Story IS Style: Lessons from Wes Anderson

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Going to a Wes Anderson movie is an escape from reality. The doors of the theatre serving as an instantaneous mode of transportation to a world you’ve never quite seen before. The humans and the clothing and the homes and the furniture all seem vaguely familiar, but brighter and bolder and more consuming.

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All these aesthetic qualities are why many people believe Wes Anderson is the most stylized American director of our time. And while I agree that his set, prop and artistic direction are beyond compare, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his approach to storytelling.

The truth is Wes Anderson is also one of the best American storytellers of our time. He is uniquely committed to the crucial and integrative relationship between writing and design, because he never omits a detail where there is room to give one. Narrative and design seamlessly exist together as one instead of as two complements that share the same screen.

Let me be specific:

1. It starts with the scripts. 

Go ahead and take a look at The Darjeeling Limited script sometime. Not a word is spoken until page 3. Why? The scene setting is evident right away. A Wes Anderson script is lush with details, which clearly provides the foundation his crews need to execute his vision. Amazingly, many scripts with this much detail can feel rife with fluff and pointless exposition. The key is his masterful attention to specificity. By carefully selecting certain objects and colors and cues, you are clued in to his distinct vision. Take this line from the first page of Darjeeling:

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This one sentence tells you everything you need to know about the first scene of the movie. This is a travel movie set in the Middle East. Done. It’s also our first clue at the color palette for the movie.

Another key to his writing strength? This commitment never wanes. Get to page 92 of Darjeeling and you’ll see the same kind of beautiful detail contributing to the story:

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There are plenty of writer-directors that have built their careers on seamlessly executing their vision from page to screen, but none with the pin point precision of Anderson. It’s one thing to see a Wes Anderson movie and know it’s a Wes Anderson movie. Even more impressive is that it’s nearly AS impossible to read a Wes Anderson script and not know it’s his script. His style is present on page one.

2. A Wes Anderson character speaks with heightened authenticity.

Dialogue is an essential part of any story, but oftentimes, dialogue is used to bring viewers into an aspect of the story where other visual cues will do. Or worse, a writer will execute their basest human instinct and write dialogue that reflects what humans think they have to say rather than what they want to say. This technique confuses the viewer because it means you are constantly being misdirected by emotional vagueries.

This is why so many people think Wes Anderson movies are “twee,” a word that is more accurately used to describe a potholder than an entire film, but alas.

This honesty and vulnerability of voice regularly gets attributed to a specific sort of folksiness or silliness, but I contend it’s the opposite. There is no bullshitting around with the truth when it comes to his characters, which means you always know exactly how fucked up, upset, overjoyed, ridiculous or misguided these people truly are at their core. You get to truly understand how their mind works and this deeper connection makes everything feel more real, even hyper real.

Take any number of iconic phrases from his catalogue:

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in 10 days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone who wants to tag along is more than welcome.” – Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic.

“I’ve always been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. That’s just my style. But I’d really feel blue if I didn’t think you were going to forgive me.” – Royal Tenanbaum in the The Royal Tenenbaums

“Maybe I’m spending too much of my time starting up clubs and putting on plays. I should probably be trying harder to score chicks.” – Max Fischer in Rushmore.

“Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” – Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox

This lack of superficiality in dialogue is rare. When Fox is questioning his existence in such profound and high-minded terms, it seems ridiculously honest. So, in turn, every character around him treats him accordingly. But the truth is, Fox just revealed the entire premise of the movie in that quote. And you may have even missed it, because you were too busy chuckling.

3. Forget b-plots. Stories can exist within the story.

It’s not uncommon for a stageplay to be happening inside a Wes Anderson screenplay. Whether it’s Margot Tenenbaum’s Three Plays or the church show in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson likes to leverage the real life acts of a play within his stories to create deeper storylines and provide narrative structure.

This is especially evident in Moonrise Kingdom where Sam and Suzy’s relationship is bookended by performance. In their first encounter, Sam asks, “what kind of bird are you?” and as we already covered, this line means something more than the costume on her shoulders. It’s the beginnings of a romance laid out in this specific setting with this specific choice of words.

When Anderson was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, he told Terry: “I have always wanted to work in the theater. I’ve always felt the glamour of being backstage and that excitement, but I’ve never actually done it — not since I was in 5th grade, really. But I’ve had many plays in my films. I feel like maybe theater is a part of my movie work.”

It’s either him being incredibly humble about his story structure or the wishes of a child making its way through decades into his adult career. In either case, it’s a brilliant choice. The natural highs of performance, the anticipation of embodying another being on stage – these things translate beautifully to his characters so that they can be more expressive, say less conventional things and embody more versions of themselves in the course of the film’s running time.

This should be weird, but it isn’t. Why? I contend it’s because Anderson strips a lot of other unnecessary b-plots from his movies. Secondary characters aren’t part of another plotline, they instead advance the main one. Some might contend that this would make his extended cast of characters shallow, but it’s exactly the opposite. Instead, they feel focused and singular. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jeff Goldblum’s character should feel rather ancillary, but instead, he’s thoroughly integrated into the narrative and his experience and drama is central to moving the plot along. Instead of killing his darlings, he only births them if they are contributing to the progression of the plot.

This is echoed often in great stageplays. Or rather, perhaps Anderson is echoing this technique himself. Traditional plays don’t have the benefit of being able to cut instantly from scene to scene and setting to setting to visit characters with their own minor plots. This structural vision means storytellers have to stay focused on a key story lest they lost the audience.

The other added benefit of bringing old school stage drama to his stories is that they have a lot of built in reasons to be over the top. He can be even more bold with his visual and audio choices, because you’re expecting a show. The film can enjoy exaggerated color and costume because the stage demands those qualities too.

I’ve been writing this post for days and going back and forth about whether or not the main thesis is clear, so in case it isn’t, I’m just going to go ahead and restate it again.

Wes Anderson’s films are the most stylized movies to grace movie screens in our time, but the reason why is often falsely attributed to costumes and sets and camera angles and framing. These things all contribute greatly to their execution, but the key reason a Wes Anderson movie is HIS movie is because the scripts are superbly expressive and detailed, the characters are uniquely raw and all other extraneous plot lines are killed in service to the main point. 

It’s not about cuts.

It’s not about color.

It’s not about costumes.

It’s not about camera angles.

It’s not about curtains.

It’s not about composition.

As creators, we shouldn’t try to copy Wes’s look and feel. Instead, we should aim to focus on these key tenants of story telling to which he clearly is so committed. The rest will work itself out.