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How the immersive world of Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' came into focus

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Stepping into a Wes Anderson film can feel like you've been immersed into another world - one that brims with pastel colors, sharp lines, beautifully detailed sets and fascinating mustaches. Adam Stockhausen has carefully crafted several worlds of Wes Anderson. He won an Academy Award for his production design with Anna Pinnock of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and now he's helped bring Wes Anderson's newest film, "The French Dispatch," into sharp detail. Adam Stockhausen joins us now from Sicily. Thanks so much for being with us.

ADAM STOCKHAUSEN: Of course. Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.

SIMON: What do you try and do in a Wes Anderson film, which does have this - often, so many of them have this signature set design. What are you going for?

STOCKHAUSEN: Well, you know, Wes has an incredibly strong vision for everything about the film, but certainly for the set design and for how the colors work and how everything works. And he developed very intricate storyboards - scene by scene by scene, shot by shot by shot - through the whole movie. And so the process that we do is trying to unpack that. And kind of - the way I kind of describe it is saying that the storyboarding process for the movie is a puzzle, and we spend the entire time we're making the film trying to solve the puzzle, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. "French Dispatch" is particularly stylized. Firstly, we should explain three separate stories that are brought together by the existence of a magazine which, incredibly enough, is a Sunday supplement for a small-town American newspaper. Wes Anderson has - of course, says that the film is certainly inspired by The New Yorker and Harold Ross and William Shawn and so many great New Yorker writers. But in this film, there's, of course, color. There's black and white. There's animation. There's live action - all within several frames. How do you bring it all together? What makes you decide to use what technique to tell what part of the story or evoke a particular feel for that line?

STOCKHAUSEN: You know, we kind of went into it knowing, I think, that there would be a little bit of black and white. But as Wes and Bob Yeoman, the cinematographer, were testing the black and white, I think that, you know, Wes started to really gravitate towards it. And more and more of the film became black and white. You know, and then our job is to sort of figure out how to make it work and how to make spaces that work in black and white and color because sometimes we're switching back and forth between the two in the same space in the same scene.

SIMON: Yeah. And animation - when do you decide to deploy that? And of course, we're talking about a magazine that is - at least, the real-life inspiration is famous for its cartoons and cover artwork.

STOCKHAUSEN: (Laughter) Yeah. I think that miniatures and animation are coming more and more into Wes's films. And, you know, I think he has an idea at the beginning about some things, that they're going to go that way. And then other things are sort of, as we go, how are we going to solve this problem? Does it want to be shot live? Do we want to build a miniature for it? Or does it want to become an animation? And then that sort of, again, sometimes develops organically as we're making the movie.

SIMON: You understand how frustrating it is for us to hear an answer that says, oh, it happens organically.

(LAUGHTER)

STOCKHAUSEN: Well...

SIMON: We're looking for a treasure map.

STOCKHAUSEN: On May 12, we, you know - no - I mean, again, you know, some things are early decisions, and some things are later decisions. On "Grand Budapest," for instance, we were talking for a long time about how to do the ski chase sequence. And for a while, we were talking about doing it practically. And then the idea of it became something that was different than the quality of the rest of the movie. And so it was sort of a natural but later-on decision to say this can become a stop-motion sequence. I think in this one, I think Wes knew earlier on. I think that from pretty early on, we were talking about the kidnapping sequence, for instance, being, you know, a cel animation.

SIMON: How do you explain the Wes Anderson vision?

STOCKHAUSEN: Boy (laughter), I do my best not to (laughter) to be totally honest. He has such a strong visual style. But when I'm working with him, we don't talk about it. You know, we talk about the characters and the story and the historical reality of the places that we're trying to describe. And we look at thousands of reference images, and we talk about movies, and we sort of frame by frame by frame work our way towards the ultimate look of the film. But we never look at it sort of in the kind of a global way of sort of, you know, what is the bigger picture style of this? - and then work our way down. It always starts the other way. It always starts from the small details and works its way back up.

SIMON: Yeah. And where do characters come into that vision?

STOCKHAUSEN: I'll say two ways. One, I think it's the core of it in terms of - like, for "The French Dispatch," for instance, these writers, you know, thinking about who they are and which writer could be influencing the specific character. And then that gives us a treasure trove of, what did that writer's workspace look like, for instance? And we kind of look at all of those things. But then there's a second way. As the film is being shot, having the characters enter and fill and consume the space gives this tremendous life to it. You know, I mean, it's just sort of nuts and bolts and plaster and paint until the characters show up. And then it comes alive.

SIMON: And what is it like to so carefully lay out such a finely detailed set and then to see human beings walking around in it? I'm just going to guess that's a particular satisfaction.

STOCKHAUSEN: It really is. It's an incredible satisfaction. And then there's a second satisfaction that comes when I actually see the movie because I'm looking at the frames constantly. I'm sort of - visually, I'm not really terribly surprised by anything 'cause I've watched every frame of it get made. But I'm not wearing the headsets and hearing the microphones. And so when I'm on set, there's a distance to the performance. But then when I finally see the film, it's like a tidal wave. And it's really wild to have something that you know backwards and forwards, inside and out, and all of a sudden, it becomes this magical thing.

SIMON: Adam Stockhausen is production designer of Wes Anderson's new film "The French Dispatch" and a few others besides that. Thanks so much for being with us.

STOCKHAUSEN: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREAMBEATS BY HARRIS HELLER'S "DARK MATTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.