Jason Schwartzman’s movie career began in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, the 1998 comedy in which Schwartzman’s surly teen competed with Bill Murray’s industrialist for the affections of an elementary schoolteacher, played by Olivia Williams.
“I remember two things about my first audition with Wes,” recalls Schwartzman. “One: being very nervous when I went in. And two: he had these Converse sandals on which I had never seen before. I was legitimately distracted by them. And then we started talking and I instantly felt very relaxed around him. The things he was talking about and referencing were things that I was interested in. And he was the first person who was an adult and who wasn’t my brother who asked me what I thought about something. There I was at 17 being listened to by someone who was 27.”
In the hours before Asteroid City premieres at the Cannes film festival, speaking with various cast members from the 11th feature from independent high-style auteur Wes Anderson can feel like wandering into a religious cult.
“Wes creates such a magical experience,” says Adrien Brody, returning for a fifth collaboration with the Texan writer-director. The Oscar-winner later describes working on The Darjeeling Limited as “a life-changing experience.”
“He’s totally unique,” says Hope Davis, long-time friend but first-time cast member; “I have never worked with anyone who is so joyous on set.”
Asteroid City is set in a small, cartoonish desert pit stop that consists of a diner, a motel, a one-pump gas station and a meteorite crater hopefully billed as a tourist attraction. The 1950s-set film is punctuated by Bryan Cranston’s TV host, who introduces the Asteroid City playwright (Edward Norton) and the director who stages the script (Brody).
The play-within-the-play hinges on a gathering of prize-winning teen scientists arriving at the titular destination with their parents in tow. These include Augie (Schwartzman), a war photographer who can’t bring himself to tell his three young daughters and his boffin son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) that their mother has died. Augie soon encounters Midge (Scarlett Johansson), a glamorous Hollywood actress accompanying her aspiring astronomer daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards).
Signature Andersonian preoccupations abound: parental failings, coming of age, and the search for connection. The vibrant use of pinks and purples that defined The Grand Budapest Hotel makes way for a teal and orange palette.
Between the deadpan exchanges – Schwartzman admits that he practised lines while wearing one of his wife’s face masks – there’s a new self-referentiality.
Intertextual games introduce the actors who play Augie and Midge (also played by Schwartzman and Johansson), the New York Acting Studio where they trained, and a riot of cultural and historical references from cowboys to Looney Toons to alien invasions.
Cops and robbers enact a high-speed chase on a loop in the background of Asteroid City. Maya Hawke plays a modernised My Darling Clementine. In a series of staged tableaux, Johansson’s Midge flags how she is fashioned from pieces of Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits and Kim Stanley in The Goddess, and styled after Kim Novak in Vertigo and Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
As Rupert Friend, who plays dual roles as a cowboy and a British actor, notes: “For me, it’s a bit Joycean; every scene and every sentence will have three or four hidden things in there. He’s really interested in the music of language. So it’s the content and the sound that make his work a genuine conversation starter. During production, there were conversations every night, long into the night.”
Speaking in 2008 on the reissue of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, Wes Anderson claimed: “Whenever I am getting ready to make a movie I look at other movies I love in order to answer the same recurring question: How is this done, again?”
In this spirit, a new companion book, Do Not Detonate Without Presidential Approval, provides annotations to Anderson’s many allusions, with a collection that runs from Jonas Mekas’s thoughts on Marilyn Monroe’s performance in The Misfits to Sam Shepard’s short story, Wild to the Wild.
He’s very relaxed. Even when terrible things happen— Hope Davis on Wes Anderson
“I wanted to do a theatre movie,” Anderson explains in his foreword. “I was thinking of it like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Something that sort of goes from summer stock and then into a city and gives us a 1950s Broadway story. Paul Newman in a T-shirt in The Actor’s Studio.”
Jeff Goldblum, wearing inbuilt stilts and a suit by Oscar-winning make-up artist Mark Coulier, was photographed in stop motion for his performance as the extraterrestrial. This is not, however, a watch-the-skies movie, insists its creator.
“I wouldn’t rely on my opinions about that in any significant way,” says Anderson.”The research that went into this, as extensive as it was, wasn’t anything you’d find in academia.
Stephen Hawking insists it is numerically improbable that there would not be extraterrestrial life. I don’t really.”
The immersive, textured world of Asteroid City extended to every aspect of production. Anderson’s lovingly curated collection of Americana was actually staged in Spain, on the outskirts of Chinchón, the medieval town where Orson Welles shot some of The Immortal Story. During production, Chinchón became a base of operations where the cast enjoyed communal meals and activities.
“We weren’t all together, all at the same time, but we crossed paths and we all lived in the same hotel,” explains Bryan Cranston. “And that includes the department heads. The Wardrobe Department was there. So every morning we would get breakfast and then you go to get your hair and make-up done and say hello to your friends and then get your wardrobe on. And when Wes was ready to go – usually around 9:30ish, never earlier – you’d hitch a ride with him on a golf cart to the set. And for the next eight or 10 hours, you’re on set, doing this very detailed specific work of digging into Wes Anderson’s mind. It’s not for everyone. You have to come with enthusiasm and availability, both physically and emotionally. There are no dressingrooms for the actors. There are no trailers. There is space for us to all sit and read or wait together.”
Over the years Anderson has assembled a crack team of collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and composer Alexandre Desplat. His actors resemble a theatrical troupe or circus family, a practice that also applied in the making of his two feature-length animations. During Fantastic Mr Fox, that film’s intricate and time-consuming use of puppetry, stop – motion animation and CGI was counterpointed by an outdoorsy production that required the cast to record their voicework together in woodland, in stables and underground as dictated by Roald Dahl’s original settings.
“On some films, you have a director who goes into director mode and you don’t really get to know them as a person,” says Friend, who has also worked with the director on The French Dispatch and the incoming The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. “What’s so delicious about working with Wes is he really invites the social in to inform the work. So that we bond very thoroughly as a group and as a company. We share stories from each other’s lives and become pretty close friends actually. That lends the film, we may hope, a sense of genuine collaboration and lack of hierarchy.”
That he’s so particular and has such vision, but he never feels demanding or controlling about it is incredible— Maya Hawke on Wes Anderson
In The French Dispatch, Hermès Jones, a magazine illustrator (Schwartzman, again) gets the hairdryer treatment from his editor-in-chief (and fellow Anderson regular) Bill Murray. Behind him, the wall is pasted with past covers of The French Dispatch, the magazine of the title, each meticulously crafted by designers Erica Dorn and Javi Aznarez. That’s emblematic of the attention to detail Anderson brings to every prop and costume, regardless of how fleetingly they appear on the screen.
“He knows what he wants the experience to be for everyone,” says Davis. “And he knows a lot about food and about wine. When we get together for a meal he selects the food. He does the seating arrangement.”
“There are place cards,” adds Stephen Park, who plays the father of a Junior Stargazer awardee. “He’s the great curator. Even now, we’re all living together in Wes World. We’re all staying together in the same hotel. We’re eating together. So it is still very much a bubble.”
There are no conventional readings and rehearsals for Anderson’s films. As Cranston notes, the director doesn’t audition; he takes you out for dinner. Going into The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson sent Ralph Fiennes a script and asked him what his favourite character was. “I’ve always had this thought that the best way to get an actor to not want to be in your film is to offer them a part,” Anderson told NPR in 2014.
“First you get an animated version of the film,” says Davis. “So you can see the scenes and hear the dialogue and you know how they are supposed to sound and how fast you are supposed to go. And then you do 15 or 20 takes.”
“He’s already thought out every frame of the film,” continues Park. “It’s a moving storyboard called an animatic. He has already voiced all the characters. So before you even step on set, you’ve already seen the film. This animatic could be released in theatres and people would love it.”
The new film’s ingenious set was built on a flattened watermelon farm. The luncheonette, the garage and the motel were all constructed as real buildings. The functioning town was enhanced by Stockhausen’s Wile E Coyote-worthy flimflammery.
“Wes is designing an experience for the actors and crew even when he’s behind the camera,” says Park. “We shot on a watermelon field and they took all the watermelons out and filled it with sand. And then they built this set, which is all forced perspective. So it looks much bigger than it actually is. When you’re looking at it seems like it goes on for miles, but then when you stand in a different angle, you think: Oh my God, it’s like that instead.”
Anderson’s ensemble collectively rejects any notion that such attention to detail equates to control freakery.
“That he’s so particular and has such vision, but he never feels demanding or controlling about it is incredible,” says Hawke, offering a detail that strangely echoes the moment when her vegetarian mother Uma Thurman was required to eat a meat-based burger for Pulp Fiction. “If you say: I don’t want to eat the steak tartare, he wouldn’t have a conniption fit. He’d say: oh, let’s get you some cucumbers!”
“He’s very relaxed,” adds Davis. “Even when terrible things happened. We built our sets in Spain because it never rains in the summertime. Well, it poured when we got there. We had torrential downpours. And there was so much water on our set that the floors and the cabins were expanding and cracking. I saw someone come to deliver the news to Wes. And he just smiled. I’ve never seen him lose his mind or get upset or angry. He just thinks of everything as an adventure.”
Jeffrey Wright plays a US general in Asteroid City, his second Anderson collaboration after essaying Roebuck Wright, a food writer styled after James Baldwin, in The French Dispatch.
“I was working on something else in London,” recalls Wright. “It was at least nine months, or maybe a year after we finished making The French Dispatch. And I woke up one morning, and it finally came to me: the voice for the character. I emailed Wes and said, hey man, I think I finally figured this out. I wouldn’t mind going back in and re-recording the whole film. So I went to Paris to do some voiceover. He was totally open to the idea.”
He laughs: “Until he heard it. But I knew he would hear me out. Because he appreciates that you care.”
Anderson, Schwartzman says, is constantly honing his skills and finding bigger challenges. Some things, however, haven’t changed. He recalls an incident back in the late 1990s, during the production of his very first film.
“When we were making Rushmore, there’s a scene where my character is sitting on a go-kart. I remember we had a bunch of go-karts. And Wes walked up and said, let’s go. So I hopped on a go-kart and he hopped on a go-kart and we drove off the set and through the streets of Houston. I’m in full costume and the crew is waiting. That’s still there. He has that love of adventure. That’s why the group keeps growing. All these incredible people are magnetised by this person.”
Asteroid City is in cinemas from June 23rd