Making quirky films seems second nature to director Wes Anderson, so when word went out that he was doing the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox, expectations rose fantastically. A screen adaptation of the book by late macabre children's author Roald Dahl? Bring it on.
Well, the 40-year-old auteur didn't disappoint, and he's garnered several awards and accolades as a result. His sixth feature-length film is a 2010 Oscar contender for Best Animated Picture, and it's already earned him and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach an Annie Award for Writing.
Between Anderson's dry sense of humor and his odd stance towards dialogue and relationships, he has made Fantastic much more than a kid's animated film.
The former Texan not only used the voices of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (son Ash) and Bill Murray (cohort Badger), but gave their marquee owners the freedom to incorporate their own ideas into their characters' personalities. Known for working with many of the same actors and crew, he has put that familiarity to great advantage on this demanding stop-motion project.
Shortly before the film's release, Anderson did a couple of roundtable interviews, which this Q&A draws on.
Q: What was it like writing and collaborating on the screenplay with Baumbach, whom you worked with before as the writer for Life Aquatic and as a producer on his film The Squid and The Whale?
WA: We had discussed it a bit in America and then we met over at Gipsy House [where Dahl had lived with his family in Buckinghamshire, England]. I knew that we were going to add a section to the front of it because the book’s not that long. And so we got set to work there and we quickly realized that where the book ends, it was going to need to keep going after that. We needed to expand the cast a bit. In the book, Mr. Fox has four children and they don’t have names &mdash no identities &mdash so we reduced that to one and the visiting cousin. Then we started to come up with things like that.
Q: What was the biggest misconception you had about animation before you made this film?
WA: I thought I would make the script, record the actors, draw the shots, and then I would work with the production designer and make puppets – get everything sorted out – and then hand it over to a team of animators who would animate it. I thought that during the period they were animating it, I might be able to direct another film and then, when they finished it, I would get this stuff back, work with a composer and finish it.
It wasn’t like that. It’s much more time-consuming in every way then a live-action movie. There are so many decisions to be made and for two years [it took up] just every second of my life… But I loved it. I don’t want my next movie to be animated, but I would love to do another animated film [some time].
Q: Do you now prefer stop-motion films or live-action?
WA: It’s fun to me, making a movie like this; everything’s in miniature, so you’re not going to find a location, you’re not going to find props; you’ve got to build them. When you make them, you really do have complete freedom to decide every thing. And every single thing that has to be made is kind of an opportunity to add something to the movie.
I just don’t concern myself on whether its too much, whether its overkill. So for me it was really fun. I think in a live-action movie, you have different [kinds of things,] where the accidents come from different places and your location scout and you say, "You know what, we’re not going to this, we’re changing everything."
Q: In this animated film, you’re able to see the fur move and that’s intentional. Why did you chose to do it that way?
WA: Part of my idea to do the movie in the first place was not just to do stop-motion. I wanted textures like that. I wanted that real tactile feeling. A movie like [Tim Burton's] Corpse Bride for instance, every frame is animated. Our style, it doesn’t move on every frame. If you add the fur motions, it gives you kind of a rougher…to me a more noticeable stop-motion feeling.
Q: You didn’t do the voices in the traditional manner using sound booths; you actually went outside and shot it live.
WA: Yeah, we went to a farm in Connecticut. It was actually very fun, and in the end, we got nice sounds -- of the wind blowing through the trees and things like that. Those can be added -- we have the technology -- so really, the important thing we got out of it was [that of] everybody being together. It was a good way to launch it.
Q: Why did you decide to pepper the word cuss throughout the film; where did that idea come from?
WA: At one moment we had probably three times as many cusses in the movie. It was a case of when I felt that it was overkill in the film. But, you know. I started the movie as a children’s film. It’s based on a children’s book and has talking animals. But when we were writing it, we never paid any attention to that fact.
We just wrote what we thought seemed funny. It wasn’t something like we were ever saying, “Will this work for children?" or "At what age will they understand this, or not understand this?” However, we knew it’s a PG movie and there were certain things we started to think of. Cuss... it was just a way of keeping it PG and… I guess it's pretty obvious. It was just something that we had thought of earlier on and we were enjoying it so we thought some other people might too.
Q: Despite the film being based on Englishman Dahl's book, the film has a very American feel.
WA: It’s a British film by an author who lived there and we made the film there, so for us it was meant to be a British film. But our dialogue was very American. We felt like we could be funnier and more interesting writing American dialogue, and it’d be hard to argue that it’s the wrong accent for British animals. So we just decided that we would make the humans British, but the animals [not]. Also, we had people in mind that I wanted to cast and at that point, it meant that I could use a lot of people that I wanted to use.
Q: What was your visit to the late Roald Dahl's house like?
WA: Yes, it was a long time ago, maybe 10 years ago. I had met Lizzie Dahl, Dahl’s wife, in New York and she invited me to come to Gipsy House and I knew about the place from… Dahl has this unusual thing of being someone who has written all these children’s books, and is famous among children, but has also written about himself. He has written a couple of memoirs, so it was very emotional for me, very inspiring. Also, he not only wrote the book there; it’s set there. At that point I was caught up in the book, so it was a great place to start and that’s why we ending up writing there, because it was so inspiring. You really feel his personality in the place.