On a spur-of-the-moment train ride to Rome with the filmmaker whose reality bears a distinct resemblance to his movies.
Wes Anderson did not know where he was going. The problem was not that he was lost, but that his mind kept wandering, darting off in too many directions at once—a common and not entirely unwelcome problem for the 38-year-old director. Part of him wanted to stick around Venice for another day or two, now that the Venice Film Festival was over and the promotional business surrounding The Darjeeling Limited, his new film, was behind him. He liked Venice, liked the whole idea of wandering the catacomblike streets of a city that should have been swallowed up by the Adriatic centuries ago. But there was talk of moving the party elsewhere—to Paris, maybe, where he has kept an apartment since 2005; or perhaps to Rome, where some friends were heading. Eventually Anderson would have to figure out a way back to Manhattan, his other semi-permanent residence, in time for Darjeeling to open the New York Film Festival, but logistical details like that were, for the time being, best left out of the picture.
“I’m thinking Rome,” he eventually said, as if Rome were an appetizer he frequently orders, and twelve hours later he finds himself here: on a train bound for the Eternal City, joined by Roman Coppola and his girlfriend, Jennifer Furches. Coppola and Furches are the director’s old friends who, like most of his old friends, double as frequent collaborators. This is the dynamic at the heart of what those close to him affectionately refer to as “Wes’s world,” which resembles a vaudevillian family by way of Evelyn Waugh. Coppola, for example, is the cousin of Jason Schwartzman, the star of Anderson’s Rushmore, and together the three of them wrote the script for Darjeeling. (Furches was script supervisor.)
That we happen to be traveling by train to discuss a movie that takes place on a train was not part of the original plan, though I’m starting to think of it as yet another example of Anderson’s knack for retouching reality with an idiosyncratic gloss. (It may be connected to his fear of flying as well; until recently, Anderson traveled to Europe by boat, and he far prefers trains and automobiles to anything airborne.) Also somewhat peculiar is the fact that buried in one of Anderson’s monogrammed suitcases is 10,000 euros in cash—about $14,000—an amount that may or may not be legal to carry, and that was given to the director by Bill Murray, who asked that the money be “delivered to Luigi.”
“It’s not as weird as it sounds. Luigi was Bill’s landlord when we shot The Life Aquatic,” explains Anderson, talking about his last movie, parts of which were filmed in Rome.
“But,” I ask, “wasn’t that back in 2004?”
“Yeah, Bill can be a little weird with time. But there’s no hard feelings or anything. I think Luigi and Bill have a pretty good rapport, though Luigi will probably be happy to get his money.”
Anderson often finds himself in situations like this: real-life circumstances that have the same absurd, art-directed quality as his films. You may be tempted to shake your head and simply say that Anderson has been incredibly lucky, which is true, but that doesn’t give enough credit to his talents—not just as a director, but more generally as someone who has constructed a life almost preposterously conducive to the pursuit of fantastical whims. When he was editing Darjeeling, for instance, he convinced Fox Searchlight to rent him a suite at the Inn at Irving Place, an unmarked hotel on Gramercy Park designed to re-create an era of faded glamour that probably never actually existed. Given that Anderson owns a spacious loft in the East Village that doubles as a work space, and that the studio could have rented any number of generic editing rooms for significantly less money, the logic behind this could be considered questionable. “I remember walking in there and thinking, Man, only Wes would figure out a way to pull this off,” recalls the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who befriended Anderson at a dinner party four years ago. “There was the little guy behind the desk, the narrow wooden staircase leading up to the room—it was just perfect. In his films he creates a very particular and unmistakable world, and I guess you could say the same is true in his life.”
You need only watch a few frames of one of his movies to spot it as an Anderson production. Though he is originally from Texas, there is something distinctively European in his obsession with aesthetics: a belief that the way something looks is what dictates how it will make you feel. His impeccably composed wide-angle shots have the feeling of a childhood fantasy: wistful, more than a bit ridiculous, with a darkness creeping in at the edges. Pepper in some resurrected classic-rock songs; deadpan dialogue; themes of failure, nostalgia, and fractured families; and the result, at its best, is a world unto itself.
Though his films have collectively grossed only $100 million—a large-sounding sum until you realize it’s exactly what they cost to make—he is supported and adored by the studio system. “For studio executives, supporting Wes is like collecting art,” says one friend. “It makes them feel they have great taste.” The appeal is the films, of course, but also the persona of the eccentric auteur. He is an abnormally tall man, or at least a man so pale and so skinny that he appears to be abnormally tall. And he dresses primarily in suits custom-tailored to be a half-size too small, giving him the look of one of the off-kilter characters he puts on screen, further evidence that Anderson’s life is his work, and vice versa.
None of which is lost on Anderson himself. Last year, he made an excellent commercial for American Express in which he simultaneously parodied and breathed new life into the Anderson Myth. In the ad he is seen clothed in a vintage safari jacket, a viewfinder dangling from his neck, filming a (fictional) movie starring Schwartzman. Anderson walks through the set making sure every detail, no matter how absurd, is just so. “Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?” he asks a prop man, and two seconds later—presto!—a sketch of the nonsensical weapon is produced. Shot outside a French château, the ad borrows the theme from Truffaut’s Day for Night—just the kind of sly reference loved by Anderson. Shooting a commercial is, for many directors, simply a means to earn quick money. But for Anderson, who more recently shot an equally distinctive series of ads for AT&T, the experience had the unique benefit of allowing him to further the storybook life he was delicately lampooning. At the time he made it he was living in the Paris apartment recently vacated by Kirsten Dunst, who had been renting it while filming Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It was a decadent and exorbitantly expensive place that Anderson converted to an editing suite, with AmEx paying the rent.
His talent, in other words, has become his trust fund. But one gets the impression that even Anderson, these days, can find living in Wes’s world a bit claustrophobic. I first met him on a bright, windy afternoon in Venice, two days after Darjeeling had been screened for the public for the first time. With Schwartzman and Coppola, we were waiting for a water taxi to shuttle us off to lunch at an outdoor café. At one point Anderson complimented Schwartzman’s new sunglasses, and then suddenly turned to me, concerned with how I would interpret the seemingly banal exchange. “Oh God, I bet that’s the first line of your piece, isn’t it?” Anderson said. “Wes Anderson, notorious for his attention to detail, carefully observes the black retro sunglasses that the young Schwartzman has pulled from his pocket …” Later, when a breeze picked up during our meal, he turned up the collar on his seersucker suit and again quoted from the article he was writing in his head: “Anderson then pensively turns up the collar of his blazer, pulling it tight around his skinny frame to cover the monogrammed dress shirt underneath…” Pause. Laughter. “I’m sorry, man,” he then said. “I’m in a weird mood these days.”
Such a mood is understandable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the Venice Film Festival. One of the most prominent members of the Anderson contingent has been notably absent these past few days. It was just over a week earlier that Owen Wilson—a friend of Anderson’s since his days at the University of Texas, his first writing partner and most regular collaborator—tried to commit suicide. Anderson approaches the subject carefully. “He’s never had a time like this in his life before,” says the director. “His life has changed so radically in the last few years, and in ways that most people never have to deal with. He’s one of the funniest, smartest guys I’ve ever known, one of my best friends in the world. I know I’ve been depressed myself before—most of us probably know something about what it’s like…” He doesn’t complete the thought. “I went to see him last week in L.A., and, you know, he’s doing very well. He’s going to be fine.” Another pause. “I call him every day to keep him updated on what’s happening with the movie. I wish he was with us. He’s a major part of our project, and he has the right to be there with us.”
It was the 1998 release of Rushmore that radically altered Anderson’s life. He was hailed as a visionary, fetishized by his fans, encumbered by expectations. It was only his second movie—his first, Bottle Rocket, would become a cult favorite later in his career—but it offered everything an indie audience desired: an endearingly arrogant and peculiar teenage outsider (Schwartzman); a love triangle that was both twisted and innocent; and, of course, Bill Murray, in a surprising role as a wealthy, unhinged developer who, because he is Bill Murray, became an immediate icon of middle-aged angst. It also introduced to the world the Anderson aesthetic. Simply put, Rushmore did not look or feel like any other movie.
This is an accomplishment that comes with a price, guaranteeing for the director that everything that followed would look and feel like something: a Wes Anderson movie. Three years later he released The Royal Tenenbaums, a more ambitious ensemble piece about a New York family of gifted children who, as adults, had fallen on hard times. Thanks in part to a cast that included stars like Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Tenenbaums introduced a larger audience to Anderson’s style, which this time out seemed, depending on your tastes, to be either more defined or more distracting. As a meditation on family and adulthood, the film succeeds, movingly, and it certainly made clear how much more exciting American cinema is with someone like Anderson around. But there were moments—remember the Dalmatian mice?—when Tenenbaums risked being a bit too curious with its curiosities. (“Yes, yes, you’re charming, you’re brilliant,” chided A.O. Scott in his review. “Now say good night and go to bed.”) Then came The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau–inspired fantasia that left even some of Anderson’s most loyal fans impatient. There was a sense that the director had become pickled in a world of his own creation.
Novelty has a shelf life. Aquatic was seen as a beautiful failure, a study in style stripped of substance. In talking to Anderson you can tell that Aquatic was a difficult movie for him—beginning with its making. Like just about everything in his life, Anderson prefers a movie set to be a communal and intimate environment, which was difficult to maintain while dealing with the cold world of sound stages, special-effects crews, and the heightened expectations that come with an ever-expanding budget. (Aquatic cost close to $60 million, more than twice what Tenenbaums did.) “There were so many damn trailers,” he says of the filming process. “Every actor had like three trailers. And it’s not just the expense, but when you have all your actors watching ESPN on satellite, they’re not thinking about the work, so you have to pull them into it. You tell the actors you’re ready, you wait, you check their makeup, you monkey around, you wait some more—all of this over and over, and it doesn’t make the movie any better.” Discussing it seems to exhaust him, as if he were reliving the experience. “We just put everything into it, and it kind of, you know, got a bit of a rough ride,” he concludes. “I think it’s generally thought of as the least loved of all my movies.”
“When they say a movie is ‘too smart for its own good,’ as if we’re trying to show how great and cool we are…sometimes it hurts my feelings.”
It’s hard to gauge how personally Anderson has taken the criticism. At one point I bring up a recent essay by Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic Monthly arguing that, as a culture, we are “drowning in quirk,” an aesthetic he defines as the “embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream.” Citing Anderson’s movies as a prime example, Hirschorn claims that the problem with quirk is that it “can quickly go from an effective narrative tool to an end in itself.” Anderson, who in person is typically quite calm, becomes suddenly animated by the topic. “You know, I’ve heard that argument a million times, and it’s completely uninteresting to me,” he says. “It’s just deadeningly unoriginal. If you have ideas that you think can contribute to a movie, that you think might help you honestly enjoy it more…” He trails off, thinking. “Now I’m sounding bitter, aren’t I? Okay, my response to that is that sometimes it hurts my feelings.” Another pause. “When they say a movie I make is smarter-than-thou, that the movie is ‘too smart for its own good,’ as if we’re making movies to try to show everybody how great and cool we are…well, that’s just not the case. We’re trying our hardest to entertain people, to make something people will like, something people will connect with. I don’t think there’s a great effort to try to make some statement about ourselves, you know?”
Some artists thrive on defending their work, on the idea of being in combat with the culture; Anderson is not among them. By the time he was finished promoting Aquatic overseas, in the summer of 2005, he says he found himself feeling depressed. This was not a monumental or debilitating sadness, more like the low-simmering melancholy that defines his characters. He had some ideas for a new project, but they remained stalled in the Anderson gestational phase: sketches of disconnected scenes and dialogue scribbled in the small notepad he keeps in the breast pocket of his blazer.
Anderson decided that in order to be productive he had to leave New York, where he has lived and worked for nearly a decade—that it would be “interesting” to live outside of America for a bit. The director called up Schwartzman, who was then living in Paris, shooting Marie Antoinette. “Could I maybe crash in your guest room for a bit?” Anderson asked. “Whenever you want,” Schwartzman assured him, and shortly thereafter the two were roommates.
It turned out to be the beginning of a European adventure that, somewhere along the way, ended up producing The Darjeeling Limited. The movie features Schwartzman, Wilson, and Adrien Brody as three estranged brothers who travel through India by train in order to find themselves and bond with each other and “say yes to everything,” as Wilson’s character puts it. This “spiritual journey” is played for laughs, though like all of Anderson’s work, the comedy is born out of sadness—a fractured family attempting to repair itself.
Anderson first got the itch to shoot in India after Martin Scorsese—an avowed fan who in Esquire once anointed Anderson “the next Scorsese”—introduced him to The River, a lush and evocative 1951 film made by Jean Renoir. The idea for the brothers traveling came from Husbands, a 1970 John Cassavetes movie about three suburban husbands escaping to London. “But my main idea was not the train, not India, not the brothers,” says Anderson. “My main idea was, I want to write with Roman and Jason.” One night when Anderson was holed up in Schwartzman’s Paris apartment, he read a few pages of his notebook to Schwartzman—a scene that ended up being the film’s opening. It wasn’t long before Schwartzman and Coppola had signed on, and the three of them set aside a month to travel through India by train. It was there that most of the script was written.
“I guess we went to India as research,” says Anderson, “but the more precise-slash-romanticized description would be that we were trying to do the movie, trying to act it out. We were trying to be the movie before it existed.”
On the trip to Rome, Anderson and company move about the train as if it belongs to them. They abandon the suitcase full of Bill Murray’s money and head to the dining car for pasta, prosciutto and melon, and numerous half-bottles of wine. After lunch they sneak into a business-class cabin (from which, later, they will be ejected when an Italian politician arrives with armed guards). Coppola and Furches decide to kill some time by completing the Times crossword puzzle; they are soon stumped, and turn to Anderson, an amateur crossword junkie, for assistance. “Mind if I hold the paper?” Anderson asks, setting the crossword in his lap, pulling an erasable pen from his pocket, and casually taking control of the situation. He gives the sense that everyone is participating, working together, and yet—as he fills in one answer after another—it becomes clear that the end result would be the same if Anderson were sitting there alone.
“I think we’re just being entertained,” jokes Coppola.
“Oh, no—I couldn’t do this without you guys,” says Anderson, a statement that comes across as both true and false.
It is perhaps not unlike his collaborative process. His friends seem to act as conductors for his imagination: triggering it, encouraging it, very rarely questioning it. There were times on the set of Darjeeling, for instance, when Anderson would doubt his instincts: “Okay, am I doing too much of a ‘thing I do’ here?” he would ask the crew. Coppola was quick to quell the director’s insecurities. “Roman would always express his appreciation for being inventive and making what we thought was a strong choice.” As Coppola puts it, “When you do something that really is your instinct to do, then what more can you ask of yourself?”
Still, Anderson was tense at the premiere in Venice. It is the same at all premieres—Anderson worrying about how his movies, crafted in something of a parallel universe, will play in the world at large. “Mostly it’s just a process of steeling oneself for what’s going to happen. I’m sitting there thinking, Is the movie gonna be received with a lull of silence? Or with a boo?” says Anderson. “That’s a common thing in Europe, you know? They boo here.”
For the record, they did not boo. The early reviews were mainly positive, much more so than with Aquatic, though there was the requisite grumbling that the movie was “good but more of the same,” as Anderson puts it, shaking his head, after reading what Variety had to say. But the director does not seem particularly hurt or defensive this time around. “It’s probably not a good idea to put too much of your self-esteem on something like this, because, really, you can make a bad movie and it can be well received, and you can make a good movie and it can be badly received,” he says. “I think people who’ve done it a lot have learned, like the Coen brothers, for instance. My impression of them is that they really aren’t that vulnerable to what comes back at them. And they could get anything from any of their movies. Like The Big Lebowski, the first time I saw it I thought it didn’t quite work, but the second time I saw it I thought, Oh, I didn’t get it. I just didn’t understand it. And I really loved it then.” He adds, “You know, everyone’s limited. You can only do so much. I think in the end all I can do is say, Let me live the moment. I can still do what I want to do. I’m lucky enough to be able to do these movies so far.”
Two weeks later, over the phone from his Paris apartment, Anderson briefs me about how he fared during the rest of his travels. After we parted ways in Rome, he tells me, he delivered the money to Luigi, clearing Bill Murray’s outstanding debt. For the next few days he dined at his favorite restaurants until he decided it was time to head back to Paris. A sleeper train was momentarily considered for the journey, until a better idea struck. “We ended up slowly wandering our way back to France in a Roman taxi,” Anderson says, as if nothing could have made more perfect sense.
By David Amsden
New York Magazine, Published Sep 24, 2007