“I don’t know what is in store for the movie business any better than anybody else does, but it does seem like my kind of movies are a little trickier than it used to be – or maybe a lot trickier.”
In contrast to most blockbuster films today, it is impossible to to separate Wes Anderson from his directorial debuts. His enchanting, if eccentric, cinematographic style and clever storytelling can instantly be recognized even to those generally unaware of the world of cinema. However, his building popularity is only relatively recent, and filmmaking is not in his academic background.
Born in Houston on May 1, 1969, Anderson grew up in a divorced household along with two brothers. An avid reader, Anderson became fixated on storytelling and eventually began directing movies using himself and his brothers as actors with a Super 8mm camera. Nevertheless, once he graduated from St. John’s School in Houston, he enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Texas in Austin. There he met fellow kindred spirit Owen Wilson (then an English major), and the two have worked together in some shape or form ever since their first collegiate joint-venture into cinema, Bottle Rocket, in 1994. The film, co-written by Wilson and Anderson and directed by Anderson, gained the attention of critics, and soon they were collaborating on their next project – Rushmore (1998). Again this film won the hearts of film critics, but again it failed to gain a large public following. Their third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, proved more successful in 2001. This time, their ingenious screenplay and Anderson’s unique style combined with an impressive cast-list including Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray and Ben Stiller. Tenenbaums was subsequently nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscars. Anderson’s next two films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) starring Bill Murray, and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) starring Owen Wilson, only managed to receive mixed critical reviews. Returning to his roots of children’s storytelling, in 2010 Anderson next put Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox into motion in a stop-action animated feature. The film is an excellent example of Anderson’s intense investment in his productions, as the level of skill and attentiveness required to create a stop motion picture is impressive. The meticulous process slowly moves 3D objects one frame at a time so that when played in a rapid sequence there is the illusion of movement. Anderson took his supervision to the extreme, and made sure he was an active participant in all production decisions. Landscape, light, and weather were all puppeteered by Anderson. When designing costumes for the small inanimate moulds that would become the lively characters we know and love, Anderson’s vision was so clear that he sent the team his own corduroy trousers to be used as a model for Mr. Fox’s costume! Met with much wider success, the film won Anderson another Oscar nomination.
Perhaps two of his most widely known films, as well as his most recent, are Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Set on an island off the coast of New England, Moonrise Kingdom is like a fairytale in many ways. Sam, 12, a young orphaned boy, escapes from summer camp to run away with his pen pal turned girlfriend, Suzy, 12, the troubled daughter of Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), whose tired and frayed love serves as a counterpoint to the love that blooms with youthful exuberance and innocence between Sam and Suzy. Like fairytales, Moonrise Kingdom is often fanciful and exhilarating, but also, like many fairytales, it retains a sense of there being something sinister below the surface: the boyscout stabbed in the eye with a pair of scissors, the threat of electroshock therapy and the imminence of the violent storm, anticipated from the beginning by Bob Balaban’s opening prescient narration. The film premiered in 2012 as the opening film of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar in 2013.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015)
From start to finish, this film lives and breathes within the world of Wes Anderson’s imagination. It has all the cornerstones of his quirky aesthetic: eccentric characters, meticulous style, a general ambiance of nostalgia, and of course deadpan humor. Using two-dimensional special effects resembling those of early French cinema, Anderson not only controlled the interior set design, but also the vast outdoor landscapes of the fictional Zubrowka, where the Grand Budapest Hotel is situated in central 1930s Eastern Europe. With both of the World Wars bookending the hotel’s existence, the story follows its rise and fall through the double perspective of the Author retelling the story of Gustave H. as recounted by Zero Moustafa. This kind of narrative allowed Anderson to create interesting scenarios of exaggeration and contradiction. Even though the film has dark undertones of fascism and the backdrop of war, the main characters brought about a sort of melancholy hope for humanity coupled with a brilliant orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat. Unsurprisingly, some familiar faces were seen cleverly integrated into the film, including Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and many others from his previous films. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for 9 Oscars and was awarded 4.
For decades Wes Anderson has stayed true to his unusual style in filmmaking, and has managed to reinvigorate a disappearing aesthetic despite being under the ever watchful eyes of big studios. We can only hope that he maintains the course he has chosen and brings us more visually interesting and engaging films in the future!
“I have a way of filming things and staging them and designing sets. There were times when I thought I should change my approach, but in fact, this is what I like to do. It’s sort of like my handwriting as a movie director. And somewhere along the way, I think I’ve made the decision: I’m going to write in my own handwriting.”
By Chrissy Liu