Here's what you need to know about Asteroid City, courtesy of Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson's newest film is almost here…and he's helping set the stage for his 11th outing.
The trailer for Asteroid City showed a group of characters assembling in a fictional American desert town circa 1955 for a convention of astronomy-minded students. But if you look closely at the poster, you'll see that the title Asteroid City is technically in quotation marks. That's because, as with several of Anderson's recent films, the surface-level narrative of Asteroid City is actually nestled within a framing device — that desert adventure is a story within a story.
Similar to how the chapters of The French Dispatch are presented as articles from the titular magazine and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Russian nesting doll of a TV interview about a book based on another person's dinner-table recollections of their younger days, Asteroid City is actually a movie about a play.
"It has a frame, which I always think of as a device from 19th-century novels like Joseph Conrad or something," Anderson tells EW. "I guess it goes back much further. But in our case, the story we're telling is a play, and we are both telling the story of the making of the play, and also the story of the play itself. The making of the play is about people who tell stories."
Helpfully, these two aspects of Asteroid City are distinguished by color. The movie starts in black-and-white, with a Rod Serling-esque TV presenter (Bryan Cranston) narrating a documentary about the making of the fictional play Asteroid City and the history of its distinguished playwright (Edward Norton). Then, in color, viewers experience the Asteroid City play, about a gathering of brilliant young Junior Stargazers and their parents — including a grief-stricken widower (Jason Schwartzman) who needs help from his wealthy father-in-law (Tom Hanks) to manage his rambunctious kids while he falls for the beautiful actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who also happens to be in town with her son.
The movie then flips back and forth between these two narratives as it goes. Some members of the cast, like Schwartzman and Johansson, are playing multiple roles, as both the characters in Asteroid City and the actors who are performing the play in a New York theater.
"I wanted the idea of the actors to be a part of these characters," Anderson explains. "So each of the characters is both an actor and the character they're playing. In real life, I feel like the actor often puts much of himself or herself into the role. What I intended is that the people telling the story are a part of the story, and they're taking everything from their lives that they do and don't understand and trying to make something out of it and find answers — or at least explore the right questions."
Anderson certainly has a lot of experience working with actors. Some of the names on Asteroid City's star-studded cast list (such as Schwartzman and Norton) have appeared in many of Anderson's films over the years, while others (like Hanks and Steve Carell) are brand new to the director's distinct cinematic world. There's clearly a spirit of collaboration between those groups. Johansson recently told EW that Schwartzman — who made his film debut as the protagonist of Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore — was very helpful with her on Asteroid City.
"The great thing about working with people again and again is that you know how to talk to each other. You're comfortable with each other already," Anderson says. "Also, many of the people I've worked with again are some of my favorite actors ever. There's every reason to have good actors come back, and the best one is that they say yes and want to return, but on every movie, there's some new people and it's always a great excitement to have them."
Anderson continues, "I feel like the new people enjoy coming into our existing company and seeing, 'How do you guys do it?' Every movie has a whole different way of working, and I always feel like the actors are talking to each other and bringing the people who haven't worked with me or with our group before into it. They're telling them what to expect. In this case, with Asteroid City, it's one of the best casts I've ever had in any movie. I had a great time working with this group of people."
Anderson is famously a cinephile, and anyone interested in doing some homework viewing ahead of Asteroid City should know that the director lists 1936's The Petrified Forest (starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart) and 1955's Bad Day at Black Rock as inspirations for his new film's desert scenes — as well as John Ford's Westerns and Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.
"We wanted to do something that related to postwar America, and all of that seemed connected to this sort of desert setting," Anderson says.
Even with all these references swimming around in his brain, Anderson and his collaborators have crafted a visually distinct film that couldn't have been made by anyone else. The unique look of his films has become the subject of renewed interest on social media lately, as TikTok users make their lives look like Anderson movies. Although Anderson acknowledges "TikTok is not my area," he's well aware of how popular perception of his movies can change over time.
"When you make a movie, you can't help but pay attention to how it's being received, because you hope it's going great and you know when it's not," Anderson says. "You make a movie and at first it gets whatever reaction it gets, and that's just what it is. But in time, some of the movies have a different kind of life; they sort of go off on their own and people rediscover them, or not."
When it comes to Asteroid City, Anderson says, "I have a funny feeling that this movie might be one that benefits from seeing it twice. When somebody doesn't like a movie, it isn't exactly their first instinct to say, 'I'll watch it again.' But you might have to see it once just to get the whole idea of it. Then, the second time, you might be able to just experience it more than the first time — if there is a second time."
Asteroid City opens June 16 in New York and Los Angeles, before expanding to theaters everywhere on June 23.
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