Inside the World of Wes Anderson

October 4, 2007 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

Five films into his career, Wes Anderson’s authorial stamp is manifest.

From 1998’s “Rushmore” to his new “The Darjeeling Limited,” the 38-year-old director’s movies display a style so distinct as to be recognizable within a few dozen frames.

His actors are carefully arranged in a colorful, detailed palette, where every object and piece of costume is precisely considered. His movies are fables of exaggerated innocence, existing in a world of their own. But despite their humor and whimsy, they are pervaded by an aimless melancholy.

Anderson’s aesthetic is so consistently conspicuous, some critics are beginning to feel suffocated. Though firmly established as one of America’s top young filmmakers even considered a cinematic voice of a generation Anderson is self-conscious enough that he has occasionally questioned his ways.

“I’ve thought about it, but I’ve decided that I just can’t” change, Anderson said in an interview. “I wouldn’t be having that debate within myself if it weren’t for the fact that I was reading somebody’s review where they hated one of my movies.”

One of Anderson’s trademark tools is the poignant slow-motion shot, usually soundtracked with equally expressive music. Think of Jason Schwartzman’s mischievous grin after unleashing a swarm of bees on Bill Murray in “Rushmore,” or the family departing a cemetery in the last shot of 2002’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”

“I’ve had the experience of deciding not to shoot a thing in slow motion because I was like, `You know, I’ve done too much of this,'” Anderson explained. “And then I had to go back and make it slow motion in (post-production) digitally. I just think if that’s the way I think of it, then I’m just going to do it.”

“The Darjeeling Limited” stars three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Schwartzman) on a journey by train through India, where they are followed by literal and figurative baggage. For the director, the film reflects both his desire to expand beyond his past work and an acceptance to trust his instincts slo-mo and all.

Anderson, the middle of three brothers, grew up in Houston. At the University of Texas he met Owen Wilson, who was at first put off by Anderson’s eccentric getup of duck-hunting boots and shorts.

Anderson is still uniquely stylish, generally dressing much like his characters with suits intentionally a few sizes too small. Gentle and affable, he has longish red hair and pale features that make him appear like the twin brother of Tilda Swinton.

He and Wilson became close friends and collaborators, co-writing Anderson’s first three films: 1996’s cult favorite “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and then “Tenenbaums,” for which they were nominated for best screenplay. Anderson credits the meeting of their sensibilities for much of the style still present in his films.

Wilson is currently recuperating after a suicide attempt in late August. His absence has loomed heavily over the promotion of “Darjeeling”; ironically, in the movie Wilson’s character is eerily bandaged from what’s eventually revealed to be a suicide attempt.

When asked about how Wilson’s experience has made him feel about suicide in his films (Luke Wilson also slits his wrists in “Tenenbaums”), Anderson replied: “I’d rather have a conversation about that a few years down the line.”

“Rushmore,” still hailed as one of the best films of the `90s, was Anderson’s breakout hit. No less than Martin Scorsese announced the emergence of a significant talent. In an Esquire magazine article titled “The Next Scorsese,” the director compared Anderson to Jean Renoir and Leo McCarey, saying “he knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness.”

As Wilson developed into a full-fledged (and thus busy) movie star, Anderson found other collaborators. He co-wrote 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”); they are working together again for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” an animated film planned for 2009.

For “Darjeeling,” Anderson teamed with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford) to pen the screenplay, an experience that included their own trip to India where the three lived through some of what became the film.

“I really value the family of collaborators that I’ve ended up working with,” says Anderson, who also often works with actors Murray, Luke Wilson, and Seymour Cassel. “It’s more fun to me to write with my friends.”

“Life Aquatic” was Anderson’s only failure, both commercially and critically. The result was magnified since it was his most expensive film, at nearly $60 million. The director says it was still “the movie we set out to make.”

Though critical response to Anderson’s films has never been unanimous, he seems to increasingly be a target even from, bizarrely, the band Steely Dan, who made news for posting a letter claiming his career is “suffering from a malaise.” A critic for claimed “Darjeeling” further revealed a latent racism in his work where whites are upper-class and nonwhites are poor.

Critical response to “Darjeeling” (which played at numerous international film festivals) has generally been positive. New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the film a “treasure,” but he wrote that “humanism lies either beyond his grasp or outside the range of his interests.” Associated Press critic Christy Lemire called it “a self-satisfied exercise in style over substance.”

It’s not a new critique for Anderson, who has heard his films described as insular and excessively meticulous in design.

“The only thing that I can do reliably is just say, `What do I think is the best thing for this scene? What is the story I’m most interested in telling?'” said Anderson. “Whenever I see the dailies, I’m always surprised: `So that’s what it looks like when you make all of these decisions. It adds up to this.'”

Still, Anderson’s stamp has been relatively relaxed on “Darjeeling.” Rather than the exaggerated world of “Rushmore” or the fabulist New York of “Tenenbaums,” it’s set in a real-world India, albeit one seen through tourist eyes. The production was on-location, on a train borrowed and redesigned for the shoot.

“I wanted it to be kind of loose and free,” said Anderson. “I don’t know if that’s the way people would read it at all, but that was really my thought.”

Still, there’s rarely a moment when “Darjeeling” could be mistaken for anything other than a Wes Anderson production.

“I like the idea that my movies can all go on a shelf together and they are connected,” he says. “I’m perfectly fine if that’s the case that they’re of the same ilk in some way. There are plenty of other shelves that people can go to and I don’t feel obligated to run the gamut.”



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