everybody, but he's also the one who got them into trouble in the first place. That idea is something that grabbed me as a child. There's more complexity to the character than other children's books. He also has a real flair, and he's inventive.
Did you go through a long decision-making process to see who was going to play Mr. Fox, or did you always have George Clooney in mind?
I'm a fan. He's somebody whom you can really believe as a hero. Only after we recorded all the actors and listened to his voice without his physical presence did I realize how much he brings to a role just with his voice.
Do you feel more or less in control working in animation, as opposed to live action?
I guess it's equal. With live action, you have an immediacy. With an animated film, you can't predict accidents and surprises. With a movie like this, when it's actually being animated, as carefully as you prepare the shot and all the details, frame by frame, every animator comes up with a different interpretation. Their personalities, interests and strengths come through. You never quite know what it's going to be. The feeling of being in control but nervous and excited about the unknown is the same.
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