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From Dallas To Zubrowka: The Imagined Worlds of Wes Anderson

Features
by Charlie Schmidlin
March 17, 2014 3:34 PM
3 Comments
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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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.

Life Aquatic

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."

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Darjeeling Limited

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.

Darjeeling Limited

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
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Fantastic Mr. Fox. (skip)

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.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox, whackbat

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.

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3 Comments

  • Tombeet | March 29, 2014 8:46 PMReply

    There are many favorites in Wes' universes, but my heart will always be Margot Tenenbaums and her Africa's obssession - (many African figures, she wears a zebra costume on her birthday in a play and she even married an Jamaican artist) - and her persistence for privacy (her room door literally have "do not disturbed", "Keep door closed", "Do not enter" signs and about 5,6 locks)

  • Frannie | March 28, 2014 4:53 PMReply

    Great article about a true artist. I loved Bottle Rocket when it came out, but had no idea he would evolve to the point of Moonrise Kingdom, a masterpiece. So happy for his success.

  • John | March 17, 2014 7:00 PMReply

    In "Life Aquatic", "pescespada" isn't just an Italian dish…it's literally Italian for swordfish (pesce = fish, spada = sword), which makes the context even funnier. Great article, thanks!

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