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From Dallas To Zubrowka: The Imagined Worlds of Wes Anderson

From Dallas To Zubrowka: The Imagined Worlds of Wes Anderson

“That’s the kind of movie that I like to make, where there is an invented reality and the audience is going to go someplace where hopefully they’ve never been before. The details, that’s what the world is made of.” – Wes Anderson.

Books, architecture, costumes, and curio items: they fill the busy frames of Wes Anderson’s work (in collaboration with longtime DP Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg), and in part serve to make the writer/director’s eight feature films and four shorts so rich, rewatchable, and increasingly successful with audiences. But as much as the emphasis on Anderson’s work tends toward the visual, it’s the way he uses his fictitious universes, details, and cast dynamics to support a human emotional base that elevates his films.

“Somehow I feel like [my film] needs its own world to exist in,” the director recently explained to us on the eve of his latest ambitious work, the WWII era-set “Grand Budapest Hotel” (review here). “And then I have a whole group of people who I have worked together for years and that’s kind of what we like to do together: make the place for these characters to do their things.” Whether it be The Republic of Zubrowka, The Ping Islands, or Rushmore Academy, the world-building in Anderson’s films occupies a unique slot in each of his narratives, so strap in as we chart how each universe strengthens and focuses each film, starting with the acclaimed debut feature that launched his career.

A Texas Trail of Ill-Conceived Crime – “Bottle Rocket” (1996)
ANTHONY: “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I would rather go water skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question… or see any of these people again… for the rest of my life.”

Anderson’s 1996 directorial debut, a short-turned-feature written with Owen Wilson while they studied at UT Austin, finds the director at his most imprecise—hinting at many of the themes and visual motifs to come, but locating a shaggy charm in its tale of three misfit criminals in Texas. As Anthony (Luke Wilson) completes his stay at a mental hospital for “exhaustion” and pairs with old pal Dignan (Owen Wilson) for a string of low-level robberies, the film delves into its own singular version of Dallas and its surrounding towns.

Unlike in most of Anderson’s later filmography, the locations remain largely unvarnished, whether it be Hinckley Cold Storage at 4000 Commerce in Dallas—home to the film’s final botched heist—or the Hillsboro Motel, where Anthony and Paraguayan maid Inez’s romance first blossoms. This being Anderson’s first feature, the relatively small budget ($7 million) can answer for some of that approach. However, he also wisely uses the value in inspired character moments and a variety of wry visual cues: witness getaway driver Bob’s relationship with his drug-dealing brother, Future Man, Dignan’s incredible 75-year-plan for he and Anthony, or the delightful internal dynamic of a strip mall bookstore, revealed mid-robbery as Anthony approaches a young clerk. (“Rob?” “Uh-huh?” “Why aren’t you in literature?” “It’s all full up.”)

Rushmore” (1998)
The production design of Wes Anderson movies takes a quantum leap after his second film, so like his debut, “Bottle Rocket,” the world of 1999’s “Rushmore” is comparatively stripped-down (and some of this is due to budget of course; filmmakers are taught to think small in order to get films made at first, but his imagination and scale would soon take off).

The invented part of “Rushmore” is the heart of the movie: Rushmore Academy, the elite prep school that the film’s underachieving overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) attends. Based on the St. Marks school in Dallas (that co-writer Owen Wilson attended) and St. John’s School in Houston (which Anderson had attended), Rushmore is not just a private school in the movie, but has deep meaning for both of its protagonists. For Max Fischer, it’s a purpose, but one that he cannot reconcile with the future. “Just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life,” he says. “For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” Graduation is almost out of the question. Max’s Rushmore is an imagined world that also doesn’t really exist: the movie opens up with a dream of Max being the most gifted, respected and well-liked student at the academy, but the reality is far different.

For Herman Blume (Bill Murray), it represents a class system, his work ethic, and all that he had to fight to achieve. “Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone,” he says in a speech while donating money for a new wing of the school. Blume is a millionaire now, but he couldn’t afford to go to the school as a child (class is a big theme too; they bond because Fischer can’t afford it there either—he’s attending on scholarship).

From there, “Rushmore” doesn’t have many overtly invented elements in it. Sure, there are lots of little details: Max is the publisher (and editor-in-chief) of the school paper, “The Yankee Review,” the president (but not founder) of the Rushmore Beekeepers, and of course there are those elaborate plays that he puts on inspired by “Serpico,” “Apocalypse Now” and other movies. And while those plays are exceptional like much of Anderson’s work they’re familiar enough compared to the more fantastical milieus Anderson would soon create.

Family Dysfunction In A Fairy Tale New York – “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
“I was really fixated on New York for many years,” Wes Anderson said in a 10 year anniversary talk about “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the first overtly imagined world of his third movie. “And that’s why I came to live here. It was inspired by movies, books and plays about New York and I always loved the New Yorker magazine.”

“Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” have their own worlds like any movies, but they’re grounded and realistic; not very “imaginary.” “The Royal Tenenbaums” was the first real invented milieu of his films that doesn’t actually exist. That location was New York City, but of course, ‘Tenenbaums’ the movie doesn’t even name the city specifically even once. Instead, it’s Wes Anderson’s imagined version of a ‘70s type of New York filled with old buses, vintage old money hotels (the Waldorf Astoria standing in for the imagined “Lindbergh Palace Hotel”) and eccentric houses that might be lived in by someone out of a J.D. Salinger novel or Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

And the key to this New York is pastiche. Apart from the “Franny and Zooey”-esque element that influenced the movie, Anderson’s also referenced F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Malle’s 1960s film, “The Fire Within.”

“There were some parts of the movie where we were thinking of 1930s and ’40s New York, kind of like [the playwrights] Kaufman and Hart,” Anderson said. “And there were other parts of it that were more like William Friedkin‘s New York, or the movie, ‘The Warriors.'” Anderson even says some of the graffiti was influenced by Walter Hill’s aforementioned gang film in the 1970s. And so in Anderson’s pastiche there are modern day bodegas (that arguably haven’t changed in decades anyhow), gypsy cabs, creaky old hospitals and a YMCA on 375th (a street that does not exist in Manhattan). It all ads up to a New York that many either lived in or saw through books and movies, but one which its disparate elements never existed at one time.

Anderson and his production team went even as far as to hide major New York landmarks. On the first day of shooting, Kumar Pallana and Gene Hackman shot an exchange in Lower Manhattan and Wes purposely staged Pullana so he would block the the Statue of Liberty out of the camera’s view. Hackman, who originally thought including the landmark was a nice idea said of the idea in frustration, “That’s stupid.”

Extra credit for anyone paying attention to the Ramones-set Gwyneth Paltrow montage in the movie that has imagined New York elements like the “Crosstown Local” bus, the “Irving Isle Ferry,” The “23 Ave Express” subway stop.

Extra, extra credit for anyone paying attention to this 1999 Charlie Rose interview with Anderson where the young filmmaker talks about the influence of Roman Polanski‘s “Rosemary’s Baby” (which is also set in New York). “It’s a horror movie… but it’s a little off from reality. The behavior is all real, but there’s something about everything in the movie that’s a little off.” Does that not sound pretty much like the world of Anderson’s films at the very least Anderson’s New York in ‘Tenebaums.’

Revenge Over Nothing Personal – “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)
As with many of Anderson’s characters, Steve Zissou is unable to free himself of many spiritual weights. In this case, it’s his fading cultural rank as a legendary oceanographer and documentary filmmaker, his wife (Angelica Huston), for whose affection he battles with his sworn nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), and most recently, the death of his best friend Esteban, swallowed whole by the elusive and singular jaguar shark.

The search for the creature takes him across a bevy of ships and locales, such as the Zissou compound on Pescespada Island (named after an Italian dish in the restaurant where Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach held meetings about the film), or his ship, The Belafonte (in actuality a minesweeper vessel purchased from South Africa) seen in cutaway form. Home to a divisive moment, though, are the Ping Islands, where Steve and his cronies stage a rescue of Hennessey and his crew against Filipino pirates. The ensuing gunfight, one of the most tonally stark and clumsily handled sequences of Anderson’s career, is a rare sight, but it encapsulates the director’s focus for such an action scene: the symbolism of the act—in this case the swell of Steve’s courage—over real-life consequences or logic.

The creatures, created by stop-motion wizard Henry Selick, are an integral highlight of the film: the crayon pony fish, the Hermès eel (modeled after a Hermès scarf), and sugar crabs. They also add tremendously to the film’s climax, as Steve and his crew finally confront the jaguar shark once more. The scene, scored to Sigur Ros’ “Staralfur”, is appropriately majestic, but according to Selick the actual process of pulling the shot off was incredibly trying.

“This thing, even though it was hollow, weighed about 90 or 100 pounds, so we had to build a special rig to support it,” he said in an interview with Creative Planet. “We came up with a way to make it visible at a distance, with spots that glowed… that’s definitely the big moment in the film, and it really pays off. It’s surprisingly emotional and strong.”


In Pursuit of That Spiritual “Thing” Across India – “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)
If the prospect of shooting a film in India—with a foreign crew and many scenes set in bustling city centers and serene temples—wasn’t daunting enough, “The Darjeeling Limited” also finds Anderson with one of his most elaborate and challenging creations: a fully functional train, carrying his trio of squabbling sibling characters across the sub-continent.

To pull this off, Anderson and head production designer Mark Friedberg called on Northwestern Railways to supply them with a locomotive and ten rail cars. Once secured, they decorated the exterior and interior with the inspiration of the New York-Chicago line 20th Century Limited, which ran from 1902 to 1967. Their creation, The Darjeeling Limited, in reality traveled from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert bordering Pakistan, and supplied the setting where eldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson) gathers his brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) for a pre-planned spiritual journey.

Repeatedly throughout the film the word “thing” is used to signify a clue to a possible spiritual awakening; at different point all three brothers plan to “meet at that thing out there” or “do the thing”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a peacock feather or the Temple of 1000 Bulls they’re talking about—Anderson cleverly lines up these items on a laminated card for the trio to mistake consumerism, or consumption, for spirituality. In this case, the latter temple is very much a key stop, as upon arriving Francis comments on the its beauty. Of course, it’s only a moment later that all three are shopping in nearby stalls for shoes, a power adapter, and pepper spray.

“Our approach with this movie was very much that whatever went wrong, we were going to make that part of our story,” Anderson told The AV Club in a 2007 interview. “If the hut was brown, and we left for the evening, and when we came back, the hut was painted blue with flowers all over it because somebody thought that it would be a good idea, that’s the way we were going to use it in the story… The bumps in the road can be so peculiar, and that was what we wanted the movie to be about.”

Production Diary – Day 1: Temple of 1000 Bulls

The Simple Science of Whackbat – “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
“Well, it’s real simple: basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig-runners, and the player at whack-bat. The center-tagger lights the pine-cone and chucks it over the basket, and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar-stick off the cross-rock.”

We’ve already delved into the many references, in-jokes, and allusions that populate the self-contained world of Anderson’s first animated feature, but needless to say the film is a hilarious, intelligent blend of Roald Dahl’s characters and settings with Anderson’s own perspective on fatherhood and its many challenges.

Take even something as brief as the game of Whackbat, a dense, invented game mixing cricket, baseball and a hodgepodge of other sources. While the sequence ranks among the film’s most humorous with its quick imagery and spirited narration by Coach Skip (Owen Wilson), it also acutely conveys Mr. Fox’s once-reigning athletic prowess (having repeatedly won PS II Co-Ed All Species MVP of the Fox Year), and the futile attempts from his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) to live up to it.

In creating the game, Anderson turned to animator Brad Schiff, a self-proclaimed sports nut on the crew, for help. Email exchanges between the two, chronicled in “The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox” book, show the evolution of the game, as well as suggestions from Schiff on animating Ash’s seemingly-perfect cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) as he plays.

“He could twist as he jumps over taggers, like gymnasts do when they jump over the pommel horse or when they do floor exercises?” asks Schiff, and Anderson replies with certain narrative beats in which to place those physical moments. The director also references Walter Payton in Kristofferson’s movements, and simply writes “PERFECT” to the suggestion of him yelling, “Divide that by nine, please” once “hotbox” is called. Even if none or all of that made sense, watch the full sequence below.

A New England Island of Adolescents – “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
Three days before a ferocious and well-documented storm strikes the fictional island of New Penzance off the coast of New England, two preteen lovers leave their families to behind to start a new idyllic life together. Even before the incoming weather enters the equation, the tale of Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and bookworm Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is fated for disappointment, but Anderson balances that melancholy fate with a genuine optimism in the end.

The director based New Penzance on Naushon, an island near Massachusetts where some of his friends live; though “Moonrise Kingdom” is set in 1965, Naushon prides itself on staying timeless. “There are no cars, you’ve got to take a ferry there, and there are only about 20 houses,” Anderson says. “It’s a place that is institutionally protected from any change, and when you go there, it feels like stepping back at least 40 years into the past.”

More so than any of Anderson’s other films, there is a real effort present to freeze New Penzance as a place of fading summers and earnest emotions—a sly nod to that idea exists in Fidelity Island and Honesty Rock, seen on the oft-displayed map (via The Big Think). Stacks of belongings also fill every frame of the various foster homes that Sam escapes, and in the geometric angles of the Bishop House (brought to life within a defunct Linens N’ Things in Newport, Rhode Island). In Suzy’s case especially, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola take much care and pleasure in creating the various book titles in her possession (even going so far as to animate sections of each—see the Short Film/Commercials section).

Glory Faded In Zubrowka – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
If you wanted to find one consistent theme that’s nearly omnipresent in the films of Wes Anderson, it is faded glory. You’ll find traces of it everywhere, and it is perhaps his most resonant and meaningful theme. The Royal Tenenbaums are a once-renowned family that’s presented in their decline, the “sic transit gloria” (“glory fades”) line from “Rushmore,” speaks to Max Fisher’s melancholy memory of his mother and how the underachiever has potentially hit his peak even before his adult life has even begun. Steve Zissou of “The Life Aquatic” is also is also presented on the downslope of a once celebrated career, and so on and so forth. This theme once again raises its head in Anderson’s latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is, on its surface, a delightful comedic caper and murder mystery, and on the inside a much darker and sadder tale of a glorious era of civility that no longer exists thanks to an encroaching age of fascism.

And so Wes Anderson’s fascination with imagined worlds arguably reaches its logical apex with his latest pastry-pink delight. And yet like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the movie presents a familiar world slanted through Anderson’s imaginative lens. Set in an invented Eastern European nation called The Republic Of Zabrowka (“It… is part Czechoslovakia, part Hungary, part Poland,” Anderson once said), the story ostensibly takes place within a history we know: the calm before the storm of WWII and the aforementioned menace of tyranny about to hit Europe. Yet Anderson’s milieu is not only the “slightly fantastic” version of Eastern Europe heightened, but also free from the as-we-know-them points of historical reference. As Anderson put it, he just mixed and matched elements of history as he saw fit. “We’re in a made up country, we’re mixing wars together, we’re mixing up nationalities and cultures,” he said. “There’s a war starting in 1932 and that’s not exactly lining up with [our history], so I just felt like we’ll make our own experience however we want.”

The film’s political backdrop is an amalgamation of the two world wars, and instead of Nazis there is an unnamed militaristic regime represented by the words “ZZ” (which could be a stand in for “SS,” but this form of tyranny is not labeled as Nazi or German).

Perhaps one of the more inspired and moving elements of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—given how nostalgic it is for periods in history that no longer exist (or in the case of Anderson’s world, never actually properly existed)—is how it’s all filtered through a melancholy prism of memory, and passed on like the tradition of storytelling. The story is based on the work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, and just as Anderson enters Zweig’s world via his novels and the writer’s recollections of pre-WWI Austria (a time when art and culture are everything), all the characters in the movie are reflecting back as well. Set in three different time periods (including a brief flash of the present at the beginning and end). You have the 1960s, when an older Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) looks back fondly and yet sadly on his friend Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), his wife Agatha and this golden-age period of his life (which takes place in 1932), and the 1980s, when the author (now played by Tom Wilkinson) passes down his story of meeting Mr. Moustafa in communist-era 1960s through novel form. Briefly, we later see a young girl at the author’s tombstone later with a copy of his book (this is what some argue is “present day”). Presumably she’s passing on this story too. (It sounds much more complicated than it is; here’s a graphic which explains it, plus the aspect ratio for each section of the film and instructions on how it should be screened by projectionists.)

On top of an imagined country, there are also a million little invented baubles within it including the numerous hotels, the “Boy With Apple” painting Ralph Fiennes’ character is supposed to inherit, the Egon Schiele-like parody painting “Two Lesbians Masturbating,” and perhaps the most elaborate: “The Society of the Crossed Keys” which is like a secret order of hotel concierges in Zubrowka (a featurette on the latter below). One could spend an endless amount of time in this world, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s eccentric and fantastic imagination.

Short Film/Commercials
As we discussed last year in our feature piece, Anderson has made the increasingly necessary and lucrative avenue of commercials his distinct own—the American Express ad, run in 2007 and built around a “Day For Night” tribute sending up the director’s neurotic tendencies, is a perfect example of marketing craft, and the recent Prada ads written with Roman Coppola are a strange bit of surreal candy featuring Léa Seydoux.

But aside from another collaboration with Prada in the charming short filmCastello Cavalcanti,” which sees Jason Schwartzman playing a race-car driver crashing into a city center from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Anderson has chosen to use the short format to flesh out his existing universes even further. “Hotel Chevalier,” a 13-minute, Paris-set prologue to “The Darjeeling Limited,” wonderfully provides depth and context to Jack’s longing for his ex-girlfriend played by Natalie Portman (echoed later in ‘Darjeeling’ with the song “Where Do You Go To [My Lovely]” by Peter Sarstedt). Then there’s the accompaniment to “Moonrise Kingdom”, in which Bob Balaban plays a librarian speaking directly to camera about Suzy’s favorite books, and then narrating a brief animated section from titles like “Shelly and the Secret Universe” and “The Light of Seven Matchsticks”. Check them out below.


What’s your favorite imagined item or element from Anderson’s work? Let us know in the comments below. — With contributions from Rodrigo Perez

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