Vanity Fair recently sat down with Wes to discuss working on Mr. Fox. Pretty standard stuff, but interesting nonetheless.
Wes Anderson came to Hollywood from Texas armed with a short film and a best friend with a funny nose. The year was 1993, the film was Bottle Rocket, and the best friend was—and still is—Owen Wilson. By chance, James Brooks saw and loved Bottle Rocket, and gave Anderson the boost he needed, helping him shore up financing to expand the short into a full-length feature. Since then, Anderson has written and directed four films: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums—for which he was nominated for best original screenplay—The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited and its accompanying short, Hotel Chevalier. On Friday, he will be releasing his sixth film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a sumptuous, stop-motion version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story, which Anderson co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. The film features the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, who once said she signed on because, in her words, “When else am I going to be Mrs. George Clooney?” Also lending their voices are Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, another fixture of Anderson’s troupe. I spoke with Anderson a few days ago, and I can tell you the only thing cooler than his corduroy suits and gaggle of talented friends is the fact that he is one of the few people in Hollywood who can get Bill Murray on the phone. Read our whole conversation below.
So my first question is, ‘Why this book?’
The actual true answer is I don’t really remember. I don’t remember making the decision to adapt this book—it was 10 years ago that I first approached the Dahl estate about doing it. I wanted to do a stop-motion movie and the idea to adapt Fantastic Mr. Fox was simultaneous with that. It’s the first book I ever owned that was officially considered to be my property in our household, and the book made a huge impression on me as a child.
And what fascinated you about stop-motion?
I loved those Christmas specials that were stop-motion and I always liked the magical aspect of those. But I think there’s something about the fact that you can kind of tell what the technique is that’s making the illusion with stop-motion. It’s something I’ve always found very appealing and that really gives it a special, magical feeling. I don’t know of another technique that has quite that feeling.
How did you convince the studio, Fox Searchlight, to make the film?
In fact it was originally set up at Revolution, so this is why it took so many years to actually get it done. We went through a whole process with Revolution—we were about to do the movie when they decided to shut down the whole operation. We had organized the whole thing by that point but we had no studio. We had no backing of any kind, and you don’t usually show up with an animated movie that’s ready to go, with a script, and a group of people; you usually start with the studio and its animation department and it’s really done all at once. And we didn’t do it like that. Instead, we showed up with what we wanted to do, and it was a question of finding a place to do it. But then, for whatever reason, Tom Rothman at Fox and their animation guy then wanted to do it.
At that point, did you have George Clooney attached?
You know what? I don’t remember. I don’t know if we had cast it yet. Maybe we had. I don’t know if we had approached George yet. He was the first person that we talked to, and he was the first cast member, but I don’t remember if that was before we went to Fox.
Where and when did you record the dialogue?
We went to a farm in Connecticut, which was a really fun way to do it. I don’t think they usually bring the actors together into one place to record them for animated films.
And you had everybody there?
We had most of the group. Some roles we hadn’t cast yet at that point but we got as many as we could. We had George, and we had Bill Murray, and we had Wally Wolodarsky who plays the sidekick character [Kylie] and a bunch of other people. It was really like summer camp.
Did they sit around and read the script or did they act it out?
They acted it out. We video’d some parts of it but really it was less formal than that. The actors played it as if they were being filmed, but the microphone could come in close. For scenes that were outside, we did them outside, by a river, or in the woods. We went to different places that corresponded with what’s in the scene.
When you were little, did you always picture Mr. Fox in his corduroy suit?
No, no. But in the drawings in the first edition of the book, they’re in clothes. And they had wonderful costumes but they were sort of Edwardian outfits. I don’t know if I had seen corduroy on a puppet, but I just had a certain corduroy that I liked, in a color that was also suited to the movie, but it wasn’t like a big decision [to outfit Mr. Fox in corduroy]. It was really more like, ‘Well this might be nice.’ Maybe Paddington Bear wears corduroy, I think. Yeah.
Did you and your two brothers have the same dynamic growing as the two Fox cousins, Ash and Kristofferson do?
Someone from The Guardian had asked me that in England. He said, ‘Well your brother says it’s you and your older brother,’ and then I was like, ‘That’s exactly what it is.’ [Kristofferson] is an exact representation of my older brother, who was taller, more skilled, less troubled, polite, and protective. It really corresponds to the dynamic between us. But it never would have occurred to me.
You live part of the year in Paris. Are you often recognized over there?
I’m not recognized that much here. I’m invisible everywhere! (Laughs) I don’t have any issues like that. Even in my own neighborhood in New York nobody ever says anything to me anyway. So in Paris, I’m definitively invisible, I’d say. The only people that ever say anything to me in Paris are people who walk up to me and say, ‘I live two blocks away from you in New York and we met,’ or something.
How do you reach Bill Murray? Do you have the secret phone number?
Well I do have a secret phone number but that doesn’t necessarily get him. I think by this point he’s resigned to the fact that if I really want him to do something, he’ll probably do it somehow. I think he accepts that it’s inevitable. (Laughs) He’s just one of my favorite actors on the planet.
I heard he was doing press for this and I couldn’t believe it.
Yeah, because it’s not like he needs to. It’s not like he has any obligation to. It’s pro-bono work I think. (Laughs)
Was stop-motion a completely new thing for you to learn?
Completely new, and I’m glad I did this after having done a number of other movies because my ideas for how I wanted this to be are, in a lot of ways, different from how a stop-motion movie would normally be done. And I think because I had done a lot of other movies I could sort of find my own way into. So often, just the basic techniques are a mystery. The way somebody animates a scene is very personal—it’s a lot like acting. The way somebody knows that on frame 22 the character’s going to be pronouncing the word ‘what’, to go from that micro bit of information to making this thing seem alive… I can’t really understand how an animator does it. Or how they’ll have a set of instructions that are so clear frame-by-frame, but two different animators can have completely different interpretations of those things. To find a way to collaborate with someone who’s doing something that you can’t really understand and yet get what you want, that’s another thing.
Was it frustrating at times?
Not any more frustrating than a live-action movie. On the one hand, it’s a super complicated sort of thing and there are a trillion things going on at once, but on the other hand, compared to a James Cameron movie, it’s just the most intimate little operation. At the most, we had 30 units going at once, so that’s 30 different sets, 30 different animators, 30 different things at once. But with each one, I have a direct communication. The work is happening very slowly, so I can work with this animator and I look at their work each day. And they do another couple of seconds that I look at at the end of the day and we can discuss that and see if something’s not quite right. But anyway each unit is its own little operation and the pace is so different from a live-action movie. But at the same time it’s a lot happening simultaneously, so anyway I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with that but to give you some impression. (Laughs)
You’d think The Darjeeling Limited set would be more hectic, shooting in India.
There was a wilder, more intense feeling there. Things could go wrong in a crazy way and we were adapting to that, and there were just fantastic surprises happening. We were all doing one thing at a time together but it just felt like this chaotic adventure, and this is kind of completely different.
That might be my favorite Wes Anderson movie.
Oh, that’s good to hear, thank you. That’s not the universal consensus. (Laughs)