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When it comes to being on the same creative page, director Wes Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen have mastered the term shorthand.
As the architect of Anderson’s worlds, Stockhausen’s work on the film The French Dispatch was all about the details. “I don’t think I am breaking any news here that Wes likes arranged symmetrical frames, but that is not the starting point,” the Oscar-winning designer tells THR.
“When we talk about the story, it’s all about the feeling of the places and the history, and how to get the details just right because that is the way he works. His style is not only about the color choices and the layout of the objects, but also the lens he chooses and the way the cameras move.”
The film — with an ensemble cast that includes Bill Murray, Elisabeth Moss, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet and Owen Wilson — marks their sixth collaboration. They have created movie magic at a camp in New England (Moonrise Kingdom), an opulent Old-World hotel in Germany (Grand Budapest Hotel), and an animated Japanese-influenced canine haven (Isle of Dogs).
As Stockhausen notes, “The longer we know each other, and the more times we work together, the better the shorthand becomes. When he is describing something on a storyboard, instead of four or five follow-up questions, you kind of get it right away. We were moving very quickly on this film, so the shorthand makes it all possible.”
Creating the four editorial vignettes from an American magazine’s final issue (think The New Yorker) based in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, Stockhausen looked to French New Wave films, Orson Welle’s The Trial, Irma La Douce, the classic short The Red Balloon, Mon Oncle and the work of Jean Renoir for inspiration.
A Google Earth search led the creative team to the hilltop southwestern town of Angoulême, which was ideal with its ancient architecture, the twists and turns of the narrow cobblestone streets and the vertical stacking of the spaces and an old felt factory that doubled as a film studio. “The goal was to create Paris before it was Paris, not the real Paris but the movie version,” Stockhausen details of the 50s and 60s period. Pre-Hausmann photographs of Charles Marville and the Paris of filmmaker Jacques Tati provided a nostalgic look as well.
The 20-minute stories include a student revolution (“Revisions to a Manifesto”), an imprisoned painter and his prison guard muse (“Concrete Masterpiece”), a crime mystery (“The Private Dining Room of a Police Commissioner) and “The Cycling Reporter.” This translated into 130 sets where every shot demanded a different set-up with its own visual look. Stockhausen did a deep dive into the animatic process and then designed the different pieces of the story, followed by the scouting process.
“The challenges were how many different things we were doing at one time,” he says. “It was a flat out-run trying to do the turnaround from one set to another.”
As with any Anderson film, authenticity is the name of the game. Set decorator Rena DeAngelo scoured the basements of Angoulême and the flea markets from Paris to Le Mans for period set pieces. Anderson friend and German artist Sandro Kopp designed ten abstract frescoes for the “Concrete Masterpiece,” while an international French police trade magazine from the ’30s to the ’60s set the tone for the crime story.
Color, an Anderson trademark, comes into play with black and white still life scenes of the actors frozen in time and the intense bright yellow storefronts and colorful Citroen vehicles.
The result is the director’s French love letter to his adopted country, a visual masterpiece and perhaps his most creative one to date. Behind the scenes, the success is attributed to a familiar tight-knit team. As Stockhausen says, “The great thing about working with Wes is the way we make movies and go to a place to hunker down away from the studios and live together. The result is each film is an intense special experience, so I have all these great memories and they are so different from each other.”
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