Wes Anderson on his new Roald Dahl film: ‘No one who is not the author should be modifying somebody else’s book’

Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes and Dev Patel star in the director’s faithfully scripted new film of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

Wes Anderson, the director of The Royal Tenenbaums and Asteroid City, has a celebrated eye for detail – right down to the choice of instruments for each score, according to the composer Alexandre Desplat, his regular collaborator.

The film-maker selected glockenspiel, triangles and other puppet-sized noisemakers for the percussion for Fantastic Mr Fox, and traditional taiko drums for the Japanese-set animation Isle of Dogs. When he made The Grand Budapest Hotel, he hung pictures of the characters, created by his partner, the costume designer Juman Malouf, around the hotel where the cast and crew were staying.

But even the best-laid plans can be meaningless when it comes to moviemaking, according to Anderson, who tells a story about The Darjeeling Limited, his Indian odyssey from 2007.

“You try to take control of it, but when you make a movie you’re saying, ‘I’m going to invite chaos into my life.’ When we made The Darjeeling Limited in India, we prepared everything very, very carefully. But it took us to strange places. We visited this little village, and we wanted to do a shot there and we needed a hut. And the elders of the village said, ‘We can build you the hut.’


“So we came back two weeks later and the hut was perfect, and we said, ‘Thank you very much. We’ll see you on Tuesday.’ And when we came back on Tuesday the hut had been decorated with all these flowers and swirls, and they painted it pink and blue. But the scene we wanted to shoot was a funeral.”

Anderson has certainly paid attention to detail today. We are at a hotel on the Venice Lido, during the city’s film festival, to hear about his new movie. When the director arrives he is wearing a tailored shirt the colour of the Adriatic Sea outside. Like the candy-coloured pinstriped suit he wore on the red carpet the day before, it’s a very Andersonian hue.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which stars Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes and Dev Patel, is the first instalment of an anthology of Roald Dahl adaptations; three short films based on the short stories Ratcatcher, The Swan and Poison are in various stages of production.

“Henry Sugar is one of the friendlier ones,” Anderson says. “The others are the more familiar darkness of Dahl. Ratcatcher is very strange and a bit disturbing. I think The Swan is one of his best stories, and it’s extremely dark and quite brutal. Poison has an emotional brutality to it that’s pretty striking. It’s very early. We’re adapting stories that are from another time, with dated language. We’ve kept it how it is.”

This is not new terrain for Anderson – that big-screen interpretation of Fantastic Mr Fox dates back to 2009. He had been planning to adapt The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar since a sojourn at Gipsy House, Dahl’s family home, in Buckinghamshire, some 20 years ago. The Dahl family, represented by Felicity Dahl and Dahl’s grandson Luke Kelly, set the rights to the story aside until Anderson could figure out a way to untangle the nested stories of his childhood favourite.

“I was planning this for a long time – years and years and years,” Anderson says. “I probably wouldn’t have done it except that I realised, reading the story to my daughter, that what I liked about the story is how Dahl tells it. I like his voice, his description, his metaphors and the way his words bring it to life. And I thought, well, maybe I can do that with a movie. That’s how I figured out that it had to be a short and that we had to use Dahl’s words.”

That Fiennes, an Anderson regular, plays Dahl in a replica of the author’s study adds another layer to the mise en abyme of this 39-minute film. Its plot, or plots, run thus: the rich, idle man of the title (Cumberbatch) happens upon a journal detailing a guru (Kingsley) who can see without using his eyes. Sugar sets out to emulate that skill so that he might cheat at cards. Things do not go according to plan.

Following on from the stylised Asteroid City, the film swaps out scenery, casts actors (including Rupert Friend and Richard Ayoade) in multiple roles, plays with dollies and camera movement, and engages in Brechtian high jinks as Fiennes rattles through a slavishly faithful framing script.

“We loved making it,” Anderson says. “We loved working with Benedict Cumberbatch and the wonderful Ben Kingsley and Dev Patel and our old friend Ralph Fiennes. For this movie we needed actors who could take pages of text and bring them to life. Some actors are great at moments, but you would not ask them to go perform this play on stage. It’s not their thing. Their thing may be spontaneity, but it’s a different kind of work. English actors tend to be able to do everything. At the last play I watched in the West End, I sat down at the end to make a list of names on the playbill.”

Anderson’s fidelity to Dahl’s text runs counter to the recent move by Dahl’s publishers to edit language gauged as offensive out of his work, a revisionism that Anderson has repeatedly denounced.

“I really don’t like it,” he says. “If I bought a painting – let’s say a Titian – and Titian called me up and said, ‘You know, I always thought there should be a little girl in the background of the painting; if I could just come over and fix that.’ I would say, ‘I’d rather you didn’t; this is my Titian.’ I feel that if somebody writes a book or somebody makes a film and it goes out into the world, then it’s ours. It’s too late to change it. And if I don’t believe that the artist or the author themselves can change his or her work, then the idea of somebody else changing it? I don’t even want to start that conversation. But, certainly, no one who is not the author should be modifying somebody else’s book.”

That said, he has reservations about some of his own completed works, notably The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a pretty failure that remains a source of disquiet for its creator.

“I’m a little bit obsessed with what I should have done differently,” Anderson says. “This goes to, like, the scheduling of the movie, the budgeting. It was a very, very big movie. It was very complex. It was the kind of movie where if you’ve made it once then you really know how to do it. We went 20 days over schedule. We went $10 million over budget. We struggled. I have got so many ideas about how we could have improved it in the cutting room. Maybe let’s just leave it at that.”

The layered storytelling of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar fits neatly with the director’s similarly complex recent features, notably The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch and Asteroid City. That’s hardly accidental.

“I read it when I was probably eight years old, and it was doing a thing I had never seen before. There’s a story within a story. You meet a character and he says, ‘Let me tell you something,’ and then he tells a story inside of the story. I think my recent films all probably come from Henry Sugar in the first place.”

Anderson grew up in Houston, in Texas, the son of a writer and an archaeologist. He was a huge fan of Dahl and of the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. (He organised a private screening of his movie Rushmore for the critic on the eve of her retirement. Her response? “Did the people who gave you the money read the script?”) After graduating from the University of Texas he relocated to California, where he and his friend Owen Wilson wrote Bottle Rocket, which Anderson now describes as “the film that’s least like me”.

“I wanted to be like Spike Lee,” he says. “He’s one of the reasons why I became a film-maker. I was so inspired by She’s Gotta Have It. And I read his book Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It back in 1987. I tried my best to just follow his roadmap, which didn’t work at all. I didn’t even get into NYU. So I had to find another way.”

His other way has brought together a regular troupe of actors and collaborators. Owen Wilson, his former roommate, has featured in seven films; Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Adrien Brody have appeared in five apiece. Desplat has composed every Anderson film since Fantastic Mr Fox. Robert Yeoman has served as director of photography for all of Anderson’s live-action films. Adam Stockhausen, his production designer, has been on board since Moonrise Kingdom, his 2012 film. These recurring credits coalesce into a recognisable style even though Anderson says he always believes he’s making something completely different from before.

“The idea of not doing things as they are normally done – you’ve got to find out how it’s normally done first,” Anderson says. “And that has happened over the course of making the movies. The best people to ask are the people I work with. People like Sanjay Sami, my key grip. He has expertise and irony. He has watched us deconstruct the way people make movies and find our own ways. And that’s fun.

“Each of the collaborations is so different. With casting it’s almost like a recipe: how are these people going to mix together? With Bob Yeoman the preparation is quite simple. We used to watch a lot of movies together before each movie, but now we’ve communicated about all these things so much, we have a well of shared references. He knows where I’m going. With Adam Stockhausen, we work mostly by email. We go scouting. The process tends not to be very preconceived. It’s a discovery process and research.”

In 2005 Anderson relocated from New York to Paris, where he has remained ever since. He loves being an American abroad, even if his French is not all that it could be.

“Until I was 23 years old my life was only in Texas. I had travelled a little bit in America. But the parameters of my life were compact. The people I knew lived in a small visible space. But I was always interested in movies. And movies were from everywhere. They were my way to get out and see the world. And the more I saw, the more I wanted to get out and see. I like the idea that having breakfast can be an adventure. And when you’re in a foreign country sometimes that’s exactly what it is. In Paris, just walking in a different neighbourhood is like going to the movies. I like the feeling of being a little bit outside of the place where I live.”

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is on Netflix from Wednesday, September 27th