Wes Anderson is perhaps one of the most recognizable and influential filmmakers of our times. There is a surreal, unique quality that pervades all of his works. Most of his films are instantly identifiable due to their signature color palette, choice of scores, distinctive filming techniques and themes. A sense of whimsical eccentricity unites his films — Anderson is frequently touted as a notable figure of American Eccentric Cinema. With his upcoming film The French Dispatch‘s release a month away it seems like as good a time as any to revisit what truly gives a Wes Anderson film its charm. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and refresh some of his inimitable artistic and storytelling techniques.
Building an immersive microworld
Wes Anderson is not interested in telling stories that are necessarily fantastical or otherworldly. His films have to do with fairly normal people going through dysfunctional situations. Due to this reason, it’s incredible to consider the amount of detail that goes into the fictional world of his plots. He constructs his set-ups with an eye for escapism and newness. If the film takes place in a real location, then he populates it with details and minutiae that do not break the spell of viewing it as make-believe. For example, the billboards or brands that happen to be in the background usually do not correspond with real-life ones.
Consider the cigarettes that Margo smokes in The Royal Tenenbaums. The brand, Sweet Aftons, was only available in Ireland and discontinued in the 1970s. Anderson uses details like this to impress upon the viewer that they do not inhabit the same, vivid microworld as the characters that they are watching on screen.
Similarly, Anderson also draws inspiration from real-life locales to build new worlds altogether. He studied Eastern European countries and hotels during World War II to come up with the fictional nation Zubrowka, and the titular hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel. For Isle of Dogs, he looked towards the architecture of Japanese buildings by Frank Llyod Wright to design a futuristic, vaguely dystopian vision of Japan. Set designs from Japanese cinema, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring or Tokyo Story were also a prominent influence.
Paul Harrod, the co-production head on Isle of Dogs has said:
Two of Wes’ principal references were Akira Kurosawa’s noirs from the early ’60s — The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. For Megasaki City, our task was to project a futuristic Japan while avoiding a lot of what have become retro-futuristic clichés.
Anderson’s cinema is not interested in imitating a naturalistic mode of expression. Instead, he makes aesthetic choices that clearly convey to the audience that the events they are watching are artistic productions which are carefully curated. In this aspect his work leans towards an expressionist use of storytelling elements. One can note this while observing the family home of the Tenenbaums in The Royal Tenenbaums. Although it is a regular brownstone building in Harlem, New York, the inside has a constructed, put-together quality to it. Every room is designed with a unique aesthetic. Some have heavy, ornate rugs and others have bright wallpapers in saturated hues. In fact, it is almost like walking into a dollhouse. There is even a bright yellow tent smack dab in the middle of a room.
Similarly, Summer’s End, the house of the Bishops in Moonrise Kingdom feels strangely two-dimensional. This is not to say that the set design is flimsy or lacks character. Rather, it emphasizes the disconnect between the house and its surroundings. A long tracking shot displays the inhabitants of the house going about their daily activities, while the exterior is revealed to be in rich shades of crimson and navy, with white bunting. After all, the edifice is part lighthouse and is situated on an island. A nautical color palette is a must.
All of this is to say that Anderson draws the audience’s attention towards the theatricality of his work by constructing elaborate set- pieces that imitate the function of the theatre-stage.
Composition and Cinematography
If it’s obsessively symmetric, it’s probably Wes Anderson.
Is that a little reductive? Perhaps. But there is no denying the fact that the director is known for beautifully composed frames that draw the viewer in through their use of straight lines and balance to center the object of focus. It is a stylistic choice, but it also establishes each frame in the film as a portrait. Careful curation of the background lends an absurd, humorous quality to the scenes they present, resulting in a “static geometrical form that can evoke a deadpan comic quality,” according to film theorists Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell.
Anderson often employs long tracking shots to display the neatly balanced world of his films. One of his go-to techniques is knolling. Knolling is the process of documenting a meticulously crafted arrangement from above, such that each element is clearly visible. The usage of these techniques allows the viewer to take in a lot of information in a few frames. Anderson’s films, which are known to be rife with background surprises and expository material in each shot, especially benefit from this. The audience doesn’t have to be told new information, they are simply shown.
Slow-motion and obscure songs from the 1960s and 70s are another such quirk. Anderson is known for using slow motion to enhance the emotional heft of scenes. It is to let audiences know that this is a monumental instance for the characters in the film. He mostly uses little-known songs (for example – Strangers by The Kinks) to score these sequences. The result is a dreamy effect that puts us in the shoes of these characters. We are not merely watching them have certain experiences, we’re living it right alongside them.
Another notable aspect of his films is the use of color. His usage of color contributes to their ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere. It also sets a tone for the rest of the narrative to follow. For example, the rich blues and navy hues in Rushmore hint at the creativity and erudition of his protagonist Max Fischer.
Similarly, the rich purples and pinks of The Grand Budapest Hotel are like something straight out of a candy-fueled dream. This solidifies the film’s nostalgia and romantic longing for the past. While the colors are bright and distinctive, they are also slightly muted, almost pastel-like. By using color as a narrative device, each of his films become memorable and immediately associated with a distinct set of sentiments and colors.
An Anderson film typically displays a few peculiarities in terms of characterization and setting.
Main characters are typically associated with any one object or item of clothing. M Gustave (The Grand Budapest Hotel) simply cannot do without his Lair de Panache perfume, and Margo Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums) is always seen wearing her fur coat. Similarly, her brothers, Chas and Richie are characterized through a red tracksuit and the latter’s signature sports shirt and headband respectively.
Similarly, Suzy Bishop (Moonrise Kingdom) is closely associated with her binoculars. In fact, people watching other people is something of a voyeuristic tradition in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre of work.
Deadpan dialogue uttered with a straight face, and characters who are brimming with personality but never a caricature impart a unique humor to the films. They don’t rely on one-liners or gags. Instead, they choose to be perfectly serious and straight-faced through absurd events, which is infinitely more hilarious.
Of course, it goes without mentioning that Anderson is fond of casting a few actors over and over. Bill Murray, Owen and Luke Wilson, Angelica Huston, Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton, amongst others, have made appearances in at least three or more of his films.
Many of Wes Anderson’s films play out as a coming-of-age journey. They are told through a protagonist who, regardless of age, is emotionally stunted or immature. From the boy scout Sam Shakusky (Moonrise Kingdom), to the middle-aged Steve Zissou (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) the characters remain perpetually young at heart. They usually embark on some kind of a journey to either literally find something or someone, or heal emotional neuroses. Most of them are regular people with dysfunctional lives, or very intelligent people who find themselves lost or directionless.
Family brings Anderson’s films together. The set-ups range from a story of three brothers travelling through India to deal with their father’s death (The Darjeeling Limited) or could be about a fox trying to keep his family safe from farmers (Fantastic Mr. Fox). But, in the end, it’s about the characters realizing that they are stronger and happier with their loved ones.
A sense of adventure, growth and optimism is present throughout his works, even when they deal with potentially tragic or dark events. It is the indomitable spirit and joy of these films that stand out, a reassurance to the viewer that they will always find a way, even in dark times.
Anderson is noted for co-writing the screenplays of his films as well. The collaboration between writing and direction is crucial to his status as a modern-day auteur. Truly, it is the focus on creative control and a specific vision for storytelling that brings his films to life. In his dream-like world of caprice and adventure, Anderson always finds the right stage to put on a show. And what a grand show it always is.