haven’t been in New York for three years,’ says Wes Anderson, surveying Manhattan from the 53rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental. It becomes clear that some of the skyscrapers are bothering him. ‘There are these very, very tall, very, very skinny buildings that have gone up that are very… Dubai or something.’ I sense Dubai is not a compliment here. Dubai does not strike me as very Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is one of a select number of filmmakers to have made it to adjective status and it is partly because his meticulously constructed, instantly recognisable, improbably starry movies offer a refuge from such 21st-century brashness — like children’s stories for grown-ups, or those endless dreams involving everyone you’ve ever met, or pencil boxes with all the crayons arranged in rainbow order. He’s quite particular about these things. ‘Probably if we had a few people here who spend their lives dealing with me, they would say yes, there are some issues.’
Still, too-thin skyscrapers aside, the Houston-born director seems quite happy with the Wes Anderson Aesthetic Universe at present. The fiery orange skies that menaced New York a week ago have cleared and he has expertly toned his seersucker suit and shirt to the fresh, clear blue that has emerged. ‘It couldn’t be less apocalyptic,’ he smiles.
At 54, Anderson, who made his name with the coming-of-age comedy Rushmore (1998), has passed through the ‘early promise’, ‘ubiquitous influence’, ‘snarky backlash’ and ‘return-to-form’ phases of his career into a fertile midsummer. His 11th movie, Asteroid City, which debuted at Cannes last month, prompted standing ovations, a hug from his seven-year-old daughter Freya (it was the first time he had taken her to a premiere) and some of the best reviews of his career: ‘An exhilarating triumph’; ‘An impassioned argument about the power of storytelling.’ There were stinkers, too (‘style over substance’, ‘the nadir of Anderson’s whimsy’) but that is to be expected. What interests him this time is just how opposed reactions have been. ‘For one person to say, “I see only a surface here,” and the other one to say, “I see layers of feeling and emotions,” well, that’s kind of unusual, isn’t it?
Not that he reads his reviews, even the good ones: ‘Like, in the course of saying, “This one is good,” you might get, “as opposed to the last three…”’ For similar reasons, he avoids those AI-generated Wes Anderson parodies that do so well on social media — if Wes Anderson did Succession, if Wes Anderson did Star Wars, etc. ‘It’s a bit like if your friend says: “So-and-so does a very good you.” You don’t necessarily want to see it because the first thing you’re going to say is: “Is that me? Is that what I’m like?”’
Is that what he’s like? He will admit to a certain fastidiousness. ‘For instance, you know, looking at my Macbook Pro compared to my wife’s computer. First of all, her computer is quite filthy and the screen is covered with ink but also there are just a trillion things strewn all over the desk. And I’m kind of continuously organising mine because I feel like the way I can keep getting things done is by neatening them.’
What he’s trying to do with the careful framing of his movies is neaten them so he can cram in more story, which is really what he spends most of his time working on. Here he builds up to a Wes Anderson version of a rant. ‘The thing that AI might be able to capture is to do with what you’ve written before — but it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ve lived before. It’s missing all the things that go into how you’re processing an experience, or any of the information that makes for good writing, you know? All it has is access to data — incredible amounts of data — but I don’t know that AI could ever get wise or insightful. I don’t know that AI will ever know when it’s doing something good. Unless somebody tells it.’ Which I think is a polite way of saying: come on. There’s more to what I do than dressing up a few actors in pastel-coloured suits. Look a little closer: all the pencils are broken.
The thing that AI might be able to capture is to do with what you’ve written before — but it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ve lived before
Still, I don’t think it’s reductive to call Asteroid City his most Wes Anderson movie yet. It all hinges on a mysterious incident at a junior stargazers’ convention in a remote American desert town in the mid-1950s — and yes, it’s full of quirky delights, from the vending machine selling real estate deeds to an implausibly pretty ‘frankfurter picnic’ under a sun-speckled pagoda. It contains all the key Anderson tropes and themes: precocious children, damaged adults, buried traumas, makeshift families, carefully ordered worlds disrupted by chaos. Anderson makes no secret of the fact that his parents’ divorce when he was eight was the shattering event in his childhood and it replays repeatedly in his films; Jason Schwartzman’s war photographer, Augie Steenbeck, can’t quite bring himself to tell his four children that their mother is dead. It also features a framing device involving a New York theatre troupe putting on a play called Asteroid City — so I think it’s technically a film within a play within a TV show within a film. Oh and there are nuclear bombs, a ray gun, a roadrunner and an extra-terrestrial incident or two.
When I ask him what he was getting at, he professes himself as perplexed as I suspect many viewers will be: ‘I always watch it back and think, why did I do that?’ In as far as he has been able to piece it together, his starting point was mid-1950s USA — vintage Americana, peak Cold War paranoia — which also happened to be his favourite period of movie-making, a brief moment when the worlds of New York theatre and Hollywood converged (Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marilyn Monroe at the Actors Studio, Montgomery Clift, Elia Kazan, James Dean…). So initially, he wanted to make a movie about a theatre company putting on a play. Then he decided he’d like the play to be the movie itself. Then, he decided the movie would be set somewhere that no theatre stage could possibly contain, like the vast open spaces of the western American desert. And after a certain point, well, he sort of let the actors get on with it.
Anderson is famous for his all-star casts but this one is the all-starriest yet. And somehow, superstars including Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Adrien Brody and Jeff Goldblum all have their moment. ‘I mean I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever had a cast as consistently strong as this group,’ he says. ‘Lots of them have been on the stage and they all have real chops.’
Is there any actor he would still like to work with? He used to keep a list (Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Ralph Fiennes) but he has crossed most of them off now. There are a few who have eluded him for obvious reasons: Cary Grant (d.1986); Carole Lombard (d. 1942); Herbert Marshall (d.1966). ‘I almost feel like somebody like Robert De Niro is in that category,’ he muses. Dead? ‘Well, even though I could still try to get Robert De Niro, I’m accepting that I’ll always be just an audience member and a fan. I’ve kind of accepted that these are people from someone else’s films.’
Bill Murray once described Anderson as a ‘slave driver’. And yet he seems to be able to keep all these egos happy. How? ‘You know, we all just live together during these shoots — we have dinner together, but at dinner, all they’re talking about is the work,’ he says. The secret is: actors like nothing more than hanging out with other actors talking about acting. Let them do that and they are happy as pigs. Many liken it to a summer camp. ‘That I want to keep because, you know, movies are hard to make. And we’ve found a way to do them that is actually fun and stays fun and that truly makes it a lot easier to press on and keep doing these things.’
He stresses that he has few comparisons for how unusual his way of working is. Film-makers don’t tend to visit each other’s sets and when he has, it hasn’t always gone well. As students at the University of Texas, he and Owen Wilson snuck on to the set of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused only to be ejected by security. Then, shortly after they had secured funding for their own debut, Bottle Rocket, they were invited on to the set of Pulp Fiction.
‘We waited and waited and then we sort of said: “Nothing’s happening! Let’s just go get something to eat.” We came back and missed the scene. It was terrible. We missed a scene with John Travolta and Sam Jackson having this iconic moment. Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have been more annoyed. “I can’t believe you left! Well, you missed it! It’s not going to happen again, you’ve missed it!”
As I am cherishing the image of Tarantino bollocking the young Anderson, my two-year-old son, Aubrey, wanders into the frame having escaped the Disney+ prison I had made for him. ‘Daddy, who’s that?’ says Aubrey. ‘I’m Wes!’ says Anderson. ‘How are you? What’s your name?’ ‘I’m Aubrey!’ says Aubrey.
For approximately one second, I wonder if I can possibly make this new dynamic work before deciding that would be insane. I return Aubrey to Disney+, shut the door, and make my apologies. What? You thought I was in New York with Wes Anderson? No, I am at home and we are speaking over Zoom. All of this stuff requires a level of artifice — it’s a question of how honest you are about that artifice. The difference between Anderson and, say, Christopher Nolan, is that Anderson doesn’t pretend that he’s not pretending.
This intrusion of chaos prompts Anderson to confess a little parental anxiety of his own. He and his British-Lebanese wife, Juman Malouf, an illustrator, divide their time between Paris and rural Kent, where Freya has just gone off to pony camp for the first time. He’s worried that’s awfully young to be on her own for a week. ‘I’m like, gosh, I don’t remember going away on my own at that age and she’s never spent the night at a friend’s house, even…’ He quells the anxiety with the thought that many of his English friends were sent to boarding school from the age of seven. But then he reflects how many of his English friends were clearly scarred by that. ‘I mean I have a friend in his 60s and I think his personality is largely shaped by that experience of being taken out of his home and put in the hands of strangers from age seven.’
I wonder if parenthood has made him reassess his own childhood? ‘I think as a seven-year-old I was much more confident and outgoing, whereas when I was 12 or 13, I was completely the opposite. But I guess the whole way of raising children has changed so much. We were just sent away all day. I mean it was just, you know: “Come back home at five or something.” That’s not happening with our daughter so far. She has none of that kind of independence.’
Anderson likes life in rural Kent. At least he liked it a lot more before Brexit. ‘There were a number of new obstacles that were thrown in our path that seemed completely pointless.’ The fact that the Eurostar no longer stops at Ashford or Ebbsfleet has been a blow, too. But they’re managing. ‘I have some very good friends in England and living in the English countryside is great and fantastic. I sort of spend most of my life as a foreigner. I kind of like the idea that the most mundane day to day things get turned into an adventure as you are sort of surprised to still find yourself in this place.’ Perpetually sort of surprised to still find yourself in this place. It’s not such a bad frame of mind to cultivate.
‘Asteroid City’ opens in cinemas on 23 Jun
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