THERE ARE BETTER places to be a cinematographer than Chinchòn, a small town outside Madrid. Robert Yeoman found this out the hot, sweaty way while working on Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s new desert-set intergalactic adventure.
“I’m always trying to shoot everything early morning or late afternoon when the light’s really beautiful and try to avoid that harsh noonday sun. I think Wes was eager to just say, ‘Okay, let’s just embrace that this light’s kind of harsh and make that part of our film‘. It took me a little while to get on board with that, I’ll be honest.”
But as tends to happen when you’ve been working with Wes Anderson for 11 movies and 27 years, as Yeoman has, he came around to Anderson’s thinking. “Once we started doing it I would really love it,” the 72-year-old tells me over Zoom, a week ahead of the film’s release. “I understood what he was going for”.
The Anderson process is “like painting a painting, in a way”: move that prop just so, pull out some more details in the set, find a nod to an obscure film. “It just comes outta him, ultimately. He’s the conductor and we’re the instruments.”
We spoke to the veteran cinematographer about his latest project, as well the recent rise in social media tributes to his buddy, Wes.
What were the trickiest shots on Asteroid City to get right?
There’s a scene where Jeffrey Wright is giving a speech. Wes was eager to do it all in one shot, he [Wright] walks to one end of the stage and the other. So we had to make a track that would go sideways and in and out — typically you might use a steadicam or a technocrane to do a shot like that. But because Wes is so precise on the framing and compositions, even if you’re off a little bit, that’s not acceptable.
Everyone knows roughly what a Wes Anderson movie looks like, but what do you think are the key elements?
Well, one thing we always do is if we’re in a room, we find the centre. We carefully tape it out so we know we’re in the centre. Wes, when he shows up, one of the first things he’ll ask is, “Are we centred?” So that symmetry is obviously a very important thing to his style. It’s very fashionable to shoot with a very shallow depth of field, but with Wes, it’s just the opposite. He wants everything in focus. He likes doing the switch-pans and if he wants to hide a cut or something in between takes, he’s able to do that. Very vibrant colours is part of his look. But symmetry is very important, and the sets are designed for that.
Do you have a favourite sequence from your 11 films with Wes?
One of the ones I liked the most was in The Life Aquatic when Bill Murray says, “Let me tell you about my boat.” And we explore the entire boat. We rarely use them anymore, but it was a technical crane on a track. And, uh, we kind of see this room and then we boom up, and you see that room and you go across and you move down. And that was really difficult because it was totally designed to the voiceover, so we had to hit certain marks at particular times, and some of the moves were very fast. So that was a very complicated shot for us to pull off. It [the boat set] was a cutaway, I believe it was three-quarter size. I mean, it was huge.
How has the style changed since Bottle Rocket?
I think that Wes has evolved as a filmmaker. When he did those two animated movies, which I wasn’t involved in, it opened his eyes to other possibilities: we started doing more things like forced perspective and sometimes we’re shooting elements that will be incorporated with other elements [in post-production]. When we first started, everything was in-camera. That was our mantra, you know? And now there’s hundreds of visual effects, things that are done digitally in post. And he’s a master at that.
Have you seen many of the Wes Anderson TikToks?
I saw two of them. And, you know, I kind of have mixed feelings about it. I mean, they were made as an homage… you know, it’s all positive. But I just thought, Okay, okay, we’ve seen these now, you know, and I gotta be honest, I’m not into ’em.
Having seen a lot, they bring home how hard it is to make something like that look good.
That’s why he’s Wes Anderson and the rest of us aren’t! We can set up the shots without him even being there, but then when he comes, he puts the final touches on it that just make it his movie, you know? It could be rearranging props, and even on the inserts, he’s very involved in how everything goes. He brings his own magic touch to everything.
Asteroid City will be released in Australia on August 10, 2023
A version of this article originally appeared on Esquire UK