His Royal Highness

Wes Anderson's Genius Lessons

In 1992, Anderson made a 16mm short called Bottle Rocket, starring Luke and Owen Wilson as verbose buddies Anthony and Dignan, unlikely aspiring thieves who break into Anthony's parents' house as a warm-up for wilder exploits. The 13-minute whim caught the attention of Ÿber-producer James L. Brooks, who helped pave the way for its expansion into a feature for Columbia Pictures. The novice Wilsons remained in the lead roles; the first draft of the script, according to Anderson, was 275 pages long. "It's weird, but on Bottle Rocket I was more confident than any other time—because I didn't know how badly things could go," he recalls. "After we put it together, we screened it and it was a complete disaster. They were the worst test screenings that anyone involved could remember. It was important for me to screen a movie and have a third of the audience walk out during the first half-hour—before that, I felt like, whatever anyone tells me, just wait until they see this. And in fact, when they saw it, people were just very confused."

The film was then, Anderson says, "radically transformed" via extensive reshooting and an editing overhaul. "With Rushmore, the script we wrote was more or less the script we shot, and it was based on all the things we learned when we were cutting Bottle Rocket, just in terms of how long scenes can be, and how much chit-chat you can get away with—eventually it starts to work against you in a profound way. Bottle Rocket was just filled with what a friend of ours calls 'Bottle Rocket Conversations'—pointless conversations about nothing." (The original short opens in medias res during an earnest Anthony-Dignan exchange about Starsky & Hutch's Huggy Bear.)

Devotees of the finished feature may rue the omission of crucial biographical data on Bottle Rocket's bete noire, Future Man, the bullying older brother of getaway driver Bob Mapplethorpe. (Future Man was portrayed by the eldest Wilson boy, Andrew, who appears in all of Anderson's films.) "One thing that's cut out is this conversation: 'Why do you call him Future Man?' " Anderson switches into characteristically dazed-yet-pensive Dignan-speak: " 'Because he looks like . . . he's from the future . . . like he was designed . . . by scientists for desert warfare.' " Anderson adds, "We did name the closing-credits music 'Future Man's Theme,' so obviously we still felt a sense of loss for having to lose Future Man's whole backstory. I mean, we really were trying to save the movie."

Bottle Rocket made feeble returns at the ticket counters, but then-Disney honcho Joe Roth was such a fan of the cockeyed, rigorously understated caper that he ensured Anderson's follow-up, the wistfully loopy love triangle Rushmore, was born under the sign of Mickey, as is The Royal Tenenbaums. Which makes Anderson a heartening rarity: a young, idiosyncratic auteur endorsed by the studio system. "I have the final cut of the movie and I control the casting. It's the same way it would be if I was raising the money myself. And with this cast of people, what are they going to say? We got this cast for nothing, for less than they pay Rob Schneider to do one comedy."

The illustrious ensemble—or more precisely, the limited amount of time they could each devote to the project—did cause the director some early trepidation when shooting on Tenenbaums began last March. "For Bottle Rocket, we rehearsed, on and off, for two years because we didn't have anything else to do. For Rushmore, we had this kid who'd never acted before, Jason Schwartzman, who was with me all the time, so he and I would rehearse the scenes together. On this movie, I didn't have any time with Gene Hackman until two days before he started working. Things were more complicated because of this actors' strike; everybody was busy. Once you get going, you don't miss the rehearsal so much, but it's right at the beginning that you wish people knew each other better, and everybody could be starting at the same place."

Anderson benefited from two constants throughout pre-production and filming. The first was the Tenenbaum homestead itself, a limestone demi-manse located just north of City College, in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem. Between scenes, the cast didn't retreat to trailers, but instead hung out in the house's de facto greenroom. "We could have shot on sets, but the idea was to have the interior and the exterior really exist in one location; the roof is really the roof. It had turrets at the top, and all kinds of little alcoves and towers and garrets, and it seemed like a place that could have secret passageways and stuff."

The second mainstay was Luke Wilson. "Luke had to grow this beard for his part, so he couldn't really take any other work," Anderson explains. "I asked him to come to New York, and he was there for six weeks before we started filming. Our friend Seymour Cassel"—who plays Royal's aide-de-camp Dusty—"was in New York too, so we started doing scenes together, just the three of us. Luke would go on location scouts, and I had had his suit made, and he started wearing it in real life just to get comfortable with it."

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