(Dahl inside of his garden writing hut)
After a decade brewing in the mind of one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors, the long-awaited adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox — with 30 sets based on the author’s own home and village — will open The Times BFI London Film Festival in the autumn.
The stop-motion animation of Dahl’s children’s book stars George Clooney, who voices the ingenious Mr Fox, and Meryl Streep as Mrs Fox. Michael Gambon supplies the voice of the malevolent farmers, and the pop singer Jarvis Cocker plays a musically inclined farmhand. It will premiere at the 53rd film festival on October 14.
The film has been the longstanding project of Wes Anderson, the director and writer behind The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, who read the book as a child in Texas.
As a lifelong fan of Dahl, who died in 1990, Anderson worked more closely with the guardians of his work than any director who adapted the author’s books while he was alive.
Amanda Conquy, who went to school with Dahl’s daughter, Tessa, and manages his literary estate, said a contract had been drawn up in 2004. “After that Wes came and stayed in Dahl’s house in Great Missenden.”
Residents of the Buckinghamshire village — to where 50,000 Dahl fans each year make a pilgrimage to visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre — saw the Hollywood director striding out on walks into the surrounding woods and over the Chiltern Hills.
Anderson became close friends with Dahl’s widow, Felicity, and read through the notebook in which the author plotted his story and his first drafts for the book. Anderson drafted his own screenplay in the hut where Dahl had written them.
Mr Fox’s study is modelled on the interior of that shed, and parts of the village have found their way into the 30 sets that were built for the film.
“Lots of things in there are redolent of Dahl’s garden and the village,” Mrs Conquy said. “There will be lots of references for Dahl aficionados to pick up on.” The film rolls Mr Fox’s four children into a single character, on the verge of adolescence, played by Jason Schwartzman, a regular in Anderson’s coming-of-age films.
Mr Fox himself, leading a life of bucolic happiness, wears exactly the same suit as Anderson, stitched with corduroy from the director’s New York tailor, a fact that occasionally caused confusion when Anderson arrived for production meetings apparently dressed as his own character.
Whereas Dahl’s Mr Fox regarded stealing fowl as his raison d’être and principal occupation, Anderson’s character has sought to live quietly. But after 12 years he cannot fight his own nature and resumes his old profession of breaking and entering.
Allison Abbate, one of the film’s producers, said that this alteration was to “broaden the character and give him some context. He is a wild animal, he is not meant to have a desk job.”
Mr Fox flouts the cautious advice of his friend and lawyer, the badger, voiced by Bill Murray, and provokes the farmers to attempt to exterminate him and his fellow woodland creatures. Anderson has also added a third act, a final battle between farmers and woodland animals, to end a story that Dahl left hanging.
By accident rather than design, the put-upon animals all have American accents, while the evil farmers are all British. “It started with George Clooney,” said Abbate. “We didn’t want him to do an English accent.”
The production team shot scenes simultaneously on the 30 sets in East London but the film still took more than two years to make.
“We had 16 Mr Foxes,” Abbate said. “Each had a different speciality, and required regular breaks to a studio in London to be “refurbished”.
“We called it the puppet hospital,” Abbate said. “Otherwise they were quite easy to work with. They didn’t misbehave on weekends and their agents never phoned us up to complain.”
Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.