His Royal Highness

Wes Anderson's Genius Lessons

"It's a little bit storybook," director Wes Anderson says of the house where he shot much of his new movie, The Royal Tenenbaums—a lavishly illustrated edition of an epic novel that never was. Set in a timeless, unnamed New York City, Anderson's candy-colored third feature (opening Friday) documents the charmed beginnings and badly disappointed maturity of the wunderkind Tenenbaum brood: business ace Chas (Ben Stiller), playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Anderson's canvas is bigger and brighter than ever, with a near-$25 million budget and three Oscar winners in his cast (including estranged Tenenbaum parents Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston). But the 32-year-old director's droll soap opera dissects and prioritizes the same cardinal virtues as his previous films: loyalty, forgiveness, and a doting resignation to the foibles of those we love. While Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) were melancholic comedies about the vicissitudes of friendship, The Royal Tenenbaums' ineffable pull is the yearning endemic to family ties—here broken when irascible patriarch Royal flies the coop, and fumblingly mended when he attempts a prodigal return.

Though Anderson cites The Rules of the Game, Louis Malle's The Fire Within, and, of course, The Magnificent Ambersons as reference points, the Tenenbaum kids' spiritual ancestors can be traced back directly to J.D. Salinger's Glass family—seven Upper East Side prodigies who gained fame in the '20s, '30s, and '40s on the radio program "It's a Wise Child." "I read all the Salinger books in high school, and that was when I discovered The New Yorker too," says Anderson, who was born and raised in Houston and now resides in Manhattan. "The whole idea of young geniuses, the Wise Child thing—there's something kind of fascinating about it. I always use the phrase 'They peaked early'—there's something sad and appealing about people in that sort of situation." As on all his films, Anderson cowrote the script with Owen Wilson—Luke's older brother, who plays the cowboy-manquZ novelist and would-be Tenenbaum Eli Cash. "There's some basic tonal thing in Salinger that Owen and I both have always responded to. I always feel like there are people in real life who you can look at and say, 'She's a Salinger girl.' "

The Salinger girl in The Royal Tenenbaums is Paltrow's raccoon-eyed Margot, who often seems an impassive amalgam of Franny and Zooey, brooding and chain-smoking in her bathtub and declining dinner. (Indeed, a Salingerian strain in Anderson's work is evident in retrospect: Luke Wilson's plaintive bond with his no-nonsense kid sister in Bottle Rocket recalls Holden and Phoebe Caulfield; Bill Murray's sorrowing, self-loathing industrialist in Rushmore invokes Seymour Glass.) The director admits to a particular affection for Margot, which he ascribes in part to shared "middle-child syndrome." "There's something about being in that position in the family where it leaves you a little bit of an angry outsider," he says. "I don't feel that way now, but there was a time when I was a little bit of the troublemaker."

Anderson dedicated his new film to his family, who share only superficial affinities with the Tenenbaums. "Owen was always trying to get me to write something—for us to work on something together—that was taken from stories I had told him about when my parents were divorced, but this wasn't what he had in mind," Anderson says. "This bears absolutely no resemblance to . . . It is my, like, attempt to, you know—there are some scenes that are inspired by real-life stuff, but most of the scenes are invented. My father is nothing like Royal Tenenbaum. My mother is more like [Huston's] Etheline, in that she used to be an archaeologist, and also that she's always so focused on the children. That was my mom's whole thing—encouraging us in our drawing, reading, writing." His younger brother, Eric, grew up to be an illustrator; he drew the series of transitional chapter headings that appear throughout the movie, and also provided the youngest Tenenbaum's watercolor paintings—most of which depict Richie's beloved adopted sister.

Like the elusive Margot and Rushmore's irrepressible prep-school cadet Max Fischer, Anderson was a prolific writer and director of plays from a young age. "At that time I was interested in, like, Starsky & Hutch and Magnum, P.I., and that was what the plays were about—usually by name. There was some kind of movie genre associated with every play I ever did, or else a rock band. Like with Kiss, it was really easy to make those guys into superheroes—we thought they were superheroes. As I recall, we didn't know their real names. We thought the names were secret, like their secret identities. We did a play on a trampoline; the trampoline was the stage and we just put boards on it. It was an outdoor play." (Incidentally, Anderson and Owen Wilson met through a playwriting seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, where Anderson was a philosophy major.)

By high school, Anderson had moved on to Super-8 filmmaking, though his copious juvenilia is lost to posterity. "My camera and this whole bag of Super 8s got stolen out of my car in Austin many years ago. A valet parker stole them—or I feel it was a valet parker, but maybe he just forgot to lock it. Not that they were valuable, but you can't replace them. I think it was an inside job."

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