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."

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."

Unsurprising, then, that Wilson's Richie—with his shaggy, doleful Bjorn Borg mien—is the broken heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. "Luke is so hidden away behind his beard and his glasses and his long hair, and he wears that headband for the whole movie—he seems kind of wounded and gentle," Anderson says. Richie's spectacular, nationally televised tennis-court crack-up is the film's tragicomic peak; he also figures in an indelible pair of scenes that, in quintessentially Andersonian fashion, enlist ethereal vintage pop to express the characters' interior weather. In one, Richie rides alone on a graffiti-ravaged bus after something terrible has happened, his journey scored to Nick Drake's bruised, plangent lover's ode "Fly." In the other, the camera watches through Richie's eyes as his unattainable Margot disembarks from a different bus. As she begins to walk toward him, looking at once stricken and hopeful, the picture swoons into slow motion and all goes silent for a moment, until Nico's regret-soaked "These Days" ambles in.

"When you shoot a scene like that, you constantly second-guess yourself," says Anderson, who notes that the immortal "These Days" was a crucial starting point in the genesis of the Tenenbaums script. "You do as many takes at as many angles as possible, because you never know what you're getting. When it's slowed down, anything might jump out at you—it might be a single hair blowing up in the air or someone blinking. It's really tricky. But Gwyneth has this very beautiful expression on her face, and really, that's all we're photographing. You can't just tell somebody to have that expression on her face. And there was obviously something between her and Luke that was brewing anyway." (Paltrow and Wilson have been an item since filming ended in June.)

With just three movies under his belt, Anderson has reportedly "reinvented" Bill Murray by casting him in Rushmore ("I don't know about that," replies Anderson, furrowing his brow), helped make two Wilsons into major stars, and attracted a bundle more to The Royal Tenenbaums at a deep discount. A critical darling and a cult hero—last month's Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute, called "Wesworld," was overrun with spiky-haired, bespectacled fanboys—Anderson may now be on the cusp of Oscar nominations and household-name recognition. Does it matter to him whether or not the Tenenbaums cash in at the box office? "That's never happened so I don't really know," he says. "I say, eh, it's not that big a deal, but maybe if I had a movie make a lot of money I'd have a different attitude towards it. I don't know what it's like to have your movie be like a huge hit and maybe it's so exciting or something. For me, when a movie's done, the thing that's most exciting is working on the next movie."


Related Articles:

J. Hoberman's review of The Royal Tenenbaums

J. Hoberman's review of Rushmore

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