What happens when you combine Wes Anderson’s cinema with a charming historic French town? You get a stylized version of France that showcases the director’s whimsical passions – like symmetrically cropped century-old buildings and neighborhoods embellished with quaint, colorful props.
“The French Dispatch” is Anderson’s ode to journalism, French cinema and the magic found in winding the cobblestone streets of the country. It’s heavily sprinkled with distinct and polished design elements that both celebrate and enhance its French aesthetic.
The film, due for theatrical release on October 22, focuses on an American magazine published in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (whose name is a perfect Andersonian touch). With the death of its longtime editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the magazine is preparing its final issue, and the four stories each have their own dramatization in the film. While the film’s cast is a long list of recognizable names (Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright), one of its biggest stars is The City, featured on a tour that is one of segments. Rather than creating several city exteriors on a backlot, the filmmakers found a true French town, Angoulême, and used it as the beating heart of the film, dressing it or dressing it as needed.
One of the film’s producers, Jeremy Dawson, said Anderson was looking for a place “with nooks and crannies, hallways, passageways, stairs, layers and ramparts.” The filmmakers began their scouting search on Google, digitally scouring the streets of cities that might be suitable. Then they hit the road to visit some of them. While they were in Angoulême, they came across a square with a little coffee. Dawson recalled that Anderson had suggested lunch at the cafe. “When he said that, I knew he had chosen this city,” Dawson said.
Angoulême, in southwestern France with a population of around 42,000, was no stranger to invasions; during the Hundred Years War, it was the scene of battles between French and English. These visitors were much more benign. During filming, the crew came up with different ways to give the city’s collection of old-world buildings, streets, and facades an Andersonized twist – a cute little vintage vehicle parked here, a vivid striped awning installed the low. And sometimes miniatures were used to help enhance the frame.
For a plan for setting up French Dispatch’s headquarters, the filmmakers chose a building on a block of similarly styled structures and found the best angle at which to capture the shot. “We then designed these prominent buildings and placed them on hinged scaffolding so that we could twist and turn them,” said Adam Stockhausen, the production designer. These foreground ensembles, tilted in this way, were able to give a sense of depth to the surroundings while creating the kind of symmetry in the frame that is often found in Anderson’s work.
The upper floors of the building, which include such a verbose sign (The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) that it continues through the upper story windows, were actually designed as a miniature. This miniature has been digitally fused with the real building to give it a more stylized look. The cityscape of the buildings in the background on the left is also a digitally added thumbnail. But at ground level, the facades were built for the movie.
Buildings around town had panels painted directly onto their walls in bold fonts, often in all caps, to sync with the film’s vision, but Stockhausen said his team were looking for already renovated buildings to give the film a makeover. “Then we could go in and do our painting without damaging any kind of historic finish,” he said, “and restore it afterwards.”
While most of the film’s outdoor scenes involved existing locations, a shot required something special. At the start of the film, a waiter climbs an unusual staircase in the middle of the French expedition building, visible in some places and hidden by walls in others. The design team constructed a life-size version of the rear of the building so that cameras could capture the actor navigating the stairs from that vantage point.
For a sequence that takes place during a student revolt and a standoff with the police, the creative team has invested in a residential space. Cobblestone blocks were created out of foam, and two cafe facades on either side were built by the crew. While at least one of the space trees was already there, Stockhausen and his team built more to improve the appearance. Dawson said the production was aimed at making sure residents stay happy when they walk around their spaces, whether it’s compensating them for any inconvenience or putting them in a hotel. “It was on a case-by-case basis for each person,” he said. “But the city was very welcoming.