How ‘The French Dispatch’ took over a French city
What happens when you combine Wes Anderson’s cinema with a charming, historic French town? You get a stylized version of France that highlights the director’s whimsical passion – like centuries-old buildings renovated in symmetrical picture-book ways and as accents for quirky and colorful furnishings in the neighborhood.
“The French Dispatch” stands for Andersen’s journalism, French cinema, and the magic found while wandering through the country’s cobblestone streets. It’s packed with distinct, fuss-free design elements that celebrate and enhance its French aesthetic.
The film, which is set to be released in cinemas on October 22, focuses on an American magazine published in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blas (whose name has a perfect Andersenian touch). With the death of its longtime editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the magazine is planning its final issue, and the four stories each get 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 in a tour that makes up a segment. Instead of building multiple town exteriors on the backlot, the filmmakers found a real French town, Angoulme, and used it as the beating heart of the film, framing it up or down as needed.
One of the film’s producers, Jeremy Dawson, said that Anderson was looking for a place “with nooks and crannies, corridors, passageways, stairs, layers and ramparts”. Filmmakers began their search on Google, digitally navigating the streets of cities that might fit the bill. Then they hit the road to meet some of them. While in Angoulme, they came across a plaza with a small cafe. Dawson recalled that Anderson suggested grabbing lunch at the cafe. “When he said that, I knew he would have chosen this city,” Dawson said.
Angoulme, in the southwest of France, with a population of about 42,000, is no stranger to invasions; During the Hundred Years’ War, it was the site of battles between the French and the English. These visitors were much more gentle. During the shoot, the crew came up with a variety of ways to give the city’s collection of old-world buildings, streets, and façades an andersonized touch – a cute vintage vehicle parked here, a peppy striped awning installed there. And sometimes miniatures were used to help enhance the setting.
For an established shot of French Dispatch Headquarters, the filmmakers chose a building on a block of similar-style structures and found the best angle to capture the shot. “We designed these foreground buildings and placed them on clear scaffolding so that we could bend and transform them,” said production designer Adam Stockhausen. Those foreground sets, angles just enough, were able to give an impression of depth to the environment while creating symmetry in the frames often found in Anderson’s work.
The upper floors of the building, which include a sign so alarming (The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) that continues across the upper floor windows, were actually designed as a miniature. That miniature was digitally merged with the actual building to give a more stylish look to its top. The urban landscape of the buildings in the background on the left is also a digitally added miniature. But fronts were built for the film at the ground level.
Buildings around the city had signs painted directly on their walls in bold, often all-cap fonts to be in sync with the film’s vision, but Stockhausen said his team had already refurbished to get the film makeover. demanded buildings. “Then we could come in and do our painting without damaging any sort of historical finish,” he said, “and restore it later.”
While most of the outdoor scenes in the film involved existing locations, one shot required something special. In the film’s opening moment, a waiter climbs a bizarre staircase in the middle of the French Dispatch building that is visible in some parts and hidden by walls on others. The design team created a full-scale version of the rear of the building so that cameras could capture the actor navigating the stairs from that vantage point.
For a sequence set during a student mutiny and a standoff with the police, the creative team occupied a residential square. The blocks of cobblestone were made from foam, and the two cafe fronts on either side were built by the crew. While there was already at least one tree in the space, Stockhausen and his team created more to enhance the look. Dawson said the purpose of the production is to ensure that residents are kept satisfied while shooting around their spaces, whether that means compensating them for any inconvenience or putting them in a hotel. “It was case-by-case for each person,” he said. “But the city was very welcoming.”
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