Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Wes Andeson was interested in art from the beginning. His ambitions from an early age were to be an architect. Then, in high school, his interests shifted and he wanted to be a writer. All the while, he was making plays and short films using his dad’s Super 8 camera. He has said that what he does now is a combination of all of these things. And, it is in this combination that Anderson’s filmmaking style was born. His films have an unparalleled precision that is so unique to him that it is recognizable from the first frame. Through theatrical costumes, epic architectural design and ambience, operatic score, perfectly centered framing, and camera movement with a personality, Anderson has made himself a cinematic icon, whether you like his films or not.
Going back to the beginning, before Anderson was a writer and filmmaker, he was a reader and a viewer. He spent many hours scouring the shelves of local bookstores reading every and any movie book he could get his hands on. In conjunction with his viewing of old classics, he developed a deep respect for the greats, in particular Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. One of his all time favorite movie books is the infamous Hitchcock/Truffaut written by Francois Truffaut himself. It is Truffaut’s documentation of a week long interview with Hitchcock discussing his work and process. Enamored by both men’s film styles, Anderson has proclaimed that he read the book so many times the cover has fallen off and he’s had to rebind the pages with tape.
Alongside the development of his love for film, Anderson spent his entire kindergarten through twelfth grade at St. John’s School in Houston. It was this school that would later become the setting and filming location of his 1998 classic Rushmore. Following high school graduation, Anderson stayed local and went on to pursue philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. It is there that he met future creative partner and good friend Owen Wilson.
The friendship began, following their concurrent enrollment in a playwriting class. Both sat in the back of the classroom and neither spoke. It wasn’t until the following semester when they took another class together that conversation was sparked. Realizing they had a mutual love of cinema, the two boys began planning to make a film of their own. Initially attempting to write a crime classic like Coppola’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Wilson and Anderson started the process of writing Bottle Rocket. Borrowing a total of four thousand dollars from their parents, and starring Owen Wilson and his brother Luke, they soon realized that making the next Goodfellas was out of their capabilities, so their dream of making an austere crime feature film soon turned into a thirteen minute long comedic caper. But, even though their initial goal wasn’t met, they did manage to get their short film into Sundance where they were inevitably given the opportunity to turn Bottle Rocket into a feature.
First, they set to work writing the script. Reflecting back, Anderson has noted that they made a mistake that most early filmmakers make. That is, they let their excitement get the better of them and they wrote a two-hundred paged script. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the screenwriting rule of thumb, there is a generalized idea that one page is roughly equal to one minute on screen. Thus, they had written a draft that would have been over three hours long.
However, they had a team behind them that helped them hone it down and tailor it to be slightly more suitable for a general audience of movie-goers. But, as they would soon find out, revisions did not bring about the hoped for result. In Wes Anderson’s words, “I never had more confidence than when I was shooting the movie. And I never had less confidence than when we screened it.” On a five million dollar budget, Bottle Rocket was commercially a flop bringing in only five-hundred thousand dollars at the box office. With this flop comes a great story of one of the first screenings of the movie.
Anderson sat in the back of the theater with a group of people. He said that as the film went on people started getting up and leaving in groups. In his words, “I knew people didn’t go to the bathroom in groups. They were not coming back.” Even Anderson himself had to leave at one point because the poor reception was so hard to witness. At the end of the screening everyone was brought back in and asked to fill out a notecard with what they thought of the film. Every single card was negative and claimed it was the worst film they’d ever seen, except for one. There was one girl who sat and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, filling an entire card front and back with everything she loved about the movie, even quoting lines that resonated with her. Despite the crushing blow to his self-esteem, Anderson knew in that moment, “This is my audience.” And with that, he put trust in himself, and trust in the fact that there existed an audience for his type of filmmaking style, so he persevered.
His next film was Rushmore, a deeply personal and semi-autobiographical picture starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. This movie brought in nearly twenty million dollars at the box office. It was a commercial hit and was well received by the critics. The rest is history.
Taking a look at Wes Anderson today, he has written and directed ten feature films, and produced even more. With each film, his style and storytelling reaches new heights. He is one of those brilliant filmmakers who makes his own rules, rules which can be identified in each film as a sort of signature at the bottom of the page. However, when asked if he consciously makes an effort to bring a similar tone to each film, he has said that he doesn’t, rather he makes the movie in whatever way feels best to him and his subconscious threads the homogeneity between them. From there, taking a closer look at his process, Anderson, like anybody, starts with an idea. Whether it be a desire to adapt a favorite childhood book or a curiosity about the way political climates in Europe would affect a grand hotel, Anderson finds something deeply interesting to him and dives headfirst into research. Reading, spending time with people, spending time with himself and his own thoughts, Anderson is meticulous and gives his ideas the time they need to percolate and develop into lofty and rich stories. He brings his characters to life through exaggerated and personal dialogue, eccentric costumes, and intensely detailed sets. And more than anything he builds entire worlds to play in, allowing actors and crew members alike to join his imagination and subsequently make a movie.
We will dive further into Wes Anderson’s filmmaking process in future blog posts, but for now, take note of Anderson’s origin story. Like superheroes, all filmmakers had to start somewhere and no one story is the same. If there is one lesson to be learned from Anderson’s humble beginnings, it’s that you need to be your own best advocate. In any artistic or creative pursuit in life, there is no cavalry coming. Even if you get a room full of notecards saying “Your movie SUKD”, hold on to the one person that connected to it. Fight for yourself. Fight for your vision.
No one knows they need your movies until you make them. So take a chance on yourself and get busy.
You’ve got movies to make.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.