Wes Anderson’s newest venture may be an animated take on a classic kids’ story, but from its corduroy-clad characters to its cozy look at family dysfunction, Fantastic Mr. Fox is classic work from the director of Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. Rolling Stone caught up with Anderson, who wrote the film’s screenplay with Noah Baumbach at original author Roald Dahl’s own home, and Jason Schwartzman, who voices Mr. Fox’s misunderstood son Ash.
Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first book you owned. What was it about it that appealed to you?
Wes Anderson: I like that the character is not only the hero and rescues everyone, but is also the one that gets them into the trouble in the first place. That got me as a child. He also has a sort of flair in the way he talks and he’s inventive, which is a very Dahl-like idea. I also loved the digging. I think there’s something about digging that’s meaningful for children. My brothers and I loved digging, we wanted to build underground forts all the time.
Roald Dahl is such a great children’s writer because you wonder if he secretly hates kids. How did you go about incorporating that vibe into the movie?
Wes Anderson: Dahl has no compunction about frightening children. They like to be frightened and he likes to frighten them. He’s drawn to dirty, nasty things. He was interested in children, had lots of children and had complicated relationships with children, but a child’s worldview is one he could get behind.
Jason Schwartzman: It’s weird to me when adults feel that kids should feel whatever you tell them to feel because they are much more interesting than that. That’s why kids like adventures. That’s why humans like adventure, because there’s that element of danger. Dahl’s books and this movie has that. It’s not scary, this movie, but there is danger, they’re trying to kill these foxes! The feeling of getting caught and feeling unhappy, those are pretty big emotions. This movie is not trying to be subversively dark, yet it’s moody and not obvious and intriguing. Not every child will understand it immediately, but that’s why I liked movies like The Secret of NIMH or The Dark Crystal, they have a feeling about them that you’re like, I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I love it.
Wes, you and Noah Baumbach wrote the screenplay after spending time at Dahl’s “Gipsy House.” How much of what you absorbed there is in the movie?
Wes Anderson: There is a tree on his property that figures prominently into the movie as the tree Mr. Fox and his family move into. Gipsy House — that tree and the foxes around it — inspired Dahl’s book. It fell over and died over the course of making the film. I don’t know if that’s a bad omen or a handing of the baton.
There are also flint mines in the area, so that became part of our set. People may say what’s a flint mine, but we set it there because it’s there. We built a miniature Gipsy House for one of our farmers and another house on the property, the hut where Dahl wrote many of his books. It’s crazy looking because it’s so overflowing, it’s alive. There’s every type of object in there, furniture, candlesticks. We recreated that for Fox’s study.
There’s a pretty heavy dose of naturalism in this movie for an animated children’s film.
Wes Anderson: It’s one of those things that I didn’t choose to draw the line. I had an overall idea that we were going to make this movie in a very artificial form: stop motion. It does not look like real life, it looks like toys, but we were going to record the actors in a live-action style. My thought was that there would be nothing cartoony about the behavior of the puppets.
How did that work in terms of preparation for the role?
Jason Schwartzman: The first thing I asked Wes was, playing a 12-year-old, do you want my voice to be on a different pitch or higher register? He told me no, and at that point I just figured the script is there, it’s incredible and you can remove any reference to them being animals and it actually plays out almost as a story about people — a father who is feeling a certain way about where he is in his life, a kid who wants his father’s love, a wife who senses her husband’s longing for something else. It all feels like people and I could relate: I didn’t hit a growth spurt till later. I wanted to be a better athlete. I liked a lot of women who not only didn’t like me back but also liked people I was close to so I had to witness it, which was a drag.
Wes had us laying down these voices for the movie live, for the most part. It wasn’t kind of a typical animated movie where everybody was doing the voices in a really fancy recording studio with microphones, compressors and audio equipment. We all went to these various locations as a cast and if a scene needed to be shot outside, we’d go outside. If there were birds outside, then there were birds animated in the scene. If there were crickets, those were the crickets that were there. If we had to dig in the ground, we really got on our hands and knees and dug. If you see us eating in the movie, we’re truly eating. So what happens is, that was nice, but it really doesn’t make you feel like a fox. It makes you feel like an insane kind of human.
How did you write Jason’s character, Ash?
Wes Anderson: In the book there are four children, they don’t have names, they don’t have individual identities. For the film, we thought we’d just do one so he could have his own story. My younger brother Eric, who plays [Ash’s foil] Kristofferson, thinks that relationship is based on me and my older brother, but I did not have that in mind at all.
What kind of mischief did you get into as a kid?
Jason Schwartzman: I got into enough trouble to say that I had a childhood. I did and still sometimes do have a problem with unreasonable authority figures, but for the most part, I generally had really bad luck. I would always be the kid to get in trouble. If six of us were sneaking out of a bunk to visit the girls in seventh grade on a field trip, we would all sneak out, but the flashlight would hit me in the face and all the other kids would somehow scurry. I was a loner and was always constantly building. I had like plans for fake forts and intense mazes and like a waterslide park in my backyard. When I was in elementary school I took a summer film class. I wrote a 32-page script for this movie all about crime. Because there were only five of us in the class, the person who played my best friend also played a ninja at the end of the movie and my wife in the movie also played a villain. My little brother played my son and the bank robber.
What did you play?
Jason Schwartzman: A cop.
What’s the name of this movie?
Jason Schwartzman: “One Man, One Reality.” Wes tried to get it on the Rushmore DVD, but we couldn’t locate it at the time. I’ve found it now.
Mr. Fox’s corduroy suit looks strikingly similar to some of the suits we’ve seen you wear, Wes. Is that your way of infusing yourself into the character?
Wes Anderson: No, I’ve always had this corduroy and it was just the right color. It was really like, “What is he going to wear?” [Lifts his suit lapel] Well, this is pretty good.