In his latest film, you might say George Clooney is perfectly cast — a sly fox, a smooth operator, a wolf-whistling alpha male let loose in the henhouse. And not without his own existential angst, musing on his compulsion to be liked and the vapidity of his fame. “I asked him to be in it just because I was a fan,” enthuses his director, the usually laid-back Wes Anderson. “Only when I went into the editing room and started working with it did I realise that he has a most wonderful voice.”
That the film is an animation should not detract from what might be the actor’s finest performance to date — no kidding. Then again, under Anderson’s stewardship, Fantastic Mr Fox, from Roald Dahl’s 1970 story, is a queer beast all round. The tale of a charismatic fox at war with three local chicken farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean), it has become, in Anderson’s extended version — all filmed in jerky, old-fashioned stop-motion — a fatalistic fable about the struggle for survival, a sort of weird mash-up between Wallace & Gromit and those macabre eastern European animations beloved of children’s telly in the 1970s.
Anderson has long made a habit of essaying the unusual. Over the past decade and a half, he has established himself as one of America’s quirkiest film-makers. Tall and slim, with a mane of sandy-brown hair tucked behind his ears, in a natty bottle-green corduroy suit, he projects English country squire more than Texas native, no doubt enhanced by the 12 months he spent shooting the film at 3 Mills Studios, in London. Then there’s his friendship with Jarvis Cocker, who wrote some songs for the film and ended up as a character in it. At Claridge’s hotel, where we’re meeting, Anderson could be part of the furniture.
Back in 1997, when prepping his breakout film, Rushmore, a loosely autobiographical yarn about Max, a precocious youth at an elite boarding school, Anderson had wanted to shoot parts of that in Britain, too. “Even though the story is in America, Max's vision is that it’s set in one of the oldest, best schools in the world. But it wasn’t a very practical approach.” The Anglophilia continues. When writing Fantastic Mr Fox with Noah Baumbach (Anderson produced Baumbach’s indie hit The Squid and the Whale), they holed up at Dahl’s home, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. “His work is controlled by his family, and Liccy Dahl, his wife, is very involved in the movies,” he explains. “She tries to see that the stories end up in the hands of people she approves.” This one is perhaps not as well known as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but it is still a hot property. Anderson passed muster.
After the lukewarm reception to his two most recent films, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I wonder whether animation might have been a way for Anderson to blow off a bit of steam. No: he has been trying to make this film for years. He first met Liccy in 2000, and they would have started work on it then had there not been other complications. “While I was having lunch with Liccy for the first time, on my phone I saw I had 12 missed calls. I said, ‘Can we find out what this is?’ They said we were greenlit to do The Royal Tenenbaums — ‘You start shooting in six weeks.’” Later, when attention turned back to Fantastic Mr Fox, the studio that wanted to make it, Revolution, went bust. Anderson refused to give up hope: “The fact that it was a Roald Dahl makes a big difference.” Rather appropriately, Twentieth Century Fox took it over.
Speed was never Anderson’s forte. This is only his sixth film in 13 years. (The master of understatement, he tots them up in his head, but can tally only five.) Part of it, he says, is down to being an auteur, personally involved in every aspect of a film from the bottom up — “Also, I’m not that fast a writer... like the Coen brothers, they work very briskly, but there are two of them and they are efficient.” As an animation, this one took even longer than usual, each tiny movement of the puppets assembled frame by painstaking frame, all 62,000 of them.
Rather naively, Anderson assumed it was a project he could do on the side, “but there are so many questions to answer and problems to solve, it becomes a full-time job”. It became business as usual. Such is Anderson’s obsession with detail, even some of the voices were recorded in outdoor locations, to create the correct woodland vibe — Italy, a farm in Connecticut, Britain. “We recorded part of Michael Gambon’s performance on the set of the BBC version of Emma.”
As the voice of Farmer Bean, Gambon contributes to a transatlantic feel. Though the story is set in England, Clooney’s all-American fox kicks off the picture leaning against a tree, casually listening to the theme tune from TV’s Davy Crockett on his headphones. Here, the animals are the colonial upstarts, while the British — in the finest Hollywood tradition — play the baddies, the humans. “We wrote the dialogue as Americans. It was going to be English voices doing American dialogue, and that wasn’t going to be right.” And bad we Brits are, brutally blowing off Mr Fox’s magnificent tail and besieging his family, forcing the entire forest community, like a sort of furry Vietcong, to tunnel deeper and deeper underground.
Quite who might constitute the film’s audience is another question. Ever since Toy Story demonstrated the rich pickings to be had when aiming films at parents as much as children, a split-level approach has become the norm for animated movies. With Fantastic Mr Fox, however, Anderson at times seems in danger of ignoring the younger ones altogether. The film was never made with a specific marketing demographic in mind. “It’s not my prime consideration,” he says, “but I know that when I started the project, I wanted to make a movie like the children’s films I loved as a child.”
It was the whimsy of the television series of Charlie Brown that first grabbed him. The son of an ad-exec father and an archeologist mother, who divorced when he was young, Wesley Mortimer Wales Anderson was dispatched to a stuffy, oak-panelled academy (St John’s School, Houston), where, like the central character in Rushmore, Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman), he staged outlandish plays. At the University of Texas at Austin, he became best pals with Owen Wilson and, by association, his brother Luke, both budding actors.
In 1992, Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote a short film, Bottle Rocket, for Luke to star in, a yarn about a gang of hopeless slacker bank robbers. It was well received on the festival circuit and championed by the heavyweight producer James L Brooks. It was consequently remade as a full-length feature, given kudos by the presence of James Caan, and released in 1996. Martin Scorsese, no less, hailed it as one of his favourite films of the 1990s. Owen Wilson, of course, has since had problems, including an alleged suicide attempt in 2007. But “he’s great”, Anderson assures.
Another godfather came their way on Rushmore, this time Bill Murray, who bankrolled part of the film and launched himself on a whole new career trajectory (what one might call his bearded period) as a doleful, cynical fiftysomething, a shift away from the broader comedy of his earlier films. Murray crops up in Fantastic Mr Fox, as a badger, as do others from the troupe: Owen Wilson, Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe. The female lead, Mrs Fox, is taken by Meryl Streep. Murray had also appeared in The Royal Tenenbaums, a film about a dysfunctional clan, modelled on Salinger’s Glass family, who inhabit a kind of fairy-tale New York. (Anderson lives in Manhattan, with an apartment in Paris also.) It gained Anderson his first Oscar nomination, for original screenplay, and established a sort of pattern for Planet Anderson, a place where people use old-fashioned dialogue, have a preference for melancholy and exhibit a humour so dry that it’s in need of a dollop of E45. Here, in shots composed like elaborate tableaux, men with bow ties who smoke pipes fret over women as obscure objects of desire. Then there are the soundtracks — classic rock/pop from the 1960s and 1970s, most imaginatively realised in The Life Aquatic, with the Brazilian singer/guitarist Seu Jorge crooning bossa nova renditions of early David Bowie.
With The Royal Tenenbaums, Hollywood liked what it saw — so much so that $50m was thrown at Anderson to make his next film, probably more cash than was sensible. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray starred again, as a Jacques Cousteau type, an oceanographer bent on a showdown with the fabled “jaguar shark”, all filmed on the Italian Riviera. A financial flop, it drew out Anderson’s detractors. He was all style, no substance, they howled — his better work was to be seen in the television commercials he had made for AT&T and American Express (worth a look on YouTube). Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, of the jazz-rock outfit Steely Dan, wrote Anderson a public letter of intervention — “We’re not trying to be critical, dammit, we just want to help.”
“Well, it certainly affects me, but there’s not much to be done about it,” Anderson shrugs. “You spend three years making a movie. I obviously would have been in a much better mood if it was a hit. On the other hand, by the time the movie’s coming out, I’m thinking about my next film. I haven’t ever felt I want to change how I do things because this one didn’t do well.”
Anderson’s follow-up, The Darjeeling Limited, was a more prudently budgeted piece, filmed largely on a train (albeit in Rajasthan) as three brothers (Owen Wilson, Schwartzman, Brody) embarked on the proverbial spiritual journey across India. It, too, received a rather muted response. Is Fantastic Mr Fox a return to form? Not really, insomuch as he has never attempted the form before. But it’s one he relished. “I love the handmade aspect of it,” he says. “There’s a charm to stop-motion that’s personal to me. You get to make literally everything from scratch, so you can create an entire world.” Most important for him, the Dahl family likes it. Anderson won’t say what he’s up to next, but he’s currently immersed in Japanese cinema. “I have a couple of things I’m ready to launch into,” he says. Just don’t expect them in a hurry.
Fantastic Mr Fox opens the London Film Festival on Wednesday and goes on general release on October 23