How Wes Anderson Created ‘Asteroid City’: Big Dinners, Music and a Helpful COVID Quarantine

Cannes 2023: “I don’t want to say (the pandemic) was good for the movie, but we used it in away that wasn’t bad,” Anderson said at Cannes

Asteroid City
Cannes Film Festival

The process of making a Wes Anderson movie involves an immersive environment, from sets to music to big dinners at the end of the day — and the COVID-19 pandemic helped, said Anderson and his cast members at a Cannes Film Festival press conference on Wednesday, the day after the premiere of “Asteroid City,” his quirky sci-fi movie set in the 1950s.

“The world is there, and you’re in it,” said Scarlett Johansson of the film, which tells of alien contact in a colorful Southwestern U.S. desert town through the framing device of a black-and-white TV documentary from the 1950s. “They very much create the whole environment — it’s a physical, tangible, usable space. It’s more like doing theater and not the familiar process of being on a soundstage and going back to your trailer and having all this down time.”

“We work in one of the most inefficient spaces that exists,” added Jeffrey Wright, “but he creates efficiency. And he also serves great meals at the end of the day, so you just want to (finish your work and) get back to the wine.”

In the case of “Asteroid City,” Anderson said, the pandemic had an effect on that sense of community, because the cast and crew were isolated together.

“During the real intense part of the COVID period, we were writing the script,” he said. “I don’t think there would have been a quarantine in the story if we weren’t experiencing it … And the making of the movie was still during COVID. We had COVID protocols, and it really suited us. I loved to form a troupe and stay together and sit at a long table and have dinner. The set was enormous — it was a desert, but it was a closed desert. Just us.”

He laughed. “I don’t want to say it was good for the movie, but we used it in away that wasn’t bad.”

Another benefit of the Wes-world troupe was music. In the film, a band of cowboys led by Ruper Friend plays a few songs, and for the band members Anderson also cast Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, who notably did some Portuguese David Bowie covers in Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” and Jarvis Cocker, leader of the ’90s British band Pulp. “Seu Jorge might bring his guitar and sing a few songs after dinner, or other people you wouldn’t expect might get up and perform as well.”

At the press conference, Bryan Cranston pointed out that the movie manages to combine a lot of different kinds of performance into one quintessential Anderson mixture. “This is a movie about a television show doing a story on theater,” he said. “I think its Wes’ love letter to performance art. He wrapped his arms around the three major mediums that we’re involved in.”

Anderson nodded. “The thing I didn’t realize so much until we were making the movie is how much the movie comes out of me liking to be around actors,” he said. “Every character in the movie is an actor, and for a lot of them it’s an actor playing an actor.”

“It’s unusual for directors, particularly for those who haven’t done a lot of acting, to understand on a detailed level and appreciate and even kind of wonder at the process,” said Wright. “And I think Wes does that. He really digs the process of actors and performance.” He turned to Anderson.
I can tell that it interests you. I don’t know why it interests me, and I do it, but I know it interests you.”

The movie also an includes an encounter with an alien played by Jeff Goldblum, which led to a question about whether Anderson himself believes in extra-terrestrial life. “I wouldn’t really rely on my opinions about that in any particular way,” he said. “I know that Stephen Hawking insisted that it’s mathematically improbable that there is not extra-terrestrial life … but I don’t (think so), really.”

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.