One thing I’ve learned from covering the movie industry for about eight years now is that the directors who get the most respect are the ones who are right there in the shit with their crews. When I visit a movie set I always take notice of where the director is sitting (or if he even is sitting) during a take – directors who are right up front with the actors and crews tend to be good directors, while those who hang far away in video village, giving orders through intermediaries, tend to not be as good*. But every director I’ve ever known has been on set while directing their movies. I mean, Spielberg did post on Jurassic Park via video link while directing Schindler’s List, but that was post and he’s Spielberg.

So the news that Wes Anderson essentially directed The Fantastic Mr. Fox via email is kind of disheartening. According to a story in the LA Times (based on a set visit where the angry crew was more than happy to throw Anderson under the bus), Wes lived in Paris during the making of the stop-motion movie. According to the Times, ‘He wasn’t working on another project, and nothing Paris-centric
demanded he be there; Anderson simply “didn’t want to be at Three Mills
Studios for two years.”‘

Wow. That’s some commitment to the project. Of course there’s no need for a director to be onset every day for a stop motion film – the process is so painstaking that he would probably just get in the way – but Anderson made certain unusual demands of his crew that might have gone down better had he shown up on occasion to cheerlead, as opposed to issuing orders via email. Anderson didn’t allow any CGI or green screen elements in the film, and everything had to be done in camera, an exceptionally old-fashioned way of doing things. And he wanted all the animals to have real fur, which is something stop-motion folks stopped doing decades ago. Look at King Kong for an idea why – the manipulation of the puppet becomes completely visible when fur is used.

No one is saying that Anderson shouldn’t have demanded these things from his crew – it’s his film and his vision, and you sign up to fulfill a director’s vision when you sign up to make his movie. But as cinematographer Tristan Oliver tells the Times, maybe Anderson didn’t really think out his approach. “I think he’s a little sociopathic,” Oliver said. “I
think he’s a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way,
he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer.”

Sociopathic! And he said that during the making of the movie! I’ve been on a lot of sets where the crew suffered under tough directors, and you never hear stuff like that. The crew talks in euphemisms – “He’s demanding!” “He’s a perfectionist!” “He knows what he wants!” “He’s tough, but it’s worth it!” – but never to a reporter with such harsh language. At the end of the day this is probably going to hurt Oliver more than Anderson (and I bet Oliver claims that he was talking to the Times reporter off the record).

None of this should impact your viewing of the movie, but I wonder what it means for who Wes Anderson is as a filmmaker right now. Anderson’s schtick – daddy issues, quirk, whimsy and British Invasion soundtracks – has worn thin for me, and I think even his most ardent defenders must admit that the quality of his films has declined. Anyone who says Darjeeling Limited is as good as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums is either lying or crazy. Anderson was involved with the voice actors, but the process of stop-motion animation had no interest for him at all. Anderson tells the Times:

“I thought I’d make the script and cast it and record the actors… I’d work with some people to design it, get it to look a certain
way. But at a certain point, I’d hand it over to the people that
animate it. And they’d give it back to me and I’d work on the music and
kind of spruce it up.”

It’s almost shocking that he wouldn’t want to be involved in the process more heavily, especially since he was a complete neophyte to stop-motion when he began. Many of the best directors working today throw themselves into new technologies and forms with abandon, trying to figure them out. Anderson seems content to let other people deal with the messy stuff, which to me belies a lack of enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.

Is this direction by email a sign of Anderson’s growing disinterest in the process? Or is it just that stop-motion proved too wonky for a director who is more about big ideas and getting across a vision as opposed to one who has a Fincher-like obsession with fine tuning the technical aspect? If The Fantastic Mr. Fox is good, we’re not even going to wonder about this anymore, but if it’s another step down in the Anderson filmography, real worries about the director’s future may start forming.

* this can be different on FX heavy pictures or highly complicated scenes, where the director needs to be seeing through the camera’s lens to really control things. As always in moviemaking, there is no one rule for how this works.