The 'Riffs Interview: WES ANDERSON introduces his fantastic 'Mr. Fox'
When I began a personal International Animation Tour of sorts a year ago, tracking down some of the world's best and brightest minds in the industry, I scarcely expected to cinematically end up at a tiny puppet-scale streetscape modeled uncannily after a pathway in Bath. But now, my journey to locate my biggest animated surprise of '09 has come to a full-stop motion.
Since last fall, my quixotic questing to plumb the present and future of animation has led me to the near-requisite interviews with Tim Burton and Mike Judge and Stephen Hillenburg and Robert Smigel; to roundtables with John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki; to time with minds behind "Wall-E" and "Up" and "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Ice Age" and "Princess and the Frog"; to sessions with Seth MacFarlane and chatting with Rich "Rotoscoping" Linklater and "Coraline" e-mails from wherever Neil Gaiman was jetsetting to next. My occasional tilting-at-windmills preoccupation, it seems, has meant a path populated by every other animator this side of, ironically, Terry "Lost in La Mancha" Gilliam.
And yet now, beneath the screen's beautifully rendered autumnal tree, I find the most pleasant out-of-the-ochre surprise of the year: the utterly beguiling "Fantastic Mr. Fox" from first-time full-feature animator WES ANDERSON, who makes the fur fly and bristle and blow using painstaking stop-motion animation with "puppets" (or figurines), and without "benefit" of reliance upon CGI-generated effects. In other words, in a year in which Hollywood has endlessly trumpeted state-of-the-art 3D animations, 2009's ultimate charmer -- at least outside "Up's" genius near-voiceless sequence of a lifelong romance -- just might be a film that employs techniques used by Hollywood since the Calvin Coolidge administration. (1925's "The Lost World" is often cited as the first film to prominently use stop-motion, even before 1933's landmark "King Kong.")
The thing is, Anderson, working with some of the best in the business, naturally, is able to make the look and feel of "Fox" absolutely his own -- the film is brilliantly realized. One of Anderson's artistic heroes is "Fox's" author, Roald Dahl (who has also given Hollywood two Willy Wonka films and "James and the Giant Peach"). Anderson -- the Oscar-nominated, hipster-embraced filmmaker behind "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited" (and yes, "The Life Aquatic...") -- says "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was the first book he ever owned, or at least wrote his name in. Well, he utterly owns the cinematic "Fox" -- every frame, every mise-en-scene is replete with Andersonian touches and trademarks and themes. In other words, in all the best ways, his name is all over it.
As "Fox" opens in wide release Wednesday, Comic Riffs caught up with Anderson (who was in New York) to discuss why his style lends itself so deftly to animation; how he dealt with reluctance and tension from his crew in London (his director of photography publicly criticized Anderson's "long distance" approach before things got "in synch"); and how much he "definitely" looks forward to making more animated films.
MICHAEL CAVNA: So why animation now, at this point in your career? What was the lure, the attraction?
WES ANDERSON: It's actually been 10 years since I starting working on this one. I went to the Dahl estate in 2000. I don't really remember the thought process. I had this idea sometime [that I wanted to work] in stop-motion with puppets -- with fur.
This book, which I've always loved --
MC: And the first book you owned?
WA: Technically, it was first one I owned -- or at least the first one where I had my name in it. And it did seem like the perfect book for fur. That was the point of departure. I always loved the character of Mr. Fox because of his inventiveness, and because he's the hero, and the reason [the animals] are probably in trouble in the first place.
MC: So in an era of ever-advancing CGI, why go with stop-motion?
WA: It's kind of tried and true. I grew up on the Rankin-Bass animated specials. I'm 40, and I cannot express how revved-up my brother and I were when the holiday specials [came around]. Those were the ones we really looked forward to. We didn't know what "stop-motion" meant -- we just knew it wasn't "just" a drawing.
MC: Now this year, we've had such stop-motion as "Coraline." (Note: At one point, "Coraline's" Henry Selick was attached to "Fantastic Mr. Fox.")
WA: And there's also Spike Jonze [the "Where the Wild Things Are" filmmaker], who goes into the same mix a bit: A children's adaptation that uses something like puppets -- people in suits. For me, there's nothing quite like actual, old-fashioned stop-motion. Which is why we were using digital cameras -- there wasn't even a movie camera [on set]. It all goes into the hard drive -- our [technology] was about as high-tech as you get outside of NASA.
MC: One thing that struck me was how expressive the eyes are in your film -- how you avoid the ol' "Polar Express" dead-eye problem.
WA: We made some good eyes. The eyes have a lot of feeling. [For one thing] we put glycerine on them.
MC: Even though it's old-fashioned stop-motion, many of the effects transcend feeling dated.
WA: We wanted the effect that we might have been doing [this] in our garage. [Except it was] being accomplished by such top-shelf people. At first, there was a certain reluctance [to] some of the ways I wanted to shoot it. ... Shooting in live action [and without green-screen effects] meant it could take eight weeks to shoot what [otherwise] could be a two-week shoot. It takes masterful animation to keep the equation going. We had such good people. [And it was great] once we really got in synch with what was going to be unusual about it.
MC: How are you feeling about the film now -- the finished creation?
WA: Until something happens, until it's released [in more a few markets], you have absolutely no idea what you're in for. It's only in limited release [so far], but still: It's been reviewed everywhere and [doing] very well. ... I just hope people will go see it -- that it's kind of a crowd-pleaser.
MC: The striking palette and texture of this film are so fully realized -- as evocative as, say, a CGI animation like [Shane Acker's] "9" as well as a live-action Coen Brothers film. How did you set about creating them?
WA: I visited Gipsy House [in Buckinghamshire, England], where Dahl lived. It was muggy and grey and colorless -- the house wasn't, but the landscape was. ... The place was fascinating. I was inspired. I said: "Let's set it right here." I had decided we ought to shoot the movie in Oregon -- but then I decided: We've got to do it in England. The whole look of it came from that.
At a certain point, when you decide that the grass is going to be [the color of] yellow bathroom towels, then you're set on a certain course. Everything has to grow out of that. The other thing is, once you decide that the sky is not blue and the grass is not green -- that you're going to have a hyper-autumn -- that combines with the [effects where] smoke is made from cottonballs and water is made from Saran Wrap. [That all affects] how the illusion is being created and [how you] genuinely cast the spell -- from that point forward, it's: Now what is this character going to look like and what expressions [will it have]?
MC: Mr. Fox's caramel-colored corduroy suit, of course, is evocative of your own famed attire. How did that come about?
WA: As it happens, my very favorite corduroy suit -- in my favorite color I wear 200 days a year -- is the same outfit that we put on Mr. Fox. [While deciding on the wardrobe] I just sort of looked at my sleeves. We spent so much time worrying and debating the look of it -- "Can humans SEE that they're wearing corduroy?"
MC: That's something so many cartoonists in general wrestle with, of course: What level of realism between animals and humans do you strike?
WA: And can they speak the same language? You just say: Here's about what we'd like to do. ... People have seen all the variations and seen all the stories. ... So we trusted our instincts. The logic of it isn't going to take you to the right place -- you have to keep it a poem. If you solve too many of the logic problems, you call attention to those issues. You could sort of [collapse] the house of cards.
MC: One element that gives that house such a firm foundation is George Clooney [who voices Mr. Fox]. His ability to play the charming rogue of a thief -- almost part Danny Ocean, part "O Brother, Where Are Thou" -- really helps the center hold.
WA: That's one thing: I wanted to cast him. I've loved him in so many movies. I loved [his work particularly] in this one episode of "ER," then I loved him in "Three Kings" and so many other things. I also loved him in "Michael Clayton" -- we were working together by then. ...
When we went and recorded [outdoors] on the farm in Connecticut, I got documentary recording of some of these roles [including the voices Bill Murray as Badger and Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox's son, Ash]. The thing I did not realize -- until only afterward, when I went to the cutting room -- was how much he brings to his performance and how much we'd already gotten. The animators -- these voices are their key inspiration. That's the biggest thing they have to work with. And they were excited.
MC: Speaking of: How was it recording with Meryl Streep?
WA: I recorded with her in Paris. It was the two of us playing these scenes and that has its own [great quality]. It was very enjoyable, as well. I mean, I had the chance to play scenes opposite Meryl Streep. I felt like she actually changed my approach to the movie. She brought so much emotion, it was [as though]: THIS is where it's got to be. The stakes can be higher.
MC: How did that compare with doing voicework with Clooney and Murray and the gang in Connecticut?
WA: The sessions on the farm were like an adventure, with everyone on location together. It was special -- it was more exciting from a sentimental point of view. It bonded everybody.
With an animated movie, if the people do become friends, you have the sense the actors are with you behind the camera and [are] part of the production team -- that they're not just people who perform for you.
With this process, I was told this could happen. ... You keep previewing and adding things because you're only shooting a little bit at a time -- it's like a pencil version of the movie that you can judge and polish and refine, and it becomes a part of the actors' lives.
MC: Somewhat subtly, Jason Schwartzman's voicework is so essential to the film. It's similar to some of his other roles with you -- it's sort of an "underdog self-belief with a tinge of sorrow."
WA: I like that description. His sorrow, though, doesn't stop him for trying to [succeed]. ...
Jason and I did our first recording session together before we did all the other voices. We did a little together in London while doing work for ["The Darjeeling Limited," Anderson's previous film]. We said: Let's go to the recording studio and do a scratch track. ... It was, like, 40 minutes before we needed to be at a dinner, so we said: Well, let's just see what we can do. In 25 minutes, we raced through the scenes, throwing the pages -- as fast as we could do it. We did the fastest recording session ever. And it was [very productive].
MC: That positive spirit seems to pervade the film.
WA: For a lot of the recording of this movie, what worked best was to keep people in a good spirit. It's very different from playing a scene in front of a camera, where the scene has to come to life in full. Instead, [animation] is more of a moment here and a moment there. At that pace, it doesn't become a scene until the animators are there and move these puppets around. ...
It was the animators that came up with the physical movement of the puppets -- the physical behavior was a whole different process -- like Williem Dafoe's character [the rat], we acted out "West Side Story" and Bob Fosse and "The Little Prince" -- we found references everywhere and acted things out ourselves. ...But the actors brought everything into focus.
| November 24, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation | Tags: Wes Anderson; Fantastic Mr. Fox; George Clooney; Meryl Streep; Jason Schwartzman; Bill Murray; Michael Cavna
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