Wes Anderson took a cast of stars to the Spanish desert and made his best film in years

The visionary filmmaker’s new movie is about a theatre troupe. Or it’s about aliens. Or death. James Mottram meets him – and a handful of his stars – to chat grief, AI and why he didn’t like making ‘The Life Aquatic’

Saturday 24 June 2023 06:30 BST
‘It’s really about [an] existential angst’: Scarlett Johansson in Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’
‘It’s really about [an] existential angst’: Scarlett Johansson in Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’ (Universal/iStock)

Wes Anderson is dressed like one of his movies. The visionary behind The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom has arrived for our interview dressed in a Riviera-appropriate pinstripe suit coloured in white and light blue. All he needs is a parasol and he could be ready to stroll down the Croisette. We’re in Cannes, at the film festival, where his 11th feature Asteroid City has just played in competition. Co-written with Roman Coppola, the film feeds directly off Anderson’s love of actors.

“I’ve never been a part of a play,” the fresh-faced 54-year-old explains. “But when I go to the theatre, I wish that I could be a part of a company like that. And when I’m making a movie, it is quite like that. Some of [my] actors who have done plays have told me this… but to me, this movie, the subject matter, is about why  people do theatre. Why do I feel this mystifying, mystical attraction to the backstage? What is it about putting on a show and performing?” 

This being Anderson, Asteroid City  is no ordinary backstage drama. It’s another beautifully crafted work from the Texas-born filmmaker, and studded with stars he’s worked with before (including Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Stephen Park and Jason Schwartzman), and ones he hasn’t (among them Tom Hanks, Hope Davis, Maya Hawke and Margot Robbie). As film critic Geoffrey Macnab rightly wrote in his five-star review of the film in these very pages: “Asteroid City is Anderson’s most enrapturing feature since The Grand Budapest Hotel nearly a decade ago.”

Set in the 1950s, the behind-the-scenes sequences, all in black and white, present a theatre troupe on the East Coast readying a play called “Asteroid City”, penned by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by the Elia Kazan-alike Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). When the film bursts into colour, we see acts I, II and III of the play – all set in an American desert town called Asteroid City, population 87, which is mostly famous for a gigantic meteor crater and a celestial observatory.

As families descend on the town for a junior stargazing contest, there’s even an extraterrestrial encounter – it’s a beautiful stop-motion scene by Andy Gent, whom Anderson calls “the Laurence Olivier of animators”. Anderson sank us to the bottom of the ocean, Jacques Cousteau-style, in 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou  and took us inside canine minds for 2018’s Japan-set Isle of Dogs. So what’s this? His first attempt at a B-movie?

“I think there’s definitely an aspect of that,” he tells me. “Like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Movies like that. Because it’s a play within the movie, it’s a theatrical interpretation of [that]. And I think the science-fiction part of it is something from the Fifties. The same way they were obsessing about the communists, there was a lot going on about aliens.” Even Schwartzman’s war photographer Augie Steenbeck has the air of a pre-2001: A Space Odyssey  Stanley Kubrick about him.

A father of four coping with the recent loss of his wife – and impending arrival of his father-in-law (Hanks) – Schwartzman’s character gives the film its emotional ballast. “We went into it with a sense of it being about how you face things beyond your control,” Anderson explains. “And how you respond to a world that is so much bigger than you and is a mystery. And grief was at the centre of it. Always. Death was at the centre of it.” Asteroid City  might be charmingly decorated (primary colours, geometrically exact camera moves), but it’s the underneath that counts.

The Life Aquatic  was a very, very big production. I just didn’t like it

Wes Anderson

“To me, the film is about so many different things,” says Davis, who plays Sandy Borden, mother to one of the stargazers. “It’s really about [an] existential angst … What are we doing here? How are we supposed to do this? Is it worth it? How do we do it? Does anyone know what they’re doing?” She recites a line from the film that’s stuck with her, in which Norton’s playwright is asked: “Am I doing it right?” “That kills me,” Davis says. “Because that’s what everybody thinks, right? Am I doing this life-thing the way I’m supposed to do it? And the playwright says, ‘It’s just right. Just keep going.’”

Still, it’s Anderson’s eclectic style that has come to define his work. Arguably cemented more than 20 years ago in The Royal Tenenbaums, it is recognised by its use of symmetrical close-ups and meticulously composed shots, saturated colours and impeccable costume and set design. A love for architectural models and cutaways, like the research vessel in The Life Aquatic, also became a favourite.

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Admittedly, it’s these aesthetics that have made him ripe for parody. Recently hitting the headlines were trailers made by AI, which imagine Anderson takes on franchises such as Game of Thrones  and Star Wars. They’ve had a very mixed response. Has Anderson been told about them? “I’m aware,” he nods. “I haven’t seen [any of] it. It’s weird. And it’s one of those things where… I’m not sure what good it does me to inform myself about it. I don’t want to look at a computer’s version of anything I’m doing… just because I don’t want to say, ‘Is that what I’m doing?’ I think it’s best not to.”

Plus, if it were so easy to make a Wes Anderson movie, it’s doubtful so many big names would be queuing up to take part in them – no matter the size of the role. “I heard Margot Robbie lobbied to work with him,” says Park, the crime-solving chef in The French Dispatch  and an Asteroid City resident this time around. “I mean, [she] sent him letters.” Anderson confirms this: “I had gotten a little communication from her.” Thankfully, Robbie’s schedule allowed her to come to Spain, where filming took place, to shoot one key moment. “The scene she plays, to me, is one of the most important scenes in the whole movie,” says Anderson. “She was great. You really felt it on the set. Everyone was really just riveted.”

In his element: Wes Anderson on the set of ‘Asteroid City’ (Roger Do Minh/Pop.87 Productions/Focus Features)

Just about the only missing face is long-time collaborator Bill Murray, who came down with Covid and had to drop out. Steve Carell replaced him, playing a motel clerk. Otherwise, Anderson was in his element, surrounded by friends old and new in the town of Chinchón, near Madrid. “Nobody’s on their phone between takes, or in the evening alone in their room,” says Davis. “Everyone is together.” As Park notes, this approach to filmmaking stems from Anderson’s experience on The Life Aquatic. “I think he was working more traditionally on that [film], where people were living separately,” he says. “I think that was when he decided to work differently and have everybody live together.”

Anderson confirms this. “The Life Aquatic  was a very, very big production,” he explains. “I just didn’t like it. I felt like we were paying to create this machine that wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do. On Life Aquatic, everyone got the nicest places in Rome [to live in]. We were working an hour and a half from Cinecittà [Studios], and half the day was spent getting to and from [there] and having long lunches and things like that. None of that went into the movie in a good way.”

For his following film, 2007’s India-set odyssey The Darjeeling Limited – with Brody, Schwartzman and Owen Wilson – Anderson changed his way of working. “Darjeeling, we stayed together… and we never left the set,” he remembers. Ever since, he’s encouraged this convivial, communal feel. No wonder actors love it. “I think Wes probably has a penchant for picking [actors] who are good, decent human beings, [who] understand that you’re not some sort of higher being because you work in this business,” says Davis. “I don’t think he would tolerate people who were behaving badly.”

Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Wes World feels all-encompassing. Davis remembers one particular lunch break in the cabin that served as her dressing room. “I peeked out. People were lying down on the picnic tables. And Wes was standing just outside my window with this beautiful large straw hat, and someone brought him the most perfect little espresso cup.” It looked just like one of his movies. “It was all quiet on set,” she continues. “Nobody was talking. And there he was, with this perfect little espresso, looking up.”

‘Asteroid City’ is in cinemas, and an immersive exhibit inspired by the film runs at London’s 180 Studios until 8 July

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