The maestro behind Asteroid City leaves a voice note for LWLies, reflecting on naming conventions, sci-fi films, and working with his best friends.
Hello Sophie Monks Kaufman, this is Wes.” In his slow, warm, contemplative drawl, my name sounds better than ever before. I am in seat 17C of easyjet flight K54K39S which is rolling down a runway at Nice Côte d’Azur Airport. I had switched my phone off flight mode in the hope of receiving a message that would stoke my excitement about beingin the French Riviera for the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Even in this anticipatory state, a voice memo from Wes Anderson was beyond anything that it would occur to me to expect.
His latest film, Asteroid City, is set during the 1950s in a fictional American desert town named Arid Plans that has drawn out-of-towners for the Junior Stargazers convention. The Stargazers, all precocious child geniuses, bring with them a more raggedy crew of adults with barely concealed emotional problems. Among them is war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) who has yet to break the news to his four children that their mother is dead. There is another layer to the film in that it is framed as a theatre play written by louche Southern playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by the oversexed and freshly divorced Schubert Greene (Adrien Brody).
Asteroid City is perhaps the most emotionally naked film that Anderson has ever made and has instantly joined The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand BudapestHotel as one of my favourites from his relatively small canon. Yet every single thing he has ever made (including the adverts) has a playfulness that underlies all the very best experiences that this life has to offer. Not least, in the character and place names. It makes me feel very warm indeed to imagine Wes and collaborators sitting around cooking up names like Schubert Greene and Conrad Earp, or Arid Plains and Parched Gulp. He is serious about entertainment and has built a real livelihood rooted in the world of make believe, much like Schubert Greene and Conrad Earp, who are technically responsible for everything that comes to pass during Asteroid City.
I am able to hear only “Hello Sophie Monks Kaufman, this is Wes” before the captain blasts in over the plane intercom welcoming us to Nice where the local time is 7.10pm and the temperature is 21 degrees Celsius. After he wraps up this spiel I hit play on an audio file titled ‘New recording 674.m4a’ that is 14 minutes 10 seconds long. As my fellow air travellers sit restlessly, waiting for the plane doors to open, I pray that it will take at least 14 minutes 10 seconds until we are liberated. It so happens that my prayers are answered and I listen to the following in one unbroken flow feeling as though I am ascending, even though we are grounded. Hello Sophie Monks Kaufman, this is Wes and I’m going to answer your questions to the best of my ability, pertaining to the motion picture, Asteroid City.
[The following questions were written and sent to Wes Anderson in advance are read out by the subject in a fast-paced abridged style. We include them here in full for ease of reading.]
LWLies: There’s a delightfully playful aspect to the way you create people and place names, in that they’re amalgams from history and culture. What process do you go through to formulate names, and how do you know you’ve landed on one that’s right?
Anderson: I always have felt that character names are a bit crucial and, also, often find myself inventing possibly fanciful locations for the stories. I do tend to find that we wait for names to come to us, me and my collaborators, Roman Coppola especially. We wait for the ones that amuse us and feel like they have some layers and connections to them in a way that tends to steer it a bit away from being as close to reality. Most of these things come from reality but maybe the slightly more esoteric branches of reality. I want these details to be entertaining and to add something to the story. I guess it depends on what the tone of your movie is. I feel like it’s right for my kind of movies, not for everybody’s. On the other hand, in a Preston Sturges movie they go much further. Every name is a gag, really. So, anyway, we fall somewhere in some weird other area. I’ll just switch to the next question.
Many of your regular company of players appear in Asteroid City – do you feel that you’re in search of a perfect ensemble that you’re refining with each new film?Also, do you feel the way you direct and treat actors has changed over the years? Do people such as Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton now require less of your time?
You hope that each movie is a perfect ensemble and sometimes it’s the group you think of right at the beginning when you’re writing it, or when you’ve just finished writing it, and sometimes it’s the group you end up with once you know who can do it and who can’t. Usually with the people who end up in it, you can’t really picture anyone else by the time you’ve done the movie. Hopefully, you always feel glad that you ended up with who you ended up with. I’ve had the chance to work with so many actors who I love – who I loved before I worked with them or who I loved only when I found them. But I can’t say I’m working towards the perfect ensemble.
I feel like every movie has a different flavour. I always like how in almost every movie there are lots of people I’ve worked with before but there are always new people that I’ve been wanting to work with and then those people could become part of the ongoing group. I don’t know that I direct and treat actors differently. I do feel like I’m more comfortable being bold with what I say to somebody who I know well and I’m not afraid that I’m going to upset them or something by what I ask of them, but mainly I love working with actors. Once you start making a movie they’re the ones who are doing it, it’s all up to them. I spend the whole movie with them because we stay together while we’re working and we stay together when we’re not working so, to me, in a sense, they’re everything. I don’t know that they require less of my time. All I want to do is give them all the attention that they want. Some want more and some prefer less, so I want to give them what they want. Other than that I stand back and see what they do.
Across your many collaborations, how has Jason Schwartzman helped to shape your creative vision? Did you have any idea after Rushmore that you would be working with him 25 years later?
Jason I met when he was 17 – it’s a very, very long time ago. I knew almost instantly when I met him that we seemed to be friends already. It was such an easy decision. We’d been searching for months and months and probably going on a year by the time I met Jason. It was only a matter of seconds before I thought, ‘I can finally stop looking.’ We were friends from that day forward. I’m sure I saw him the next day. In those days I had an office on the Columbia Sony lot. He and I went over there and we started just walking around. We weren’t destined to work in a movie studio for many years – and rarely – but we were there in a movie studio before going to Texas and shooting in my old school. We just wandered around for days, reading these scenes and figuring out how to go about doing our movie. I can’t tell you the number of songs that Jason has suggested to me that I’ve put in movies. A dozen, probably, over the years. We’ve written scripts together and we’ve travelled the world together. Suddenly, it’s 25 years later.
In light of Steve Carell’s tremendous cashier’s visor, would you comment on what your pitch to the costume department was for Asteroid City? What information, documents, resources (if any) did you provide to them?
A green visor, isn’t it a classic thing for a clerk? I work with Milena Canonero, our costume designer and I’ve worked with her for many years, since The Life Aquatic. That’s probably 20 years. Milena is especially interested in getting the details of the period right, but she’s interested in everything to do with costumes and she’s interested in characters and she’s interested in, what she calls, [adopts imperial Italian accent] ‘the complete look’ of the movie. So, she’s interested in what everybody else is doing too. The other thing is she’s interested in working till midnight every night if that’s what it requires. She has an enormous crew of people, many of them are Italian and most of them I know well and have been friends with for years now. They support her and she’s a special unit. She gets whatever she needs because I know that she’s putting absolutely everything into the movie and if I’m working at midnight, I know she is too. I like that.
“I don't know that I wish to give a sense of mystery, I just am drawn to mystery.”
Can you tell us about your interest in classic science fiction, films, novels, TV serials, which all appear to be referenced here?
Movies like… oh, I don’t know, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and maybe a bit of both versions of… oh my gosh, what’s the one that Philip Kaufman remade… The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Probably more Close Encounters…. But that’s not the centre of the movie to me. The centre of the movie was two things. One, a story about people who work in the theatre and what those people are like and what they want. Their whole lives become this make-believe that connects to life in a period of the theatre in America. Then, about people from the West, or people who live in the West or things that happen in the West. We thought about Sam Shepard quite a lot. We thought of a lot of Hollywood movies that are desert movies. There’s something peculiar about them. I have a whole list of those that we can probably give you. Okay… just to make note: ‘Sophie Monks Kaufman, list, movie inspirations’.
How long did you search for, and where else did you look, before finding your Asteroid City in Chinchón, Spain?
I found the place myself on Google maps looking for places that, seen from satellite imagery, were yellow in Europe. You end up in Spain and you look for flat places and, frankly, flat places with a very close 4-star hotel – not too expensive of a hotel, but very comfortable where you can have a cast be happy and then be close by the set because, essentially, what I like to do is live right next to the set. So we found the place to create our desert.
Asteroid City has a gorgeous off-the-cuff line about the story’s central metaphor not being pinned down yet. How important is it to you to retain a certain level of mystery – in your cinema and in life generally?
I don’t know that I wish to give a sense of mystery, I just am drawn to mystery. You want it to be there and you don’t necessarily want to get too exact about what it all means because it becomes reductive. I’d rather have the movie be expansive and speak in ways that we don’t necessarily control.
Many members of the neurodiverse community find solace and inspiration in your orderly worlds and defiantly individual protagonists. To what extent are characters like Woodrow in Asteroid City and the runaways in Moonrise Kingdom intended to recognise neurodiversity? What are your references for writing characters who are at odds with their (seemingly) neurotypical peers?
I think that we are talking about something about me [charming mini laugh]. What did we say about Woodrow…? [rereads this section of the question] There’s no intention at all. I feel like what you’re probably responding to is some aspect of my own personality. If what you’re describing is accurate, it’s probably me relating to people in a way that speaks in a language that we might appreciate together.
How involved are you with the prop exhibitions so beloved by your fans in London and NYC? How would you feel about a permanent Wes Anderson theme park?
I am not that involved with those exhibitions and I’m always pleased and surprised that people are interested in doing those. And a theme park, I would certainly like to design some rides. I would be very eager to design some rides. Okay, thank you Sophie Monks Kaufman, hopefully these answers will be useful.
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Published 20 Jun 2023
We blast off to a space-obsessed town in 1955 for Wes Anderson's latest lavish adventure.
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