Shoots the impossible for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”

Robert Yeoman’s camera work has been an inseparable part of Wes Anderson’s unmistakable style since he began directing in 1996 with “Bottle Rocket” – but his new fantasy farce “The French Dispatch” took the duo to new heights.

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

“Not only do we have sideways movements, but we also go in and out,” says Yeoman, “and Wes is so precise about the framing that we’d never get it if we did it with a techno crane or a steadicam would try this precision. “

Originally just intended for the story of a prison inmate with a flair for abstract art, Anderson and Yeoman decided, after several color and black-and-white tests, that the look was interesting enough to see the entire comedy set in the imaginary French News Office Liberty, Kansas evening sun.

The film was shot in five episodes, four of which were built around a writing assignment overseen by dyspeptic American editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The film required nearly a month of prep and sets building in a huge, unoccupied building, says Yeoman. just like the team’s previous attempt, the “Grand Budapest Hotel”.

This time, a former felt factory in real French Angoulême in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region served as a prison, gangland hideout, courtroom and newsroom, says Yeomen – that is, as soon as they succeed in punching holes in floors and ceilings, a multi-story camera case is possible.

“Most of the time, Wes rejects new technical things,” says Yeoman. “He wants us to find old ways to do 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 recordings, standard tools on most sets, are of no interest to Anderson, says his eight-time employee. Instead, “The French Dispatch” relied on scaffolding, where the crews hoisted the equipment on ropes.

In the meantime, each shot is carefully composed and lit, often with perfect symmetry for shooting with 200-ASA Kodak 35mm film, which requires strong light. One benefit of shooting with a single camera, according to Yeoman, is that lighting can be perfected for any composition, which generally needs to be compromised when two or three cameras cover a scene.

Fortunately, LEDs and SkyPanels are allowed, says veteran DP. “We can make it darker or warmer or cooler very quickly,” he says of the super bright, light, flat lighting.

Yeoman, who is also known for directing the disturbing worlds of Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” says the many limitations of working with Anderson still allow creativity on set. In fact, it is often essential to deliver the sophisticated shots and movements that he wants.

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Hippolyte Girardot, Steve Park, Jeffrey Wright and Mathieu Amalric in “The French Dispatch”
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

For “The French Dispatch,” the team usually chose 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 occasional zoom.

Many actors would resent having to hit so many precise points that their performances land just right in a careful composition – and most directors expect DPs to follow them at least a little. But, says Yeoman about working with Anderson: “If the actors block each other or are not where they should be, we shoot another take. Some actors have a hard time doing this at first – but then they come over. ”

And as in “Grand Budapest”, the film is mostly shown in the box-shaped Academy aspect ratio of 1.37: 1.

“He challenges everyone from the cameramen to all departments and actors to think outside the box and develop a new way of doing things,” says Yeoman.

“Often he describes what he wants to do and I think to myself, ‘Man, this is impossible – how are we supposed to do it?’ But I can honestly say that there has never been an attitude where we say we don’t know how to do it. We’ll find out. “

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