“It was not only the first Roald Dahl book I ever read, it was the first book I ever owned,” Wes Anderson says of the novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox. “I loved the character of Mr. Fox, this sort of heroic and slightly vain animal. And I also loved the digging. My brothers and I were obsessed with being underground and with tunnels and forts.”
For most people, enjoying a book in this fashion might lead them to tell a few friends about it, and maybe buy a couple of copies to give as gifts. For Anderson, it led him to dedicate ten years of his life to turning it into a movie.
Having obtained the rights to the book, Anderson began the research process.
“All I wanted to do was make it as much like Dahl as it could possibly be. That was my guiding principle.” The director explains. “I can’t really guess how Dahl would have expanded the story to make it a movie, but that was what we were trying to do, and as we went along we were trying to use details and specific things that seemed like his personality or objects directly from his life.”
To this end, Anderson went to visit Dahl’s former home, Gipsy House, in the small English village of Great Misenden. As Dahl’s widow, Felicity, showed him round the estate Anderson realized how familiar everything was. “There is a gigantic beech tree at the end of a fox run, which I immediately recognized from ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox.’ There is a painted gypsy caravan under a tree, which I had seen in dust-jacket photographs.”
At the end of the visit, Anderson asked permission to stay with Dahl. Shortly afterwards, he and his screenwriting partner Noah moved into Gipsy house while they wrote the screenplay for the film.
The story the two men wrote added a lot to Dahl’s original. While it includes all of the elements from the book, it embellishes them with a strained relationship between Mr. Fox and his family. Despite this emotional complexity, Anderson insists his audience is the same as Dahl’s. “I see it as a children’s film, but the children’s films I loved the most as a child were ones that weren’t particularly aimed at anybody”.
With the script approved, the team turned their attention to casting the movie. For Mr. Fox, a suave and dashing character, who’s also a bit of a cad, Anderson looked to the golden age of Hollywood for inspiration. “I was thinking of, who would be like Carey Grant?” This thought led the director to George Clooney.
“I remember reading the script and saying to Wes, ‘I love it, and I’m happy to do it, but I don’t know who’ll see it.'” Clooney recalled, “Because it’s sort of made for grownups, and sort of made for kids, and you never know how that plays. He said, ‘don’t worry about it, let’s just go make a movie and have some fun.'”
As soon as he heard Clooney’s work, Anderson knew he had made the right decision in casting him. “When I got back to the editing room with the recordings, only then did I realize how much he brings to his performances just with his voice. I think the animators were really inspired by his voice. I was more excited when I listened to him when he wasn’t right in front of me. I thought, ‘wow.’ There’s a lot we’re getting here. There’s a lot of texture.”
With Clooney playing the lead, the next task was to hire the rest of the cast. At this point a decision was made to keep all the animals American. Allison Abbate, the film’s producer, explains, “We started with George Clooney as Mr. Fox and that kind of set the rule to keep them all consistent.”
For the role of Badger Anderson they cast Bill Murray. Although he denies speculation that the role was specifically written for him, Murray confirms he was Anderson’s first choice: “When he thought about who would play the badger he thought about me.”
Having got his first choice for Badger, Anderson was equally fortunate when it came to his leading lady. “Who would be the greatest actress we could possibly get?” Anderson asked rhetorically “I guess Meryl Streep. It was as simple as that.”
Rounding out his cast were Jason Schwartzman, playing Mr. Fox’s son, Ash, and Anderson’s brother Eric, who took the role of Kristofferson, Mr. Fox’s nephew. In the case of Schwartzman the casting was almost coincidental, he “was in London and he asked me if I wanted to play an animal in the movie,” the actor explains.
The casting of Eric Anderson, however, was a little more unusual. “I went to him and said, ‘you should do this,’ but I think what I may have done was, I think I may have asked him to come where we were recording on this farm, and I just told him,” Wes Anderson confesses, “I think I cast him without telling him he was cast. I think he wasn’t sure if he was actually in the movie or if he was just there to help us with the recording.”
Despite the unusual casting process, the director was certain he had the right man for the role. “I’ve seen him act. He’s had little parts in the movies I’ve done, but he also, he directed a movie many years ago that he was in one scene in the movie and he’s very good in the scene. I thought he was the best performance in his film. He used to do theatre. He’s a good actor. Also, he has a particular way that he talks in real life that was suited to this character.”
Once the cast was in place, the next job was to record the sound. Conventionally for an animated movie this involves each actor recording their dialogue in a studio. It is done one cast member at a time, and rarely do actors actually meet one another during this process. For “Fox,” Anderson decided to make the recording process as close to traditional filmmaking as possible.
“We went to our friend’s farm and set up there for a few days, and did the scenes in nature, in different locales in the farm. I’m surprised no-one did it before, because usually these things are done and you never meet the other actors in the movie. You do it in a sound-proof booth, by yourself without any real interaction.” Murray recalls, “We did the scenes, not only together, but outdoors, in barns, in milking sheds, in chicken coops, next to streams, on the sides of hills, kicking down gravel streets, in little warrens all around the household. And it was great.”
This process was then complimented by recording sessions in the studio, perfecting, not only the lines of dialogue, but even the grunts and growls of the animals. “Sometimes [Wes would say] ‘can you make it longer?,’ ‘can you make it lower in the beginning and end at a higher place?'” Explains Schwartzman, “There was a lot of playing around with the noises and stuff, and when I was eating, I was really eating, like a bagel, or an apple or whatever was around. It’s hard to fake-eat. You need something in the mouth a lot of the time, I find.”
Murray expands on this: “[Wes would say] ‘You’ve got to do you ripping apart a package of donuts with your teeth,’ so we’re looking around trying to find something that’ll approximate it, and then, all of a sudden you’ve got four people in the booth; everyone’s trying to make the noise themselves. Everyone’s like ‘how about a burp?,’ ‘I can do a burp,’ ‘you’re not doing this part.’ It was like grade school or something. Everyone was burping or smelling. It was fun.”
For Schwartzman, a newcomer to voice work, it was an experience that he relished. “I really enjoyed this process because it’s cheaper to have another one, to have another shot at it, because there’s not a bunch of people standing around, and lights. Everything costs money in some way. It’s cheaper to experiment, or try one, or push it. There was a lot of playing around with the noises and stuff.”
While the bulk of the dialogue was recorded before the animators went to work, and, as Abbate puts it, this was where each actor “really established who that character was,” it became necessary to have the voice actors back on a number of occasions during the two-year production process.
Abbate continues. “Because you’re making it one frame at a time over the course of two years, you do find as you get through it, ‘you know what? Now that we’ve changed things around he should be a little angrier here, so let’s get George in to do it a little different,’ or you write different dialogue for it, or something happens that will change a little. We on this movie added a lot more with the boys, because the young characters seemed to be working and it was like, ‘wow, we want more of that, so he wrote a couple more scenes, so we had to get George in to do that, and it changed things a little bit.”
Apart from these recording sessions, the cast had very little involvement with the film for the following two years. “A lot of the work is solitary. It wasn’t like we were with him a lot of the time. He had to communicate with 30 different artisans, doing many different things. Hundreds actually. All the time. So we’d see him months apart.” Murray says of Anderson, “You’d see him, and he’d still be carrying the ball, this thing would still be alive in him, and he’d be like, ‘here’s what we’ve got going,’ ‘this is going to be really good,’ ‘this part, this turned out really good’ and ‘that thing you did, we did this.’ So it was like, ok, great. Here’s someone who’s very attentive to detail and really got it going.”
Complimenting the work of the actors and the animators is the soundtrack. Anderson’s films are renowned for their use of music, and for the first time in his career, Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed the director to become personally involved with it. “Noah Baumbach and I had written some lyrics and I asked Jarvis Cocker to do the song, so that was the first music we had. We had this French banjo player and we made this song.”
The song, which provides comic relief during one of the moments of tension in the movie, inspired subsequent choices of music. “That linked to some other things, and I started listening to music from other children’s films, and we ended up having Davey Crockett that we used, and some music from the Disney ‘Robin Hood,’ and Burl Ives.”
After a decade of work, including a two year animation process, the film was complete. For Schwartzman, seeing the movie helped him realize how much the animators brought to the performance. “Even though I wasn’t working with them physically, I’m only one half of that family. I didn’t do that character. They animated my face and my eyebrows, the way that thing twitches and the way it moves, and that’s like, so much of the character too. It was nice in a weird way to collaborate with a group of people and be surprised.”
This allowed Schwartzman to experience the film in a way that he hadn’t expected. “When the lights went down and I saw the movie for the first time it was like I had amnesia or something. I didn’t know what was about to happen. That was such a great feeling to be surprised.”
Even for voiceover veteran Murray it was an unusual, enjoyable experience. “Seeing it, you’re kind of watching the mouth move, when you watch your own movies, you see your own mouth move, that guy, his body doesn’t move the same way mine moves when I talk. And yet, the nice thing is that it’s mostly that ‘cowboy three shot,’ where you cut off at the knee, so you see the body moving, it’s just a different body.”
Reflecting on the process of making the film, Murray explains. “Spending the time together, our own friendships got deeper, and the people we didn’t know so well we sort of bounced around and had fun with. It was really a wonderful time, and it kind of gave it a kick start, because it’s a long process making this kind of a film. And just to have all those takes, and all of those performances to listen to while making this kind of a film, it gives you energy.”
Fantastic Mr. Fox opens wide on Wednesday, November 25th.