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The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest HotelCourtesy of Annie Atkins

The dA-Zed guide to Wes Anderson

This alphabetical guide gets to the heart of the powerhouse director who’s leading America’s new ‘New wave’

Wes Anderson has single-handedly spawned his own genre of film. He has been credited with mastering the moving diorama, repopularizing the font Futura and – with Rushmore – reinvigorating the once-flagging career of Bill Murray. Anderson has brought about a sea change, post-Kubrick, of paying great attention to detail. His work is also divisive: some interpret his films as overtly twee and others lambast his films’ unbearable whiteness. However you look at his work, there’s no denying he is a vigorous aesthete who cares deeply about the stories he chooses to tell – now counting eight in total. What makes him tick? Here we break down his cultural insignia and colourful rainbow of characters to get that much closer to one of America’s greatest contemporary directors.


Matronly badass Anjelica Huston has appeared in three of Wes Anderson’s films. Along with several other stars, Huston is one of the only female returnees that Anderson consistently recasts as a buffer for his boy’s club. It could be, according to one University of California graduate, Anderson’s fascination with Huston’s ability to eschew stereotypes often portrayed by middle-aged women on screen. In a paper titled “A certain age: Wes Anderson, Anjelica Huston and modern femininity”, author Cynthia Felando argues that “unlike the cloying smiles and indecision characteristic of Diane Keaton’s and Goldie Hawn’s roles, Huston’s characters are forthright and likeable, or at least compelling – but they are not given to easy smiles, and they certainly do not gush or seek approval, either from characters within the films or from the audience.”


Few directors can claim such unmistakable aesthetic markers as Anderson. His visual proclivities have been so prevalent throughout his oeuvre that they have been fashioned into a game – Wes Anderson Bingo. Players can dab squares every time Futura typeface, sibling rivalry, or dated audio equipment crop up while watching his films, among other things.


A short financed by Prada and starring Anderson fixture Jason Schwartzman, Castello Cavalcanti is the story of a race car driver who crash lands in a small Italian village where, he soon discovers, much of his ancestry has long resided. A love letter to Italy and legendary director Federico Fellini, Anderson filmed the short at iconic Rome studio Cinecittà and referenced films like La Dolce Vita and Amarcord.


Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Wes Anderson went to India to write the script for The Darjeeling Limited, which took two years. The story follows three brothers across India as they try to reconcile their relationships in the wake of their father’s death. In order to feel a close sense of camaraderie, the actors who played the three brothers – Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson – lived together for a period of time. After grappling with an inflated budget for The Life Aquatic, Anderson wanted to pare back how he worked on his next feature, so for The Darjeeling Limited he kept it small with fewer actors, and only had to fly his cast and crew to India. He also purchased and gutted a train. Hardcore fans and curious travellers can take to the rails in the train that inspired the film, The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.


It’s impossible to talk about Wes Anderson’s films without mentioning the unimpeachable music selection that ferries his unique stories to their conclusion. His collaboration with music supervisor Randall Poster stretches back to Rushmore, which in a sense brings together the music spanning all of his films into chapters. It’s incredibly cohesive – just check out one Spotify users 166-track playlist amalgamating nearly all of the music that has appeared in his films – from the jazzy tunes of Artie Shaw to the sounds of David Bowie. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all the ukelele Bowie covers by Portuguese singer Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).


Watching The Royal Tenenbaums is a completely different exercise if you have an eye for type. The 1927 sans-serif font Futura is used religiously throughout the film – on buses, hospital signs and book covers. “I never deliberately do something to make it more like something I’ve done before, but somehow it just happens,” he told us in 2009 around the release of Fantastic Mr. Fox. “Captioned frames are something I like in a movie. It’s a place to write something and use words on screen.”


The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most recent and financially successful film. It charts the journey of a lobby boy named Zero who gets swept up in an elaborate heist to keep an expensive painting safe from would-be captors. Much of it is set in the pastel-hued walls of the titular hotel. It was based on the Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. Anderson himself discovered the building – a derelict department store that he saved from bankruptcy – while on a scouting trip to Görlitz, Germany. He then enlisted the vast trove of photochrom images from 1895 to 1910 in the Library of Congress to piece together a visual representation of exactly what he had envisioned the hotel to look like. “The department store in Görlitz was in perfect condition, just perfect,” recalls set designer Adam Stockhausen. “I mean everything. The stairways, the railings, the chandeliers, the stained-glass ceiling – it was all just immaculate.”


For a key scene featuring Max Fischer and Mr. Blume in Anderson’s second film Rushmore, he required a helicopter. Disney, which was distributing the film under Buena Vista Pictures, refused the money needed to rent a chopper. Bill Murray appeared in the film for a paltry $9,000 – the Screen Actors Guild minimum. When Murray heard of this predicament, he fronted the $25,000, writing a cheque for Anderson. The scene was ultimately never shot, and Anderson never cashed the cheque.


When he found himself unable to communicate his ideas to animators working on 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, adapted from the book by British author Roald Dahl, Anderson would record himself acting out the scenes on an iPhone so he could send it to the animators.


Jason Schwartzman counts Anderson among his best friends. He’s appeared in five of his films and two shorts, sealing the deal early on by playing Max Fischer in his second feature, Rushmore. At an early audition, Schwartzman and Anderson bonded over a mutual love for the Weezer album Pinkerton. “We talked about Pinkerton a lot and we talked about lyrics from it, and before I knew it, I had been in the room for 15 minutes and then he’s like, ‘Should we read it?’ I remember thinking and maybe even saying, ‘I don't know if we should because this has gone so well. I don't want to. This is enough. You’re so awesome. Let’s not ruin it.’” Schwartzman ended up nabbing the role of the overachieving teen. However, since he could already grow a full beard at 17, he had to wax his chest and his hands to appear more like a 15-year-old. “I had to get my chest and hands waxed regularly to pass as a high school student,” he told us last year. “My chest was only one time and it was a mistake, let's just put it that way.”


A man of many talents, Indian actor Kumar Pallana was first cast in Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket. He was discovered by Anderson and Owen Wilson at a café called Cosmic Cup, which the pair frequented to play chess. As Pallana said in an interview with The Believer, “Wes Anderson came into my place in Dallas; I used to have upstairs a yoga centre, and downstairs a coffee shop, Cosmic Cup. And our Cosmic Cup was special because my son is really smart – he is a philosopher. He said, ‘Papa, I want to have something different.’ So, we have the chess night Monday. Just bring your own chess and we hook up the table to play. People heard. So many people come. They hang out on Mondays; that’s how it started.” Pallana appeared in four of Anderson’s films before his death in October 2013, at age 94.


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s fourth film, was born out of the idea of exposing the inner workings of a ship cut in half. The seafaring venture was a tribute to one of Anderson’s childhood obsessions: Jacques Cousteau. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is the captain of the Belafonte. He assembles a motley crew to seek revenge on the leopard shark that ate his friend. “Life Aquatic was difficult,” Anderson said in an interview with Nowness. “Looking back now I think that was just the hardest one to do by far – we were over schedule and all sorts of things like that – but we had such great days.”


Anderson’s seventh feature Moonrise Kingdom is about two precocious teens who run away together into the wilderness to take their relationship to the next level. Their disappearance triggers an island-wide manhunt. When working with the kids on this film, Anderson got down to their level to communicate his direction, as actor Jason Schwartzman told Vulture: “My favourite thing about Wes … I didn’t pick up this fact until I worked on Moonrise Kingdom, but on Moonrise Kingdom, whenever Wes would go and direct the kids, they’re all standing there and he would lean down and talk to them all.” To boot, scouting locations for the fictional island of New Penzance initially took place on Google Earth.


One of the reasons Anderson has been pegged as the King of Twee is because of the innumerable stylish choices he inflicts upon his films. Neckwear is of the utmost importance to completing a character’s look, namely Mr. Fox, Mr. Sherman in The Royal Tenenbaums and Suzy and Sam in Moonrise Kingdom. Of course, not everyone is a fan of the bow tie; his choices have led many detractors to point to his character’s sense of dress as another reason they just cannot take the filmmaker seriously.


Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were roommates in Austin, Texas, during their sophomore year at the University of Texas. They met in a playwriting class. Wilson just began acting like he was Anderson’s best friend – so it happened. “We were signing up for classes and he started asking me to help him figure out what he should do, as if we knew each other,” Anderson told Vulture. “As if we had ever spoken before or knew each other's names. I almost feel like he was taking it for granted that if we didn't know each other yet, soon we would.” Wilson has appeared in six of Anderson’s films, most memorably (depending on whom you ask), Anderson’s first film Bottle Rocket, which the pair wrote together. Their writing collaboration goes back much further. “I wrote a term paper for Owen,” Anderson said in a 1998 Texas Monthly profile, “although that wasn’t exactly a collaborative effort.” In fact, when the apartment they shared had drafty windows the landlord refused to fix, Anderson and Wilson staged a fake break-in to draw attention to the issue. The landlord saw through their ploy and called it an “inside job”. What he didn’t realise was that he had just provided Anderson and Wilson with the inspiration for their first film about crime high jinx, Bottle Rocket.


Many fans of Anderson’s particular brand of pastiche would say he’s a slave to detail. He has argued the opposite, telling Vanity Fair, “I wouldn't say that I'm particularly bothered or obsessed with detail.” Uh huh. When you delve into the elaborate worlds that he creates, it becomes apparent that he is a perfectionist. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson took it upon himself to not only create several newspapers that would likely be seen on screen for a split second, he wrote the articles that would appear in the aforementioned papers. “Wes also used other newspapers to tell other parts of the story – it was like an entire national press,” lead graphic designer Annie Atkins told us last year. “He wrote the articles, and he wrote some lovely newspaper titles like Continental Drift and The Daily Fact.”


During the summer of 2014, Anderson embarked upon a transatlantic passage aboard the Queen Mary 2 with friends Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. For just $1,298 per person for an inside cabin or $1,648 for an ocean-view cabin, fans had the opportunity to rub elbows with their favourite filmmaker and his cronies on a sailing from New York to Southampton, England. A screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel was accompanied by a Q&A with the filmmaker and the cast.


Anderson has come under fire for the lack of people of colour in prominent roles in his films. His casting choices have reflected the white bread status quo that continues to plague the film industry. While promoting their 2014 comedy The Overnight, Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman did an interview with The View, where actress and host Whoopi Goldberg questioned Anderson’s casting decisions and made an open plea on air for Anderson to cast more people of colour in his films, even offering her own CV up for consideration. Still, when watching Anderson’s films with a critical lens, many non-white actors that he uses are unfortunately cast in roles with few lines (Mr. Pagoda, see K IS FOR KUMAR PALLANA), or in servant-like roles (Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel; Vikram Ray in The Life Aquatic). Boggling, since casting director Douglas Aibel won an award for finding the players in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s not only his casting choices. Anderson has been criticized for generalizing or fetishizing the culture’s of others – most notably in The Darjeeling Limited, when Peter says of India, “I love how this country smells; it's … spicy.”


Many a video essay has been cobbled together to prove one of Anderson’s most obvious obsessions: symmetry on screen. It’s even a square in Wes Anderson Bingo. The man responsible for perfecting that symmetry? Anderson’s go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman, with whom he has worked together on 7 films.


Another to fall victim to her alien beauty, Wes Anderson has spoken highly of Tilda Swinton, telling Variety, “Tilda was at Sundance for Orlando when we showed our short film of Bottle Rocket there in 1993. I had never seen – as an audience member and also, from a snowy distance, in person – anyone remotely like her.” Swinton has appeared in two of Anderson films, most memorably as Madame D. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. For the role, she had to be aged 30 years with the magic of prosthetic make-up. Once the look was finished to transform Swinton into an 84-year-old, Anderson had one micro-managing request: more liver spots.


Anderson shares a submarine obsession with director James Cameron. The latter is a marine enthusiast, having completed a deep sea dive into the Mariana Trench. The former harbours a fascination with Jacques Cousteau. "He introduced us all to that world,” Anderson said of Cousteau in The Guardian. “He saw it as what we'd have left when we had destroyed everything else.” Translating that passion to the big screen, Anderson has included an underwater shot in the majority of his films, many of which have been catalogued by the Easter Egg Archive.


What if Anderson’s cinematic adventures were adapted into video games? Cinefix attempted to answer that question, creating an 8-bit video game of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The result is a visually elementary foray into the quirks of Anderson’s gorgeous sets and characters, proving that his stories are so strong that they can easily be told in a different format. Move over, Pokémon Go.


To achieve the distinguishable limp his character Francis suffers in The Darjeeling Limited, Owen Wilson placed a lime in his shoe.


There is little question that Wes Anderson has exhibited his curiosity with other countries and cultures with what he’s put in his films. Whether that’s come across in a sensitive way is up for debate, but regardless he plods on, delving into such esoterica as Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s writings, which inspired The Society of the Crossed Keys – a fictional society referenced in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s even interested in tapping into the extra-terrestrial, responding to a question about shooting in outer space with, “Well, I’m open to it.”


The muted overtones of yellow and its infinite variations have seeped into the filmography of Wes Anderson. Fantastic Mr. Fox, Castello Cavalcanti and Moonrise Kingdom are especially awash with a distinct shade of canary yellow. Anderson elevates colour to become its own character to deliver nostalgia to his audience. It’s likely a signifier of mood, as Vaughn Vreeland argues in “Color Theory and Social Structure in the Films of Wes Anderson”: “Yellow is also symbolised in many of his films as a colour of peace. For example, the sky in Fantastic Mr. Fox is yellow when the foxes are happiest. The submarine of Steve Zissou is yellow, one of the only things that brings him happiness until he finds the yellow sea creature he had been searching for.”


One of the most low-key brilliant characters in any Wes Anderson film, the loyal protagonist Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel holds his own among a potpourri of A-list actors. Played by newcomer Tony Revolori, Zero was the first character cast – long before the script was even finished. Auditions were held in Egypt, in France, in Israel, and in Palestine. When Revolori and his brother, both Californians of Guatemalan descent, made an audition tape, casting director Douglas Aibel found his man. He told Vanity Fair, “Tony and his brother both taped for us in California later in the run. I knew the moment I saw them that they were very strong.”