The French Dispatch, an interview with Wes Anderson

Director, writer and producer Wes Anderson was born in Houston, Texas. His films include Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs. With his new film, The French Dispatch, Anderson brings a collection of stories to life from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city. It stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson.

How does a child growing up in Houston, Texas wind up with the love of French culture that has led to a film as specific as The French Dispatch?

I'm from Texas, but I have always wanted to spend time in France, and I always wanted to live in France. Well, I eventually got an apartment there, and we've never lived there, but my family goes to France often. For years, France has been a big part of my life. During that time, more and more, I thought, I want to make a movie that uses what I'm learning here, because part of why I started going to France in the first place is because I loved French movies. That is part of what hooked me about France.

I was probably 16 when I found this movie, 'The 400 Blows' by François Truffaut, in a video store in Houston. You realise, this stuff is everywhere; it's out there in the world. But even looking back, I think, what was I doing looking at The 400 Blows?

And I think it was the title. Even today, I don't fully know what 'Les quatre cents coups' means in French. And it's certainly not translated in a way that means anything. But it's a French expression, and it means there's something going on; something crazy is in the air. "Tonight, we do les quatre cent coups". It's an explosive time. Translated, 'the 400 blows' doesn't mean anything. But that title intrigued me to pick up the VHS and start seeing French movies.

How would you describe the structure of this film?

The French Dispatch is a portmanteau; it's an omnibus film, a collection of short stories. The frame for the collection is that there is a strange magazine, an American magazine based in Kansas, which happens to be published in a French location with American writers who live in France. It's an expatriate magazine. And the way the magazine holds the story together is that the movie is a collection of stories written for the magazine. So, first we meet the editor of the magazine, and we learn about what it is. We're then told all these different stories. Three main stories, each with a different writer and a smaller one that is a tour of the small city where the magazine is published.

The magazine's editor, played by Bill Murray, is a man named Arthur Howitzer, Jr. We meet him at his death.

That's right, the way we describe it in the movie, because each section of the movie is a section of this magazine, is that we begin with an obituary. And it's actually more of a story of the magazine. The story is that its publisher-editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr., snuck his way into France, working for his father's newspaper, and then stayed for 50 years. He stayed until his death, which was the end of the magazine, and the start of our story.

Your other most consistent collaborator, Owen Wilson, plays the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac. He gives us a tour of the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.

Yes, so the first little article we get is written by this reporter, Herbsaint Sazerac, the cycling reporter. He is someone who is obsessed with the city where he lives, and in particular with the lowlifes of the city. He introduces us not only to the city today in the present of the film, but its history. He says he is taking us on a time machine, and it's his description of how the place has changed.

Ennui-sur-Blasé is the name of the city. I think it might sound better in English. They are French words, but I did have a French person say to me, "Have you named the town this because you don't like France?" It actually doesn't sound that way in English. In English, 'Ennui-sur-Blasé' has a kind of melancholy gentleness to it. In French, 'Ennui-sur-Blasé' is something teenagers are. I think it's way more literal in French.

Who inspired Herbsaint Sazarac, and these other writers we meet along the way?

It's a couple of things. One, there is this inspiration of Joseph Mitchell, who was a New Yorker writer, and who wrote about New York and its different… not subcultures, per se, but he would write about oyster beds and the men who worked on them. He wrote one story about the behaviour of rats in the city, and one about a cemetery and the story that surrounded it. There's also a bit of Luc Sante, who wrote one book called 'Low Life', about the seedy side of New York, and another, 'The Other Paris', about the seedy side of Paris.

The New Yorker was the biggest inspiration for the whole story. And there are New Yorker writers who inspired many of our different characters. Tilda Swinton plays a character called J.K.L. Berensen, who isn't exactly a New Yorker person, but the one she is inspired by would give lectures on art at the Metropolitan Museum. She is still a New York person, and someone who would have been written about in the pages of the New Yorker. And she made her own magazine.

Frances McDormand's character is a woman named Lucinda Krementz. For years and years, I'd been thinking she should play a character based on this writer I love by the name of Mavis Gallant. She was a French resident and she lived in my neighbourhood in Paris. Somehow, I felt a connection with her, and had long felt that Frances McDormand could embody her. Another writer, Lillian Ross, who was a friend of mine for years, goes into that character a bit too. And Janet Flanner, who wrote under the name 'Genêt', who wrote about Paris for the New Yorker.

Roebuck Wright, the character played by Jeffrey Wright in the movie, really began with a writer called A.J. Liebling, who wrote quite often about food, but who also wrote about France. He liked to go to France; he went when he was very young and kept going back. He was there during the war, and his story was that he snuck away from his father and went to France, and then tricked his father into letting him stay. James Baldwin was another inspiration for us, and Tennessee Williams too.

So, all the writers in the story have their models, but I will say there's no character in the movie who is so close to their model as to be indistinguishable, but they draw on all of these people.

"There are so many characters and people who became legends at this strange little magazine."

Along with these writers, you have the editors that went into Arthur Howitzer, Jr. Harold Ross, who founded the New Yorker, and William Shawn, who took over from him. The movie comes from them, and another one, E.B. White. There is even inspiration from voices at the New Yorker where I don't even particularly know their work. One of them is St. Clair McKelway, and I read maybe one piece he wrote once, but I know him more as a character in books about the New Yorker, as a person who was there. There are so many characters and people who became legends at this strange little magazine.

The New Yorker doesn't really have a house style. Each of the writers who contributes does it in their own voice. And you capture that in the film with each of these stories feeling different. Was the writing process very different for each of these stories?

Each was quite separate. Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and I went to a place called Westerly, Rhode Island to work on part of the story. While we were there, we happened to focus on this Herbsaint Sazerac story. And then Hugo Guinness and I worked together to write the story about the painter, Moses Rosenthaler, played by Benicio Del Toro. That was its own separate time. Each part took its own shape.

Were you always working with this movie as the end goal, or did any of these stories come from other routes?

The Rosenthaler story. Actually, I had written a script where the character of Moses Rosenthaler was created. It was a completely different story that just used some of the ingredients of this. That movie was never made, and so I used it all in The French Dispatch. The rest was all written for this purpose, but that one I stole from myself, I guess.

In addition to the cast that has travelled with you from movie to movie, so many of the crew have come from your previous productions. How did you work with them to find the look of Ennui-sur-Blasé and the movie as a whole?

The interesting thing is I went from town to town in France looking for a place to shoot. My production designer, Adam Stockhausen, came with me, as did our producer Jeremy Dawson. We went from place to place based on locations we'd found online where we'd said, "Could this work?"

Angouleme was probably the eighth or 10th place that we went to. And when we got there, immediately we felt we'd found the spot. It's a city built on levels; there is something special about filming in a place that has depth, where there is always something behind you. The layers work themselves into the background, and it gives you more opportunity to stage things. There is something immediately gripping about a town with staircases and sloped roads and these kinds of things.

There were also a lot of old buildings that hadn't been touched, and it felt like it could be a period setting quite easily. So, we spent some more time there and finally determined that this could be it. And then we studied every inch of the place to see how we could find everything in our movie within this town. How we could transform things, but also make use of what was there and then never have to leave Angouleme.

It was great for us because the city of Angouleme became our backlot. We did everything there, and the people of Angouleme… there are well over a thousand residents of Angouleme who are in the movie. They became our partners. Eventually, I'm looking forward to taking the movie to Angouleme and showing it to them, because I think we can fill a screening room of people who will see themselves up on screen...

Wes Anderson (left) and production designer Adam Stockhausen (right) on the set of  "The French Dispatch"

Photos: Disney 2021 © Trailer: Searchlight Pictures