Directors’ Trademarks: Wes Anderson

Growing up, Wes Anderson wanted to be a writer. He wrote plays and made movies with his father’s Super 8 camera. In college, he met Owen Wilson and they made short films together which sometimes were shown on local access television. One of those films, Bottle Rocket, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. After the screening, Anderson received funding to make a feature length version, which became his debut film as director. Unfortunately, Bottle Rocket (1996) didn’t have much success in theaters. Regardless, a cult following began and high profile people in the industry such as Martin Scorsese and Bill Murray began to pay attention. This allowed Anderson to make his second film, 1998s Rushmore, which received critical praise and some box office success. That film also established some of Anderson’s working relationships that would continue through the rest of his career.

His follow-up was the more ambitious The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which landed well with critics and did well in theaters. The film earned Wes Anderson an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Anderson’s next film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This film did not fare as well as his last one in theaters or with critics. The same can be said of his 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited, although it did make a profit in theaters. Anderson went in a bit of a different direction for his next film, creating a stop-go animated film version of a beloved Roald Dahl children’s novel. Fantastic Mr. Fox was released in 2009 to good reviews, but only broke even at the box office. Regardless, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature. Anderson received another Academy Award nomination for best Screenplay with his next film, 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. That film received critical acclaim and became his most successful film until his follow-up, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Grand Budapest Hotel became a hit at the box office and was loved by critics and audiences alike. It would go on to be nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay for Anderson. Wes Anderson’s latest film as director was released earlier this year. Isle of Dogs was another stop-motion animated film, and received good reviews and performed well at the box office.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Wes Anderson film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Anderson’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

Warning – This article contains spoilers!

 Craftsman Construction

life aquatic ship

In the late 18th century a creative/aesthetic movement emerged called the Craftsman movement. It began in Europe but became most popular in the United States. The Craftsman movement came as a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. It’s backbone was a focus on the importance of the individual. During the revolution, drive for increased productivity and innovation came at a cost of individual technique and contribution. For me, the Craftsman movement is a great analogy to Wes Anderson’s aesthetics as director. In many ways, Anderson is the Craftsman filmmaker, celebrating many aspects of film that the big studios have since moved away from. His attention is towards techniques and narratives that feel old-fashioned and personal than what you would expect to witness in a major motion picture release. His stories are quaint and his films have a hand-crafted feel, rather than computer-processed like so many of today’s major motion pictures. Most importantly, throughout his career, he has remained committed to his own vision which has gifted his films with an incredible sense of consistency, especially in terms of presentation.

Anderson’s Craftsman-like approach can be demonstrated most obviously in his use of stop-go animation, which is most prominently seen in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Isle of Dogs. He uses this technique not because it is the most realistic, or the easiest, but because it is artistic and provides a certain charm that CGI or other modern effects would not impart on his picture. We also see his workman-like approach in the way he builds many of his scenes like dioramas, as if the camera is peering through a solid structure such as a house (Moonrise Kingdom) or ship (Life Aquatic) to see the characters inside. Sometimes he will then shift his camera in one direction to another room, carrying forward the dollhouse-like approach. Anderson also has an eye for whimsy and kitsch, which enhances the homely nature of the Craftsman approach. His characters are often dressed well, but an almost old-fashioned manner (see below). These aspects of Anderson’s productions may come across as cheesy or out-of-taste in any other film, but he celebrates them for the sake of being different or unique, and they become part of his films’ charm and celebration of individuality.

Expansive Color Palette


Anderson uses the colors of his films to further establish the fact that he is essentially creating the world you are witnessing, rather than recording the real one. His films often use contrasts between soft tones and bright colors to provide a certain dreamlike feel and to enhance their whimsical quality (a modern fairy tale is another apt description). Everything from the sets themselves to cars and character’s clothing feature colors that you may not expect. Sometimes these colors seem old-fashioned. They are connotations to styles and trends in the past, which enhances the nostalgia effect of Anderson’s cinematic creations. At other times, the colors can be overwrought and eye-catching. These vivid colors make a lasting impression on the audience all by themselves. For example, he often uses bright yellow type for chapter cards and descriptive text that appears on screen.

This use of color can be seen from his very first feature film, Bottle Rocket, where bright green grasses stand out along with the main character’s choice of red clothing, and a lasting image is the film’s bright red VW van. Darjeeling Limited is a film that is full of explosive colors as it explores the Indian culture with flowers, brightly colored rooms and clothing. Clothing is perhaps the area where Anderson’s choice of colors makes perhaps the strongest impact. Think of Margot Tenenbaum’s fur coat, or the red sports suits of Chas Tenenbaum and his sons in The Royal Tenenbaums. Think of the green scouts uniforms in Moonrise Kingdom, or the purple attendant’s uniforms in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or even the bright blue uniforms in Life Aquatic. We remember these characters because of what they are wearing, and often times that is easier to do when they are wearing something that really stands out. Locations are another opportunity for Anderson to utilize colors to make things stand out. The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of very pink locations and settings. Isle of Dogs uses a strong red to highlight the Japanese government’s buildings in Megasaki City.

 Age/Maturity Reversal


The characters of Wes Anderson’s films are interesting because they don’t often act their age. Younger characters tend to be more mature and motivated, while the older ones can often be childish and lacking ambition. A common theme in Anderson’s films is the necessity to accept increasing responsibilities as part of adulthood. It is this reason that so many of his films feature children (or young adults) as major characters. They are often the ones who drive the plot through their aspirations, while their adult counterparts are trying to catch up.

A great example is in Isle of Dogs where Atari, a child takes the initiative to travel to Dog Island to rescue his dog while the adults are trying to stop him. Meanwhile, another child, Tracy Walker fights against the conspiracy that got all of the dogs exiled to Dog Island in the first place. Rushmore is another great example of a young person behaving more like an adult. Max Fischer is driven by his own perceptions of adulthood. He tries to is heavily involved in after school activities not because he wants to stand out, but because it helps his self-confidence. He believes his achievements make him better than other people his own age and so he isn’t bound by the same rules. Similarly, he is infatuated with older women, believing that his efforts make him more mature and attractive.

These ambitious young characters are in direct contrast with Anderson’s most famous adults. In The Royal Tenenbaums, all of the adults have a profound sense of immaturity. Royal Tenenbaum, the family patriarch, fakes cancer in order to become the center of attention and distract from his former wife’s engagement. His son Richie had his promising tennis career ruined by depression, likely stemming from self-torment over his love of his adopted sister, Margot. Margot, is mysterious and acts impulsively, to the detriment of herself and those around her. The other son, Chas, is almost harmfully overprotective of his children due to his own inability to cope with the loss of his wife and acknowledge that mental distress. In the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the film finds Steve in decline. He is motivated solely by the need to get revenge on a shark for killing his best friend, which comes at the expense of working to support his crew and family. Zissou essentially steals his way to getting what he wants, which results in him nearly losing everything of value in his life.  

Distinctly Matter-of-Fact


You won’t find a lot of flowery language and meandering conversations in a Wes Anderson movie. Instead, his characters tend to say things as to-the-point as possible. If there are monologues, they tend to belong to a narrator (who could be a character in the film themselves). Otherwise, dialogue is quick, pointed, and direct. To many people, the flow of voices seems stilted, and can be hard to follow if you are not attuned to the activity that is taking place on screen. Since many of his characters are selfish, they tend to talk about themselves and their feelings. Often, the moments in which these characters don’t talk is more important than when they do. A great example is in Isle of Dogs, when Chief retrieves the stick. Up to that point he always boasts about being a stray dog and how he would never take a command from a human, but in that moment his silence shows his growth as a character.

There are a number of reasons that Anderson choses to have this type of dialogue in his films. First, it helps to enhance the physical structure of the film. Streamlined dialogue allows for a quicker pace, which works hand in hand with Anderson’s rapid-fire editing technique. In many ways, the quick dialogue also plays into Andersons’ comedic timing. He uses it to set up sight gags that wouldn’t otherwise be effective. Also, in many ways his dialogue is more realistic than what we typically see in films. In real life people tend to talk in a very straight forward manner – most movies don’t accurately reflect this. Finally, Anderson doesn’t necessarily rely on dialogue to help explain or develop his plots. Anderson’s films are often shown in a chapter format, which helps to explain the passage of time. The titles themselves also help to explain what is happening, and so his scenes can start mid-stride without a lot of explanation required. And ultimately, Anderson’s unique dialogue gives us another quirk to admire about his films.

Friendly Faces/Voices

Jason Schwartzman

Anderson is one of the most recognizable collaborative directors working in the industry today. Each of his films seems to have a larger and larger cast, and these ensembles tend to share a lot of the same names. His most common collaborators are the Wilson brothers. Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson met in college and they have worked together on many projects ever since. Owen has been involved in all of Anderson’s films in some way except for Isle of Dogs, and Moonrise Kingdom. Owen’s brothers Luke and Andrew have been featured in Anderson’s first three films. Jason Schwartzman made his feature film debut in Rushmore, and has been featured in The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bill Murray is also a longtime collaborator, after having been impressed with Anderson’s debut. Murray has a role in all of Anderson’s films except for Bottle Rocket.

Other actors that Anderson has worked with include Anjelica Huston (4 films), Kumar Pallana (4 films), Willem Dafoe (3 films), Jeff Goldblum (3 films), Adrian Brody (3 films), Waris Ahluwalia (3 films), Edward Norton (3 films), Tilda Swinton (3 films), Bob Balaban (3 films), Harvey Keitel (3 films), and Seymour Cassel (3 films). Similarly, he has worked with writer/producer/actor Wallace Wolodarsky on 5 films, composer Alexandre Desplat on 4 films, composer Mark Mothersbaugh on 5 films, and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman on 7 films. 

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