The Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe
If I ask you to categorize the films of Wes Anderson in a particular genre, you would probably have a tough time. Does he make adventure films or kids’ films? Does he make coming-of-age films or emotional dramas? Well, the best way I would put this is: Wes Anderson films are a genre in itself.
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The unconventional director has directed 10 feature films in the last 25 years. All have received varying levels of acclaim and success. But one thing that all of them have in common, is that all of them have been extremely compelling personal stories. The common element that always cuts through to me, beyond his obvious visual style, is that all of his movies are made with a lot of heart.
“I don’t think any of us are normal people”, says Wes whose characters are often branded as quirky and weird by his critics. He doesn’t seem to want to pander to the masses. Anderson is confident about the stories he wants to tell, and how he wants to tell them. So today, let’s look at the common themes and links between his movies, his writing style and his visual technique.
There are a bunch of similarities we found in his writing style in each of his movies. Here they are:
1) Frequent Collaborators
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Wes Anderson works with people he trusts and those who help him achieve his vision. On almost all of his films, Anderson has had co-writers. Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman- have all contributed to the screenplays of Anderson’s films on one or more occasions. Except Baumbach, the other three have also gone on to act or voice characters in those films. Anderson thrives from collaboration, and it forms a huge part of his writing process.
2) Protagonists with a Strong Want
A common theme among Wes Anderson’s protagonists, is that they are strong and driven characters. They are characters with a strong want and goal in mind. And these characters possess the willingness to take action to achieve the said goals. Be it Mr. Fox stealing from farms after succumbing to his animal instincts, or Sam and Suzy fleeing their town in Moonrise Kingdom—Anderson’s characters take extreme measures to achieve their wants, but by the end, irrespective of whether they achieve it or not, realize their needs.
3) Themes of Childhood
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Films often tend to depict children to comment about their parents, or to signify some portrayal of innocence. Wes Anderson doesn’t do that. He is genuinely interested in looking at things through a child’s lens, and in turn revisiting his own childhood- showing us a glimpse at what a unique period it is in a person’s life. The kids in The Royal Tenenbaums, in Moonrise Kingdom, and even Zero to some extent in The Grand Budapest Hotel- depict children in unique and magical ways. Ash, Mr. Fox’s son in Fantastic Mr. Fox, has a wonderful character arc where he realizes that there’s nothing wrong in being different, and comes of age.
4) Protagonists with Traumas of their Past
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Anderson skillfully writes characters who have a happy exterior, but carry deep sadness and experiences of trauma internally. At the face of it, the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited seem like people who have quirks and are dysfunctional. But overtime we see them grappling with more existential issues like their father’s death and the fact that their mother abandoned them. The conflicts of the characters in Anderson’s stories never punch you in the gut. Rather, they act like a cold piece of meat, which you keep outside to thaw. It gets fleshier and warmer only with time.
5) Themes of Damaged Families and Love Stories
Family dynamics and love stories are two of the most universal settings to tell a story. But there is nothing ordinary, in the way in which Anderson does it. He is the second of three boys, and his parents got divorced when he was 8. He uses both of these personal experiences, in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited respectively. He has gone on record to say that the filmmaker and the screenplay should have a personal connection, which is also why he writes all his movies. Anderson is successful in capturing the brokenness, but also the warmth of families. He is successful in depicting the toxicity, but also the innocence of love. And that is how he makes the words on the paper jump.
Everyone knows how to spot if a movie is a Wes Anderson movie or not. These are the common threads in the filmmaker’s visual style:
1) Frequent Collaborators
Like his co-writers, Wes Anderson also casts a recurring set of actors in his movies. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Williem Dafoe, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton- all have featured in more than one of his films.
Casting people he knows allows Anderson to get comfortable immediately and experiment more readily. Although, he is not averse to casting new actors. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance, he casted Ralph Fiennes because he was a long-time admirer of the actor.
2) Symmetrical Framing
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If you ask anyone who has seen Wes Anderson’s filmography one key visual element of his films, they’re likely to talk about the symmetry in his frames. Some filmmakers shy away from symmetry because they feel it will remind the audience that they are watching a movie, which will as a result suck them out of the reality that the filmmaker is trying to create. But when Wes Anderson does it, the audience realizes that the filmmaker is self-aware. Using symmetry in the way he does- adds balance to an otherwise foreign world that his films are set in. Anderson’s use of symmetry makes each shot frame feel like it is a painting, and adds a wonderful quality of two-dimensionality to it.
You can see it for yourself here. (https://youtu.be/oL0DseCrqfU)
3) Shots and Angles
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There are some trademark Wes Anderson shots which you are likely to see in most of his films. Tracking shots, zooming in, the whip pan, bird’s eye view and slow motion- are just some of the shots that Anderson uses on the regular. We can see strong influences from Theatre with the use of shots like these. Anderson himself has said that he likes to create these long interesting shots because like in theatre, he wants his actors to play the scene through. He finds it more challenging and fun to plan these long shots which have complicated blocking.
4) Uniqueness of Dialogue
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One of the many delights of a Wes Anderson movie are its dialogues. He either uses no dialogue at all, and shows us highly dramatized sequences, like the chase sequence with Williem Dafoe in The Grand Budapest Hotel; or he uses extensive dialogue where his characters make strong and fierce proclamations. Anderson’s characters are aware that they are delivering a performance. They don’t feel the need to mimic real-life at all times possible. Even with a style like this, Anderson has been extremely successful in creating incredible moments of catharsis for his audience.
5) Color Scheme
The use of color in Wes Anderson’s movies is exemplary, to say the least. Anderson carefully curates the production design on his sets, and methodically plans the framing and the colors that will be used. He uses a lot of monochromatic color schemes in his movies, and makes use of complementary colors as well. The Grand Budapest Hotel makes use of various shades of pink and purple- using the color of the hotel, it’s carpets and the uniform of the hotel staff- to create a mood of mystery, innocence and fantasy. On the other hand, in a movie like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson uses a complementary color scheme by pairing colors like blue and red.
Wes Anderson has made comedies, dramas, adventure films and even stop-motion movies. And in each one of his movies, he manages to have a unique style; but more importantly, in each of his movies, Anderson manages to make you feel happy.
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While other filmmakers would be happy having made 10 feature films, Wes Anderson looks like he’s only just getting started. With his next film The French Dispatch just around the corner, we’re excited to witness the world he creates this time. Please let us know in the comments below- which is your favourite Wes Anderson movie!