FINE PRINT
Total Film|October 2021
SET AROUND A FICTIONAL MAGAZINE, WES ANDERSON’S COMIC ANTHOLOGY THE FRENCH DISPATCH IS A TRIBUTE TO BOTH A BYGONE ERA AND THE WRITTEN WORD. TOTAL FILM LISTENS UP AS THE CAST AND CREW GIVE THE LOW-DOWN ON THE DIRECTOR’S MOST AMBITIOUS MOVIE YET.
JAMES MOTTRAM AND DAMON WISE

Let’s start at the end. As the credits roll on Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, he pays tribute to a dozen or more writers whose work appeared in The New Yorker. It was the publication that shaped his tastes, long before he became the celebrated filmmaker of Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. “So many writers who I loved happened to be published there,” the 52-year-old writer-director explains.

Now it’s the inspiration for his newest masterwork. Set in the mid20th century around the (fictional) French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, the titular French Dispatch is a supplement of a Kansas newspaper dedicated to bringing European art, politics and cuisine to readers back home. With the magazine edited by the eccentric Arthur Howitzer Jr. (played by Bill Murray), the film primarily takes the shape of three short stories – articles from the latest issue.

‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, penned by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), recounts the tale of an incarcerated artist (Benicio Del Toro), his affair with a prison guard (Léa Seydoux) and the machinations of an art dealer (Adrien Brody). ‘Revisions To A Manifesto’, inspired by the May ’68 protests, sees dogged reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) profile quirky student activist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Finally, ‘The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner’, by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), delves into a culinary curiosity involving a chef (Stephen Park) and a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric).

So sit back for a little oral history, as TF prepares to take you through Wes Anderson’s latest dispatch…

THE BRAINSTORM

WES ANDERSON [SCREENWRITER, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER]: I don’t think I really read The New Yorker until I was maybe 16. First, I read it because I wanted to read the short stories… that was what first interested me. Then I got interested in the reportage and the magazine changed over the years and leaned more towards that… the journalistic pieces became more important to the magazine, I think.

ROMAN COPPOLA [STORY, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER]: I remember sitting with Wes over a meal, and talking about A.J. Liebling, who is the writer from The New Yorker who often wrote about Paris and food. And we chatted about [Joseph] Duveen, who is an art dealer, and Mavis Gallant, another person that Wes exposed me to. So it’s hard to really pin it down… [but] in essence, The French Dispatch started a year or two, to my recollection, prior to really sitting down and writing in earnest. The early conversations are almost more like just bouncing ideas over a meal, discussing things that impress us and how there’s a feeling of something there that’s worth pursuing and inquiring about.

WA: I thought making a movie that was about this magazine that I’ve been interested in for so long, a version of it, was a way to contain a collection of short stories, which are really fiction stories, but they pretend to be reportage. It sort of came from several directions at once: wanting to do a thing about the magazine, wanting to do a collection of stories, wanting to do a French story. Inspired, in particular, by French cinema and French directors of the ’30s and ’40s. Like, [Julien] Duvivier and [Henri-Georges] Clouzot and [Jean] Renoir and then later ones, like the New Wave directors.

RC: [For the main three stories] there were many rejected ideas. And again, it’s so tricky, because as you write something, it starts to gel and take more form. And the things that are rejected fall aside, but there were some other threads of story ideas that didn’t quite make it. But interestingly, those are in notebooks. It would not surprise me by any stretch of the imagination that those other images, ideas, and notions for character, might appear in some other future thing. Wes is very diligent about keeping notebooks and notes. Here, it was not at all clear that these were the three stories that would form the film. In fact, as the film ultimately took its shape, it made sense to have multiple stories, but some of these stories were just ideas on their own, and then it was kind of drawing elements in and bringing them together.

WA: The first story… there are two big journalistic inspirations. I don’t know if you call this journalism. I mean, there was a woman, Rosamond Bernier, who gave lectures at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, about modernist painters and impressionists. So she was more a teacher. And then a piece by S.N. Behrman, ‘The Days Of Duveen’, about Joseph Duveen, the art dealer...[though] what’s in the movie is quite different from anything to do with [this]. But those were the inspirations. The second story very specifically was something I wrote after re-reading Mavis Gallant’s piece about May ’68, her experience of it, her journalistic account of it and some of her other journalism… At the same time, Roman Coppola and I talked about the Cinéma du look, [the films of] Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson, Leos Carax. Their films, a new kind of French cinema that started happening in the late ’70s or ’80s.

RC: That was sort of a sub-sub-genre of film that includes movies like Subway, and even One From The Heart, my dad’s film, in which more hyper colour [was used] and visual, stylish filmmaking… Even a film like Diva, I would put in that category. But that just felt right for [a story about] youthful characters who are passionate about their cause.

WA: Then the third story is A.J. Liebling writing about food. Some specific thoughts coming from James Baldwin. And then I think policier type French cinema and also Bandes dessinées [comics].

ROLE CALL

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