Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban were filming a scene in Angouleme, France, for “The French Dispatch,” when Winkler had an idea for quirky director Wes Anderson.
“Here is a true story,” Winkler, 75, told The Post. “We’re standing on a bridge. It’s winter and the wind is blowing off the river in both directions. It’s so cold that [co-star] Léa Seydoux is in her guard uniform and she’s covered in blankets. That’s how you stay warm — you stand there while Wes composes the shot. And I whispered to Bob, ‘I have an idea, should I tell Wes?’ And Bob whipped his head around, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘No!’ ”
And so Winkler kept his mouth shut. “You don’t say anything. You learn the language of Wes. This man is a visionary. Remember those EF Hutton commercials, ‘When EF Hutton talks, people listen’? That is the set on a Wes Anderson film. The props are from Germany, the costumers are from Italy, the makeup people are from England, the drivers are from France — and when he speaks, everyone listens.”
“The French Dispatch,” opening in theaters on Friday, Oct. 22, features an outrageous ensemble cast including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Saoirse Ronan, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Norton. Murray plays Arthur Howitzer Jr., the American editor of the (fictional) magazine the French Dispatch, headquartered in the (fictional) town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (Translation: “boredom-on-blasé”) and publishing its final issue. The anthology-type movie features a prologue and three vignettes, each with its own self-contained cast of characters.
In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” Winkler and Balaban play Uncles Joe and Nick (they’re brothers), with Adrien Brody as their nephew, an art dealer named Julian Cadazio. Lois Smith plays an art collector, “Maw” Clampette, and Seydoux is a prison guard. Swinton plays French Dispatch staffer J.K.L. Berensen (who narrates the action).
“I don’t even know where to start,” Winkler said, when asked to describe the film. “Bill Murray is the editor, and then there are the stories – the arts section, the crime section, the food section, obituaries … I’m in the arts section … Adrien Brody is our nephew and we are backing him for an art project – he found an artist in prison [Moses Rosenthaler], played by Benicio del Toro. I cannot tell you what happens, but it’s a bit of a shock.”
Winkler, who won an Emmy for his role as acting coach Gene Cousineau in HBO’s “Barry,” said he was impressed with how Anderson, known for his eccentric and distinctive narrative style (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) worked to fulfill his vision for “The French Dispatch.”
“There are no stand-ins, so you stand for two hours while the maestro composes the shot,” he said. “Each frame is a work of art. There is not a detail out of place. There are crates from all over the world for furniture for the sets that are in these old warehouses in this very small town.
“Wes has hand-picked all the extras – he knows every one of them by name – and everyone is made up in the same room at the same time,” he said. “And they have a stopwatch, so I got down to having my hair curled, mustache on and makeup done in 21 minutes because Lois Smith was hitting the [makeup] chair after me. There are no trailers; there are rooms created out of velour curtains that are clamped together.
“We had the most wonderful time and [Anderson] creates a family,” he said of the vibe on the set. “You’re in a foreign country, in a beautiful town with these blue roofs you see through the trees that are leafless because it’s winter — oh, my God!”