Sanjay Sami has been an intrinsic part of Wes Anderson’s creative process since the release of The Darjeeling Limited (2007), a film that follows three brothers on a soul-searching journey to find their mother following their father's passing. Within Anderson's cast and crew, Sami is widely regarded as a key contributor to the realisation of Anderson's distinctive, and oftentimes, quirky vision. In a 2023 New York Times article by Melena Ryzik, she stated that Sanjay Sami's camera movements are the secret weapon behind Wes Anderson's cinematic charm.
Film Companion spoke to Sami on his collaboration with Anderson for The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The film is the first instalment among four short films that Netflix is producing based on Roald Dahl's short stories. The other three adaptations are The Swan, The Ratcatcher, and Poison.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Film Companion: Can you explain the role of a key grip on a film set?
Sanjay Sami: A key grip is essentially a part of the technical side of filmmaking. Basically, our responsibilities are all forms of camera movement and camera placement, and all forms of non-electrical lighting. It is what we call negative lighting and light shaping. Our job is on the camera movement side of it. Camera placement is, in an ideal world, interpreting what the director and the cinematographer have in their mind and creating the idea, translating the idea of a shot into a physical shot.
The look and feel of the film is entirely up to the director and the cinematographer. Our job is really to facilitate that vision.
FC: Wes Anderson's films are known for their unique visual style and meticulous attention to detail. Could you share a specific example of a challenging or creative moment on one of his sets where your role as a key grip played a crucial part in bringing his vision to life?
SS: There have been so many! Hundreds of challenges on Wes's films. The last film we did was The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and on that, we had a few shots that required the camera to move through walls that would also move on track.
We had a lot of moving set pieces along with a moving camera. The coordination of all of this – all of them were on track, including the camera, including the set pieces. It was very difficult and had to be meticulously planned. We had multiple people working together to make sure that the shot comes together to work
FC: What aspects of Anderson’s filmmaking process or working style have evolved or remained consistent over the years for you, from your professional perspective?
SS: Well, I think animation films have influenced his style of filmmaking, the way he shoots and directs. In my opinion, he's become a lot more precise. The way the scenes are laid out are far more complex because there's a lot you can do with animation that you can't do in real life. We have to try and figure out ways to make those shots possible in the live-action sphere, because Wes doesn't generally do anything on computers or fix it in post-production. We have to do all of it in camera in real time.
He's definitely gotten more technically challenging; the shots have gotten more technically challenging over the years.
Working with him forces you to come up with solutions for problems that have never existed before. You have to come up with solutions that never existed before.
FC: Are there any interesting anecdotes you would like to share about working on The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar?
SS: I think part of the challenge was merging these two styles of cinema and theatre together for these particular [short] films because Wes, in many ways, has treated it like a piece of theatre, but with very complex camera moves and also moving set pieces.
It was challenging for the actors because they have a lot of dialogue that they have to learn. … They are either one take or they've got cuts in them. We will do it till we get it right. A lot of them are one takes. But it's not just the fact that it's one take — that's one aspect to it. But it's also the complexity of coordinating so many moving elements, whether it's actors, their dialogues, walls that move, doors that move, scenery that moves in the shot while the camera is moving and while the camera is rolling. It's extremely complex, but very rewarding to do.