Shooting the Impossible for Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch’

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Robert Yeoman’s camerawork has been an inseparable element of Wes Anderson’s distinctive style since the dawn of the director’s career in 1996 with “Bottle Rocket” – but his new fantasy farce, “The French Dispatch,” brought the duo to new heights.

“It’s how we work,” says Yeoman simply, describing new combinations of quick-change tracks for Anderson’s signature nimble dolly shots and an embrace of more black-and-white filming for the new anthology film.

“Not only do we have moves where we go sideways, but we go in and out,” says Yeoman, “and Wes is so precise on what the framing is that if we tried doing it with a Technocrane or a Steadicam we would never get that precision.”

Originally considered just for the story of a prison inmate with a flair for abstract art, Anderson and Yeoman decided after making several color and black-and-white tests that the look was interesting enough to drop in throughout the comedy, set at the imaginary French news bureau of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.

Filmed in five episodes, four of them built around a writing assignment overseen by dyspeptic American editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the film called for nearly a month of prep time and building sets into a vast, unoccupied building, says Yeoman, as did the team’s previous effort, “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

This time a former felt factory in the real French town of Angoulême in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region served as prison, gangland hide-out, courtroom and newsroom, says Yeomen – that is, once they managed to punch holes in the floors and ceilings to allow for a multi-story camera drop.

“Most of the time, Wes kind of rejects new technical things,” says Yeoman. “He wants us to find old ways of doing it. We don’t use camera cars – we use golf carts for our cameras. He prefers the old school method.”

Modern Technocranes and multi-camera filming, standard tools on most sets, don’t interest Anderson, says his eight-time collaborator. Instead, “The French Dispatch” relied on scaffolding, with crews hauling equipment up on ropes.

Meanwhile, each shot is carefully composed and lit, often with perfect symmetry, for shooting with 200-ASA Kodak 35mm film, which requires strong light. One advantage of shooting single-camera, says Yeoman, is that lighting can be perfected for each composition, something that generally must be compromised if two or three cameras are covering a scene.

Luckily, LEDs and SkyPanels are permitted, say the veteran DP. “We can make it darker or warmer or cooler very quickly,” he says of the super-bright, lightweight, flat illumination.

Yeoman, who is also known for shooting the disturbing worlds of Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” says the many constraints involved in working with Anderson still allow for creativity on set. In fact, that’s often essential in delivering the elaborate shots and moves he wants.

For “The French Dispatch,” the team, typically, opted to film their carefully choreographed cast, including Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro and Elisabeth Moss, with Arri ST and LT cameras, Cooke S4 prime lenses and the occasional zoom.

Many actors would chafe at being directed to hit so many exact marks to allow their performances to land just right in a careful composition – and most directors expect DPs to follow them at least somewhat. But, says Yeoman of working with Anderson, “If the actors are blocking each other or they’re not where they’re supposed to be, we shoot another take. At first some actors have difficulty with that – but then they come around. ”

And, as in “Grand Budapest,” the film screens mostly in the boxy Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1.

“He challenges everybody, from the camera guys to every department, actors, to kind of think outside the box and come up with a new way of doing it,” Yeoman says.

“Many times he’ll describe what he wants to do and I’ll think to myself, ‘Man, that’s impossible – how are we going to do that?’ But I can honestly say there’s never been a shot where we say we don’t know how to do this. We figure it out.”

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