The Cinematographer Who Brings Wes Anderson’s Vision to Life

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Bottle Rocket, 1996(Film still)

To celebrate the re-release of Anderson’s 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, we catch up with Robert Yeoman, the man responsible for capturing the director’s magical worlds on film

“The key to being a good cinematographer is finding a way to visually convey the emotion of the story, and it’s not always by creating beautiful images,” says celebrated director of photography Robert Yeoman, speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. When it comes to his ongoing work with Wes Anderson, however, Yeoman does both, and to inimitable levels of perfection – from capturing the cerulean universe of The Life Aquatic to shooting the scrumptious visual delight that was The Grand Budapest Hotel (which earned him his first, long overdue, Oscar nomination).

This month marks the release of a special edition of Anderson’s debut feature film Bottle Rocket (1996) by The Criterion Collection, featuring deleted scenes, a commentary by Anderson and star and co-writer Owen Wilson, as well as a making-of documentary and the director’s original short upon which the comedic heist drama is based. It’s a joyful reason to revisit Anderson and Yeoman’s first collaboration, a more free-flowing affair than the films that would follow – the D.o.P. has shot every Anderson movie so far, with the exception of stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr Fox – but one with a distinct charm all of its own, filled with multiple hints toward the immaculate visual vernacular with which Anderson has since become synonymous.

The film was shot in Anderson’s native Texas and stars the then-unknown Wilson brothers as offbeat duo Dignan (Owen) and Anthony (Luke), best friends hellbent on petty crime in order to fund Dignan’s elaborate, hand-scribed 75-year plan for their future. Laugh-out-loud capers ensue, punctuated by moments of melancholy reflection and a cast of wonderfully idiosyncratic characters, including James Caan’s landscape-gardener-cum-mobster Mr Henry and the lovably inept safe-breaker Kumar (Anderson favourite, the late Kumar Pallana). Yeoman’s cinematography lends a dreamy poeticism to the tale, from its faded primary colour palette to its clever framing, which serves to elevate the already striking array of locations, spanning a motel that oozes southern Americana through an austere cold storage unit and Frank Lloyd-Wright’s modernist gem, the John Gillin Residence.

Here, in celebration of its re-release, we catch up with the 66-year-old cinematographer – also the man behind Drugstore Cowboy, The Squid and the Whale and Bridesmaids to name but a few of his D.o.P. accolades – to discover more about his path into film, how he met Anderson (it involves a handwritten letter, naturally), and the very precise construction process of the director’s brilliantly immersive worlds.

On his path into cinematography...
“My whole movie experience started as a young kid. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and on Friday nights all the kids from my town would go to the movie theatre as a social thing, so I was exposed to a lot of great movies: Hitchcock, Spaghetti Westerns, Lawrence of Arabia, Cool Hand Luke... But where I came from most people didn’t get involved in films, so I never considered it a viable career.

“I went off to university and tried out different things, but nothing was really clicking for me. Then I went to see Clockwork Orange and was so mesmerised by the world that Stanley Kubrick had created that I said, ‘I want to get involved with making films.’ I joined the university film club and discovered a lot of European films – The Conformist by Bertolucci, Truffaut – which very much influenced me, because it was a very different approach to filmmaking. I got hooked, and went to study film at the University of Southern California, which allowed me to try out directing, writing, editing, cinematography, sound. I found that cinematography was the thing I was best at, and that I really loved the most, and that’s how it all started.”

On first meeting Wes Anderson...
“Wes wrote me this handwritten, very personal letter saying – I’m paraphrasing here – “Hello Mr Yeoman, I’m Wes Anderson. I’m a big fan of yours. I wrote this movie called Bottle Rocket and I wondered if you could read it.” I read the script and I liked it so I went and met Wes and we just immediately clicked. We started talking about movies, and it seemed like the movies we loved, and the ones we didn’t love, were the same. We talked about the Bottle Rocket script and I immediately felt like this was a person I could work with. Now, of course, I consider him a very good friend. At that time I didn’t have any idea that Wes would become who he became; he was just a little skinny, 25-year-old kid making his first movie!”

On their working process...
“Wes is very precise, with a very strong vision, so we always have a long prep period ahead of shooting, and it’s been like that right from the start. We look at a lot of movies – I can’t remember exactly which ones for Bottle Rocket – just to get ideas. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the film we’re making, like we used to watch Chinatown all the time just because we both loved it.

“We go through all the shots in all the locations in advance and he storyboards everything so that when it comes to shooting, everyone has a clear idea of what it’s going to look like. Many times he’ll come to a location and find what the shot is right away, whereas most directors will figure it out on the day. It’s way more efficient because you don’t have to light the whole place, and the art department don’t need to dress it all – we know where the focus will be. He very rarely deviates from his plan.”

On figuring out the sumptuous colour palettes…
“Colour palettes are something that we work through very carefully too, of course. For instance, in my experience, dark blue always sucks up the light on film and I knew that the blazers in Rushmore were going to be too dark so I had to ask the costume designer to make them a little bit brighter; I was very unpopular! Now we always shoot a lot of tests to get it right, so with The Grand Budapest Hotel, we painted the walls of the hotel a couple of different colours and tried shooting different shades of costumes against the walls to see how it was all going to work together.”

On realising that Wes was going to hit the bigtime...
“I think Rushmore was a giant step for Wes creatively. After that, I knew he really had something special and was destined for big things. Obviously I love Bottle Rocket but at that point I didn’t know it was going to steam roll into what it became.

“I think a lot of it has to do with his growth as a filmmaker; his canvas just gets broader and broader. Like when he did Fantastic Mr Fox, for example, which I wasn’t a part of, he learnt a lot about miniatures and stop motion, which he then integrated into Grand Budapest. He’s constantly learning and growing.”

On making Rushmore...
“I loved the Rushmore script. It was a big coup for Wes to get Bill Murray and he certainly brought a lot to it. I questioned the Jason Schwartzman character at first, and whether on not the movie would find an audience, because he’s a little bit less than sympathetic sometimes. I knew that a lot rested on Jason’s shoulders and it was his first movie so, even though Wes had a lot of confidence in him, I wasn’t sure whether he was going to be able to pull it off.

“But I remember on one of the first days shooting, we filmed the dinner scene with Bill Murray, Olivia, Luke and Jason. It was a tough scene – four actors sitting on a table; Bill a big star who could have been intimidating for a young actor – but Jason just pulled it off so beautifully. It was so funny. And I knew then that it was going to be a really good movie, because he made Max relatable.”

On his favourite Anderson movie...
“I love all the films, each one is unique and different and when you do a film with Wes, you’re not just making a movie, you’re having a life adventure. I got to go to India; I’m going to Eastern Germany in January. It’s difficult to answer that but if I were to choose a favourite I’d say The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everything came together perfectly in that film.”

Bottle Rocket is out now on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection.