French Dispatch, The: Set Design Is All About the Feeling of Places

Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen on creating 130 sets in the town of Angoulême for the new film.

As the architect of Anderson’s worlds, Stockhausen’s work on the film was all about the details. “I don’t think I am breaking any news here that Wes likes arranged symmetrical frames, but that is not the starting point,” the Oscar-winning designer says.

“When we talk about the story, it’s all about the feeling of the places and the history, and how to get the details just right because that is the way he works. His style is not only about the color choices and the layout of the objects, but also the lens he chooses and the way the cameras move.”

The film — with an ensemble cast that includes Bill Murray, Elisabeth Moss, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet and Owen Wilson — marks their sixth collaboration. They have created movie magic at a camp in New England (Moonrise Kingdom), an opulent Old-World hotel in Germany (Grand Budapest Hotel), and an animated Japanese-influenced canine haven (Isle of Dogs).

Stockhausen notes, “The longer we know each other, the more times we work together, the better the shorthand becomes. When he is describing something on a storyboard, instead of four or five follow-up questions, you kind of get it right away. We were moving very quickly on this film, so the shorthand makes it all possible.”

Lazy loaded image
Chosen via a Google search, the French town of Angoulême doubles as the fictitious Ennui-sur-Blasé. COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

Filmic Inspirations

Creating the four editorial vignettes from American magazine’s final issue, based in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, Stockhausen looked to French New Wave films, Orson Welle’s The TrialIrma La Douce, classic short The Red BalloonMon Oncle and Jean Renoir for inspiration.

Lazy loaded image
Wes Anderson (left) and Adam Stockhausen on the set of “The French Dispatch” SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

A Google Earth search led the team to the southwestern town of Angoulême, which was ideal with its ancient architecture, the twists and turns of the narrow streets and the vertical stacking of the spaces and an old felt factory that doubled as a film studio.

“The goal was to create Paris, but not the real Paris, just the movie version,” Stockhausen details of the 50s and 60s period. Pre-Hausmann photographs of Charles Marville and Paris of filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle) provided the nostalgic look.

The 20-minute stories include:

a student revolution (“Revisions to a Manifesto”);

an imprisoned painter and his prison guard muse (“Concrete Masterpiece”);

a crime mystery (“The Private Dining Room of a Police Commissioner);

a “The Cycling Reporter.”

This meant 130 sets where every shot called for different set-up with its own visual look. Stockhausen did a deep dive into the animatic process and then designed the different pieces of the story, followed by the scouting process.

“The challenges were to do many different things at one time,” he says. “It was a flat out-run trying to do the turnaround from one set to another.”

Lazy loaded image

Set decorator Rena DeAngelo scoured the basements of Angoulême and flea markets from Paris to Le Mans for period set pieces.

Anderson friend German artist Sandro Kopp designed ten abstract frescoes for the “Concrete Masterpiece.”

An international French police trade magazine from the ’30s to the ’60s set the tone for the crime story.

Lazy loaded image
“The French Dispatch” cast. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL







Color comes into play with black and white still life scenes of the actors frozen in time and the intense bright yellow storefronts and colorful Citroen vehicles.

The movie is meant to be Anderson’s French love letter to his adopted country.

Behind the scenes, the success is attributed to a familiar team. As Stockhausen says, “We make movies and go to a place to hunker down away from the studios and live together. The result is each film is an intense special experience, so I have all these great memories and they are so different from each other.”

Lazy loaded image
Director Wes Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen selected the town for its ancient architecture, scenic bridges and “nooks and crannies,” says Stockhausen. SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES