Wes Anderson is the belle of the ball at the Venice International Film Festival this year, on-site to receive the Cartier Glory to the Filmmaker prize but also to debut his Netflix short film “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” The Roald Dahl adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Dev Patel premiered out of competition this week to a rapturous standing ovation and strong reviews.
The seven-time Oscar-nominated director/writer held court with a master class conversation on Saturday in the Palazzo del Casino, where he spoke to an eager young audience bursting with questions — many attendees were turned away, and the line to get into the press conference hall wove out the door, down three flights of stairs, and into the main entryway of the building.
As many in the audience were aspiring filmmakers themselves, Anderson naturally mused backward about his feature directorial debut, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket,” co-written by Owen Wilson. A 16mm short film version also starring Owen and Luke Wilson had screened at Sundance in 1994 — the equivalent of a student film — to the discovery and delight of James L. Brooks, Polly Platt, and their Gracie Films. They gave Anderson a production budget of $5 million for the feature; the caper comedy barely cracked $500,000 at the U.S. box office when released by Sony, though that’s ancient history as it’s now a beloved cult classic.
The “Asteroid City” filmmaker was asked if he ever feels insecure in the writing or production process, and the self-effacing director said there’s “no point” where he doesn’t feel trepidation about a project.
“For me, I was more confident before. When we were making ‘Bottle Rocket,’ I felt like I really knew what I wanted it to be. And it helped that I had a partner, I had Owen Wilson, we’d written it together, the two of us were a team, so that goes a long way in that situation,” Anderson said.
“But then when we screened the movie publicly, we didn’t screen it in an encouraging environment. We blamed the audience. The confidence I had was too much, and it was quite shaken by this experience. It was a terrible way to first screen a movie. We had 86 people in the audience, I think, and by halfway through about 20 were left, and I watched them leave. You watch somebody get up and you say, ‘Maybe this one’s just going to the bathroom. But they’re taking all their bags with them…’”
On the occasion of Venice, he also spoke about the experience of screening films at a festival — not always the kindest environment, where viewers are prone to walk out on something they’re not into.
“From now, any time I’m screening a movie, it’s terrifying. You can screen a movie in a film festival environment. When you screen a movie at a film festival, and it’s the benefactors of the festival and the officials and the delegates of something, that’s one experience, and the other one is the young people who really want to see the movie, and that’s the room that’s more fun to be in if you made the movie because you can feel it.”
Finally, his advice for building up confidence in young filmmakers? It’s the people you work with — and any Anderson fan knows he has a veritable acting and production troupe that follows him around from production to production. (He teased earlier in the conversation that he hopes two-time Anderson star Scarlett Johansson will return to the fold after lending her voice to “Isle of Dogs” and leading “Asteroid City” as a depressed film star.)
“Confidence is a crucial thing. I don’t know how you build it up. I know how you can have it torn down! You protect yourself from it, and the best way to do that is to have people with you, that you can trust by your side. It’s hard to maintain those relationships, especially in the beginning when it’s so much about the things we want, what we want our lives to be and our work to be.”
Next up, Anderson continues his Dahl anthology with three more short films he’s already completed: “The Swan,” “Poison,” and “The Ratcatcher.”