There are few directors with a visual style as distinctive as Wes Anderson's, and to find out just what goes into his carefully composed shots, you'll want to talk to Robert Yeoman. The 63-year-old cinematographer has shot every one of Anderson's films (save for the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox); though, astoundingly, he's never been nominated for an Academy Award. Still, with The Grand Budapest Hotel in the hunt for multiple Oscar nods next week, what better time to talk to Yeoman about his storied career, using nine of Anderson's most famous scenes and shots as prompts?
Anderson's first film is more visually straightforward than most of his later works, but this gun-firing montage shows distinct glimmers of moments to come. "That particular scene was storyboarded, but I remember it had kind of a loose feel when we were shooting it," says Yeoman. "As time has gone on, Wes has become even more controlled than he once was … to the point where the scene is totally figured out before we even get there, sometimes." Yeoman had already been working for a decade on films like Drugstore Cowboy before the then-25-year-old Anderson sent him a handwritten letter wooing him to come aboard Bottle Rocket. "I don't know that anyone had a sense of who he would become," says Yeoman. "I certainly didn't. But I just thought, 'Okay, this guy's kinda cool, and I like where he's going with all this.'"
This montage of Max Fischer's school activities is one of the most iconic sequences in Anderson's oeuvre, but Disney execs very nearly nixed it from the film. "I remember the powers that be did not want us to shoot it," says Yeoman. "They told us, 'You don't have time for that. Put the movie together, and we'll decide later if you get to shoot it or not.' But Wes was so adamant about having it, so whenever we were on a location we knew we could use for the montage, we would grab the shot right there. I think he was afraid the studio was not gonna let him get it." Much of the film was shot at St. John's in Houston, where Anderson actually went to school, and "it incorporates a lot of things that Wes grew up with and loved," says Yeoman. "The go-kart shot, I remember that when we were shooting that, Wes and Owen [Wilson] both got in the go-karts and drove all around the schoolyard. It was like living through his high-school life."
The Royal Tenenbaums
Who can forget this slow-motion stretch from The Royal Tenenbaums where kohl-eyed Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) steps off the bus to reunite with her adopted brother and furtive admirer Richie (Luke Wilson)? "A lot of people have commented on that scene over the years — it was one of those magical moments," says Yeoman. And while the sequence is gorgeously composed, it also proved to be one of Anderson's most perfect soundtrack matches, with Nico's throaty "These Days" adding freighted context to the actors' poker faces. "In the early days of our movies, Wes had pretty much chosen ahead of time every song that was going to be in the movie, and we would play it on set," says Yeoman. "It just gave everyone the right attitude toward the scene." As for those immaculately dressed sailors marching into the frame behind Richie as he falls deeper into love, "That's one of those details that Wes comes up with — and he does it time after time — that make the scene memorable," says Yeoman. "You might have the shot ready to go, and he'll throw in something like that to give it a distinct style. I really do think that's what defines him as a filmmaker."
Most of Tenenbaums is bathed in warm light, but Yeoman painted Richie's Elliott Smith–scored suicide attempt in cold blues, lending the moment a dreadful gravity. Even this scene, though, required Anderson's fussy touch. "I remember we set it up and Wes went in there and spent a bunch of time rearranging all the hair on the sink to be exactly what he wanted," says Yeoman. "We shot it in one take while Luke cut his hair, and once he cut off most of his hair and his beard, we moved the shot over to the side — Wes always uses just one camera." This sequence may be one of the saddest Anderson has filmed, and Yeoman says it got to him, too: "I was good friends with Luke at the time, and I think everybody was a little freaked out when the whole thing went down. It's kind of shocking. Obviously, it's fake and a movie, but that shot of the blood coming down his arms always sends chills down my spine."
We had to triple up on scenes from The Royal Tenenbaums just so we could include this subtly marvelous shot from the finale of the film, where the camera drifts from character to character in the aftermath of an accident. "There were a lot of moving parts, and it was very difficult — Wes was determined to get it in one take and didn't want to make a cut, so we did, I think, about 20 takes of it," says Yeoman, who mounted a crane arm to a dolly for fluid movement. "The tough part is that it ends with a very emotional moment between Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller, and this scene was so difficult technically — things didn't always happen when we wanted them to happen, and we'd have to cut — that it's a testament to Gene and Ben that they were able to hang in there and really deliver on take 20." What was going wrong before then? "I don't want to name names, but there was one actor about two thirds of the way through it who kept blowing his lines, and we'd have to start over again," says Yeoman. "That was a little frustrating, especially because Gene and Ben were waiting there, getting themselves to a certain place emotionally. I felt bad for them, but that's just part of making films."
The Life Aquatic
Anderson's exactingly decorated sets have often been referred to as dioramas, and the director took that notion literally in The Life Aquatic, where Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) presents to the audience an enormous cross-section of his research vessel, the Belafonte. The scale of the film was much bigger than anything yet attempted by Anderson, Yeoman, and their production designer Mark Friedberg, and after the boat was built on a soundstage at Rome's Cinecittà Studios, they realized they may have gotten too grand in their ambitions. "I went over there a few days before we shot that sequence and we took our widest lens, and even with our backs against the wall, we couldn't get the whole boat in the shot!" laughs Yeoman. "We knew that was not gonna be acceptable. Mark had given me a few extra feet behind the boat so I could hide lights behind it, and so they had to physically drag the boat back against the wall for that extra ten feet — and it was huge. I called Panavision in a panic and asked, 'Do you have any wider lenses? Send them immediately!'" Even those fixes didn't prove sufficient, and Yeoman had to improvise. "Literally, we had to shoot the whole scene with the camera outside the stage looking through the door in order to get that shot. It was a nail-biter for both Mark and myself."
Before he filmed The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson shot this short film, a prologue of sorts. "After Life Aquatic, which was such a large film with so much gear so much of the time, I think he wanted to go in another direction where we kept all that to a minimum, using only what we needed," says Yeoman. "That was our first stab at it, and that's how it's been ever since then." The two-day shoot featured a brief nude scene from Natalie Portman — "She, obviously, was feeling somewhat vulnerable," says Yeoman — but the actress was assuaged by Anderson's small crew and low-key approach to lighting. "There's a scene where she and Jason Schwartzman are lying on the bed, and there's a backlight on them but I didn't have anything to fill them in, so I just took a pillowcase and put it over the lens to bounce light back into their faces," chuckles Yeoman. "I enjoy shooting that way. We came up from low-budget independent movies where you never had the money and you were forced to come up with your own homemade solutions to things, and that's pretty much what Chevalier was all about."
In much of Moonrise Kingdom, the characters either cross horizontally in front of the camera or walk in a vertical line extending from it, seemingly fixed to an x- or y-axis. While that sort of movement seems to be a recent predilection of Anderson's, Yeoman says there was a practical component to it, too, and it was borne out of the film's Rhode Island shoot. "Moonrise had a lot of great locations where you could only look one way, but the other directions didn't work for Wes quite as much, so we'd tailor our shots sometimes to that," explains Yeoman. "For instance, the house where Bill Murray and Frances McDormand lived: When the characters look out from the house, that was a totally different location, because Wes felt like we could do better than the actual place where the house was. There was a lot of that, where we were cobbling together a bunch of different locations to make one place." In the scene we picked, where the film's young couple meet in the tall grass, there are plenty of cuts but no alternate angles, and Yeoman says the domineering frame was intentional: "They're two kids lost in this big world, and somehow they've found each other."
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Could this film have been Anderson's most pastel confection yet? In a shot like this, where Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) embrace in a car filled with pastry boxes, "There was so much pink in there, between the boxes and skin tones, that I tried to use bounce cards and white light so that their skin tones wouldn't be overly red." It's a shot that incorporates a lot of Wes Anderson trademarks like deep focus and incredibly specific prop placement, but these boxes are all arranged in a frame far boxier than Anderson typically uses, since he adopted the Academy ratio — 1:37 — for the Grand Budapest sections set in the 1930s. "The aspect-ratio thing came up after I got to Germany for prep," says Yeoman. "We'd been talking, and Wes wasn't sure yet what aspect ratio he wanted shoot in. He'd been so influenced by the Ernst Lubitsch comedies of the '30s, and he was in love with that style." For the scenes set in the 1960s, Yeoman found old anamorphic lenses in Paris to shoot in the wider 2:40 ratio, and he filmed the 1980s sequences in 1:85, though he admits he wasn't initially sure whether it would all cut together well. "But I've seen the film several times now and I never really question it," he says, adding a comment that could sum up his cinematography in a nutshell: "Whether you're aware of it or not, it has an effect on you."