Wes Anderson and Cast Talk Chasing After Nostalgia and Grief in ‘Asteroid City’
Long ago established as a cult figure, Wes Anderson remains one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American cinema. His style is so recognizable even someone who has never seen one of his films can identify their particular look. “Asteroid City” is a culmination of Anderson’s style and themes into an alluring daydream that seems pulled from vintage postcards of the American Southwest. An artificial desert turns into a showcase for tenderness, loneliness and sudden, alien surprises. Life becomes literally a play as written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who we see in what seems to be 1950s New York City, introduced in black and white portions narrated by the Host (Bryan Cranston).
The city of the title is basically a desert outpost somewhere in the West, defined by the crater of a meteor still preserved by the locals. A Space Camp is gathered here featuring talented young teens. Their various parents include a widower photographer, Augie Steenback (Jason Schwartzman) and a melancholic movie star, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). There’s also Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), who seems to hide his grief beneath a rough exterior. The U.S. Army presence is personified by General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). Directing this play is a hard-living romantic, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). “Asteroid City” features a typical Anderson ensemble, but in a more free-flowing narrative that’s dependent on tone, expressions and hidden feelings. It’s more cryptic than his last film, the great “The French Dispatch,” but just as visually captivating and eventually, quite moving. Anderson and the cast shared with Entertainment Voice about the making of “Asteroid City.”
“We wanted to write a part for Jason Schwartzman at the center of a movie that would be something he hadn’t done before. That’s the beginning,” says Anderson about centering the story on his longtime collaborator since “Rushmore.” “The second thing was we were interested in the setting of 1950s New York theater. In this case, it was sort of the Actors Studio variety of it.” Anderson then looked to contrast New York City with the blazing colors of the desert. “So we expanded it just to the desert. And I guess it then became something like this interaction of a black and white New York stage and a color cinemascope Western kind of story.”
For Schwartzman, receiving the call from Anderson about “Asteroid City” proved both exciting and a good coping mechanism during the lockdown days of the pandemic. “Well, I remember it was July of 2019, July 11th, 2019, actually. It was my anniversary and I was going out with my wife but Wes was calling, so we pulled over. And, he said, you know, what I’m sure everyone here gets excited to hear, which was, ‘I’ve got an idea for something.’ Throughout the next year it was something nice to have. It really carried me through the next year, I mean, for a while. That was just the very beginning of the pandemic. That must have been in the very beginning.”
“It was in the very beginning. I was telling you to try to keep in touch about availability,” says Anderson.
Tom Hanks makes his debut in the Anderson character gallery with this film, which turns out to be something he’d been hoping for after first meeting the director over a decade ago. “I met Wes at a restaurant in Rome about, I don’t know, I’m gonna say 15 years ago,” says Hanks. “This now sounds like a movie from the 1960s (laughs). And, so we were there, and part of it was like, ‘That’s Wes Anderson?’ I would imagine, you know, spectacles, something pompous or smoking a pipe. I said at that point, ‘Hey, come on, man, come on. I mean, let me into that company of yours. Give me a call.’”
Once cast, Hanks was introduced to Anderson’s unique pre-production methods. “What is odd is he sends you a version of the movie that doesn’t really need you, the animatic of the film that he puts together. So you see a complete animatic version of the movie. And, I haven’t seen a Wes Anderson movie that I didn’t wish that I was in. So it was great to be a part of this. And, the role was great.”
“What’s unique about it is, well, I think we’re all kind of circling the same thing. It’s that sense of comradery that you have,” says Scarlett Johansson, who is no stranger to the Andersonverse, having previously voiced a role in the director’s “Isle of Dogs,” one of his fully animated features. “I think one of the things that really touches me about the movie was how supportive all the performances are of one another, in this way that’s just, I don’t know, it’s very noticeable in a way. That’s how it feels on the set. You know, when I got there, my work was sort of truncated into a short period of time. And, I could not have done it without having my scene partner, Jason, there. And, he was immediately completely available, present and rehearsed. It was just like falling into this comfortable pocket, you know? And, I think that feeling is just very unusual. A lot of time you’re on set and it’s a lot of waiting and downtime and you lose momentum. It makes you question what you’re doing with your life and everything (laughs).”
Adrien Brody was taken in by Anderson’s nostalgic feel recalling the American past through his particular lens. “Part of what’s so beautiful about the storytelling is, for me at least, there’s a bit of nostalgia for this time and place in ’50s Americana and also the West and cinema and also a love for theater and the performances, and the art of that. That time in history was a big shift for the way acting and directing was done. Actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and directors and actors like Elia Kazan. And, so there was a chance to infuse some of that and a love for that and appreciation for that which is, I’m sure, something that Wes appreciates very much as well.”
Johansson also looked to classic Hollywood for inspiration. “We kind of shared some ideas about what type of a person this could be, or what kind of career she could’ve had,” says Johansson. “My character feels like Betty Davis. You watch her and she seems comfortable in the space she takes up. And, so I felt like that could be a good beginning. She has a little bit of that Mid-Atlantic thing.”
Despite the continuing color-drenched style of his films, Anderson has been intrigued more and more by the experience of loss as he gets older. “Well, I don’t really think of the colorful palette in relation to it, but I would say we have these milestones in our lives and particularly as you get older. The dead begin to pile up. You go through this thing where you start to say, ‘I cannot believe how often you say the person who I would actually like to hear his or her point of view is this one, and I’m never gonna get the answer to this question I want to ask. I will never get the answer,’ because now they’re gone. That just starts to happen more and more and more. Just the power of these losses, it’s among the key milestones. At least that’s my experience.”
“I think with grief, my feeling is, or my experience is that it’s so complicated. There’s no wrong way to feel if you’re grieving. If you don’t feel sad when everyone else is sad, that’s okay,” says Schwartzman. “And, to me, I didn’t think about that while we were doing it. But when I saw the movie and Adrian’s character says, ‘Just keep doing it,’ That moment really kind of hit me when he said that.”
Hanks wants to emphasize how Anderson’s signature style is also the result of an intense focus. “Look, there’s a very convivial atmosphere that we are all very much attracted to. But that is the secondary experience. The work that we do on the set is incredibly focused and there’s nobody who works harder at this than Wes. And, I know a lot of guys saying, “Take three is the truth I’m looking for,’ and then we move on. It’s not the case with Wes. Look, it was 60 takes to get to where we wanted to be.”
“Asteroid City” releases June 16 in select theaters and opens wide June 23.