You’ve seen his films, but what is Wes Anderson really like? We reached out to his colleagues and friends to paint a picture of the enigmatic director



MATT ZOLLER SEITZ, Author of The Wes Anderson Collection. He is also Editor-in-chief of RogerEburt.com, the TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

It always seems odd, perhaps from a British perspective, that Wes Anderson is from Texas. He doesn’t come across very Texan. Do you think the state and its culture has influenced him in any way?

I don’t think so. I met him in 1994 in Dallas, not long after we’d both graduated from our respective colleges, and he already seemed to have what you might call an ‘international’ sensibility, although he didn’t start seriously traveling until The Royal Tenenbaums started to appear in international film festivals. He grew up reading The New Yorker and watching foreign films and reading literature from all over the world, so he was never provincial.

What other places do you think have had a big impact on him and his films?  

Wes is influenced by every place he’s visited and every movie he’s seen. He absorbs all of it. He was originally going to set The Darjeeling Limited in France, and decided on a whim to set it in India instead after seeing the restored version of The River (1951).

From the early days of watching Wes’s films and speaking to him, did you notice a spark? Does his success come as a surprise or was it to be expected?

I wasn’t hugely surprised that Wes went on to have a successful career as a director, although I confess being a bit worried early on when his first film didn’t make money and the reviews were mixed. But after Rushmore I knew he was going to be around a while. What’s been heartening to me is seeing certain films of his find a very big audience, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel in particular. Wes and the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, struck me immediately as people who seemed to already be comfortable with the idea of being famous.

Why do you think Wes’s films are so popular? Can you think of another director with such an obsessed-about style?

I think it’s the enthusiasm inherent in the way he directs that carries a lot of the enthusiasm for his work. His films are fun to watch, even when they’re sad or dark. There’s a snap to the imagery and the music.

What is Wes like in person? Is he the same as when you first met him? What personal attributes do you think he has that have aided his career?

In person, Wes is charming and a bit reserved. He seems to naturally claim the spotlight although I don’t get the impression that he’s necessarily demanding that. He’s very conscious of being Wes Anderson, a public figure with a particular look and style and way of presenting himself. I don’t think he’s the same person as when I first met him because that was almost 25 years ago, and we’re both a lot older than we were then. Life changes a person. I definitely think he’s more seasoned and has a much more sophisticated sense of how to get what he wants from people, and how to avoid outcomes he doesn’t want. One thing he does that’s very distinctive is, when he says what he wants, he often phrases it as a question. Like, “What if we did X?” There are times when he doesn’t actually want to know what you think, he’s just telling you how he’d like things to be done. But the question mark at the end of the sentence makes it seem less dictatorial.

Can you see Wes and Owen Wilson working together again in the future? What’s their relationship like? Do they bring out the best in each other?

I hope that Wes and Owen work together as writers again, but I have to assume there’s a reason why it’s never happened. I have no idea what that might be. People sometimes grow out of partnerships. As far as I know, they’re friends. Owen has continued to act in Wes’ movies even though they aren’t writing them together.

What are the most common mistakes when it comes to Wes Anderson? What might surprise people about him? What do people not know?

I don’t think most people have any idea of how good Wes is at planning things. I’ve learned a lot from him about the value of pre-visualization. He kind of pre-directs every movie before he’s set foot on set, and that’s what allows him to control the tone of every scene and not waste money shooting things a particular way when he doesn’t need to, or building an entire set when you’re only going to see one little part of it.  

Assuming you have seen Isle of Dogs, is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou still your favourite film of his?

The Life Aquatic is still my personal favorite, although if I had to choose what I think of as his best film, I’d probably have to go with either Rushmore or The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Fantastic Mr. Fox creeping up a bit more every time I re-watch it

Can you see Anderson’s influences in other contemporary films? Or do you think that people are nervous to mimic such a personal and well-documented style?

His influence has been immense. Not only was there a spate of films in the aughts that pretty blatantly aped certain aspects of his style, like Juno, Napoleon Dynamite and Everything is Illuminated, he’s had a big impact on advertising (not just his own ads, but ads that go for an Andersonian feeling), on fashion, on music curation for soundtracks, even on film school cliches. I have watched a lot of student films produced by high school and college students in the past decade, and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a young director whip-panning between people having a deadpan conversation in profile, or snap-zooming from a close-up to a symmetrically framed wide shot, or having people walk in slow-motion to an old English pop song, I could buy The Life Aquatic back from Disney and release it in theaters again.



ERICA DORN, Lead Graphic Designer on Isle of Dogs

What has it been like working with Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs?

There was never a dull moment! It has been a privilege to have been included in Wes’s creative process, which is utterly unique. He is very hands-on, so he likes to directly oversee the work, and engage with everyone from the heads of the departments to the assistants. That means you’re acclimatized much more quickly to his thought processes and his references. The first few months felt like a crash-course in learning the ‘Wes Anderson Method’ – a bit like learning a new language.

Do any stories stick out from working with Wes?

I think my favourite one was an email forwarded from the script supervisor to myself, the production designer and the head of the puppet department. To give you a bit of context, every single piece of design, whether it’s an accessory on a puppet or a background prop or a graphic, is seen and checked (and often revised) by Wes, sometimes several times. But for him the creative process is very organic, so the fact that he has agreed to something, or even the fact that it has already been made, doesn’t much count for anything – just because something was fine last week doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed or improved. So nothing is really ever ‘done’ – just current. It took us a while to understand this, until we finally got the email asking us “to strike the word ‘approved’ out of the entire process”. I think this made the production designer cry a little bit on the inside, but it’s still my favourite email because it’s such a perfect Wes-ism.

How does he compare to working with other directors?

I can’t tell you from my personal experience, because Wes is the only director I’ve ever worked with. But often, with film graphics, if you’ve managed to blend the work into the scenery and not be noticed, you’ve done a great job. Wes’s films are very different in that he really celebrates the graphics, and they are always a really key part of the visual identity of his worlds. So there’s a lot of pressure to get it right, but it’s also very rewarding.

When people mention Wes Anderson, there’s always that mention of ‘finer details’… do you think that lends itself especially well to graphic design?

Absolutely, and even more so because this is a stop-motion animation and every set is built from scratch. Although Wes embraces the traditional methods of using models and miniatures, on screen he’s pushing the limits of how real they can look. In order to make a 2cm plane ticket or a 1.5cm ID card look real, the small print needs to be incredibly small, the paper extra-smooth (even the slightest texture looks like watercolour paper when blown up full-screen) and the text has to be extra sharp. Everyone on the graphics team literally had a jeweller’s loupe, a gift from the art department coordinator, to check the quality of our work.

Does he like to be involved in every aspect?

Yes. So much so that I’m secretly convinced he is a set of triplets pretending to be one person. To be so deeply involved in every detail of every department on a project of this scale, there’s no other explanation.

Did working with Wes Anderson surprise you in any way?

Yes. In a way I had to unlearn the design principles I had all my working life, rules about kerning and grid systems and consistency, and learn to work in a much more visual and intuitive way. And it wasn’t my intuition, but Wes’s, that I was channeling.

What do you think makes Wes Anderson such a special director? Do you think it’s a particular human attribute?

I think you’ve already said it, but as an auteur he is involved in every stage and every aspect of the production, which means his personal vision and style filters through into every little detail. He also seems to be embracing this medium that you could consider to be old-fashioned, and daring to push it into a territory that nobody has seen before, which is kind of amazing. But apart from the visual signature, I also think his writing and sense of humour also play a big part. You can always recognize a Wes Anderson film, even with your eyes closed.



ANDY GENT, Head of Puppets Department on Isle of Dogs, also worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel

What has it been like working with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs?

What came over on Fantastic Mr. Fox was, we had a sense of animation and what we had done before and he was really hoping to come up with something new, so he pushed us very hard. I’m not sure if we were quite prepared for that interest and attention to detail, which is unusual for stop motion because that’s what we thrive on. He was like ‘let’s try this’ and ‘let’s push this a bit further’ and you’d get a question from him like ‘why can’t you do it like that? Let’s try it.’ It took us all a bit by surprise. On this one [The Isle of Dogs], the sheer scale of it is massive. Absolutely massive. Three times bigger than Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Do any stories stick out from the various films you’ve worked on together?

We met him quite a few times on the three films and he’s always incredibly polite, not really shy, just sort of considerate. That’s how he comes over when you meet him. Once you’ve done a few things with him, there’s definitely a huge sense of trust that comes out and that’s a nice feeling. He does pull you into his world and you’re constantly surprised. When we were trying to figure out the colour for one of the characters in the film, Wes walked past a store somewhere in London one day and took a photograph of it because of the range of colours. So the reference for the colour of one of these dogs was just this incredible high end fashion store. We were like, ‘So, is it one of these?’ and he said ‘Well, it could be in there, we’ve just got to find it.’ There’s lots of little moments like that.

There was one character in the film, that we were doing some tweaks on, hundreds and hundreds of puppets in different scales, 68 people working every hour of the day to get these things done. In classic Wes style he’d ask for a little safety pin to be moved on the cheek of the character. I said no problem, of course we’ll get that done and then I got a lovely email back saying, ‘Thanks Andy, I appreciate it. I know you’re swamped at the moment and this film is what one might say, ‘puppet heavy’. It was the understatement of the year.

Do you guys get to hang out with him?

Funnily enough, one of the early meetings on the film we were talking about the puppets and he was saying how he would like to come up to the studio and see it before it gets really crazy. I said we can go look at it now if you have time? And he asked how I usually got there. I said, well I cycle and he said, ‘I’ll come with you then. Has anybody got a bike that I could borrow?’

You could see all of the grownups in the production, thinking ‘no no no no, if there’s an accident on the canal patch, this could be end of it all.’ He’s like that, you get to do fun things with him. On Fantastic Mr. Fox, he was based away and we would communicate with emails, sending an enormous amount of information on an hourly basis. We didn’t really see him on set that much and it forces you to communicate clearly. He’d pop in occasionally if we was around but I think he has to work in his own organized way. I’m sending emails, the animators are, the production design are and within ten minutes, he’s back to you, night or day. I don’t know how he manages it.

How does he compare with other directors?

I think every director’s different, but attention to detail. I’ve not worked with anybody like it. He’s also an incredibly knowledgeable film historian. That comes over pretty quickly when you talk to him. What we found was he’s extremely interested in costume and music. He’s got an amazing encyclopedia of music and that soundtracks his world. Costume really comes out from our point of view. He’s very interested with the look and feel of things. He’s an art director’s director really. You could be building a set that’s say, Trafalgar Square, and he wants to see what pin badge artwork you’ve used for someone in the crowd. The level of detail is unbelievable.

Did he talk more widely about animation?

When we first started [on Isle of Dogs], he gave us a list of 40 films that he said we should watch straight away, that were going to be useful for us to get into the feel of what he was making. There was quite a lot of Studio Ghibli in there. It’s not just live action, it’s all films. I think Wes is fond of stop motion because if you’re an art director’s director, what’s better than saying I want the entire world making? Not just the actors and the sets, every single thing.

What do you think makes him such a special director? Do you think it comes down to a human attribute?

I think style is the word. It’s all-encompassing. The sound, image, colour, cloth. He’s got a great sense of style.



ADAM STOCKHAUSEN, Production Designer on Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel (winner of the Academy Award for Best Production Design), Moonrise Kingdom and Art Director on The Darjeeling Limited

What has it been like working with Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs?

Isle of Dogs has been tremendously fun. I really loved the story from the first reading and found the world of the film – from Megasaki to Trash Island – to be deeply inspiring and rich with detail and possibility. I knew very little about stop motion animation going in, and so working with Paul Harrod and watching him design and build these amazing worlds was a real pleasure. Although we’ve done miniatures on the other films recently, there’s a meticulous level of detail both in finish and engineering that Paul and his team were doing that I was amazed by.

Do any stories stick out from working with Wes?

I remember the whole process of shooting on a real train in India on The Darjeeling Limited – on the live tracks with all of the real train traffic. There are so many rational reasons for why other directors might want to shoot scenes like that on a soundstage: ease, comfort, controllability, etc. With Wes though, the experience of the place and of the making is an inseparable part of the final product. I think that’s very special.

When people mention Wes Anderson, there’s always that mention of ‘finer details’… do you think that lends itself especially to production design?

Yes, absolutely! Wes is deeply involved in every aspect. He plans and considers every detail of the frame. That often involves production design – sets, props, dressing, etc – but also costumes, sound, music. Every detail is considered. I do think he has a love of the small details in visual design, from the smallest props to the maps and graphics.

Did working with Wes Anderson surprise you in any way?

There are constant surprises. I’d say first that the stories Wes tells are always a surprise. The story of Atari and Spots [in Isle of Dogs] came as a complete surprise. So unique and different from what we have done together before. On the live action films we are always going to surprising and interesting places and meeting the most amazing people. On Moonrise Kingdom we scouted Clingstone, a wild house that is shingled on the inside built clinging to a stone in the middle of Narragansett Bay. It’s the kind of place you’d never ever find or get to on your own.

What do you think makes Wes Anderson such a special film director? Is it a particular human attribute?

That’s an interesting question! I think all artists are really showing us how they see the world, and Wes sees the world in an incredibly special way, which he shares with us through a camera rather than on a canvas.



FELICIE HAYMOZ, Character Designer on Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr Fox

What has it been like working with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs?

When I worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was part of the art department crew, and I was working closely with art director Nelson Lowry, who was in charge of the whole look of the production. He was taking directions from Wes in the form of a thousand emails, and passing it down to us. On Isle of Dogs, I was involved very early in the process. I was the only artist designing a full cast of puppets, so the producers needed me to get a head start. I was working from home and sending my daily designs to Wes directly. I would receive a ton of emails from him, with little sketches of some characters, a lot of reference pictures and very precise feedback regarding pants length and name tags. From my experience, it feels like he knows very precisely what he wants, so it’s up to you to wander until you get it right.

Do any stories stick out from working with Wes?

I was designing this tattoo that Mayor Kobayashi has on his back, it will probably be on screen for half a second, but it took a week to get it right. Just one of these little details that makes Wes Anderson’s movies so nice to watch again and again. So I was drawing this tattoo, it had a big cat figure in the middle, because all the meanies in Isle of Dogs like cats, and I added  clouds and flames in the style of Japanese woodblock prints. Wes kept asking me to make that tattoo pink and pastel-colored and after a few days it looked like an Italian gelato stand. I remember thinking for the first time: maybe I should just go ahead and make those flames red, because, for once, he didn’t really know how to make this look cool. Maybe he’s not a big tattoo guy.

How does he compare to working with other directors?

Wes is the most detail oriented person I’ve worked with, and I really enjoy that. I know that he will spot every minute detail of a design. I mentioned getting feedback on pants length and it is not a joke. A lot of time went into drawing hems on pants, changing lapels and buttons, designing patterns for dresses and kimonos. For Isle of Dogs, Wes wanted to use specific references for the characters. I watched a lot of Kurosawa movies and re-watched the Studio Ghibli movies. The art department had a huge folder of still images from those films, and fun Japanese commercials from the 50s, so I would always pick elements from the references. Sometimes, Wes would ask me where a hat or a pair of glasses came from, and I had to browse through thousand of pictures to try to find where I had picked that idea from. Isle of Dogs is very nerdy and obsessive in that sense, it’s definitely a tribute to Japanese cinema.

When people mention Wes Anderson, there’s always that mention of ‘finer details’… do you think that lends itself especially well to graphic design? Does he like to be involved in every aspect?

Based on my experience I would say so. I remember during the shooting of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animators would receive little clips of Wes miming each scene! That’s pretty involved, I’m not sure other directors go that far. I think that he enjoys the slow pace of the animation process. It allows him to validate each step and consider all the minute details involved in each frame of the film.

Did working with Wes Anderson surprise you in any way?

I was definitely surprised when I heard that Wes was going to be directing another animation film, and I was surprised when I was asked to work on it. I used to lament that there would never be another adventure like Fantastic Mr. Fox for me. Then work started, I was sitting at my desk day after day, and I was in the groove. So the next thing on my list would be: bodyguard sumos wearing short silk kimonos? Sure, nothing surprising there.

What do you think makes Wes Anderson such a special director? Do you think it’s a particular human attribute?

It is a particular superhuman attribute: I’m pretty sure he never sleeps. I have always gotten a response to my emails in minutes, even in the middle of the night, when I was working in NYC and he was in France, 6 hours ahead. More importantly, I think that his particular love for films is what makes him such a special director. You have to love the peculiar grace and quirks of animation to push it as far as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. When he talks about the films and directors he admires, it makes you want to run home and watch movies. Someone should ask Wes Anderson to write an anthology of his favorite films.


Words By Davey Brett