After the Oscars ceremony fiasco overshadowed the deserved victory of Moonlight, it became all the more relevant to investigate the rise of independent filmmakers in Hollywood’s domination of mainstream cinema. The independent film directed by Barry Jenkins and its triumph illustrate the increasing popularity of non-mainstream content, or what is often referred to as ‘indie’ cinema. In order to understand the process leading up to the respect we attribute to film auteurs, I will be using filmmaker Wes Anderson as a case study. Simultaneously an independent and ‘indie’ filmmaker, his successful career illustrates just how much he has been able to transgress Hollywood filmmaking norms, but also how in some ways he meets the criteria of a Hollywood director.
When discussing filmmaking and ‘indie’ films, we must make the careful distinction between independent and ‘indie’ cinema. Media reception studies professor Janet Staiger defined independent film by the way those films were financed and distributed, in the sense that they were not affiliated with a major studio, such as Paramount Motion Pictures or Walt Disney Studios. As she understands it, ‘an independent production firm was a small company with no corporate relationship to a distribution firm’. The confusion is frequently made that calling a film ‘independent’ implies that it possesses textual qualities of an ‘indie’ film. These textual qualities can be identified as a particular variety of emotional storylines, uncommon or unusual characters and aesthetically intricate settings – all contributing factors to what makes a filmmaker an auteur.
It is no secret that traditional filmmaking favours a pre-determined method that splits the narrative into three parts. The first, introduces the main protagonists and the goals they will attempt to achieve throughout the film. In the second part, the protagonist attempts to achieve goal, but will be stopped by an antagonist, ending this part with the ‘low point’. The third and final part consists of the final dramatic conflict where the main protagonist fights to achieve their goal, either succeeding or failing horribly. This method has persisted as it is what seems to “sell”, which makes producers hesitant to stray from the formula. ‘Indie’ film tends to be more playful and creative, unlike the mindless succession of events that occur in traditional film.
This is one of the main ways Anderson transgresses classical Hollywood filmmaking norms, as he always breaks up his films into episodic chapters that necessitates the viewer to make connections that they typically wouldn’t with a mainstream Hollywood film. Made to be widely and easily consumed by a large mass, a great deal of Hollywood films and other products of the entertainment industry are stillborn and easily forgotten. Their formula installs within the audience unconscious automatic expectations for a clear linear progression of events with some heated fights, amusing jokes, romantic interests, or stereotypically the rise and fall and rise again of the main character, overcoming fears and facing their problems. Wes Anderson doesn’t follow this formula, instead creating complex, fast-paced stories that revolve around an atypically detailed plot. For example, his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel has a cast of thirty roles that each add to the narrative, twelve of which were already well-established actors, such as Ralph Fiennes or Léa Seydoux.
The core cast group of amateur actors he began with are now equally mainstream, especially when considering The Grand Budapest Hotel’s cast, as much of the marketing centred on the long selection of eminent actors. Before this, with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox using the voices of already renowned actors George Clooney and Meryl Streep, Anderson’s film cast were positively ‘indie’. Since The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson fans will have an expectation for notorious actors in his films, resembling Hollywood directors dependable safety net of basing much of their film’s marketing on the weight of the actors’ names in the industry.
Where most traditional Hollywood productions are focussed on appealing to a particular demographic such as the Twilight Saga (2008-2012) that had a mainly female teenage audience, Anderson’s following consists of a wide array of demographics. Particularly his films Moonrise Kingdom of which the main protagonists are children, and Fantastic Mr. Fox that is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same title. The relationship between the two children in Moonrise Kingdom is of a surprising maturity, as they both understand the adult world around them and have an uncharacteristic cynicism about them that is gripping whether the viewers are children, teenagers or adults.
Concerning Fantastic Mr. Fox, children will most probably enjoy the different style of animation to what else is on the market, as the detail and work that has so blatantly gone into the creation of this stop-motion feature is all the more appreciable by adults. Anderson’s talent for scriptwriting is also a major key to the positive reception of a story intended for children, with popular culture author and expert Bob Batchelor asserting that ‘Anderson excels at pulling together the threads of what transforms a film into an object of cult affection. [..] as a writer/director, he creates a narrative that appeals to the audience’s intelligence and aesthetic sensibility.’
Prior to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s films marketing process was what is considered as independent. Hollywood films tend to have large funds with an equally large marketing budget to match. Going through ‘Indiewood’ studios, such as Sony Pictures for Bottle Rocket in 1996 or Fox Searchlight Pictures for The Darjeeling Limited in 2007, the funds supplied for his films were a direct result of the uncertainty of the ‘indie’ content. With no reassuring backing on best-selling novels, major film studios would not feel comfortable spending copious amounts of money on the marketing of an already low-budget movie. Film critic Dwight Macdonald noted that scholars of the Frankfurt School Adorno and Horkheimer pinpointed the reason Hollywood was dying lay in the fact that ‘The machine rotates on the same spot. While determining consumption it excludes the untried as a risk. The movie-makers distrust any manuscript which is not reassuringly backed by a best-seller’.
This explains the foundations of ‘Indiewood’, which is in fact an amalgam of the acquisitions of arthouse studios by Hollywood conglomerates, as a profitable plan in sight of taking over the independent film industry and consequently creating independent studios of their own. The one film so far of his that was distributed by a major film studio was Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Destined to be a stop-motion picture, the budget required was quite large compared to his other creations, due to the amount of detail and work that goes into stop-motion productions.
Since Anderson has increased his following and audience, he has gained a more mainstream status as a director. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, his already-established ‘world’ of ornately detailed settings and elaborate dialogue and accumulated consecutive box office success was enough to justify the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight, owned by conglomerate 21st Century Fox to advertise the film a great deal more than Anderson’s older films. In addition to this, The Grand Budapest Hotel generated a significant level of fascination and desire to acquire the memorabilia of this world created by Anderson, such as copies of The Society of the Crossed Keys, a selection of Stefan Zweig’s writings which inspired the film.
The key narrative in most Hollywood film is the protagonist’s attempt of achieving various goals, most commonly being finding love, becoming rich, or saving the world. It is impossible to find one film by Wes Anderson that copies that particular formula of pursuit of happiness. Anderson’s characters seem to roam around in their own unique world of complex problems and unusual scenarios, often involving disappearances, theft, and dysfunctional families. Whilst Fantastic Mr Fox is perhaps the most simplistic of Anderson’s films, Fatherhood is the main theme. It explores how it is only after becoming middle-aged that the character of Mr. Fox only begins to appreciate his role as a father to Ash, now a teenager, along with some life-changing realisations that his actions have an effect on the well-being and security of his family. With a more specific attention to a dysfunctional family dynamic, The Darjeeling Limited follows three brothers who rekindle their relationship ensuing the death of their father. Moonrise Kingdom features Billy Murray as an emotionally detached father figure who realises how much he cares about his daughter when she goes missing.
As a part of Hollywood’s formula for films, an almost consistent element is the often-unnecessary sexualisation of women’s and men’s relationships, which Anderson diverges from in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel especially. The rare times romance is seen during his films is face paced and adds to the building of the character. Moonrise Kingdom features a scene of both children on the beach where actress Kara Hayward has few clothes on but it comes across as completely non-sexual. The relationship between Zero the lobby boy and Agatha the patisserie maker in The Grand Budapest Hotel is also portrayed from a purely sentimental angle. Traditional Hollywood film has installed within the audience an instinctive anticipation for the protagonist to have a romantic pursuit or a general goal of happiness, to the extent that it is often forced into a narrative that does nothing to further the plot. Anderson avoids this by concentrating on family dynamics more than romantic ones, or even exclusively in The Darjeeling limited for example.
On a more technical note, Anderson is known for his unconventional camera-work, with every shot seeming to silently add meaning to the narrative. In this respect, Hollywood editing is relatively predictable, an amount of footage often feeling redundant. This is ironic as Major production studios encourage films to avoid what they consider as unnecessary detail that detracts from the main point of the scene. Often, the result is that the film is more inclined to be forgotten due to its soporific production for the masses. Once again Anderson is the opposite. As has been stated previously, each plot device and shot is purposeful with no time to waste on such needless endeavours. Not having the budget to spend on special effects, Anderson takes care to avoid artificial, computer-generated effects and prefers to make use of practical effects to create a realistic, believable world, in order to fully immerse his audience. Furthermore, he takes more risks than the average director with some trademarks of his being stationary pans where the camera moves from left-to-right between two people, drastic zooms, and a great deal of non-diegetic sound, or sound that doesn’t belong in the character’s world. These elements add a vintage aspect reminiscent to the sixties era of New Hollywood. The patterns of the progression of his stories may be the same, however the content of each is extremely diverse and unique strengthening his status as an auteur.
Any director that has found mainstream success will struggle to remain a purely independent auteur. Initially ‘indie’ films were an unpopular genre, Anderson lacked the cult following that he has today allowing his creations to stand out as unusual, or even experimental. As this type of film became a trend, the last decade has seen ‘indie’ films develop a following significant enough to attract big studios and Hollywood conglomerates. Anderson has remained loyal to his filmmaking roots and continues to control his creations, yet releasing his films through major distributors.
The greatest benefit Hollywood permits for ‘indie’ directors is the distribution upon a far larger audience that was previously possible. This, in essence, is the reason Anderson’s career has flourished.