“I do feel kind of like I’ve got my own style and voice,” Wes Anderson says in the Director’s Chair profile video above. Both his fans and his critics will take that as a vast understatement. Viewers in the former group can’t get enough time in his cinematic world, built out of places, costumes, fonts, cultural artifacts, and filmmaking techniques meticulously selected and arranged; viewers in the latter group see all those things as adding up to the same film over and over again. But the man who directed Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Grand Budapest Hotel knows exactly what he’s doing, as evidenced by interviews and clips of him in action. “Whatever is coming from my imagination is inspired by my background and my own psychology,” he says. “Without me controlling it or choosing to, I’m in the movies.”
In a Studio Binder breakdown of Anderson’s style, SC Lannom encapsulates what Anderson does as “direct-directing.” In other words, “laced throughout his films are nuanced production design elements and visual gags, but executed in such a deliberate manner that the viewer always ‘catches’ these little easter eggs that inform our mood.” His audience “knows what he wants them to know,” “sees what he wants them to see,” and “feels what he wants them to feel.” The average Hollywood hack might use this directorial superpower to formulaic and cynical ends, but Anderson goes his own way. “The Wes Anderson style is Wes Anderson himself,” Lannom writes. “A hard-working, thoughtful human who is focused on his imagination. His visuals are an extension of his own psychology. Anderson is those clothes, those Zissou Adidas, those record players… those memories.”
Growing up in Texas, Anderson first dreamed of becoming an architect, then a writer. Though he has ended up devoting his life to film, those early interests in mastering space and narrative clearly never left him — nor has the porousness between imagination and reality that characterizes childhood. “Wes Anderson tells stories from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy,” Lannom writes. “More specifically, he tells stories from his perspective as a 12-year-old. His films capture the essence of a board game or story book, and the world he builds in each film resembles a snapshot from his childhood.” So do the places that constitute that world, shot in symmetrical compositions by his longtime director of photography Robert Yeoman: “Even if he is using an established location, you get the feeling that the whole place was built for the film, and that is not done by accident.”
All this makes Wes Anderson perhaps the most obvious living example of an auteur, the kind of director who, despite working with countless collaborators, nevertheless leaves an immediately recognizable aesthetic and narrative signature on all his films. Naturally, his list of influences includes many auteurs before him, like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Jean-Luc Godard. And though “learning from Anderson is one of the most important things you can do as a filmmaker,” Lannom writes, “replicating his style is one of the more questionable things you can do as a filmmaker.” Far better, in other words, to make films that reflect the various forces that have shaped you, whatever those forces may be, than to make knock-off Wes Anderson movies. And how does Wes Anderson himself regard the concept of the “Wes Anderson movie”? “The more I think about it, the more confused I get.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.