Bringing Roald Dahl's dark tale Fantastic Mr Fox to the big screen using stop-motion animation meant a journey into unfamiliar territory for director Wes Anderson.
A different kind of animal
The 40-year-old Texan Wes Anderson defies categorisation. With his floppy hair and monotone voice, he is not the larger-than-life maverick director in the vein of Tarantino, but nor is he a silent, Wachowski-esque recluse. He is responsible for some of the most visually original films of the past decade, earning the hearts of millions around the globe with his stories of broken homes and melancholy eccentrics. But his latest outing takes him in a new direction - the first Wes Anderson family film.
Fantastic Mr Fox, which screens as part of the Dubai International Film Festival's Cinema of the World section on Saturday, is Anderson's sixth feature film and a project that presented him with a brace of interesting obstacles. Firstly, he made the film using challenging stop-motion animation, directing the same crew that worked on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Anderson first used the medium for segments of his 2005 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Secondly, it is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, which has tested even the most high-profile directors in the past. The popularity of Dahl's books makes changes to the source material controversial. Dahl's work is also notorious for its scary content, which can make it difficult for studio executives eager to publicise a family-friendly film. This has led to accurate and sometimes dark work, such as Burton's take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but there have also been watered-down films such as the 1996 version of Matilda, which disappointed lovers of the book.
While Anderson is certainly not a filmmaker afraid of making audiences uncomfortable, many were concerned by what an American's take on a classic British novel would look like. Much controversy surrounded the shoot, from casting a predominately American cast to rumours that Anderson was directing from Paris, sending directing notes to animators by e-mail. Anderson's film is the story of Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a dashing creature who gives up his old job of stealing chickens at the request of his pregnant wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep). Years later, Fox finds himself unfulfilled with his job as a newspaper columnist and the unremarkable nature of his life. He decides to enlist the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) to carry out one last job by stealing chickens from the local farm. One job turns into three, and he soon finds that he has enraged the local farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The trio become obsessed with killing their animal assailant, and the wildlife population is soon driven underground. Faced with either execution or starvation, Mr Fox must find a way to outwit the farmers and save the lives of his family and friends.
Even though he has used animation in other movies, taking on a full film using stop-motion would always be a challenge, and it has brought up a new appreciation of voice actors for Anderson. "The main thing I learned while making the movie is what the voices give the animators," he says. "You record the voices first and the animators then animate the puppets based on those performances - their inspiration comes from those moments with the actors." Another challenge was keeping the voice of the author in this adaptation. Anderson went to Dahl's former home, Gypsy House, to write portions of the script, as well as drawing from another first-hand source, the original manuscript for the book. "We wanted to base the film on him as well as the book," he says. "We were always aware that kids reading his books knew him. He spoke to his readers through his books. He had a relationship with them. He wasn't just an author telling stories."
Anderson had been linked to the story for years, signing on to direct in 2004 but expressing an interest in being involved with the film for the best part of a decade. "It was the first Roald Dahl story I ever read, and actually the first book I ever owned," he says. "It was a book I loved as a child and it was a book that opened up all of Roald Dahl's other stories to me, so it made a big impression." He also believes that this film shares the same spirit of Dahl's books. "I remember being scared by Roald Dahl and I loved that. We tried to keep it as dark. When we were writing the script, our goal was to try to see if we could imagine how Dahl would have written it, how he would have made the transition from a book to a script. This is a movie where characters are in serious danger, where they could be killed, and that's the way it was in the book."
Anderson is very open about every aspect of a career that had its first hit in 1998 with Rushmore, gained momentum (and an Oscar nomination) with 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, and consolidated with 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and 2007's The Darjeeling Limited. His style divides opinion. Some regard him as a genius while others have judged his repeated use of similar themes and aesthetics to be the sign of limited ability. Anderson has described his artistic direction as seeing "the beauty in flaws, and vice versa".
Perhaps one of the most recognisable traits of his work is his regular company of actors - Luke and Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Angelica Huston. Anderson accepts there is a degree of safety to these choices, but says that he always has the best interest of the story in mind. "I suppose it's obvious that I do prefer working with some actors more regularly," he says, "but I don't set about writing a script thinking: 'Which part should I write for Bill?' or 'How can I fit Jason into this story?' I work with some actors because I know what they are capable of and what they can bring to the film, but I don't choose them because it's convenient."
One could argue that this explanation is vindicated by the established names he has sporadically cast in previous films - Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums and Adrien Brody in The Darjeeling Limited. In this film, he features two Oscar-winning actors, Streep and the star of the show, Clooney. "With a script like this, you have to think of the character, the persona that animal has, and try to place a name to the character. Our first idea was we wanted Mr Fox to be like Cary Grant, and then within a few seconds we were thinking of Clooney." There was no trepidation about bringing an A-list name into the fold, and Anderson was delighted with the results. "He just really enjoyed the recording process, and brought the performance that was needed. It was a great experience working with him."
The film was released to positive critical reaction. The trade paper Variety described it as having "a feel that is at once coarse-grained and elegant, antiquated and the height of fashion", while the film magazine Empire called it "genuinely original". Now that the film is completed, Anderson is still positive about animation. "I would definitely do it again," he beams. "I loved making this film and as for this medium I feel like it's something I can turn to if I need it. It's a part of my arsenal now." *The National