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Possessed by Muses

Imogen Harter-Jones examines directors such as Wes Anderson, David Lynch, and Yorgos Lanthimos, who famously employ the muse method when casting their movies, selecting their same favorite actors to feature in film after film.

“There is also a third kind of madness, which is possession by the Muses, enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric”

Whilst Plato’s invocation of the Muses as literal goddesses allowing access to arts and creativity is outdated, the cult of the Muse has long endured. Recently the term has been invoked in cases of film directors who are obsessed with or inspired by actors whom they repeatedly return to work with. 

Recently, the creative partnership between Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan has generated Lady Bird and Little Women, both critically and commercially successful films championing female narratives and creative control. From countless interviews, it is clear that their relationship extends beyond that of director and actor; they are friends who told the Hollywood Reporter that their continued partnership allows them to grow together creatively and “step into yourself a little bit more”.

Similarly, when asked about his creative partnership with Colin Farrell, who stars in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, director Yorgos Lanthimos told The Atlantic that, “It’s also great to create these kinds of relationships and then try to evolve with the other people and try to do different things. Next time, things are easier and you can go further”. With respect to Lanthimos’ dark, surreal film worlds, wherein boundaries of morality and reality are regularly tested with acutely uncomfortable moments, finding an actor who just “gets the material” is a gift. Whilst working with friends is undeniably fun, the benefits of long-term artistic partnerships have deeper implications for both actors and directors, affecting their styles and the artistic DNA of projects.

Surrealist auteur David Lynch is known for his frequent partnership with Laura Dern. The pair first collaborated on Blue Velvet (1986) when Dern was just 19 years old. As a pastel-cardiganed high schooler, Dern enters a fevered world of severed ears and sadomasochism– a far cry from the John Hughes’ films she auditioned for at the time. It is a world she has yet to leave: Dern also starred in Wild at Heart, Inland Empire and played the mysterious Dianne in Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch himself, naturally, remains a close personal friend. Dern told Vulture that their collaboration ““just gets better and better”.

From the beginning of her career Lynch has given Dern messy, complicated and transgressive characters. She revels in Lynch’s woozy mix of horror, mystery, dark humour and absurdity. For Dern, in taking on a role from Lynch she finds herself “falling in love with these outrageously complicated characters” and for Lynch, Dern’s versatility and emotional commitment to the roles ground his demanding films with a humanity that we may otherwise struggle to see in his imaginative worlds. Dern’s presence on the screen feels as integral to a Lynch film as an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack.

Although Lynch also has many repeat collaborators, Wes Anderson takes things a step further, populating his ensemble casts with multiple actors from his large roster of muses. Anderson’s unique aesthetic of pastels, preppy costumes, retro soundtracks and ‘Hipster chic’ is bleakly beautiful with a melancholic air of charm. However, this whimsical aesthetic might easily be dismissed as superficial without exceptional performances from his pool of recurring first-rate actors, including Anjelica Huston, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. Of course, a Wes Anderson film without Bill Murray is almost unimaginable, whether the role takes the form of a minor cameo as in The Darjeeling Limited (sibling rivalry taken to the next level on a trip to India) or of the eponymous star of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a shark hunt that turns into a Moby Dick-esque odyssey). Murray seems as obsessed with Anderson as Anderson does with him; he always gives Wes an “automatic yes” when the director calls with a new part. Equally, Wes always “write(s) with Bill in mind”. Like other muse-using directors, Anderson gives diverse roles to his actors, ranging from human character to stop motion animal, which prevents typecasting, even within his own filmi-verse.

As with any enduring trend in Hollywood, the cult of the director’s muse has been criticised. Some argue that the artist/muse model for casting is outdated and that these cosy creative companionships prevent new talent from having their own ‘big break’. Whilst this is true to an extent it is important to note that Lynch cast Dern when she was finding it hard to break into Hollywood through the mainstream ‘brat pack’ competition, despite her famous parents. Similarly, Farrell was reintroduced as a leading man by Lanthimos after a few years of smaller parts in critically and commercially unsuccessful films. Finally, Anderson’s roles for Murray afforded him the opportunity to break free from his rigid typecast as a comic actor, giving him more melancholic and emotionally probing roles.

Besides, big star presence allows indie directors to find a larger audience for their work. The Muse model may not be perfect, open as it is to allegations of nepotism, but in the works of Gerwig, Lanthimos, Lynch, and Anderson, the results speak for themselves.

Image via Wiki Images

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