The Absent Mr. Anderson

I’m not a Hollywood insider. I’m not even a film insider. I have no contacts that exist in any realm of the cinematic world. I have never visited a set, or been given the opportunity to interview an actor or a director in regards to their latest anticipated film. So maybe my opinion on Wes Anderson’s approach to directing his new, upcoming movie, the Roald Dahl adapted, stop motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, can be taken with a grain of salt– but you’re reading this blog, and at this point you should know what you’re getting.

Anderson, perhaps best known for 1998’s breakout hit Rushmore, has recently been the subject of intense discussion regarding his on-set presence filming Fox, or more precisely his lack thereof. Sources across web and print journals alike are reporting that Anderson spirited himself away to Paris upon commencement of principal photography, where he has stayed for the duration of the shoot. Why? By the director’s own admission, he just didn’t feel like being at the studio for that long a period of time. It shouldn’t be surprising that this attitude has engendered a certain degree of hostility from his put-upon crew. (In the link found below, his DP refers to him as a sociopath. Nice!) From an article in the LA Times:

The move did little to endear Anderson to his subordinates. “It’s not in the least bit normal,” director of photography Tristan Oliver observed at the production’s East London set last spring, when production on “Mr. Fox” was about three-quarters complete. “I’ve never worked on a picture where the director has been anywhere other than the studio floor!”

Moreover, Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion (the animation technique in which a stationary object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames) and exacting ideas concerning the film’s look would so exasperate his crew.

“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

(Source.)

For me, this tactic leaves me feeling cold towards Anderson. A while back I published a piece about 3D technology and the directors championing it as part of cinema’s evolution. While researching for that particular essay, I found myself endlessly impressed by the level of involvement people like Cameron and Jackson commit themselves to when it comes to the nuts and bolts of making movies, even so far into their careers. (Jackson, in particular, is a constant presence on his sets, or at least the extensive behind-the-scenes footage available for Lord of the Rings and King Kong seem to suggest as much.) While I came to something of an ambiguous conclusion on the subject (the shorthand version– I think 3D has potential but I’m still not 100% convinced it’s not just a cool gimmick), what really struck me about my research is the obvious passion that both directors have for making films; these men are hungry to create and build and share their visions with the world at large. It’s hard not to find oneself overflowing with respect for directors who are so active in the film making process, especially when both Jackson and Cameron are at points in their respective careers where they could very easily sit back and simply pass on their instructions and commands to cast and crew through their subordinates*.

If it isn’t already obvious what this has to do with Anderson, it should be: Anderson, in sequestering himself in Paris during principal, has done the exact opposite as other great contemporary directors, and removed himself from the actual process of creating the film. It’s hard to believe that the guy has that much passion for his craft when he’s so willing to distance himself from his latest project. But is it really fair to write Anderson off for making the choice to remain off-set?

There are ostensibly some good reasons for Anderson to remain mostly uninvolved in the making of Fox (and to be truthful, the article is somewhat hazy about exactly how much time Anderson has spent away from the set in the first place). The most obvious reason is that Anderson is totally uninitiated in the stop-motion animation process, and it could easily be argued that this alone is reason enough for Anderson to make his presence scarce on the set; given his inexperience with the medium, it’s likely that he’d be a hindrance to his crew as much as he’d be helpful to them. Even ignoring this potential scenario, there’s the possibility that Anderson just doesn’t need to be on set while the animators work; if you ask Fox‘s producer, Allison Abbate, it’s actually quite common for directors to work from off-set on stop-motion animation pictures due to the nature of the medium. From the same LA Times article:

Not everyone on-set was ruffled by the notion of an absentee director. “Mr. Fox’s” unflappable producer Allison Abbate is a veteran of many stop-motion productions, including Selick’s epochal “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Tim Burton’s Oscar-nominated “Corpse Bride.” She pointed out that it wasn’t unusual in the genre to issue directions from off-set.

“Tim wasn’t here that much during ‘Corpse Bride,’ ” Abbate said at Three Mills Studio last spring. “He doesn’t need to be. Making stop-motion is like watching paint dry.”

This contention certainly contradicts Tristan Oliver’s suggestion that Anderson’s behavior is anything but the norm. If Abbate speaks the truth, then what are the crew getting so rancorous about?

Anderson, despite being new to stop-motion, has a list of demands of his crew that at best are eccentric and at worst cruel and unusual. (My feeling: Eccentric all the way, and maybe even wholly unnecessary though I won’t be able to say for sure until I see the film.) For me, the most out-there item on the list is the decision to use real animal fur, which is something that stop-motion animators haven’t used for ages since coming to the consensus that it just plain doesn’t work on film. (It makes the actual animation more obvious, for one thing. Just watch 1933’s King Kong if you don’t believe me.) More broadly, Anderson has eschewed the use of most modern technology, disallowing use of computers and CGI to add images into shots in post (this year’s Coraline, also stop-motion animated, made liberal use of both). In short, Anderson has disarmed his crew of the current tools that they need to make their job as stress-free as possible, and promptly made their process more intensive inherently.

This is actually okay; Anderson is going for a specific look and feel and I understand that. (Though again, it’ll take the film’s release to determine whether or not his vision is cohesive and aesthetically pleasing.) But if you want to give Anderson hell for not showing up on the set, then this is the real reason why. Not being present on the set of your stop-motion animation film is one thing; not being present when you’ve relayed a number of very specific and highly work-intensive demands to your crew is something else entirely. Call it a gut feeling, but I can only imagine that the Fox crew would be much less disgruntled if Anderson had shown his face, even if only once. (Though apparently Oliver and Anderson have patched things up between each other, and may work together again.) If directors remaining off-set for stop-motion shoots is the norm, that’s fine, but taking away the equipment that a crew working on such a film would typically employ changes the playing field in a huge way. At that point, the process no longer fits into conceptions of “the norm”, and with that in mind it only makes sense for Anderson to acknowledge that particular reality and go above and beyond what’s expected of him. Bottom line, Wes should have been there. It’s not like traveling between Paris and London is that grueling in the first place, and I’m sure that he had some time to spare since he has no other projects in place and only went to Paris, it seems, to canoodle about while shooting took place.

This doesn’t negate or even reduce my anticipation for the film any; other sources, in shying away from the behind-the-scenes kerfuffle, simply highlight the elements of the film that make it an exciting entry in 2009’s Fall releases. But it does make me raise my eyebrow at Anderson, someone who I once thought to be a truly passionate auteur; ultimately, while he can be defended for being absent during shooting, it’s hard to muster up a whole lot of respect for the director upon learning that he foisted these requirements upon his crew without even appearing on his set.

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4 thoughts on “The Absent Mr. Anderson

  1. Pingback: The Absent Mr. Anderson | HOLLYWOOD

  2. As a guy who has been on several sets as talent and as crew, lemme tell you… sometimes we all wished the director would take a hike for a few hours so we could make the goddamned movie. maybe not as far as paris, though.

    for stop animation, though, i imagine it’s different. most of the work done by the director gets done in pre & post, and during the voice acting. during photography, what’s he/she going to do? “okay move that arm a fraction of an inch and twist it 3 degrees in -this- direction… okay now do it again!” distance is probably better when a film involves so many different crafts. jim henson would visit the different workshops on occasion, and it’s not like disney was walking past every single penciler’s light table or every inker’s drafting desk.

    as a boston lad i’m sure you already know about GameOverthinker aka MovieBob. He’s got a great channel on youtube, but most of his updates go to screwattack.com and the escapistmagazine.com. his thoughts on the gaming industry are inspiring, and his reviews are just snarky enough. see what he said about ‘Up’ and gender in pixar, i think you’ll like it.

    ps – MWA HA HA I HAS FOUND U ON TEH INTERNETZ

    • Hey buddy! Long time, no talk, glad you finally found me!

      The only reason I suggest Anderson should have made at least a couple of appearances during the year-long shoot is because the shoot is exactly that demanding. He’s asking a group of stop-motion animators to completely throw out the window the notions that they operate under when they engage their craft; real animal fur, and no CGI/computer imaging is a big, big deal. It’s not like the demands are impossible, but they’re very exacting and demanding. If you, as a director, have that specific a vision, such that your crew has to change the way they do what they do to bring it to life, then you probably ought to be in the thick of it with them a couple of times. That’s all.

      He definitely didn’t need to be there the whole time, but given that Paris isn’t exactly that far from London, and he had no pressing business to attend to in Paris aside from figuring out which quaint French bistro to eat at every day…really, the guy doesn’t have a good excuse.

      I have no heard of MovieBob, but I will check him out.

      Pass the blog on to people you know! (Yes I am a plug whore.)

  3. Pingback: A Useful Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009, dir. Wes Anderson « Something Useful To Everybody

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