May 23, 2024

Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” is a nesting doll of a film—a television broadcast of a documentary about a play, assembled with the same precision and detail as Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The French Dispatch” among others. Thematically, the connective tissue between its layers of reality, like many of those earlier films, is the notion and processing of loss. But Anderson, who co-wrote the movie with longtime collaborator Roman Coppola, says one of his longtime leading men inspired him to assemble its pieces in the first place.

“The movie ends up being about grief, but it evolved into that,” Anderson tells Variety. “Roman Coppola and I started this one with the idea that we wanted to build something around a role for Jason Schwartzman.”

He and Schwartzman, one of Coppola’s cousins, have worked together since he cast the then-young actor as precocious, ambitious protagonist Max Fischer in his 1998 film “Rushmore.” Anderson says that some of his ideas for “Asteroid City” began percolating during the making of “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” “I had long had this idea of doing a story that was about something like the Actor’s Studio, and a story of doing a kind of American desert ’50s movie,” he says. “We mixed these things together and built it around Jason.”

A fruitful collaboration with Scarlett Johansson on “Isle of Dogs” prompted Anderson to consider her as his co-star and fellow anchor for a rich troupe featuring other veterans of his productions such as Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Adrien Brody, as well as newcomers like Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Margot Robbie. “I may have had a better experience with the whole cast than I’ve ever had before,” he says. “Even though I’ve loved actors I’ve worked with on all my movies, this one had such a big, great ensemble.”

Still, Anderson admits that the film they conceived had enough moving parts that it would require a nimble hand to put them together. “We wrote a slightly convoluted script where there are these parts that are the movie within the play within the movie, and then the things about the play,” he explains. “And as we were writing it, these things were mixing together.” Despite its disjointed structure, the filmmaker says he viewed the different characters each of his actors played as part of a whole.

“We’d written roles where even though Jason is playing an actor as well as this role the actor is playing, to me it’s sort of one role with these different aspects that fit together,” Anderson says.

He credits his cast members for developing connections between their characters across the story’s different layers. “I really felt I could just hand it all off to them and they interpreted it and pulled it together,” he says. “Obviously, they’re the ones who bring it to life, but in the case of this one, they had to kind of transform it in the process.”

In fact, despite the palpable control Anderson exerts over his projects — from each one’s meticulous design to its mannered performances — he acknowledges that the scale of “Asteroid City” required a village to build it. “We worked together well,” he says. “We had Bob Yeoman, our director of photography, Adam Stockhausen, the production designer, [costume designer] Milena Canonero and lots of other people.

“These are all people who I’ve worked with for so long, and we were doing something kind of gigantic in that we built this desert and this town in Spain,” he adds. “But it was such a pleasure to do it, because everybody’s in such a wonderful sync with each other.”

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