TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you haven't seen "Fantastic Mr. Fox," you have a second chance. It just came out on DVD and Blu-ray. The film was nominated for two Oscars, Best Animated Film and Best Original Score.
We're going to hear the interview I recorded with Wes Anderson, who directed and co-wrote the film. Anderson also made the movies "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited."
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is Anderson's first animated film. It uses miniature animal puppets and miniature sets animated through stop motion photography to create a visually amazing world. The story is adapted from a children's book by Roald Dahl, but the movie adds new characters and storylines.
At the beginning of the story, Mr. Fox moves his wife and son to a new home near three evil farmers. Mr. Fox has promised Mrs. Fox that he'll never steal chickens again, because as a father he couldnt risk being captured. But he succumbs to his animal instincts and steals some of the farmers' chickens. After that, the farmers are on the warpath against Mr. Fox and his family.
Wes Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, I never read Roald Dahl. I never read "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but I got a copy after seeing your film. What did the book mean to you, and why did you want to adapt it into a film?
Mr. WES ANDERSON (Director, "Fantastic Mr. Fox"): Well, it was the first Roald Dahl book that I ever read as a child, and I became a huge fan of Dahl, and he was a big part of my childhood. For some reason, this book was the one I always kept with me.
Wherever I lived, when I went to college, I always had this book on my shelves. It's not a very - it's a slim book, and it's really kind of - I think it's for young children, but something about it always stuck with me. And I think the character of Mr. Fox is a very Dahl kind of figure, and he's the one who rescues everybody, but he's also the cause of all of their problems, and his personality gets them into these problems in the first place. And I think something about that grabbed me.
And at a certain point I started thinking I would like to do a stop-motion film, and a stop-motion film with puppets with fur. And this really, you know, it was a good opportunity for that. This connected with that.
GROSS: You've added a lot of adult themes to this children's story, and by adult I don't mean sexual. I mean more existential.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: Like, Mr. and Mrs. Fox used to steal chickens, but after getting trapped and nearly getting killed or losing their freedom in a cage, he swears he's going to give up stealing chickens, and he becomes a newspaper columnist instead. But he still has the hunger for chickens and for the adventure, and he has an existential crisis. You know, who is he? Is he a fox?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes. I think he likes the word existentialism more than anything else.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I want to play a clip in which he decides to go back to stealing chickens again, and he enlists his not-very-bright possum friend to be his accomplice. So this is Mr. Fox with his friend, the possum, Kylie.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox")
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Mr. Fox) Who am I, Kylie?
Mr. WALLACE WOLODARSKY (Actor): (As Kylie) Who, how, what now?
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) 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 a - you'll forgive the expression - a chicken in its teeth?
Mr. WOLODARSKY: (As Kylie) I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Here, put this bandit hat on. Maybe you're a medium. Take it off for a minute and don't wear it around the house.
GROSS: I really love that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So what does it mean to be a fox? I love the idea that these animals are - that this animal in particular is having an identity crisis about whether he should be overcoming his fox instincts or not.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, he's a bit obsessed with the idea of being a wild animal.
GROSS: And, you know, the creatures in the film, you know, like, they're all dressed as humans with, like, you know, suits and ties and dresses, but - and - you know, they have, like, kitchens and living rooms and furniture, but underneath it all, I mean, they're animals.
So, like, there's this wonderful scene at the kitchen table where Mr. Fox is reading a newspaper, and Mrs. Fox brings out the pancakes for the family. But once they start eating, they just like...
(Soundbite of snorting)
GROSS: ...like, you know, like animals, because that's what they are, and it's so funny.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: And there's another scene like that I want to play, just to give our listeners a sense of the story. And this is a scene where Mr. Fox, played by George Clooney, is talking to his lawyer, a badger played by Bill Murray. And the lawyer is advising him not to move into a house right near the really mean farmers, who would probably like to kill a fox. So here's that scene.
(Soundbite of movie, "Fantastic Mr. Fox")
Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (As Badger) In summation, I think you just got to not do it, man, that's all.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) I understand what you're saying, and your comments are valuable, but I'm going to ignore your advice.
Mr. MURRAY: (As Badger) The cuss you are.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) The cuss am I? Are you cussing with me?
Mr. MURRAY: (As Badger) No, you cussing with me?
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Don't cussing point at me.
Mr. MURRAY: (As Badger) You're going to cuss with someone, you're not going to cuss with me, you little cuss.
(Soundbite of snarling)
(Soundbite of bell)
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Just buy the tree.
Mr. MURRAY: (As Badger) Okay.
GROSS: I love that, the way they actually, like, become animals.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, it kicks in.
GROSS: Yeah, and you use the word cuss through the movie instead of the F-word. How did you decide cuss would be your substitute?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I don't even remember. I think it was just to use the - to try to use the concept of profanity as a replacement for the profanity itself. It turns out to be very versatile.
GROSS: Yes. You do use it very versatility. So as the director and co-writer of the film, did you actually create the miniature animals?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes. You know, a movie like this - the process - I didn't know what it was going to be like to make this movie when we started out. I had a - I sort of had this thought that we were going to - that I was going to make the script and work on the sets and then sort of prepare the shots and have this plan and then hand it over to a team of animators, and they were going to hand me back a film a year later or something. I was going to put in an order for one "Fantastic Mr. Fox," according to these specifications, and they would send it back.
That was not what happened. It ends up being the most involving kind of filmmaking that I've ever had anything to do with, and very fun. But the thing you quickly realize is that everything that is going to go on camera has to be manufactured from scratch. Everything has to be designed, and that means every little prop and every little moment is going to have a lot of thought go into it. And it's an opportunity, but it's not going to take care of itself. Nothing's going to just be discovered, like stumbling across a location.
GROSS: You have to create the bodies of the animals, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, the street they live on, the sunrise, the sunset, you know, the ground beneath their feet. You have to create absolutely everything.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, it actually was quite - you know, it's rare that you get the chance to say, I have an idea for a cloud that I want to do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ANDERSON: And you know, the leaves and trees and everything. And I think with stop-motion it's the combination of miniature with the idea that someone is taking these - you sort of sense that someone is taking these and moving them around and bringing them to life through some sort of handmade process that's just like a sort of magic. It's like toys.
GROSS: Why don't you describe how stop-motion photography works.
Mr. ANDERSON: Sure, yes. Stop-motion is - it's that technique where you - I'll describe it, particularly in relation to our movie. It's puppets, and in our case these puppets have metal skeletons inside them. So if you move them a little bit, they stay in position.
So the animator moves the puppets one frame at a time, and each time he moves it, it's - so to complete an action, he poses it many, many times and takes a picture each time he re-poses it, and then those are played back quickly, and it appears to move around. And that's really the basic technique of the whole movie, this old-fashioned style of animation.
GROSS: So do you need to have a little bit of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, to work in stop-time animation? Because everything has to be handmade, and then you have to move each puppet, like, a fraction of an inch for each frame that you're shooting.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, well, it's, you know, the people who actually do the physical process of animating, they have to be experts. They have to be very experienced, and they have to be supremely talented to do this. And there aren't that many people that do it. So it's a special personality type, it's special talents.
And you know, when you prepare a shot for a stop-motion film, when you prepare the shot, you draw what you want, you know, what you want the shot to be. You've recorded the voices already, and you work with the animator to make a plan of what's going to happen in time. The animator has a sheet that's prepared that shows what happens on each frame. So when you study this sheet, you'll see on frame 220, a character is beginning to lift his arm and pronouncing a sh-sound. You know, it's down to the syllables. You know, there's four frames where he's pronouncing sh, and then he's moving to the next thing.
It's the most detailed preparation you could possibly have for a shot, and yet each animator will surprise you with how he interprets this incredibly precise plan. And that's sort of the part that you just can't understand. Something happens - they work in this very, very gradual process, but they're doing something that it just - that really is like magic. And it isn't just moving the puppet around, it's making it seem like it's alive.
GROSS: Right, and now I want you to just, like, describe in detail one of the puppets, maybe Mr. Fox.
Mr. ANDERSON: Okay. Mr. Fox, that puppet is, let's say he's maybe 13 inches tall, the main puppet, which - the main puppet - I'll explain what I mean. There are different scales. So a full-scale, what we call a full-scale Mr. Fox puppet is about 13 inches tall. It has this steel or titanium skeleton that has joints in it and even joints in the fingers and many bones in the face, and it has fur over it. It has eyes that move around separately, and you can move them with a little pin, and its got a costume.
GROSS: Describe the costume.
Mr. ANDERSON: The costume is a sort of rust-colored corduroy suit with a terrycloth shirt with yellow zigzags on it. And he has - you know, one of the things - you know, I saw one of our people making something one day. I was, like, what are you working on? It was - he has little stalks of wheat in his pocket, like cigars or something. And this - one of our, one of the people who works in the props department was making wheat. And to see somebody make tiny, tiny miniature wheat is just - you know, you know you're dealing with a whole other realm than you've ever experienced.
GROSS: Wes Anderson. He directed and co-wrote "Fantastic Mr. Fox," which just came out on DVD and Blu-ray.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Wes Anderson. We're talking about his animated movie "Fantastic Mr. Fox," which just came out on DVD and Blu-ray. When we left off, we were talking about his use of stop-motion photography.
Stop-motion photography was developed, I think, for the movie "King Kong," used again in "Mighty Joe Young" and other adventure films. Were you a big fan of "King Kong" when you were growing up or when you became an adult?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, I loved "King Kong." You know, when I grew up, I think when I became aware of stop-motion was - I can't remember the name of the guy - Willis, maybe? Something like Willis is the guy who did the stop-motion on "King Kong," and his protege was Ray Harryhausen, who's sort of the most famous stop-motion guy ever. And he did a number - and the ones that I saw were the ones that are sort of Greek mythology -"Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," "Jason and the Argonauts," there's another Sinbad movie also, things like "Clash of the Titans."
Those movies all have a big stop-motion element to them, and I really loved them as a kid. And also there were these TV - the holiday specials that the Rankin-Bass Company did, the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and there was one about - there's one that's sort of the story of how Santa Claus came to be. Those were ones that I - we were - my brothers and I were really taken with.
GROSS: Now, there's a sport that's played in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and I think this is a sport that you made up that's not in the book.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: And it's called Whackbat. I want to play a short scene in which the rules of the game are explained. These are like wonderful rules. And Owen Wilson, who's in a lot of your movies, he plays the coach. And in the scene what we're going to hear is the coach explaining the rules of Whackbat to the perfect cousin, Kristofferson, because he is going to put Kristofferson in as a replacement for Ash. So the coach is played by Owen Wilson, who's in a lot of your films. Ash is played by Jason Schwartzman, and the cousin is played by your brother, Eric Anderson.
(Soundbite of movie, "Fantastic Mr. Fox")
Mr. OWEN WILSON (Actor): (As Coach Skip) Basically, there's three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and the player at Whackbat. The center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, at the end, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.
Mr. ERIC ANDERSON (Actor): (As Kristofferson): Got it.
(Soundbite of whistle)
Mr. WILSON: (As Coach Skip) Go in for Ash. Substitution. Ash, come out. You need a breather.
Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN (Actor): (As Ash) What? Come out? Why? I still feel good, coach. Let me finish this eighth.
Mr. WILSON: (As Coach Skip) No, no, come on, step out. Step out. Let's go.
Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Ash) Am I getting better, coach?
Mr. WILSON: (As Coach Skip) Well, you're sure as cuss not getting any worse.
Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Ash) Really? You mean, you think I can end up being as good as my dad if I keep practicing?
Mr. WILSON: (As Coach Skip) Your dad? Your dad was probably the best Whackbat player we ever had in this school. No, you don't want to have to compare yourself to that.
GROSS: That's another scene from "Fantastic Mr. Fox." I love the description of the rules of Whackbat. And if you're not an athlete and don't follow sports closely, that's how a lot of sports rules...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...sound to you.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes.
GROSS: So what about you? Do you follow sports carefully or do they all sound as ridiculous as Whackbat?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, I used to follow certain sports so much more carefully, like the 1975 baseball season. I know every single -every detail of it. But I know absolutely nothing about it right now. And I used to follow tennis very closely. But cricket, for instance, is incomprehensible to me. You know, we made the movie in England and trying to - and I hadn't really watched a cricket match before. In fact, I had seen a couple in India. But I've never been able to grasp the first thing about how this - how that operates. It doesn't really seem to make any sense, but this game has especially complicated rules.
In fact, I'd seen a couple in India but I've never been able to grasp the first thing about how that operates. It doesnt really seem to make any sense. But this game has especially complicated rules.
GROSS: Your new film, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," is almost like a musical in a sense that there's so much underscoring through the film and then there's some records used through the film. And so I want to talk a little bit about the music. Let's start with why there is so much of it in the movie.
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, with most animated films it's sort of wall to wall music, and I didn't really expect to do that. But I guess what usually happens with me is I sort of put in as much music as the movie feels like it's willing to accommodate. I like music in movies. In the case of this one, I had a couple of ideas at the beginning.
One was that I thought the score could have a kind of "Peter and the Wolf" element, where we would assign certain instruments to different characters. And it ended up being that, you know, Mr. Fox sort of has this banjo that goes with him and the farmers have different horns and, you know, there's a rat that has sort of whistling in a Spanish style, a kind of flamenco guitar. But the main score is written by Alexandre Desplat, who sort of took a lot of different influences and ideas that we had and pulled them all together and invented his own version of all that.
GROSS: The very first song that we hear, though, is this...
(Soundbite of song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett")
THE WELLINGTONS (Band): (Singing) Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free. Raised in the woods, so's he knew every tree, killed him a bear when he was only three. Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.
GROSS: So what is "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" from the Walt Disney TV show doing in your movie?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I, somewhere along the way I started thinking, you know, often I don't really know exactly why I suddenly say - have an idea like this, but - and in this case I almost feel like his hat may have a relationship to our main character. But I think...
GROSS: Because of the tail - because of the tail and the coonskin hat?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, just because, you know, he looked like he'd be wearing Mr. Fox on his head.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ANDERSON: But at a certain point I started sort of thinking that I would like to use music from children's films and children's entertainment, anyway. And we ended up with - we have Davy Crockett, that's at the beginning of the movie, and we have three different songs that are by Burl Ives, who was actually in some of the - when I referred to the Rankin-Bass holiday specials, he's involved in at least one of them. And we have music from the Disney "Robin Hood." And so it sort of became the part of the whole - you know, there's - we have lots of - we also have the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones.
GROSS: Wes Anderson, thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on the film.
Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Wes Anderson, he directed and co-wrote "Fantastic Mr. Fox," which just came out on DVD and Blu-ray.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Director Wes Anderson has worked on a lot of movies, but with his stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox — out on DVD this week — he ventured into new territory: animation. Anderson tells Terry Gross that making a stop-motion picture is the most involved filmmaking he's ever done, but he also says that the process has "a sort of magic."
Director Wes Anderson has worked on many movies — The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore among them — but Fantastic Mr. Fox is his first animated film. The movie, released on DVD this week, uses miniature animal puppets and miniature sets, animated through stop-motion photography to create a visually amazing world.
The story is adapted from a children's book by Roald Dahl, but the movie adds new characters and storylines. At the outset, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) moves his wife and son to a new home near three evil farmers. He's promised Mrs. Fox that he'll never steal chickens again — as a father, they agree, he shouldn't run the risk of capture — but he succumbs to his animal instincts and goes poaching in his new neighbors' barnyards. After that, the farmers go on the warpath against Mr. Fox and his family.
In an interview with Terry Gross, Anderson explains that Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first Roald Dahl book that he ever read — and the one he always kept with him.
"Wherever I lived, when I went to college, I always had this book on my shelves," he says. "It's a slim book, and ... I think it's for young children, but something about it always stuck with me. And I think the character of Mr. Fox is a very Dahl kind of figure: He's the one who rescues everybody, but he's also the cause of all of their problems. ... His personality gets them into these problems in the first place. And I think something about that grabbed me."
Anderson explains that the process for creating a stop-motion film — in which the characters are repositioned ever so slightly in between frames and re-shot — was more complex than he had originally imagined.
"I sort of had this thought that ... I was going to make the script and work on the sets and then sort of prepare the shots and have this plan, and then hand it over to a team of animators, and they were going to hand me back a film a year later or something," he says. "That was not what happened. It ends up being the most involving kind of filmmaking that I've ever had anything to do with. But the thing you quickly realize is that everything that is going to go on camera has to be manufactured from scratch. Everything has to be designed, and that means every little prop and every little moment is going to have a lot of thought go into it."
This interview was originally broadcast on November 23, 2009