Fifteen years ago, while the director Wes Anderson was adapting Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” into a stop-motion animated film, the author’s widow, Felicity, asked whether he saw cinematic potential in any of Dahl’s other tales. One came immediately to Anderson’s mind: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a short Dahl published in 1977 about a wealthy gambler who learns a secret meditation technique that allows him to see through playing cards.
Many filmmakers had inquired about adapting “Henry Sugar” over the years, but Dahl’s family was happy to set it aside for Anderson. There was just one problem.
“I never knew how to do it,” he said.
The 54-year-old filmmaker typically works at a prodigious pace, putting out distinctive comedies like the recent “Asteroid City” and “The French Dispatch” (2021) every two or three years. But he has spent nearly half his career trying to crack “Henry Sugar.” The breakthrough finally came when Anderson decided to use more than just Dahl’s dialogue and plotting: He would also lift the author’s descriptive prose and put it in the mouths of the characters, allowing them to narrate their own actions into the camera as they happen.
“I just didn’t see a way for me to do it that isn’t in his personal voice,” Anderson explained. “The way he tells the story is part of what I like about it.”
The result is a 40-minute short starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade, with a delicious assist from Ralph Fiennes as Dahl. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, “Henry Sugar” will be released Wednesday on Netflix, followed by three more Anderson-helmed Dahl shorts — “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — that employ the same actors and meta conceit of using Dahl’s prose in dialogue.
(That prose has been under a microscope of late because of a plan by Dahl’s publisher to edit out language that was deemed offensive, some of which reflected the author’s racist views. “I don’t want even the artist to modify their work,” Anderson said when asked about it at a Venice news conference. “I understand the motivation for it, but I sort of am in the school where when the piece of work is done and the audience participates in it, I sort of think what’s done is done. And certainly, no one besides the author should be modifying the work — he’s dead.”)
I spoke to Anderson about his Dahl projects in Venice. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
When you read Dahl as a child, you feel like he’s telling you things another adult wouldn’t. While watching your characters say Dahl’s prose directly into the camera, I felt that same conspiratorial connection again.
Oh, that’s good. And yeah, every kid who experiences it has that same thing. There’s mischief in every Dahl story, and the voice of the writer is very strong. Also, there was always a picture of him in these books, so I was very aware of him and the list of all his children: He lives in a place called Gipsy House, and he’s got Ophelia and Lucy and Theo. Do you know about his writing hut?
I didn’t until I watched “Henry Sugar,” but it looks like you recreated part of Dahl’s house for the scenes in which Ralph Fiennes plays him.
When I made “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and I was working on the script, we stayed at the house for some time. In those days, that writing hut was still filled with his things and left the way he had it. [Dahl died in 1990.] There was a table with all these sort of talismans, little items laid out, which I think he just liked to have next to him when he was writing. He had this ball that looks like a shot put, made of the foil wrappers of these chocolates he would eat every day. He’d had a hip replacement, and one of the talismans was his original hip bone. And there was a hole cut in the back of his armchair because he had a bad back. It is odd to have somebody write in a way that’s sort of cinematic.
You grew up imagining Dahl and the place he lived. How did it feel to stay there?
It was a dazzling thing. It’s the house of somebody who has a very strong sense of how he wants things to be.
Something I’m sure you can’t relate to it all as a director.
No. [Laughs] I remember the dinner table, a great big table with normal chairs, but at the end of it is an armchair — not a normal thing at a dinner table — with a telephone, a little cart with pencils and notebooks, some stacked books. Essentially, “You can all eat here, and this is where I sit and have everything I want.” Also, he bought art and he had a good eye. I remember there’s a portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon next to a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud. The place is filled with interesting things to look at.
It sounds like the kind of set I might expect to see in a Wes Anderson film, filled with these totems and details.
Things that are about a character. Yeah, and he’s quite a character.
As you thought about adapting “Henry Sugar” over the last decade and a half, did that give you time to figure out why you were so drawn to it?
I always loved the nested aspect of it. I do these nested things in my movies starting with “Grand Budapest,” but I think it possibly comes from “Henry Sugar.”
Another thing that you carry over from recent works is the idea of theatrical artifice: You want the viewer to see how this story is put together, and even the walls of the set are wheeled in and pulled apart. What draws you to that approach?
When you watch a movie, generally you’re seeing someone try to create an illusion of something happening, because in fact right off the frame is a light and a guy with a microphone. But for me, the theatrical devices really happen. So I think to some degree, I like the authenticity that a theatrical approach can bring. It’s a way to tell the story where there’s a little sliver of the documentary in it, even though most of what we’re doing is the exact opposite of a documentary.
And the viewer feels along for the ride, especially in some of the long takes that have a lot of choreography.
On the set there’s so much to wrangle, but when it all starts to happen, it is quite a great thing to sit down and say, “Wow, look at that, 90 seconds of the movie is happening right in front of us right now.” Every time with complicated shots that have tricky staging and lots of things for actors to do, there’s usually the feeling that this may not work, that what needs to happen here may never occur. So it’s always this great relief as you see it evolve and say, “No, we’re getting there and they’re going to do it.”
When they nail one of those tricky long shots, what feeling do you have?
“Next!” That’s usually what it is.
You don’t allow yourself even a moment to exult in the perfect take?
There’s a little moment of, “Ooh, that was a good one.” Then, “OK, so do we do lunch? Or we could set up [the next shot] and then eat.” That sort of thing.
In your recent movies, you’ve had very large ensemble casts. Why did you decide to tackle all these Dahl stories with such a small troupe?
I thought we’ll do just English actors, and I had people in mind who I already knew and some people who I wanted to work with, so it’s not an unfamiliar group. But the idea of doing it as a little theater company, in the writing part of it I started thinking, “Maybe we’ll do the thing they do on the stage sometimes, where someone’s playing this role, but also this and this.”
You’ve said that you tried to work with Dev Patel in the past, and this is the first time he said yes. What had you offered him before?
Well, I don’t like to say, because then the actor who was in it says, “Oh, I wasn’t the first choice?” But I love Dev, and in this thing, Dev is the youngest of them, so he has an advantage when it comes to paragraphs or pages of text. If you work with people at different ages and you’re giving them a lot to do, you can see how it really is so much easier when you’re young: On “Moonrise Kingdom,” we had a lot of people who were 12 and they knew every word of the whole script. It was like we had 11 script supervisors on set.
As a precocious American kid reading Dahl, you might wonder what it would be like to live overseas. Now that you’re based in Paris, have you become the person that you imagined in your mind’s eye?
My experience is you stay yourself and you realize, “Oh, I guess I will always be a foreigner.” Which is not a bad thing, but I can’t say I’ve ever felt like now I pass. I am a Texan. Even if I’m living in New York or in Los Angeles, where I’m from is Houston. It’s built into my identity. I think if you’re from a city where you might want to live, or near it, then you have a different thing: Like Noah Baumbach, he has a deep life in New York that goes back all the way to the beginning of his life and generations of family connections and all that stuff. For me, New York is just the friends I made.
Growing up within a small perimeter is probably quite different from growing up with a big, big view of the world. I hadn’t really spent much time outside of my little territory until I was in my 20s.
Is it gratifying to have your perimeter so much larger now?
Yes. It’s an adventure to be able to say, “Well, I’m going to have breakfast in the cafe over here that I just know from movies up until a certain age.” That is fun. It’s definitely entertaining to live abroad, even if it is a bit isolating.