Dotted by hilltop views and an historic city center, France’s southwestern city of Angoulême had certainly played host to a handful of live-action shoots in recent years.
But for the most part, the commune, just under 50,000 strong, had made its name as the country’s cartoonist capital, the place where Gallic scribblers go to burnish their reputation at the Intl. Comics Festival — the second largest in Europe — and maybe stuck around to work at one the three dozen animation or post-productions studios.
So it goes without saying that nothing quite prepared the locals for when, in late 2018, Hollywood came knocking.
Earlier that year, Wes Anderson looked toward a number of options when prepping the Cannes-debuting “The French Dispatch,” set in 1950s Paris and in the suitably tongue-in-cheek (and, as goes without saying, entirely fictional) commune of Ennui-sur-Blasé.
Anderson nixed Nice and, for a time, considered Albi, but once Anderson’s eyes fixed and heart warmed on Angoulême’s Old World architecture, he promptly sent a crew the likes of which few locals had ever seen into the southwest town.
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With an estimated budget of $25 million, and a cast that mixed regular stalwarts Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray with Anderson newcomers Timothée Chalamet, Benicio Del Toro and Kate Winslet, “The French Dispatch” marked the largest-scale Hollywood shoot to hit the area since Steven Spielberg lensedscenes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the nearby La Rochelle in the early 1980s . And even then, Spielberg and crew only stayed for four days.
Anderson and crew, however, stuck around a lot longer, descending on the hillside city in November 2018 to kick off a six-month shoot that swept many locals right into the fray.
“Everyone mobilized to host this exceptional project,” says David Beauvallet, director of communications at the city’s audio-visual development body, Magelis. “The production recruited 80 local technicians (out of a crew of 200) and repurposed a local high school for its canteen.”
The shoot became the talk of the town; while businesses kicked in supplies and locals came to gawk, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region (where Angoulême is located) offered a €150,000 ($167,000) production grant. In all 2,500 residents auditioned as extras — with just under a third of them even making it into the film.
“Angoulême was able to welcome a production of such international scope because for 20 years we have created and maintained a high level of activity in the field, and thus had a substantial pool of local technicians and seasoned extras [to provide],” Beauvallet says.
Though the city does not have any productions of commensurate scale planned for the near future, it does hope to capitalize on its unprecedented exposure once “The French Dispatch” launches out of Cannes.
In the intervening years since the shoot, two local businessmen have taken a former factory that was repurposed as a soundstage and plan to develop it into a permanent production facility.
And staying true to form, 12 local cartoonists have co-authored an omnibus book, called “Wes in Town,” detailing their experiences on the shoot, which is due for release just in time for Cannes.
Meanwhile, Beauvallet hopes that the film might dispel certain misconceptions for Americans coming to shoot in France.
“Big international productions tend to shoot in Paris,” he says. “They want the street scenes, the Eiffel Tower in the background, and they think it will be easier in terms of logistics, while shooting in [other parts of France] tends to worry them more.
“We showed that a small town in France could host a production of such scale because we have an ecosystem already in place. We had all the technicians, production staff, and casting heads right here. And it worked out great.”
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