Set Design

Go Behind the Scenes of Wes Anderson’s New Film, The French Dispatch

Production designer Adam Stockhausen and set decorator Rena DeAngelo share how they transformed an entire town in France for the star-studded movie
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The French Dispatch hits theaters on October 22.Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Fans of Wes Anderson know that, if you keep your eyes peeled and your imagination open, you can find pieces of his colorful, fantastical onscreen universe in everyday life. The Oscar nominee’s latest film, The French Dispatch, is proof of this: It was shot on location in Angoulême, France, where the topography and architecture was camera-ready to stand in for the quirky fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.

Production designer Adam Stockhausen and his team first embarked on what he calls “Google scouting,” to find the perfect location. “We just sort of go to Google Maps and drop the little yellow guy and start walking the streets and looking around,” he tells AD. “We looked all over, and then kind of started to narrow that down into a list of different towns that looked promising.” Scouts were then sent to take pictures and, after Stockhausen and his team visited a shortlist of places, they settled on Angoulême, a city known for its annual comic book festival that sits on a plateau about five hours southwest of Paris and two hours northeast of Bordeaux.

“We had such tremendous access, it was really incredible,” says Stockhausen of shooting in Angoulême. This scene was built in a parking lot, and it depicts the backside of the French Dispatch office.

Courtesy of Searchlight

For reasons that may very well have made it unusable for another director, Angoulême was perfect for Anderson’s story about The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, a magazine started by a Kansas-born expatriate named Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (played by Bill Murray) that publishes long-form news and culture stories and is loosely based on The New Yorker. “There’s this road that wraps around, and around, and around as it goes [uphill], and then these roads that crisscross that. It makes for these really incredible nooks and crannies, and twists and turns, which Wes was exploiting constantly,” Stockhausen says.

The film is comprised of four vignettes, each telling a story from what is to be the last-ever issue of The French Dispatch. First is a travelogue highlighting the underbelly of Ennui-sur-Blasé by cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson.) Next, a story by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about the life of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro and Tony Revolori), an incarcerated painter who is discovered by a fellow inmate and art dealer played by Adrien Brody. The artist Sandro Kopp, Swinton’s partner, created Rosenthaler’s abstract paintings, including a series of large frescoes he paints on the prison walls. Kopp called the experience “the most challenging and also the most satisfying thing I have done in my life so far. I arrived in Angoulême knowing that I had two-and-a-half months to create 10 massive paintings that had to look like a genius had worked on them for three years.” Pieces of local culture also made it into the prison scenery: Artisanal pottery was used as props for an inmate art class, and the prisoners padded around in the felt slippers, or Charentaises, traditionally made in the area.

The chairs and tables at Le Sans Blague café were sourced by set decorator Rena DeAngelo from a prop house called Les 2 Ailleurs and other places in Paris. She had the coffee cups made in Limoges, a city known for its porcelain. 

Courtesy of Searchlight

In the third act, a journalist played by Frances McDormand pens a story about a student-led revolution in the late 1960s that is based on true events. Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri play the leaders of the young rebels, who congregate at Le Sans Blague café. To communicate how he wanted this part to look, Anderson sent the cast reference material which included French New Wave films like The 400 Blows and multiple works by Jean-Luc Godard. 

Last but not least, Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright) shares what was supposed to be a story about a famous chef played by Stephen Park, but turns into a thrilling, frenzied scene involving a kidnapping. For this, Anderson gave a nod to Angoulême’s comic book culture by incorporating an animated scene done entirely by local illustrators.

The office of Jeffery Wright’s character “was hard to figure out until we watched [his] performance for a few days and it took shape,” DeAngelo says. “It is nothing fancy, but still a well-curated collection of French antiques and modern art.” The furniture is from prop houses and a flea market in the city of Le Mans, where DeAngelo would go shopping once a month during filming.

Courtesy of Searchlight

All of this is framed by scenes showing Howitzer’s eclectic stable of writers as they congregate in his yellow office (drawings by the magazine’s illustrator adorn the walls and, above the door, Howitzer’s number one rule is posted: no crying), attempting to compose his obituary. He’s just died of a heart attack, and his will stipulates that the magazine will cease to exist after his passing. 

The four short stories from the final issue paint a picture of the kind of journalism Howitzer championed—and the result is vivd. Stockhausen estimates that it took “north of 125” sets to tell the tales, most of which were constructed on location all around Angoulême. Others came to life inside of a former felt factory that was converted into a makeshift movie studio. 

The desk and chair in Howitzer’s office came from a local estate liquidator in Angoulême named Denis Gargaulie. “He had a huge warehouse of wonderful French antique furniture, art, accessories, and rugs. So much of the furniture in the movie came from here,” DeAngelo says.

 Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“We have a bit of a history of finding a nontraditional space to build sets and to work in,” Stockhausen says, noting that, when he worked on Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom, they built the sets inside a former Linens N Things in a Middletown, Rhode Island, strip mall. “I think that the process of designing the film [was] so much about puzzle solving and trying to figure out how to make something from nothing.”