6 Design Secrets from the Set of Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch’

·6-min read
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

For design lovers, a new Wes Anderson film is a cause for celebration—and an opportunity to snatch ideas for the decor of your own home. The director is famously involved in the production design and set decoration of his nostalgia-laden movies, overseeing everything from the color schemes to the selection of furniture, art, and all the minutiae that conjure the look and feel of a bygone era. The Oscar nominee’s design eye is so beloved that it has inspired an Instagram account and coffee table book, Accidentally Wes Anderson, with crowd-sourced images of real locations so unbelievably picturesque they should be imaginary sets in his films.

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

His latest movie, The French Dispatch, transports viewers to postwar France, bringing to life a collection of stories from the final issue of a New Yorker–esque American magazine published in a fictional French city. In the movie, the real-life French town of Angoulême stands in for the imaginary village of Ennui-sur-Blasé (translation: Boredom-on-Blasé).

The movie features Bill Murray as the Kansas-born editor of the French Dispatch, alongside an ensemble cast including Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, and Benicio del Toro. But perhaps the biggest star of all is the epic set, which will no doubt spawn a run on vintage French decor. We spoke with the film’s production designer Adam Stockhausen and set decorator Rena DeAngelo to get the inside scoop on how they achieved that Frenchified Anderson look.

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

They Riffed on Classic Movies

At the start of every production, Anderson gives his team a list of movies to watch for design cues. For The French Dispatch, they looked to The Red Balloon—the 1956 short in which postwar Paris, shown as peeling and gray, comes to life in the form of a bouquet of brilliant-colored balloons. “We loved the jewel tones and pops of color,” says Stockhausen, who blended black and white scenes in the film with others in a retro palette. “Especially the citron, which we used for a bright yellow café, Le Sans Blague. Then we started bleeding yellow everywhere, from the cars to the storefronts. And then other jewel tones like greens, burgundies, and dark blues started creeping in.”

Other films on Anderson’s inspiration list for The French Dispatch: Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (the tottering office building that houses the magazine is a reference to Monsieur Hulot’s run-down house in that film), Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jean Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, ’50s era noir The Sweet Smell of Success, and the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday. “It’s a great list,” DeAngelo says.

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

They Shopped Actual French Fleas—and Not Just in Paris

DeAngelo spent six months scouring the antiques shops and flea markets of France for everything from furniture to vintage copper pans for the scene in which a food writer (Jeffrey Wright) profiles a legendary police station chef (Stephen Park) for the magazine. The set decorator started shopping at the Saint Ouen flea market in Paris but quickly figured out the smaller markets where the big city vendors were sourcing their goods. “We had a budget so we had to find deals,” she says, “and we found them in out-of-the-way markets in places like Le Mans and Chartres that my amazing French crew knew about.” She also hit “the big brocante in Bordeaux at the Place des Quinconces in November,” and in Angoulême she discovered Denis Gargoulie, an estate liquidator, with an enormous warehouse filled with French antiques.

Some of it even made it back to the States: “I came home with a lot of very heavy vintage French linen,” DeAngelo says, “plus a pair of leather bergères and the Victorian sofa in the Cadazio Gallery scene, which one day I will upholster in a jewel-toned velvet—but for now is sitting in my garage.”

Photo credit: Rena DeAngelo
Photo credit: Rena DeAngelo

They Sourced Turned and Barley-Twist Furniture Galore

“We kept finding these tables in flea markets over and over that had a barley-twist detail on the legs,” Stockhausen says. “Wes kept liking them, and they just kept popping up in the film. They’re everywhere if you start looking for them.” At the magazine office, all of the writers’ desks have turned legs. And the barley twist even makes an appearance on an electric chair in a comically macabre prison scene featuring a long-incarcerated artist played by Benicio del Toro.

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

They Studied Vintage Lighting

In addition to looking to old films for inspiration, DeAngelo collected vintage photos of postwar France and studied them for the details that would lend atmosphere to her set decor. “I noticed the lighting in cafés and offices, and we were able to find so many perfect vintage French fixtures,” she says. “Fluorescent lighting and industrial pendants give the sets a feeling of authenticity—when you watch the film, look for them especially in the police station sets and in the cafés.”

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

They Went Small—Dollhouse Small

If the sets of The French Dispatch have a storybook feel, it’s because many of them were shot in miniature—a classic Anderson device. Stockhausen creates dollhouse-size sets and blends them with life-size sets, which were shot on location in the town of Angoulême, or fabricated on a massive soundstage outside of town in a former felt factory. “The propmaker Simon Weisse in Berlin has been building miniatures for us for several films now,” says Stockhausen, who collaborated with Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, and Isle of Dogs (and he just wrapped filming on Asteroid City, Anderson’s upcoming movie shot in Spain.) “We sketch them out, and Simon creates a fully miniature construction. We mix the miniatures with full-scale scenery. For example, on the French Dispatch building, we built all the shops down below full size, but the top of the building and the sign are in miniature. And for the airplane scenes [with Tilda Swinton], we designed the whole airplane, then selected a piece of the main cabin to make as a full-size set, and the rest was a miniature.”

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

They Painted by Feel—Not Number

Sad to say, getting the color scheme of a Wes Anderson movie isn’t an off-the-shelf affair. That said, he and his team end up at the perfect palette the way the rest of us do: by trying out paint swatches on location. “There is no paint book where you pick a number,” Stockhausen says. “You just sort of feel it and make a sample and look at it and live with it for a few days to see if you really like it. Then you give it a go. And part of the process is getting it wrong and doing it again.”


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