Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (which opens Nov. 13 from Fox Searchlight) took London by storm this week, as it kicked off the 53rd Times BFI London Film Festival Wednesday night with a gala screening at the Odeon Cinema - Leicester Square and reception at the Saatchi Gallery. And it's clear that the late Roald Dahl remains a cultural institution, which was evident during Wednesday's press conference and a Tuesday visit to the elegant 19th century family estate in the village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
Dressed in the same corduroy outfit as his Mr. Fox puppet, the soft-spoken Anderson explained at the conference that the Dahl book was the first one that he owned as a child and it has gripped him ever since. He was determined to make a stop-motion feature from the children's book about a domesticated Fox that resorts to his wily, chicken thieving ways behind his wife's back, and the destruction it causes for his family and friends.
However, given the controversial Los Angeles Times article last Sunday by Chris Lee, most wanted to know why Anderson chose to stay in Paris while animation took place at Three Mills Studios in East London (where Corpse Bride  was filmed and with a lot of the same crew).
"Stop-motion animation is a very slow, painstaking process," Anderson conceded at the press conference before explaining that he needed to find a procedure that would allow him to oversee every detail of the movie in Paris while 30 crews were shooting at Three Mills. Call it expedient multi-tasking, as the animators emailed him files twice a day while the director had a direct feed to view every set in realtime.
As one insider noted, "I think his fascination with the fine detail of clothing is fascinating -- the correct position of a button hole in an animated character's jacket, his interest in keeping the 'imperfections' of traditional stop-motion, his lack of interest in polished finish."
Producer Allison Abbate (who will soon embark on Tim Burton's Frankenweenie in London -- maybe in black and white and maybe in 3-D) explained that Lee visited the set while they were still tweaking the process when some of the frustration was observable. But she said it is not uncommon for a stop-motion director to work remotely with advances in technology, and noted that Tim Burton was not on set every day during Corpse Bride either. He was simultaneously making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory .
Not surprisingly, Anderson admitted that his biggest inspiration was Le Roman De Renard (The Tale of the Fox) by Russian stop-motion pioneer Ladislas Starevich, particularly for its use of multi-scaled puppets, including minis. There were 535 puppets made by the famed crew of Mackinnon &Saunders, and they predominantly utilized four scales.
Meanwhile, George Clooney was jovial if unrevealing in his comments at the press conference: "I just did it for the paycheck-- the money. But it was also the chance to work with Wes, which really appealed to me." He added that, after accepting the role, he told Anderson that he had no idea who the audience was going to be: a backhanded testament to its idiosyncratic nature.
Bill Murray, who plays Badger, the attorney, nevertheless complimented Clooney "by playing a great character that everyone could [rally around]."
Murray saved the best compliment, though, for the animators: "I've never been with so many talented people at one place. They do things here with sets, design, building models that Americans can only dream about. We could put a man on the moon but we could not make this movie."
But chatting with Anderson and some of his colleagues at the Dahl estate and nearby Nag's Head Pub (which is featured in the movie), allowed us to delve deeper into the making of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The bucolic environment was beautiful and the balmy weather on Tuesday would've made rainy L.A. envious. You can sense why the director was so inspired when actually writing on the estate, channeling Dahl and soaking up the vibe of Great Missenden, thanks to the support of Dahl's widow, Felicity (Liccy) Dahl.
"I loved the character of Mr. Fox," Anderson offered. "I loved digging. The whole idea of him tunneling under and connecting these farms [was fascinating]… My goal as we were writing the film [with Noah Baumbach] was always to make it Dahl. If it's Andersonian, it's only a little."
Dahl admitted that Anderson is a kindred spirit of her late husband. "I knew he was a very interesting director. I think what influenced me most was the passion for the book… I think the big risk is when you take a small that has to be enlarged to make a film and that has to be in the hands of somebody who really understands the essence of the book. I don't know why, but I instinctively knew that Wes has that."
Still, Anderson needed to come up with a suitable narrative to justify a feature. "The thing that sort of emerged as we were writing thematically was the idea that they're wild animals," he explained. "And the Latin names to have something provable about their DNA -- and some sort of metaphor similar to that. Writing there went from adapting the book to being about Dahl and his whole world and personality."
Anderson's whole approach to stop-motion was to embrace imperfection, the way Starevich did or Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen. It revolves around fur and shooting predominantly on 2s.
"I always wanted to do it in stop-motion. I had done a little in The Life Aquatic . Henry Selick did that and we had talked about doing Mr. Fox together. And then he couldn't do it because of Coraline . And, in a way, it's probably good because, first of all, Coraline is his movie, and, second, I didn't know what the process was going to be like and I ended up wanting to be more involved with the movie in a moment to moment way than I had expected to be. And that probably would've been quite frustrating. And Henry probably would've had a fit at a certain point.
"I think with stop-motion and our budget, I was more interested in animation that would be funny and energetic and spontaneous. It has fur and that prevents it from being pristine -- it just can't be."
"It's an old style of stop-motion animation like on King Kong where you see the fur," remarked Andy Gent, puppet fabrication supervisor. "Fur is quite difficult to control. The fur process was difficult. It took 27 different sculpts just to find the shape that goes underneath Mr. Fox's head, so that when you put the fur on top it looks like a finished character. One of the things the animators did when he was really still was they just blew on the fur. So this went against the grain a little bit. We wanted to see that feel that had been crafted and touched, so we had to help the animators animate it… we used a lot of sprays and gels."
Anderson's unconventional approach included filming his actors on location to introduce improvisation and the happy accident. Clooney, Murray, Jason Schwartzman (who plays Ash, the son), Wally Wolodarsky (who plays Kylie) shot their scenes on a Connecticut farm, digging and getting in touch with their inner critter.
"First of all, we had just the best time there," Murray recalled. "We all had our own little room. We had great meals. And we drank and laughed and told stories all night long. And then we'd wake up in the morning and say, 'OK, now we have to record something. And we had this entire farm to work with, so we'd do a scene that takes place in a basement and we'd go find a basement. And if we had a scene that took place in a kind of barn, we'd find it. And usually when you make these animated films, you never see anyone. I still haven't seen Meryl Streep [who plays Mrs. Fox and couldn't make the press conference because of a flu bug] because she wasn't there at the farm. And it was just great hearing each other."
Anderson credits Murray with one of the best happy accidents: "We were at the edge of some woods and across up on a hilltop they're looking at a wolf [which doesn't speak]. So, Bill said, 'OK, I'll be the wolf. He went to the top of the hill, played the wolf, but he played it dramatically. And you could feel them really reacting to him. And there was a real elegance to the way Bill was playing, and we gave that to the animators and they animated it based on Bill doing this part. And it came out of something that happened live, and you can't do that in a studio."
However, Murray's original idea for Mr. Badger didn't come off as planned. "Well, it's an ugly footnote to the whole film," the actor joked. "I did what I thought was a beatific Wisconsin accent. It was an homage to Chris Farley, really. That's what I was thinking about. We did it and it was beautiful but no one really cared and I don't know if they even noticed. But it was good. That's about the most serious acting work I've done in a long time."
Would Anderson ever consider directing another stop-motion feature? "I would like to [continue] working with stop-motion, but I don't know if I want to do a whole movie anytime soon. At the same time, I'm tempted to. It took us a long time to figure out how we were going to do it. But we figured out a process that really suited me and I enjoyed it even though it's endless and it takes over your whole life. I feel it is something that I can use as part of my arsenal."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.