Like a dream, Asteroid City is a mix of ideas and places

Asteroid City is a new kind of Wes Anderson creation. “I do always feel that a movie for me is not just one idea,” writer-director Wes Anderson says. “It’s sort of at least two sort of separate things that come together and start to become a movie.”

Instantly familiar in feeling and mood, Asteroid City is a dreamlike place to contemplate the universe: love and loneliness, grief and hope, the meaning of life (and death). Anderson always takes us places we have never been before, with astounding detail and scale, but the essence of his world building is always rooted in the individuals who populate it. Anderson takes us on a journey to the desert, but the roads to the destination connect two sides of Americana in the 1950s: the theater and the West.

“I do always feel that a movie for me is not just one idea,” Anderson says. “It’s sort of at least two sort of separate things that come together and start to become a movie.”  The first idea conceived by Anderson and Roman Coppola began in the east metropolis, but soon pointed elsewhere. “I wanted to do a theater movie.  I was thinking of it like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward…And we had an idea of doing a making-of-the-play that they’re working on… we were calling “Automat”, and it was going to be set entirely in an Automat. The other thing we were sort of talking about was something kind of Sam Shepard….So we shifted out of “Automat” and into the desert.”

The worlds of stage of screen were also under the literal and figurative clouds of the Cold War. An era of heightened political anxiety dovetailed with fears about falling missiles, and the pop-culture explosion of fascination of aliens and other interplanetary visitors.  From nuclear bombs to Martian invasions, adults and children, everyone looked to the skies. Anderson: “There’s some quality that connects those things, something about the Eisenhower era and it’s xenophobia.”

It was not long before artists – actors and directors specifically – many of whom, such as Elia Kazan, who were deeply inspired by Russian acting methods, began their career mixing politics and art in the Group Theatre.

(L to R) Writer/director Wes Anderson, actor Jason Schwartzman and actor Tom Hanks on the set of ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Roger Do Minh/Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

 Asteroid City is a story of people in a certain moment of history, and Anderson asks himself, “What emotionally is underneath the Actors Studio? What is happening to them? When you set a movie at this time: what’s the America that we’re trying to write about?”

Asteroid City, more than any film Wes Anderson has made, is steeped in the history and myths of two poles of 1950s Americana: the West and Broadway, each with their own heroes and legends.  It is still a time of Westward expansion and land speculators, sweeping further and further into the desert. Against a backdrop of post-war paranoia, closely guarded nuclear secrets, and great invention, Americans begin to look to the stars. Perhaps it will be a young Junior Stargazer who contributes at NASA, a decade and a half hence, when we first walk on the moon. In 1955, a feeling permeated the world of engineering and science: anything and everything is possible.

This exact sentiment, the desire to build new worlds, was as strongly felt on earth, in the arts. A revolution that began on stage in the 1930s and 1940s was reaching bloom by the 1950s, in the plays of Tennessee Williams and with stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando.  As much as any of the plays that were written, films made, and the roles inhabited by iconic stars during this period, it is the real lives of the people who made these great works that tell the story of mid-century America.  It is these people we meet while they perform in “Asteroid City.” The town may be close-to-nowhere, but it is Asteroid City, the film, where we peek backstage at the actors in and out of character, and where Broadway meets the West.

Wistful characters often appear in Wes Anderson’s films: Richie, Margot and Chas Tenenbaum longing to connect with their father, or the brothers looking for their mother in The Darjeeling Limited. In Asteroid City, Augie Steenbeck faces fatherhood without his beloved partner, forced to make peace with his father-in-law and form a new family unit, and, when he can work up the guts, tell his children that their mother has passed away, but that they have been driving for days with her ashes in the tupperware.

A young love will blossom, a scientist will offer her mentorship to a remarkable pupil, a widower and divorcee will find connection for a few nights – everyone will have the trajectory of their future life just ever-so-slightly adjusted. As always in his work, empathy will exist between filmmaker and audience, Asteroid City clung to their hearts.

(L to R) Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak, Hope Davis as Sandy Borden, Tony Revolori as Aide-de-Camp, and Liev Schreiber as J.J. Kellogg in writer/director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City is a dot-on-the-map desert town in the American Southwest. The year is 1955. The town’s most famous attraction is a gigantic meteor crater and celestial observatory nearby. This weekend, the military and astronomers are welcoming five science award-winning children to display their inventions. Not far away, over the hills, mushroom clouds from atomic tests are seen.

The scene has been set for Wes Anderson’s newest film, both a rollicking comedy, dazzling in creation, and packed to the brim with images for one to dart their eyes to and from, and also as deeply felt as any of Anderson’s previous works.

What begins as a celebration to honor the achievements of the Junior Stargazers receives an unexpected visitor: an alien. Asteroid City is locked down and a fake cover story is concocted by the Army, but the precocious geniuses, in a way that calls to mind the youngsters of Spielberg classics, have a plan to get the word to the outside world.

Yet, in Anderson’s inimitable way, the story is bigger than that. Back east, the characters of Asteroid City are on-stage, preparing a play that is called “Asteroid City.”  It is here that we venture backstage and into the lives of performers circa 1955.  Theater actors polishing their craft, soon to become stars.

As funny as any of Anderson’s works, to be sure, but more cosmic; an inward, personal examination of complex family relationships and new romances, parents and children, secrets, discoveries, and outwitting adults; the wide West and gray East, all in a perfect emotional balance that no one can strike better than Wes Anderson.

Star Gazing

Like a dream, the movie is a mix of ideas and places. It starts in black-and-white on a studio set that recalls shows from television’s Golden Age, like Playhouse 90—basically Broadway on TV—which showcased live teleplays directed by John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, and featured stars like Lee Cobb and James Dean. And at that time, no theatrical outfit was more renowned than the Actors Studio, where legends like Dean, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger studied under Kazan and Lee Strasberg. For so many actors of this generation (along with future filmmakers and screenwriters), the leap from stage to movie screen included a stop on these televised dramas.

“When I started wanting to make movies, this period was the center of everything,” says Anderson. “We were watching The Godfather and Taxi Driver and Brian De Palma. But, maybe even more: Marlon Brando and James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Kazan. The emotion of this period of movies and their relationship to the stage. This block of movies I’m talking about which maybe sort of begins with A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams is a big voice of this urgency and the wounded whatever-it-is of these characters.”

(L to R) Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Ethan Lee, Aristou Meehan, and Sophia Lillis in writer/director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, released by Focus Features. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

The theater is deeply embedded in Anderson’s storytelling. The communal, improvisational sets, the vocabulary of an unmistakable visual ballet, a literal stage for working out the unresolvable. As seen in Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket: about a pair of aspiring criminals with a penchant for theatrical heists; or with Max Fischer in Rushmore and Margot Tenenbaum in the Royal Tenenbaums, theater is a device for processing internal dramas; before we dive into The Life Aquatic, the story begins on stage.

Anderson began writing one-acts in 4th grade; years later he met Owen Wilson in a playwriting seminar, and cast him in one of his college plays, a riff on Sam Shepard called A Night in Tunisia. “I love Sam Shepard, I’ve always loved Sam Shepard,” he says. “Owen and I were really quite fixated on Sam Shepard before we made our first movie together. This guy was a big part of our lives at that time. I remember reading something about him talking about these men who had come back from the Second World War, and they were never the same, these violent and disturbed fathers. What he grew up with.”

That love for Sam Shephard would become the inspiration for the character of Augie Steenbeck. Augie too has been to the battlefield, not as a soldier, but rather as a war photographer. Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley, despite being a man of leisure, carries a pistol, a handle peeking above his waistband.  In an interview with journalist Matt Zoller Seitz, Anderson suggests that maybe this habit of Stanley’s, like other men of his time, began at war and continued into domestic life. It is precisely the kind of detail that Anderson integrates so seamlessly into his work: attention is never called to it, no explanation is ever offered, yet its deliberate placement tells us about the character in a second what elsewhere would be belabored with a lengthy explanation of purpose.

In 1955, the war still permeated a country full of veterans, their families and children. Anderson notes “Something is happening where middle-America has gone out into the world and they’ve come back damaged.  Wounded and desperate and lost, and clashing with the country club surface the country wishes to have and protect.  It’s two sides of the railroad tracks.”  Though not explosively charged, and played delicately by Schwartzman and Hanks, this sentiment is evident between Augie and Stanley, who never thought his son-in-law was good enough for his daughter.  However, unlike many Hollywood melodramas of the period, there is no great tragedy, and because of their shared devotion to the four children, they remain a family.

(L to R) Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

It is Schwartzman, their longtime collaborator, that Anderson and Coppola knew had to be the center of the film. “The movie was written for Jason,” says Anderson. “Here’s a character Jason has never played before, which draws on facets of what we know he is and what he can do, and we build a whole movie around it.” Schwartzman has often been part of their writing process, and recalls when Anderson first proposed it. “Basically he said, ‘I’ve got an idea, and I want to work on it with Roman because I want you to be in it, and I think that it would be best if the two of us wrote it and prepared it, and then you could read it as one whole thing.’” 

He was eager to jump in. “The pandemic begins, so even more, it’s a time of such chaos and uncertainty and confusion,” says Schwartzman, “so to have this thing that I’m gonna potentially make out there with Wes was almost like the lighthouse in the fog of all of that. I don’t even know what it is yet—it just is the lighthouse. That’s all I know. And it really was helpful to have that. I feel very grateful for that.”

Soon, the character of Augie Steenbeck and the actor who plays him, Jonas Hall, both portrayed in the film by Schwartzman, began to take shape.  As Schwartzman revealed during a recent interview, he listened to audio of Stanley Kubrick, wanting to capture a clenched jaw tone of speech, and purchased a darkroom for his home.  Some visual references will be more obvious to viewers, such as when Jones is seen with his sweater pulled over his chin, a nod to Roy Schatt’s legendary “Torn Sweater” series of James Dean portraits.

But Anderson finds his cast in some unexpected places, and sometimes the connection to the young inventors is too good to ignore.  In the case of  Aristou Meehan, who plays Clifford, Anderson found online, “We knew about him because he had done this YouTube video where he’d built these robotic arms.He had submitted himself into the auditioning process, but for me, the main thing was the video of him doing these octopus-type robotic arms. I said, ‘Oh! We should find out who this is.’”

Grappling with the unknown—the grief of death and the fear of aliens, of new experiences, art and invention—this is what happens in Asteroid City. 

Just as Schwartzman thought of Kubrick, another cosmic meditation from the middle of the century also comes to mind. In 2001, Kubrick, says Anderson, “tells us a story, but he gives us an experience we don’t necessarily understand every step of the way. He puts us in a place where we have never even remotely been.”The references to Close Encounters are hardly oblique, in fact deliberate nods of inspiration.  Be it from a rock formation that resembles The Devil’s Tower, or the character’s life changing encounter with an alien from outer space and the subsequent fake military cover story to keep the residents of Asteroid City quarantined. There is also a larger Spielbergian feeling that infuses the scenes of children outmaneuvering the authorities to get word of the alien out to the world. 

Asteroid City takes us on a similar journey. “Ultimately, I hope somebody had the experience watching the movie where all this stuff that swirls around it is interesting, and enhances it, and informs it. But hopefully the thing itself, the kind of movie it is, we’re aiming for something a little more in the vein of a poem. That’s sort of our goal. A poetic meditation on something or other. There certainly isn’t a genre we can put it in.”

Close Encounters

In Asteroid City, the alien encounter is a moment of wonder and confusion. (Not unlike, in its way, the loss of a partner or a parent.) Augie can take a photo, proving it’s real; but a picture offers no explanation or comprehension. And yet, their lives are changed. All Augie can muster is: “I think the Alien stole the Asteroid.”

The appearance of the Alien—as one would expect it to!—causes an emergency in Asteroid City. Scientists debate, the military mobilizes, a quarantine begins. But these measures, ultimately, are less important than what the sighting does to the people who witnessed it, leaving themperplexed, enchanted, and newly aware of themselves. For Dr. Hickenlooper, the alien represents a new scientific milestone, the discovery of a lifetime; for the General, a new sense of purpose. And for everyone else, especially the children, the new possibilities of the universe also reveal new possibilities on earth.

In the summer of 1947, a mysterious silvery craft crashed into the desert near Roswell, NM. The military only gave partial accounts of what had happened, and it didn’t take long for the incident to hit the papers, fueling a cosmic mystery that still looms large in the American imagination. By the time of Asteroid City, America’s flying-saucer obsession had spread to books and TV and movies, supercharged by the dreams of the Atomic Age and of a red-hot Space Race—along with the nightmares of a growing Cold War hysteria, which saw anything alien as a possible threat. In one famous encounter in 1955, a family in Kentucky claimed to have fought off an attack by small, green aliens, holding them off with gunfire “for four hours.” (The case is still debated; skeptics have attributed the account to natural phenomena like meteors, owls, and intoxication.) In many ways the aliens were a sublimation of so many fears: not just of Communism and Soviet invasion and nuclear annihilation, but of unemployment and inflation.

By then the alien mystery had not only become the subject of a government investigation, but had also been fueled by the government itself: UFOs became a handy cover story for classified U.S. military programs. (The UFO that crashed in Roswell, it turned out, was a top-secret U.S. balloon developed to spy on the Soviet nuclear program.) More recently, grainy US Navy videos of UFOs and subsequent government reports have suggested that the culprit could be a foreign rival, but some details and a continued secrecy have also left open the door to other possibilities: that the “aliens” are actually American aircraft—or they’re actually aliens. The mystery persists. [I added these grafs above in case we need some context here— Alex]

The alien was always going to be at the center of the story, an unfolding mystery that provokes self-examination throughout the town. As they approached the first encounter, Anderson and Coppola also found themselves stepping into the unknown. “We were writing the story,” says Anderson, “and we didn’t know the details of it until we got to that moment. And it’s a kind of thing where it just sort of feels like it reveals itself to you. So it feels a bit like it’s happening to you as a writer, as the people sitting there making the thing up.”

(L to R) Fisher Stevens, Jeffrey Wright, Tony Revolori, and Bob Balaban in director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Welcome Junior Stargazers And Space Cadets

The lives and imaginations of young people are an eternal theme in Anderson’s films. Fiercely independent, sometimes fragile amid the hardships of growing up, fanciful yet resourceful: essentially, the recognizable experience of childhood and teendom we all are living or have lived through.  In Asteroid City, like Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, it is a group of teens that set the wheels of the plot moving. The five “Junior Stargazers” do what kids do best: inspire great pride while also worrying their anxious parents, tentatively finding love, and finding a way through uncertainty toward new possibilities.

Anderson found inspiration in the sprawling panorama of Altman’s Nashville, an epic of multiple storylines and intermingling characters.  His goal, beyond just camaraderie, was one of collective creativity among the cast, “The thing I always love about Altman,” he says, “is how he has this approach of getting these ingredients, and he’s seeing what happens to this, maybe add a little something here and push it around there, and then see what happens and what can this person do…And I felt a bit of that during the making of this movie because we had such a big cast and they would do things on their own…The way these kids worked was very much in line with that. And I like that. They’ve grown this together.”

POP.  87

For a film as singularly American as Asteroid City, it was in Spain, on the outskirts of Chinchón, where production occurred. Other locations were first considered and scouted, including Death Valley, however it was the environs of Chinchón that provided the ideal landscape, unobstructed views, hundreds of yards in all directions, and natural light required to build what would become a completely immersive world. 

This was not Chinchón’s first brush with international cinema, Orson Welles shot some of The Immortal Story in the medieval town, and around the same town square and parador where Anderson’s cast and crew billeted. For Asteroid City, it served as a base of operations and a Covid bubble—hair and makeup was in the hotel, and where communal, outdoor meals took place—and the nearby desert doubled as the Southwest. This method of creating a primary location, and keeping the production there, is Anderson’s preference, “I find that a more entertaining way to work.  We can focus on the characters and stay a unit.”