Let’s not lie to ourselves… we all want to live in one of Wes Anderson’s picture-perfect, super-symmetrical, over-saturated worlds.
The eccentric writer/director always fully immerses audiences in his incredible idiosyncratic stories — whether that’s the glory of The Grand Budapest, the depths of the oceans with Steve Zissou, or an island about to be hit by a massive storm.
If you’re aspiring to the same storytelling levels as the King of Quirk (as I’m dubbing him), look no further than these 6 writing tips from Mr. Anderson himself.
No Conflict, No Story
“There’s no story if there isn’t some conflict. The memorable things are usually not how pulled together everybody is. I think everybody feels lonely and trapped sometimes. I would think it’s more or less the norm.”
The characters in Wes Anderson’s movies are far from perfect — they lie, cheat, steal, run away, argue, kidnap, manipulate, and all manner of questionable things. They’re messy. And that messiness causes natural conflict between characters, which is exactly what you want as a screenwriter. To make your story stronger, let the characters be their messy selves and all sorts of interesting conflict will ensue.
Embrace How Personal It Is
“The movies I make tend not to be quite reality, but the characters are inspired by real people and they’re always very personal.”
Writers have this well-known joke something along the lines of: “Don’t act poorly if you don’t want it in my story.” As trite as it may sound, it’s entirely true. We writers tend to pull from our own lives, especially when it comes to the people we know and the characters we create.
But this Wes Anderson quote hints at something important. Even though some characters are inspired by real people, they’re still characters. And if you’ve created a unique, interesting character, chances are they’ll take on a life of their own. Steve Zissou may be based on Jacques Cousteau or Wes Anderson’s uncle, but at the end of the day… he’s Steve Zissou. And that’s all that really matters.
Don’t Worry About Theme
“I wanna just think about the experience of the movie. I feel like, as soon as I reduce it to a theme, once I write that sentence, it won’t be that great. I feel like there’s more potential for it to mean something interesting if I’m not forcing it to mean something I’ve already decided.”
As a screenwriter, it’s so easy to get caught up and swept away by the ever-bothersome current of theme. What does your story mean? Wes Anderson, however, prefers not to even think about it. Instead of focusing on what a movie is about thematically, he obsesses over the characters, their feelings and actions, and how they’re going to express themselves.
Anderson understands that no matter how much you want to control what a movie means, you can’t. Every audience member watches with their own preconceived notions and life experiences. Every viewer will walk away with their own idea of what the movie means. Better to focus on bringing the story to life than trying to control what the audience will think.
Don’t Bother Picking a Genre
“All the movies that I’ve made have been movies that aren’t entirely comedies. Halfway through the movie, there’s a shift. It turns into something darker, I guess.”
It’s tough to describe a Wes Anderson movie. His stories seem to evade categorization — they’re oddly funny, full of heart, sometimes sad, occasionally melancholic, and usually feature a distinct color palette everyone will obsess over for months. They don’t easily fit into our standard genres. But that’s okay. Wes Anderson knows what his stories are and he doesn’t care that they can’t be described as wholly “Drama” or “Comedy.” The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
Let Yourself into Your Writing
“There’s some degree to which whatever is coming from my imagination is inspired by my background and my own psychology. Without me controlling it or choosing to, I’m in the movies.”
A writer’s fingerprint is on every page of a script. Not literally, obviously, but each writer brings their own individual tone, style, and personality to the words that fill the white space. And, as Anderson points out, whether we choose to or not, we’re in the stories we write. So instead of trying to leave yourself out of the script, embrace that you’ll be on every page. I think Wes Anderson himself has proved over and over again that this is nothing but a good thing.
Follow the Story
“If I feel like I have an idea of what the best thing is for the story, I just want to follow that.”
At the end of the day, your writer’s instinct about a story is better than anyone else’s. After all, it’s your story to tell. If you’re curious about something, want to follow an interesting thread, or see what happens if you throw your characters into a new situation, do it!
Wes Anderson follows his characters in search of elusive aquatic animals, through vicious lightning storms, to islands full of trash and deported dogs, and across continents, countries, and oceans. Take a page out of the King of Quirk’s book, chase your story wherever it wants to go, and see what happens.