Fur flies on ‘Mr. Fox’
To be clear, Wes Anderson did not set out to direct his new movie via e-mail.
Even if that’s precisely how the writer-director’s stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox” -- a jaunty visual joy ride that features voice characterizations by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman -- ultimately came to be, Anderson never intended to become an in-box auteur.
That choice was made all but inevitable, however, by the Oscar nominee’s unorthodox decision to hole up in Paris for most of the shoot’s one-year duration while principal photography commenced across the English Channel at London’s venerable Three Mills Studios. He wasn’t working on another project, and nothing Paris-centric demanded he be there; Anderson simply “didn’t want to be at Three Mills Studios for two years.”
The move did little to endear Anderson to his subordinates. “It’s not in the least bit normal,” director of photography Tristan Oliver observed at the production’s East London set last spring, when production on “Mr. Fox” was about three-quarters complete. “I’ve never worked on a picture where the director has been anywhere other than the studio floor!”
Moreover, Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion (the animation technique in which a stationary object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames) and exacting ideas concerning the film’s look would so exasperate his crew.
“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”
Reached by phone in Paris this summer, a day after production had wrapped, Anderson, 40, sounded taken aback when informed of his underlings’ grumbling. To hear it from the Houston native, a self-described “novice” in stop-motion, he ignored the majority viewpoint in pursuit of something specific: a cool-looking, detail-saturated, retro-leaning stop-motion movie. Even if that meant bucking conventional animation wisdom by avoiding the modern technology that pervades the genre these days.
“It’s not the most pleasant thing to force somebody to do it the way they don’t want to do it,” Anderson said. “In Tristan’s case, what I was telling him was, ‘You can’t use the techniques that you’ve learned to use. I’m going to make your life more difficult by demanding a certain approach.’
“The simple reality is,” Anderson continued, “the movie would not be the way I wanted it if I just did it the way people were accustomed to doing it. I realized this is an opportunity to do something nobody’s ever seen before. I want to see it. I don’t want afterward to say, ‘I could have gone further with this.’ ”
With its autumnal palette, woodland tableaux and fur-covered puppets, “Mr. Fox’s” conspicuously handmade style of stop-motion represents a departure from the computer-enhanced slickness of Henry Selick’s critically hailed “Coraline” and yet is several large steps more refined than Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken.”
Tonally, “Mr. Fox” shares the most with another children-targeted movie coming out this fall, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Although both films are nominally intended for kids, their central themes, art direction and dramatic dialogue seem more intended to connect with grown-ups; specifically, the kind of urban sophisticates who compose Anderson’s and Jonze’s core fan base. That neither-fish-nor-fowl quality presents a challenge to marketers for both movies.
“It’s got to be a movie for kids because it’s based on a children’s book,” said Anderson. “It’s an adventure. And I feel it’s like the kind of movie I would have been interested in as a kid. At the same time, it doesn’t cater to children. I guess it’s for whole families.”
“Mr. Fox,” made on a medium-size budget, will make its North American debut at the AFI Fest’s opening night at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Oct. 30 and go into theatrical release next month. Befitting its title, the Fox Searchlight-distributed movie expands upon the fantastical narrative template set by Dahl’s 1970 illustrated children’s classic.
After a scrape with death, the maverick livestock thief and self-professed “wild animal” Mr. Fox (Clooney) promises his wife, Mrs. Fox (Streep), that he’ll settle down and be more present for their oddball son, Ash (Schwartzman). But the lure of stealing chickens, ducks and hard apple cider from nearby farms proves irresistible to Foxey, who secretly comes out of retirement. The angry farmers whose stock Fox has been pillaging, meanwhile, cook up a scheme to put the kibosh on his antics once and for all -- resulting in Fox (and those he loves most) retreating underground as fugitives.
Execution is everything, of course. And Anderson devotees will be relieved to discover that Mr. Fox and his wildlife buddies share a certain sensibility with the rest of Anderson’s eccentric outsider characters like “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer. The animals wear corduroy suits and monogrammed pajamas, play a fictional sport called Whack Bat, listen to transistor radios and exchange pleasantries with an old-timey solicitousness that’s also prominent in such Anderson films as “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited.”
Although Anderson took certain liberties with the book -- namely, fleshing out Foxey’s dicey status as paterfamilias -- the director performed his due diligence on Dahl. A lionized British literary giant behind such children’s classics as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The BFG,” the author died in 1990.
A lifetime fan of Dahl and his work, Anderson acquired the rights to “Mr. Fox” from Dahl’s widow, Felicity “Liccy” Dahl, in 2001, then began writing the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, Anderson’s co-writer on “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” (That movie also features stop-motion animated sequences by Selick, who was originally attached to co-direct “Mr. Fox.”) In 2004, the duo was invited to spend several weeks crafting the script at Dahl’s Buckinghamshire home, Gipsy House. There, Anderson also exhaustively documented the tiny hut where the author plied his craft.
“We wanted to make the movie an homage to Dahl,” Anderson said. “Mr. Fox’s study is based on the hut where Dahl used to write. Both the main farmer, Bean, and Mr. Fox are inspired by Dahl as much as they’re inspired by what’s in the book.”
“Mr. Fox” went into production after the director released his picaresque road movie “The Darjeeling Limited” in 2007. With Clooney in place (“He sounds like a hero,” Anderson says), Anderson assembled the rest of his ensemble cast. Among them: the director’s go-to man, Owen Wilson, in a cameo as Coach Skip; Willem Dafoe as the malevolent Rat; Irish actor Michael Gambon as Fox’s nemesis, farmer Bean; and Bill Murray, Anderson’s de facto muse who has turned up in all but one of his movies, as Badger, Mr. Fox’s lawyer. (The director also installed his brother Eric Chase Anderson as one of the leads and celebrity chef Mario Batali in a small role.)
“We recorded with George and Bill Murray and my brother in Connecticut at a friend’s farm,” Wes Anderson recalled. “We’d go outside and record in the forest and by a pond. Then we’d go inside and record in an attic, a basement, a barn. Meryl we recorded in France. Willem in New York. Michael Gambon in London. Different people, different places.”
Up until just before principle photography was set to begin in early 2008, the director had been physically present for every step of the production. But all that was about to change.
Doing it his way
In keeping with the stylized nostalgia that looms large in almost all his films, Anderson knew he was after a particular lo-fi aesthetic. And despite giant leaps forward in computer-generated imagery in recent years, he put CGI and green screen off-limits for “Mr. Fox’s” animators. Materials such as plastic kitchen wrap would stand-in for water, cotton balls would be puffs of smoke and green terry cloth, grass. Even though it was much more difficult for fabricators and animators, everything had to be shot “in camera” rather than be added digitally later. As well, the writer-director stipulated that the animal puppets have real fur -- long verboten in stop-motion circles for the material’s discontinuous, blown-by-the-wind look on film.
“With older stop-motion movies, you always see the technique. There’s some charm in that,” the director explained. “That’s why I like puppets with fur. The techniques are rudimentary, and they’re appealing to me.”
But when it came to implementing his ideas, Anderson exited London, stage left. “I thought I’d make the script and cast it and record the actors,” he said. “I’d work with some people to design it, get it to look a certain way. But at a certain point, I’d hand it over to the people that animate it. And they’d give it back to me and I’d work on the music and kind of spruce it up.”
Not everyone on-set was ruffled by the notion of an absentee director. “Mr. Fox’s” unflappable producer Allison Abbate is a veteran of many stop-motion productions, including Selick’s epochal “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Tim Burton’s Oscar-nominated “Corpse Bride.” She pointed out that it wasn’t unusual in the genre to issue directions from off-set.
“Tim wasn’t here that much during ‘Corpse Bride,’ ” Abbate said at Three Mills Studio last spring. “He doesn’t need to be. Making stop-motion is like watching paint dry.”
Unwilling to relocate to London for the shoot, Anderson and his editor, Andrew Weisblum, devised a system of communicating with the London-based animators via computer. The animators would send short digital film files of what they were working on and in return receive detailed e-mail instructions about what to change. “The e-mails are really thorough and very specific about certain gestures, how he wants a look to happen,” said Brad Schiff, one of nearly 30 animators who worked on the movie.
As well, for reference, the director would send short films of himself enacting certain scenes. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” Anderson said, laughing. “For most of these things, the performance is just a few seconds. Somebody hearing a noise and looking at their watch. The simplest way to relate how to do it is to make these little movies.”
Despite a near-total ignorance of stop-motion production design, Anderson instructed Emmy-winning art director Nelson Lowry to steer clear of certain visual tropes that have come to characterize modern animation -- to basically turn his back on modern technology that would have made the animation process easier.
“We avoided wild animated flourishes of fantasy,” Lowry said. “Normally, an animated film allows you crazy camera angles shooting through a wild landscape. Instead, this feels like a dry adult drama.”
Animation director Gustafson (who has extensive claymation experience, having created the “California Raisins” TV series and served as supervising director for episodes of Eddie Murphy’s animated series “The PJs”) admitted he found some of Anderson’s directive’s bewildering. “There’s lots of things I lobbied against in this movie,” he said.
“He’s pushed it further than I would have been comfortable pushing it,” Gustafson continued. “He definitely doesn’t have some of the reservations that I have from working with this stuff for years. But that’s good. I came here to be challenged. And he’s certainly challenged me.”
Not everyone could muster a magnanimous word for Anderson’s M.O. -- especially his on-set absence. “I think he’s a little sociopathic,” cinematographer Oliver said. “I think he’s a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain.”
Informed of Oliver’s discontent, Anderson said: “I would say that kind of crosses the line for what’s appropriate for the director of photography to say behind the director’s back while he’s working on the movie. So I don’t even want to respond to it.”
Whatever the hullabaloo, the writer-director voiced no regrets about his process. To Anderson, directing boils down to precisely one thing: what you see on the screen.
“Even when I was there [in London] during shooting, I spent most of the day in my office on the computer,” Anderson said. “There are thousands of decisions to be made. Each has to do with a rectangular image. If you can judge it, you can make a decision about what to do.
“That’s how I directed the movie,” he continued, matter-of-factly. “It’s not that complicated to figure out.”