Take Me Back to Asteroid City

Take Me Back to Asteroid City

Meet any actor from a Wes Anderson movie, and they can’t stop raving about the experience. Something that we discovered in Cannes in May, when Anderson’s new movie Asteroid City premiered there.

“It’s unique. It really is,” says Jeffrey Wright, the American star who first worked with Anderson on his 2021 anthology tale The French Dispatch. “You make other movies, you all go off to your separate lives, you come back to the movie set. But Wes wants to do something more. He’s concerned about the people that he works with; he cares about them. But also, there’s a built-in efficiency to it as well… because it builds community.”

The idea of ‘community’ might well be a persistent theme in Anderson’s work, along, of course, with family, surrogate or biological.

Asteroid City whisks us back to the 1950s, to the titular fictional desert town on the California/Nevada border, where several families – and their bright-spark kids – have gathered for a Junior Stargazers competition. They soon get more than they bargained for when an extraterrestrial encounter (beautifully animated, using stop-motion) sees them all locked down by the U.S. government.

At the centre is war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a father-of-four still grief stricken over the recent loss of his wife. Arriving in Asteroid City to help is his father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), while Augie also befriends actress-diva and mother-of-one Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson).

This, of course, is just a fraction of Anderson’s ensemble, which rivals Chistopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer as the starriest cast of the year (ironically, Asteroid City also features images of a nuclear test explosion, a nod to the atom bomb created by the scientist in Nolan’s movie, and similarly switches between colour and monochrome).

Newcomers to the Anderson way of working include Hanks, Matt Dillon, Maya Hawke, Hope Davis and Barbie star Margot Robbie, the Australian so enamoured by the idea of working with the director that she wrote him a letter to plead her case. Meanwhile, Anderson returnees include Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend and Bryan Cranston. About the only thesp missing in action is Bill Murray, who was set to play the motel owner – until he got COVID-19 and had to pull out. Steve Carell, another newbie, took his place.

Typically, Anderson encouraged them all to hang out at the Parador Hotel in Chinchón, a medieval town 50 km south-east of Madrid, Spain, which doubled for the desert environs of Asteroid City. “We’re always there together,” says Wright, who plays the lockdown enforcing General Gibson. “The editor’s somewhere in the hotel, hair and makeup [department] is down on another floor. So, you’re living on basecamp!” Adds Rupert Friend, who plays Asteroid City’s resident cowboy Montana, “It’s a very familial process. It’s almost like you’re on a summer camp with a group of great friends or family and [you’re] making a picture at the same time.”

British actor Friend, who had previously worked with Anderson on The French Dispatch, is a singing cowpoke (and joined in the film by real-life musicians Jarvis Cocker, Pulp’s lead singer, and the Brazilian-born Seu Jorge, who previously pitched up in Anderson’s marine tale The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). “It was really a kick,” Friend says, “because obviously, I’m not American. And so being asked to be the kind of iconic classic American figure… it’s just a classic bit of Wes casting, I think. And I love the sort of eclecticism… he has this very singular way of pairing actors and roles. And it’s always a delight to play.”

Friend [above, second from left] also features in the film as Asquith Eden, a character who pops up in black-and-white segments that weave throughout the colour scenes set in Asteroid City. In these, a ’50s-era playwright named Conrad Earp (Norton) is staging his latest work, called – guess what? – ‘Asteroid City’.  Joining him is director Schubert Green (Brody) and cast members including Jones Hall (Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (Johansson), while a narrator – played by Bryan Cranston – keeps us up to speed. Confused? Well, try reading the screenplay if you’re an Anderson first-timer.

“It was hard for me to visualise the script,” admits Hope Davis [below, far right, with Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell and Stephen Park], the Succession star who plays Sandy Borden, one of the parents in Asteroid City. “It was very complex, because it’s all on the page. Everything is described on the page. And I was kind of having trouble understanding the different worlds and how they were going to look. Then I gave it to my husband [fellow actor Jon Patrick Walker], who’s a Wes superfan. And he immediately understood it. And then I read it again. And then Wes sends a bunch of images and then you start to get the world of it a little bit in your head.”

As is often the case, Anderson worked with a co-writer – here, collaborating with Roman Coppola (son of The Godfather filmmaker Francis) who has been writing with Anderson right back to 2007’s India-set tale The Darjeeling Limited. Again, they conjure up a hyperreal world one step removed from reality. “I love that Wes allows for some kind of theatricality and surreal-ness, even in the performance choices, so long as it’s kind of grounded with a humaneness,” says Wright. “Maybe not for everyone, but I dig it.”

Helping bring this universe to life is Adam Stockhausen, Anderson’s regular production designer since Moonrise Kingdom. When it came to building Asteroid City itself, Stockhausen created a fully working town. Even the gas station pumped gasoline. Stockhausen also worked with old-school set-design techniques, like ‘forced perspective’ – with telegraph poles seemingly stretching for miles in the distance (when, in reality, they’re decreasing in size to trick the eye). When so many films are CG-created now, “I don’t know if I ever [again] will have a chance to be on a film where they built everything like that,” says Schwartzman, an Anderson veteran right back to his sophomore movie Rushmore.

It’s also not hard to see why actors keep returning to work with Anderson, who looks to foster a creative, collaborative and easy-going environment on set. “When you’re shooting, he’s so happy with what everyone’s doing,” says Davis. “He never seems dissatisfied. We do a lot of takes, but it just seems like he’s doing it because it’s so fun to do. And he’s been waiting to see this moment realised, and he likes to see you do it fifteen or sixteen times. And then when you’ve got the scene, he says ‘One more for pleasure’.”

Off-set sounds even more tranquil – every night, they’d have dinners together. “Wes always sits at the head of the table and when you first arrive, you sit next to him and then you kind of move down the table so the new arrivals can sit next to him,” explains Davis. “So, I had been there, and then I moved down and there were empty seats on either side of me. I was like, ‘I wonder who’s going to come?’ I saw this person come and it was Steve Carell. I’d never met him before. ‘Oh my god, it’s Steve Carell – he seems really nice!’ And it is slightly overwhelming until you realise that everyone has that same kind of feeling… I’m coming to a dinner table, and I don’t know people.”

When they weren’t eating, they were drinking. Bryan Cranston held a taco-and-tequila night one evening, shipping in bottles of his own mezcal, Dos Hombres, which he co-owns with his Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul. And with the likes of Cocker and Jorge on set, they were never short of a tune or two. “There’s music constantly,” says Schwartzman. “And it was one of the positive side effects of working with musicians… they are always playing music because they love music. It’s not like ‘Look at me’. I’d be in my room and just hear beautiful music and Seu is just sitting there tuning.”

Anderson already has his next movie in the can, the Roald Dahl-inspired The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – his first for Netflix – which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival later this month. The cast features Ralph Fiennes (another Anderson alum, the lead of his biggest hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Dahl and Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar, a man capable of predicting the future through a book he stole. Rupert Friend also returns and – like so many others – was clearly delighted to get another slice of the Anderson experience.

“We’ve all worked with the opposite kind of director, who is ego driven, who plays games, who does divide and conquer, who’s punitive, who’s sulky and you end up trying to dig yourself out from under that energy, and it’s very, very combative and not conducive to making great work,” says Friend. “To step onto a set with not just the director, but some of the great actors of our time, all of whom are bringing their A game… in terms of their humanity and their kindness and their skill, it isn’t very common. So, it might feel like a big outpouring of appreciation. But I think that’s because a lot of us have had some less than salubrious experiences in the past against which we hold this to be so rewarding.”

Asteroid City is in cinemas from August 10, 2023

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