After learning about Wes Anderson’s humble journey to becoming a filmmaker, let’s jump into one of his most beloved movies, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
At this point in his career, Anderson had made a number of great films, all of which he co-wrote and directed. Writing alongside the likes of Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman, this film was his second movie that he wrote with his good friend Noah Baumbach. From the initial adaptation and story building, to full immersion in Roald Dahl’s life for inspiration, to the unique experience of turning a script into a stop motion film, the creation of this movie perfectly represents Anderson’s quirky and brilliant style.
They first started the writing process when Wes approached Noah with the ambition to both adapt his favorite childhood story, and also attempt his first stop motion feature. Having written Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou together a few years prior, Baumbach was quick to join the project. From the beginning they knew that the story would revolve around the basic premise of the book, and a young Anderson’s favorite part, the digging. And from there their imaginations were sparked.
The second you start reading the script, both Baumbach and Anderson’s distinct voices pop out at you. Besides the detailed and nuanced characters and descriptions, which we will come back to later, one of the most noticeable aspects of an Anderson film, and this film in particular, is the dialogue. To better understand what makes his dialogue so special, I think it is important to establish the likes of more traditional dialogue. When you are watching a movie or a television show, the dialogue is either good or bad. Bad dialogue is very noticeable. When the dialogue isn’t working it distracts from every other facet and leaves an audience cringing or disinterested in the story being told. On the contrary, good dialogue is not noticeable at all. If you are watching something with dialogue that flows elegantly, you won’t think twice because it’s so natural it is as if the characters are just having normal conversations. But, Anderson and Baumbach’s dialogue is something different. Their dialogue is definitely noticeable, but in a way that helps you to invest in these characters because they are something you’ve never seen before. It’s like they have created an entirely new world and the dialogue flows naturally, but with an entirely new state of being. This can be exemplified by any line you read in the script, but even more specific is their use of the word “cuss” instead of curse words throughout the film.
Getting back to the detailed characters and descriptions, an important part of their writing process involved the humanization of the characters and making the material as personal as possible. The two men went about this in a few different ways. The first of which was, upon invitation, spending a considerable amount of time at Roald Dahl’s infamous Gypsy House, where he wrote most all of his books. Getting to know the late author through his wife and his grandson, Anderson and Baumbach were able to not only adapt the book, but adapt Dahl’s spirit and incorporate it in various ways throughout the film. Another way in which they came up with such nuanced characters and scenes is through recollection of stories and people in their own lives. My favorite example of this is a line given to the character of the Rat.
Years earlier Wes Anderson had been invited to a rehearsal for a concert in Central Park. At this particular concert Eric Clapton and Keith Richards would be playing together. As the story goes, Clapton and Richards, previously best friends, hadn’t spoken in years due to a big falling out in high school over a girl. The two were rehearsing fine, then all of a sudden they started to argue, and Keith Richards stormed off. But right before he walked off the stage he turned to Clapton, showed him his wrist and said. “I’ve still got the watch. She never asked for it back.” Finding the absurdity of this moment to be highly entertaining, Anderson then gave this line to the character of Rat, who happens to be Mr. Fox’s nemesis in the book and movie. It is moments like these that make the characters so much more than fictional creations. Rather they have full stories, personalities, and existences, even beyond what we can see on screen.
The final element in the creation of this script, is how the stop motion process comes into play. By his own admission, Anderson is the kind of writer/director who perfects his script before he gets on set and will not alter anything on the day, unless absolutely necessary. Originally, Anderson expected that he would finish the script, like usual, provide details of how he wanted things to play out, submit his requests to his animators, and a few months later he’d be presented with the final product. However, this is not really possible on a stop motion film. After wrapping up the writing of the final draft with Noah, he was sent straight into the animatics process. This is essentially a stop motion storyboard that allows you to visualize your script and see what the limitations might be in a stop motion realm. For most filmmakers, this process requires a lot of rewriting. Unexpectedly, as the animatics were made, Anderson quickly realized that he needed to be adaptable and make some big alterations to the script, something he had not done on a movie before. Even as he went through the stop motion process, watching the dailys at the end of every day to make sure his stop motion team was meeting his vision, Anderson found that there were lots of things he needed to change in order to get his story across.
At times Wes would even have to act things out himself, for reference. He’d wake up in the mornings to requests for clarification, and he would need to film himself (inevitably in his pajamas) acting out what he wanted his characters to do. All of this taught Anderson that in stop motion animation a second script is vital for clarity of vision. In harmony with a written script, a visual script, could bring an added layer of his own personality to the writing and patch work that ultimately made such a brilliant film.
Wes Anderson has a style all his own, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is no exception. His process for writing such a beautifully crafted piece of work involved teamwork, a slew of people in his life to draw inspiration from, and a mind with boundless imagination, and that was only the first part. The hard work and vision that it took to make this film should stand as a perfect example of what happens when you set your mind a task and stop at nothing to achieve it. Anderson set out to make a feature stop motion film that accurately captured the love and affection that he had for the beloved story by Roald Dahl. And the best part is, he isn’t super human. He doesn’t have super powers. He made a “fantastic” film...and so can you. Take a note from Wes Anderson’s book.
Work hard, inspire yourself, find inspiration through others, and regardless of the struggles that may come your way, PERSEVERE.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.