What is it about the director that draws stars like Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton again and again? There are many reasons, but the nightly feasts don’t hurt.
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It’s his first film set in France, and the first done as an anthology. But Wes Anderson’s 10th movie, “The French Dispatch,” was made in much the same way, and with much the same cast, as many of the features that preceded it. Along with his fastidious and vibrant visual sense and staccato pacing, his company of free spirits has become his signature.
“I don’t know who gravitated toward whom,” Anderson said, in a voice message sent from the production of his 11th film, outside Madrid. “But as soon as Owen Wilson and I started making a movie, well, I wanted Owen to be involved with the other movies I would do. As soon as I had Bill Murray, I wanted him on the next one. I wanted Jason Schwartzman. It was natural to me.”
“The French Dispatch,” about writers at a midcentury magazine based on The New Yorker, is set in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé and was filmed in Angoulême, France. “What I like to do is go to a place and have us all live there and become a real local sort of production, like a little theater company — everything works better for me that way,” said Anderson, who lives in Paris. He even likes verisimilitude in the extras: “I often employ people with their own pets in the background.”
Anderson’s exacting, formalist vision — in his suits on set, “he doesn’t look like a Hollywood director, he looks like a Wes Anderson character,” his frequent star Adrien Brody said — is balanced by the camaraderie he creates when each day’s filming is wrapped. His cast and crew often take up a local hotel, and dine together, too; his post-shoot feasts are a creative’s fantasy. As Frances McDormand put it: “We all share a deeply obsessive, compulsive ordering of our artistic pursuits.”
In phone and email interviews from around the globe, his collaborators (including newbies Jeffrey Wright, who plays a James Baldwin-esque food writer, and Léa Seydoux, as a prison guard who models for an artist-inmate) spoke about inhabiting his inventive world together. The conversations have been edited; some spoilers follow.
FRANCES McDORMAND By chance, I saw “Bottle Rocket” [Anderson’s 1996 feature debut] by myself the day it opened in N.Y.C. I went home and told Joel [Coen, her filmmaker husband] there was somebody out there doing something familiar. We went back to see it together and he concurred. I have seen all of Wes’s films since.
ADRIEN BRODY Probably 2005, we met in New York. He’s a gentleman, he took me to dinner, we walked around downtown. He surprised me — here was a director who I admired so much and he had known of my work for years, and told me he had actually gone with Owen to see “King of the Hill,” a film Steven Soderbergh had done, and I was cast in it at 19. Even then I would have done any role that Wes would have come to me for.
TILDA SWINTON I saw “Bottle Rocket” and I’ve seen each film since as it came out — in awe. After “The Darjeeling Limited” in 2007, I wrote him a fan letter, to which he replied. Soon after that he asked me to be in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
WES ANDERSON Léa Seydoux, she had a small part in “Grand Budapest Hotel,” that was because I had done a Prada commercial with her. It was sort of a silly little thing, and she was so clearly better than the material I was giving her, and so quick to adapt to whatever I suggested. There was such confidence in how she played these things, plus I loved her in movies.
LÉA SEYDOUX I think he liked my taste — we share this passion for French cinema and la Nouvelle Vague — films from François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard. I feel very comfortable with Wes and his world. I feel that I understand him, I understand his vision.
JEFFREY WRIGHT He wanted to have a call with me because he was in Paris, but as it turned out I was heading to Paris. We ended up meeting over lunch at Le Select, which was a very fitting beginning — it’s a very Wes environment. But also, it was one of James Baldwin’s old haunts.
BOB BALABAN I think he had an office in New York. I tried on my red jacket as the narrator of “Moonrise Kingdom” and possibly a funny hat. From the very beginning, it was all kind of magical.
WRIGHT He described this amalgam of nonfictional characters that made up [the “French Dispatch” character] Roebuck Wright — Baldwin being one of them; A.J. Liebling; Tennessee Williams. He sent me the script several weeks later because in typical Wes fashion, he was still working on it.
LOIS SMITH [Playing a Midwestern art collector with an unerring eye] We talked about Kansas and the hillbilly accent [in the script]. The main character that he presented to me was certainly Dominique de Menil, she and her husband, John de Menil. He sent me a huge book about their lives and their collection.
McDORMAND [Playing a journalist covering a youth uprising] Wes suggested I read [the short story writer] Mavis Gallant’s work. Which I did and enjoyed very much. Lo and behold, a friend of mine was a dear friend of hers in Paris and the executor of her will. My depiction is based on a photo that Wes gave me of Mavis Gallant, photos my friend showed me of her smoking cigarettes and typing and of time I spent with Lillian Ross years ago.
SWINTON He and I had had a longstanding conversation about the joys of Rosamond Bernier [a lecturer on art], on whom we drew for J.K.L. Berensen. It became clearer over several years where a portrait inspired by her might fit. The general rule of thumb is usually this sort of gentle teasing out — like with raw wool for spinning — of the overall function of a character into the finest detail of shape and sound.
SEYDOUX He sent me just the lines, I didn’t have the whole script. It was abstract at first. I didn’t know if he wanted me to speak French or English; he said maybe both. I didn’t know [there would be full-frontal nudity], I didn’t understand, I think. I went with the flow — oh OK, I’ll get naked. I have no problem with nudity when it has a purpose. I also love the fact that she’s completely naked and then in her uniform. You could think she’s objectified, but she’s not, she’s very powerful. It’s her choice.
WRIGHT Baldwin for me was a window through which I could kind of justify this Black gay man at that time fleeing America for the place we find in the film; the language, as written, is more Liebling. He’s, I hope, very much a man who has found comfort in his own skin and dignity in his aloneness, which was for me, at least after months enduring this pandemic, really resonant.
McDORMAND I told Wes that I felt strongly that [her character] Krementz and Zeffirelli [a revolutionary played by Timothée Chalamet] did NOT have sexual relations. Wes was very diplomatic with me but did not agree. He asked me not to share my thoughts on this with Timothée. However, I did. Timothée’s reaction was basically, “Huh.” Our differing opinions didn’t seem to change the outcome: Wes was able to convey his choice by having the sound of creaking bedsprings over a shot outside Krementz’s bedroom door. I think it works.
BALABAN There’s a lot of room in his precision — he does give you room to breathe emotionally. A large amount of his shots are with a moving camera; sometimes both cameras are moving at the same time as the actors are moving. It’s a choreographed ballet. There’s a tremendous amount of synchronicity that has to happen, because he often looks for a perfect take. It’s not like he does close-up, close-up, close-up, and cuts them together.
[In a complicated scene in “Moonrise Kingdom”] I’m in the foreground letting go of a weather balloon and in the background are about 20 scouts [paddling] a canoe. I had a little wind machine and monitor; I have to walk into the water and be talking all the time. We maybe did 100 takes of it, for almost three hours.
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You would think it would become tedious and the truth is, it’s somewhat hypnotically relaxing to do this thing over and over again, feeling the dolly moving, and knowing you’re in the right position doing the right thing.
BRODY Lois would nail the soliloquy and then Tilda would have another big patch to rapid-fire nail following that. And I felt such a responsibility to not blow those takes. Everybody has to hold up the next person. That’s the one thing that you must understand — the level of responsibility. You will burn everyone if you don’t [get it right]. You don’t want to be that person. It keeps you really strong and focused.
BRODY It’s this beautiful and intense work day, and then, when that is completed, there is [deep breath] a giant exhale and we all kind of go home together, and it’s a giant familial dinner.
WRIGHT It’s a very clever mechanism for creating focus and efficiency, but it also creates a cohesion. I just finished my second film with him [in Spain]. It’s a highly palatable asylum. It’s extremely well-catered.
BALABAN The only big decision was, what end of the table do I sit at today? And wherever you went, there was a friend.
SEYDOUX [At dinner] you have all the technicians — there’s no hierarchy. Sometimes you can feel isolated when you make a film, American films especially — the stars are in their trailers. With Wes, he needs a deep connection with his actors, that’s why I think he works with the same people all the time. He’s very shy too. And they’re all his friends — even me, I saw that now, he’s a friend.
WRIGHT There’s a kind of traveling circus that Wes is the ringmaster of. The idea that his films are shows and that the frame is a kind of cinematic proscenium, and he wants performance — I really dig that. It’s refreshing to break away from the hyper-realism that cinema often gets sucked into.
BRODY This one [in Spain] really feels like I’m in an actors’ summer camp. I like all my bunkmates, my mom’s visiting me — she’s been coming everywhere since “Darjeeling.” [His mother is the photographer Sylvia Plachy.] Wes’ll put her in the background. My mom’s having the time of her life.
BALABAN Working with him is a deeply different experience in the best sense. Aside from the fact that he’s endlessly aware of every moment in the movie — how it looks, how it feels — he has a remarkable way of being in general. He’s the same on set as he is at dinner as he is at a meeting. He’s steady like a rock. I’ve never seen him be unnerved by anything.
McDORMAND I show up because Wes keeps asking — I love his movies. And also to torture Bill.
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