Rachael Kaines chats with cinematographer Robert Yeoman about working with Wes Anderson…
It’s been two decades since the release of Wes Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996) and a lot has changed for the people involved. The film follows Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) as they fail to pull off various ill-conceived heists, then go on the run. The film was written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson and is full of hints of what would come to define Wes Anderson’s movies.
The film also marked the beginning of a long-running collaboration between Anderson and Robert Yeoman, the cinematographer for Bottle Rocket, who has now directed the photography of every live-action Anderson film. Robert was approached to do the cinematography on Bottle Rocket by Wes, who sent him a hand-written note asking him to read the script (Yeoman had done the cinematography for Drugstore Cowboy, a film that Anderson admired), and the rest is history.
This month Bottle Rocket is released on Blu-ray, a special edition full of extras. Flickering Myth spoke to Robert about his work with Wes Anderson, what excites him about his job, and memorable sibling fights from the set of Bottle Rocket.
It’s been two decades since Bottle Rocket was released, how have you developed as a cinematographer since then?
Since then I’ve certainly shot a lot more films, and I think the more films you shoot the more experience you have. I think that it’s a sum of all those things so having shot a lot more films and having been put in a lot of situations that I can, I’m a better cinematographer, I can quickly assess what needs to be done, whats the fastest easiest way to do it and best way to do it. I think when you’re younger you’re often kind of stumbling a little bit, trying to find a solution to whatever you’re presented with, as you get more experienced they’re much more readily apparent to you.
Did you have any inkling, when working on Bottle Rocket, that it might be the start of a long-term collaboration between yourself and Wes Anderson?
You know when I met Wes we immediately hit it off and I genuinely like him as a person and certainly at that time no one had any idea that he would become what he’s become. But we kind of just clicked creatively and saw things similarly and it allowed us to work in a seamless way, where there wasn’t a lot of discussion, I kind of can anticipate the things he has in mind. He’s a director who has a very clear vision of what his film can be, and generally I share the same vision with him. We do so much prep on every movie, and once we finish with that prep we have a pretty good idea of what the movie should be and what he’s going for, and I try to support that as best I can. But at the time I don’t think I knew that this was going to turn into what it has, I’m not sure anybody did. I guess all i can say is lucky for me.
What is your favourite film you’ve worked on with Wes Anderson?
Every Wes movie is an adventure, it’s not just making a movie, they’re all unique in their own way, we went to India, we went to Italy, we did The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums in New York, each one is very unique, so it’s difficult for me to pick one. I think it would be The Grand Budapest Hotel if I did, it was a beautiful experience, filming in east Germany during winter.
Wes Anderson movies have such a distinctive style, and obviously you’re a huge part of that. Was there any particular point that you became aware of how unique the style is?
Well Wes does have a very unique style, people can easily identify a film as a Wes film, there are certain visual things that go on that are clearly a Wes Anderson film. It became more and more pronounced, I wouldn’t say there was a particular moment, though. It had started right from the beginning, and certainly as Wes matured as a filmmaker, certain elements have been passed along to every movie. So it’s been an ongoing process, really. But right from the beginning there were certain elements that I knew were identifiable as a Wes Anderson film.
What most excites you about your job, if you’re on set what makes you most excited to get out of bed each morning?
Well I love doing what I consider good shots. That means setting up the camera, doing a camera move, lighting them, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. At the end of the day, if I can walk away and say “wow we did some really great shots”, that’s what I live for. It’s also very exciting for me when you’re on set, I tend to operate most of the movies, and actors giving a really fantastic performance and when we shoot film, I feel fortunate because I was the first one to see it, because I was looking through the viewfinder, the film camera, and it was always such a thrill for me when something amazing was going on in front of the cameras, I get a certain amount of adrenaline out of that.
I just enjoy the camaraderie on the set between the crew and the actors and just the whole process, to me it’s something that I very much value and generally, almost every time, the crew has been like my family. I just finished six months in England on a movie and my crew was wonderful, they’re like a family, you forge really strong relationships with people because you’re working really intensely over several months for long hours, and you get to see people at their best and their worst, you really get to know people quite well. It’s a combination of not only doing really nice work with the camera and the lighting, but also the camaraderie of the crew, and hanging out with the crew, and watching the great performances of the actors as well, I get satisfaction out of all those things.
Is there any particular day or moment from filming Bottle Rocket that sticks in your memory?
I remember that very early on Wes and I decided to shoot the whole film on one lens, which was a 27mm lens, and when the studio found out they came to us and said you’re not allowed to do that, you have to use other lens. So on the camera reports we put 15mm, 100mm, etc, even though we were shooting 27 for the whole movie. I remember one day the production manager came to me and said I see you’re using different lenses now, and I said oh yeah we’re mixing it up, and it was still the same lens the entire movie. So it just shows what they know I guess.
Luke, and Owen, and Andrew Wilson, the three brothers who were in the film, they’re such a fun group to hang out with, there’s a certain amount of bantering that goes on between them every day, because they’re all so tight. I really enjoyed that, the three of them, even going at each other in a fun way and they’re very competitive. They’re very athletic, I remember we used to play basketball every Sunday and one time Luke and Owen got in a fight, and it was a sunday and I was watching the two of them getting into a fight, and I thought oh great, our two stars are getting in a fight. There was never a dull moment when they were around, that was for sure.
Bottle Rocket is out now on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection. The special edition includes commentary from Luke Wilson and Wes Anderson, eleven deleted scenes, a documentary on the making of the movie, and the original short the movie was based on.
Many thanks to Robert Yeoman for taking the time for this interview.