Sounds & Images
The director Wes Anderson is making a movie in a large studio in the East End of London while seated at his desk in Montparnasse, in Paris. His workspace is as carefully arrayed as the set of one of his films. A boxy nineteen-seventies touch-tone telephone rests on a dark-wood Art Deco desk, alongside a new Apple keyboard, a big computer screen and a scanner, a modern cordless phone, and a pair of small speakers. Behind the desk stand bookcases filled with art books, encyclopedias, uniform editions of literary classics, and a variety of tastefully selected objects, including a battered leather suitcase with metal corners and a postcard of Albert Camus. The walls are the color of Chinese mustard; yellow curtains shade high windows. The windows are cracked open, and the airy room, one of many in the bright and spacious apartment, is alive with the buzz of scooters and the whirr of cars from the street below.
The phone rings, and Anderson, a tall, slender man of forty, answers it. He’s wearing brown thin-wale corduroy pants, a purple sweater over a sky-blue shirt, and beige socks without shoes. He stays on the phone for about twenty minutes, talking while sending and receiving e-mails, which come with a blip and go with a whoosh. Anderson speaks clearly and rapidly, with a disarming blend of serenity and intensity; his ideas spiral out in an avid yet smoothly flowing rush. “The only real issue, I think, that we want to deeply explore is, What can we do to the ending?” he says to Andy Weisblum, the film’s editor, who is in New York. “I had always pictured it being more positive, even though everything I’ve done to the set and to the way it looks has made it more bleak.”
For more than a year, Anderson has been engaged in the production of an animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the story of a fox whose pilfering from three grotesque farmers provokes them into absurdly violent and extreme attempts to capture him, as he leads his family and friends on increasingly wild and desperate adventures in order to survive. Anderson, who has made five previous feature films, including “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” is using a hoary technology known as stop-motion animation, in which figurines are placed in a physical décor, moved infinitesimally by hand, and photographed, frame by frame, in each new pose; the succession of these poses, edited together, simulates motion. The same technique was used to bring King Kong to life in 1933, as well as in the “Wallace and Gromit” films, Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” and Henry Selick’s “Coraline.” Anderson could not have chosen a more painstaking way to make his first animated film. And doing it on the industrial scale required for a studio motion picture—this one is being produced by Twentieth Century Fox Animation—is a gigantic undertaking. It occupies two buildings at 3 Mills Studios, on London’s River Lea; in one, a vast, hangarlike stage, animation is taking place simultaneously on twenty-nine sets.
Anderson initially assumed that, given the exactingly technical format, his participation in the day-to-day shooting would be limited. In fact, though, he “found a way to insanely micromanage the movie anyway.” He did his micromanaging almost entirely from his apartment in Paris (a city that he loves, and in which he has spent much of his time since 2005), fielding phone calls and answering dozens, even hundreds, of e-mails a day from his colleagues in London and New York. At Anderson’s request, new systems were devised that allowed him real-time access to the pictures that were being shot. As Jeremy Dawson, one of the film’s producers, told me, “The animators are like musicians, in that they take an inanimate object and infuse it with life.” Anderson conducted them, for the most part, via remote control. “On this one computer is almost the entire history of the film,” he said, pointing to the Apple Mac Pro on the floor beside his desk. Allison Abbate, another of the film’s producers, who also worked on “Corpse Bride,” said, “His vision is serious, and it’s driving our technology.” She added, “In the past, we sent videotapes.”
At dinner that evening, in a bistro on the Rue de Vaugirard, Anderson said, of working on the movie, “It’s a weird combination of sedentary and frantic that I’ve never quite experienced before.” It wasn’t what he’d expected, but Owen Wilson, his close friend and a longtime collaborator, pointed out that the process “seems to suit how meticulous Wes is about getting things exactly as he imagines them.” He added, “When I was with him in Paris, he wasn’t even leaving his apartment. I was joking that it would be like the middle of ‘Shine,’ where the kid plays Rachmaninoff and then collapses. . . . It seemed like his work was never over, because he could control the whole universe of the movie.”
Anderson’s renown as a director was sealed in 2000, when, at the age of thirty, on the basis of his first two films, “Bottle Rocket” (1996) and “Rushmore” (1998), he was named “the next Scorsese,” by Martin Scorsese himself, writing in Esquire. Scorsese was right in one respect: Anderson’s first films, like Scorsese’s, introduced to cinema a new tone, an original mood. But it was hardly the tone or the mood of the early Scorsese. Anderson’s characters are rarely violent or even particularly demonstrative; their dialogue is understatedly droll, and their behavior is at once quietly idiosyncratic and startlingly sincere. The performances are controlled, tamped-down. The action takes place amid eye-catching décors and anachronistic furnishings. The scripts offer a winking catalogue of inside movie references, and the soundtracks are replete with a carefully curated collection of recordings, heavy on British Invasion classics. Anderson frames his images simply; their straightforward precision betrays a skeptical, comic edge and a zone of reserve. His emotional investment in his characters is offset by engaging antics that deflect bathos and refine dark and painful doings to a single, sharp point. “I like to do things that are a little surrealistic but with characters who are real,” he told me. “So that, even if things are a little unusual, the emotions will come through anyway.”
If his first two films and the one that followed in 2001, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” suggested the work of an extraordinarily sensitive and sophisticated hothouse talent, Anderson’s two subsequent films, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)—both of which were shot on location, under challenging conditions, one at sea in a Second World War-era minesweeper and the other on a moving train in India—revealed a more intrepid aspect of his nature. In these movies, Anderson emerged as an heir to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks, rugged adventurers whose daring exploits were matched by their dandyish style statements. (Louis Vuitton made luggage for Hemingway, and Vanity Fair issued a paper doll of him, with a variety of outfits; Hawks, a pioneering pilot and racecar driver, was equally renowned for his game of croquet.) Anderson shares their self-discipline; their coolness under pressure; their appreciation of the exacting work ethic behind the beauty of objects; and their physical joy in the presence of danger.
Anjelica Huston, who met Anderson after seeing “Bottle Rocket” (and then appeared in three of his movies), found him to be “very courtly and proper.” He “had that old-fashioned deportment,” yet had infused the movie with a kind of energy and a “rogue presence” that she hadn’t seen “since the old movies with Jack”—Nicholson—“and Dennis Hopper.” Cate Blanchett, who appeared in “The Life Aquatic,” said of Anderson, “Is he Dorian Gray, I wonder? He is from another time, but it’s completely and utterly genuine.”
In short, Anderson resembles his films, a fact that, he knows, has played a role in their success. “In the course of doing these first few movies, I found a way that felt instinctively right for me, and I didn’t feel constrained,” he told me. “The end result is that they’re very personal movies in a way that some people really connect with.” Anderson’s idiosyncrasies, personal and artistic, resonated from the start with a certain segment of the population: hipsters—young bourgeois bohemians—who came of age with the Internet and took from it both a trendsetting attunement to pop culture and a chance to make quick money while remaining artists at heart. A generation born of a paradox, its members recognized themselves in the romantic ironies of Anderson’s movies, as well as in his embrace of the expressive power of luxury objects. Robert Lanham, in “The Hipster Handbook,” a 2002 comic sociological portrait of the new urban youth culture, says that “ ‘Rushmore’ defined Wes Anderson as the quintessential Hipster director for today’s savvy filmgoer,” and puts him near the top of the list of “Celebrities Hipsters Have Crushes On,” right behind Beck and Edward Norton. In 2004, Gothamist called Anderson “the anointed hipster auteur,” and Elbert Ventura, writing in Slate earlier this year, claimed, “These days, the Tarantino imitators have been replaced by the Wes wannabes. A popular strain in recent American indie cinema has been the Andersonian quirkfest, a tendency that runs through movies like ‘Juno,’ ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ ‘Son of Rambow,’ ‘Charlie Bartlett,’ and ‘Garden State,’ among others.”
Still, the acclaim that greeted “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” didn’t carry over to “The Life Aquatic,” which was a critical and a box-office disaster; “The Darjeeling Limited” received mixed reviews and did not attract large audiences in the United States. Over a drink at Le Select, in Paris, Anderson admitted that he was troubled by the reception of “Darjeeling,” especially in light of the success, the following year, of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” “Why did this India movie become a big hit and mine didn’t?” he said. He answered his own question: “With my style, I can take a subject that you’d think would be commercial and turn it into something that not a lot of people want to see.”
Anderson is acutely aware that a lot depends on the reception of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It is, by his standards, an expensive movie. (He puts its budget at forty million.) To be a commercial success, it will have to appeal to young people, many of them, and the question that Anderson raised on the phone with his editor—about finding the right tone for the ending—is of great importance, both for him and for Fox Filmed Entertainment. Tom Rothman, the company’s co-chairman, said the studio knew all along that it had an unusual project on its hands. “The trick,” he told me, “is, from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless. If it cost what ‘Ice Age 3’ did”—an estimated ninety million dollars—“it would have to be more conventional.”
In early May, Anderson and his girl friend, Juman Malouf, a writer and costume designer, took the Eurostar to London, so that Anderson could work with Bill Murray in a recording studio and visit the set where the movie was being shot. (The two men were also making a promotional video for the movie.) Murray was nominated for a Golden Globe for his supporting role in “Rushmore,” and has appeared in all of Anderson’s subsequent movies. In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he lends his voice to the badger who is Mr. Fox’s lawyer.
I joined them at 3 Mills Studio, which occupies the rustic site of a group of tidal mills that were up and running in the Middle Ages and continued to function until the nineteen-forties. Its restored buildings, with their distinctive squat and pointy towers, are situated on an island in the river and are closely watched by security guards. (When I got lost walking toward the set, the disembodied voice of a guard who had been keeping tabs on me by remote camera gave me directions.) The studio’s expanse was subdivided by walls of black cloth running from the floor almost to the ceiling, thirty-five or forty feet high. The vividly decorated sets—depicting farmhouses, factories, a supermarket, fields, and even a three-dimensional twenty-foot-long city (based on a street in Bath)—would have been the dollhouses and dioramas of a child’s most extravagant fantasies, were they not surrounded by a highly focussed horde of more than a hundred animators and crew members.
Though silence didn’t prevail in the studio—it was not a sound stage, since the voices had been prerecorded—quiet did. The business of moving the figurines—which the crew call “puppets”—and the cameras with them, requires surgical concentration. Anderson spoke with the animators, set dressers, camera crew, and production associates. On one set, a computer screen played a video of him miming the gestures that a figurine was to be given. On another, he decided that the head of a fox looked different from the one that he had seen earlier and called for it to be replaced. As Anderson fussed over the details, the unifying principle of his design became clear: to imbue the artifice of stop-motion animation with a strong air of reality.
Anderson wanted the figurines to have “a believable sort of finish, a lifelike quality,” according to Andy Gent, the puppet master. Although the largest of the figurines were only about eighteen inches tall, their fur was, indeed, fur (which, Gent said, came from “safe sources,” such as “food production”). They had been crafted for maximum pliability of expression: Mr. Fox’s eyes were poseable, and his foam-latex face had a jointed framework that could register the slightest sneer or snarl or raised eyebrow. Moreover, the figurines had tailored clothing, made with fabric. (Anderson designed the clothes himself, having his own tailor send fabric samples. He has a suit made from the same corduroy as Mr. Fox’s.) In closeup, not only are the buttons on Mr. Fox’s white shirt visible; so is the stitching at the edge of the collar.
Molly Cooper, the film’s co-producer, told me, “Wes wants the references to be from the real world. A desk actually has a coffee stain, piles of papers, things you’d have in a real-world setting.” Standing before the set of the supermarket, which is filled with hundreds of miniature boxes and cans and bottles and jars, Anderson told Dawson, “Stores don’t put bread in the refrigerator.” Dawson joked, “Here they do,” and Anderson responded, “I’m saying a serious thing. Maybe we shouldn’t have bread in the refrigerator.” Another set featured a miniature piano, whose keys could be depressed individually, so that, when a figurine played, the motions matched those of the real performance being heard on the soundtrack. The walls of one character’s office were lined with tiny cards that Anderson had based on the scheduling board in the film’s production office. On his computer, he’d shown me a still frame of that set and said, gleefully, “Those pushpins, you wouldn’t believe how small they are.”
While at 3 Mills, however, Anderson spent less time on the sets than he did sitting in a large, sparsely furnished office filled with screens and computers, where Weisblum was editing. At one point, he had fifteen or twenty seconds of quiet time while waiting for Weisblum, who had stepped out, and he deadpanned, “Now what do I do?” Weisblum returned and, detecting the quiet, spoke of “a moment of Zen contemplation.” Anderson replied, “Sometimes that happens in the apartment—‘What am I supposed to do now?’ ”
Anderson was born in 1969 in Houston, where his father, who is now retired, ran an advertising and public-relations company and was also a writer. His mother, who studied art, had a Ph.D. in anthropology and worked as an archeologist. (She is now a real-estate agent.) His parents divorced when he was eight; Wes, his older brother, Mel (now a doctor), and his younger brother, Eric (a writer and artist whose paintings and designs have graced several of Anderson’s films), lived with their mother, who often took them along on archeological digs (which Anderson re-created in “The Royal Tenenbaums”). At home, the three brothers undertook explorations of their own, building hideouts, digging pits, and searching for arrowheads. When they couldn’t have real adventures, they made them up.
In elementary school, Anderson loved to watch movies; his favorite was “Star Wars,” and then, with the arrival of home video, an Alfred Hitchcock boxed set. Watching Hitchcock movies, Anderson said, he understood for the first time the role of a director—as the “guy whose thing is making images and sounds to tell the story.” When he was about ten, he got hold of his father’s Super-8 movie camera and, together with Mel, made a series of silent films, recruiting neighborhood kids for on-the-spot performances. The movies included “a study in a murder,” Eric recalled. “The steps leading up to a murder, the murder itself, the aftermath, things like that. Very visceral moment-to-moment storytelling. They weren’t that violent, but they were stylishly violent.”
Already as a youth, Anderson was an aesthete; he assembled his own library of carefully selected editions, had what Eric calls “a cutting-edge record collection,” and covered the walls of his room with his own graphic art and collages. He was a big reader, who, in high school, loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, notably “The Captured Shadow,” about the efforts of a romantic fifteen-year-old, Basil Lee, to stage his own play at his prep school (as the hero of “Rushmore” later would). He was also an athlete; he played soccer and tennis and ran track. After the eighth grade, Anderson, who had graduated from a private day school, moved, somewhat unhappily, to a public high school, where he continued to flaunt his private-school blazer (another experience that he dramatized in “Rushmore”). Later, he transferred to the august, traditional Saint John’s School,* where much of “Rushmore” was filmed.
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in philosophy, Anderson remained movie-obsessed, working part time as a projectionist. (His conversation is liberally seasoned with film references, from John Ford’s 1935 comedy “The Whole Town’s Talking” to Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles,” which, he argues, marked the beginning of the French New Wave.) In Austin, Anderson met Owen Wilson, an English major, in a playwriting class. Wilson noticed Anderson sitting by himself, away from the table where the other students gathered, wearing “L.L. Bean boots with long corduroy-type shorts.” For the class, Anderson had written a play titled “A Night in Tunisia,” which he calls an imitation of Sam Shepard’s 1981 play “True West.” When it was staged, Anderson cast Wilson, a non-actor, in a leading role. The two became roommates, and Anderson asked Wilson to work with him on a script for a feature film. After Anderson graduated (Wilson didn’t), they rented an apartment in Dallas, Wilson’s home town, together with Wilson’s two brothers, Luke and Andrew. “I don’t remember doing anything for money,” Anderson told me. “I don’t remember having any money.” Andrew, who worked for his father in advertising, paid the rent, which was about three hundred and fifty dollars a month.
Under the influence of the kind of realistic modern film noirs they loved, especially Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” Anderson and Wilson outlined the script for a hard-nosed drama about a trio of young men—a controlling ringleader, a dreamy follower, and a put-upon slacker in need of respect—who turn, under the ringleader’s delusional influence, to crime. Anderson planned to make “Bottle Rocket” as a low-budget feature; he cast Owen Wilson in the lead role, Luke Wilson as the follower, and their friend Bob Musgrave, a blues guitarist whom Owen had met in a bar, as the beleaguered one. By the time Anderson set out to shoot the movie—with borrowed equipment and a volunteer crew—he and Owen had had a revelation: they recognized, according to Anderson, that the cast was “in no way realistic as a group of criminals,” and that the film was actually a comedy and “more about our own lives.”
Anderson filmed the opening scenes of the script—which was all he could afford to shoot—and submitted them, as a short film, to the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The short came to the attention of James L. Brooks, who had a contract with Columbia Pictures that allowed him to produce a low-budget film. He told Anderson and Wilson that he wanted to help make their movie. Later that year, Wilson and Anderson, who was twenty-four, moved to Los Angeles, where Brooks mentored them as they rewrote, shot, and edited the movie. Brooks had a lot of mentoring to do. Anderson told me that he considered the movie a “fable” and that he and Owen had filled it with “things we’ve seen in movies that we like.” As a result, he said, “it became a sort of choreographed thing. There were more comic set pieces, and other parts were just personal, from our own experience, and the movie took shape in a way that wasn’t realistic. That made me free to say that the details can really be anything that feels right.” Brooks taught Anderson and Wilson how to pull their “details” together into a coherent script, and how to anticipate the way a film will be perceived by viewers. Nonetheless, the release of “Bottle Rocket,” in February, 1996, was calamitous. Sundance, which had shown the short, rejected the feature. It took in less than a million dollars at the box office.
Still, it appealed to Joe Roth, at Disney, and he agreed to produce Anderson’s next film. With Wilson—who had got favorable reviews for his performance in “Bottle Rocket” and had begun to audition for other parts—Anderson wrote the story of Max Fischer, an intellectually ambitious sophomore at a tony private school, Rushmore Academy, who neglects his studies in favor of a dizzying array of extracurricular achievements—the most important of which is writing and directing grandiose plays based on such seventies movie classics as “Serpico” and “Apocalypse Now.” Expelled from the academy, Max lands in a public high school.
The modest practical outcome of “Bottle Rocket” may actually have helped Anderson in making “Rushmore”; he had little reputation to live up to and no sophomore jinx to skirt, and he now had both the resources and the experience to develop the tone of his first film. Anderson needed a unique actor to play Max, and was deep into a fruitless casting process when seventeen-year-old Jason Schwartzman turned up at an audition. Schwartzman had never acted before—though his mother is the actress Talia Shire, and Francis Ford Coppola is his uncle—but the screenplay excited him. “Everything that I’d ever found funny existed in one script,” he said. Anderson knew at once that he wanted Schwartzman in the role, and he spent a great deal of time coaching him through the shoot. “Literally, we would have dinner every night in his room and go over the scene,” Schwartzman said. “There didn’t seem to be much separation between a working day and a personal day. It was just one big day together.”
To play Herman Blume, a businessman who becomes Max’s benefactor and his rival for a young widow who teaches at Rushmore, Anderson recruited an actor he considered to be a comic genius, Bill Murray, who hadn’t done much of note since “Groundhog Day,” a few years earlier. “The script was so precisely written, you could tell that this guy knew exactly what he was doing; you knew exactly what he wanted to make, exactly how he wanted each scene to go,” Murray told Charlie Rose in 1999. Murray took only a small salary, and even wrote Anderson a check (for about twenty-five thousand dollars) to cover a complex shot that the studio wouldn’t pay for. Anderson got Murray to channel his outrageous sense of humor into low-key wit and contemplative bewilderment, in a performance that was a perfect match for the italicized delivery that Anderson elicited from Schwartzman.
Working with a budget much larger than that of “Bottle Rocket,” Anderson was able to exercise greater control over the film’s physical environment—décor, costumes, setting—and achieve more expressive results with the camera. “Rushmore” was greeted with near-universal acclaim. Schwartzman, thanks to a performance that marked a generational shift for teens in movies, became an overnight star; Murray was reclassified as an artist; and Anderson was praised for his tender yet unsparing view of his dandyish, geeky hero, a headstrong romantic who learns to face reality.
By this time, Anderson had moved to New York, where he collaborated long-distance with Wilson—who was working steadily as an actor in Los Angeles—on the script for his third film, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The story (which, like its title, recalls Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play “The Royal Family”) portrays three child prodigies (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow), raised by their archeologist mother, who return to her home as prematurely burned-out adults. The patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), had little presence in his children’s youth. Late in life, he returns to the family homestead, to get to know his grown children, and to win back his wife (Anjelica Huston). The film is set in an idealized Manhattan, reminiscent of the one depicted in J. D. Salinger’s Glass family saga, in the kind of palatial urban villa that exists only in movies, but which, in fact, Anderson found at the corner of West 144th Street and Convent Avenue, in Harlem, and renovated to his specifications.
“Tenenbaums” is a dark story, turning on drug use, a plane crash, a suicide attempt, racial provocations, fatal illness, and a quasi-incestuous bond between a brother and his adopted sister. Anderson sharply delineates family relations and the deep-rooted resentments that form—and deform—our lives. Yet he undercuts the melodrama with outlandish costumes, exaggerated décor, and witty dialogue—blithe touches that set up a contrast between haut-bourgeois trappings and long-stifled pain. Released in 2001, the film was Anderson’s first commercial hit, earning him and Wilson an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
In 2000, Anderson began work on a fictional homage to Jacques Cousteau, based on a brief sketch that he had written in college. He wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with his friend the screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach (who is also a contributor to The New Yorker). To collaborate on the script, the pair met daily at Bar Pitti, in the West Village, for a late lunch and stayed through dinner, talking, while Anderson occasionally took notes. “I don’t think we ever sat in front of a computer,” Baumbach said. “It was an extension of what our friendship had been. We were getting together anyway—why not turn it into something?”
Anderson and Baumbach watched other movies for inspiration, including “Day of the Dolphin,” “Local Hero,” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” They saw Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart,” in part because Malle had worked with Cousteau in the nineteen-fifties. They also took from French New Wave films, Baumbach said, an open-ended way of constructing the movie: “Let’s put in things that the director likes and connects to, and people he likes and connects to, and make a movie out of it.” The story they worked out brought together elements of “8½,” “Moby-Dick,” and Howard Hawks’s “Red River.”
“The Life Aquatic” begins at a première, where a Jacques Cousteau-like filmmaker named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) presents his latest documentary—a grim piece showing the attack, by a “jaguar shark,” that left his best friend dead—to a dubious audience. Strapped for funds and short of materiel, Zissou nonetheless decides to embark on a daredevil hunt for the monstrous creature and seeks the help of his estranged wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). A crucial subplot involves Zissou’s encounter with his putative son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who joins the crew. Zissou and Plimpton both fall in love with a journalist (Cate Blanchett) who comes along on the journey.
The subject of the movie is an immense film production, requiring boats, cameras, undersea equipment, a helicopter, a huge crew, and endless cash. Anderson was undertaking the very same thing. First, he needed a boat, and, as the production designer Mark Friedberg told the Writing Studio, “Wes was very particular about what type of boat he wanted—that it needed to be of World War II vintage, that it needed to be a minesweeper, that it had to be about fifty metres, and, to some degree, that it would be reminiscent of Cousteau’s Calypso.” As much as possible, Anderson avoided simulations. The scenes in a helicopter were, in fact, filmed in a helicopter. The action scripted to take place aboard ship took place at sea. The actors playing Zissou’s crew actually swam underwater (albeit in a vast studio tank), for which they endured protracted scuba training. Soon after the shoot, Murray called it “by far the most physically demanding, the most emotionally demanding, both personally and professionally,” that he had ever done. Huston told me that Anderson maintained a serenely determined demeanor throughout the stress of the shoot. “If I were to take one isolated vision of Wes,” she said, “it’s in a boat, a rather small motorboat, opposite my motorboat, in choppy seas, foggy, cold, with a megaphone, telling me when to stand up and wave. He was like Captain Ahab on that movie, and it’s such a funny thing to me, because you think of Wes as being effete, toothpick-thin, a little bit languid and pale, and concave, but I have these incredibly bravura, muscular images of him out at sea. Wes, if he needed it for his movie, would hang upside down from a line over the Pyrénées.”
As he had done in his earlier films, Anderson leavened the drama of the story with irony and stylization. He included animated rainbow-colored sea creatures. He oversaw the construction, at Cinecittà, of a huge cutaway set showing a cross-section of the ship—an ant-farm-like vision that resembled legendary sets from Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man” and Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s “Tout Va Bien”—and filmed it in a pair of astonishing crane shots. The furnishings and costumes were chosen with care—including Team Zissou’s light-blue nautical suits with a dark-blue racing stripe and red ski caps—to highlight the childlike earnestness of their quasi-martial esprit de corps.
“The Life Aquatic” was more audacious and extravagant than Anderson’s previous films, but it lost money and faced a critical backlash. Anthony Lane in this magazine, and A. O. Scott in the Times, were among the few who praised the movie. The harshest rejections, however, came not from film critics but from cultural critics. Writing in the journal n+1, Christian Lorentzen, in a piece called “Captain Neato: Wes Anderson and the Problem with Hipsters; Or, What Happens When a Generation Refuses to Grow Up,” claimed that the “failure” of “The Life Aquatic” reflected the end of “the Age of Twee in hipsterdom.” Matthew Wilder, writing in City Pages, derided the movie as “a silo stuffed with a haut-bourgeois 12-year-old kid’s fetish objects” and dreamed of a Maileresque “Big Bruiser” who would teach Anderson (and several other artists of his generation) “art-making . . . as high-wire act, fire-eating contest, bare-knuckle barroom brawl.” These writers were put off, according to Lorentzen, by what they saw as Anderson’s “determined hostility to storytelling, conscious rejection of an art the auteur had almost mastered.” For Wilder, “The Life Aquatic” found Anderson “never mastering the rhythm or even the plastic elements of a satisfying tale.” Michael Hirschorn, in the Atlantic Monthly in 2007, lamented the rise of “quirk” and complained that “The Life Aquatic” was “filled with off-kilter gestures, gorgeous moments, and little narrative thrust.”
In fact, “The Life Aquatic” does tell a story, but it’s one that sprawls with an epic ambition and a picaresque wonder. Anderson’s playfully unstrung storytelling was both purposeful and meaningful: life in the wild, the film suggests, doesn’t follow the neat contours of dramatic suspense but is filled with surprises, accidents, and sudden lurches off course. The film’s arch stylization adds mood, metaphor, and humor to its realistic aspects. But Anderson was aware that he ran the risk of confounding the public’s expectations. He told me, “With ‘Life Aquatic,’ people argued that the whole movie should either be shot on a stage and we should embrace the artificial aspect of it, or it should be real. ‘If you’re gonna chop a boat in half down the middle, then how can you have them then go on the real boat on the real water?’ And I just felt like, ‘Because we want both. I want to shoot some things that are noticeably artificial and, at the same time, have dramatic scenes on the deck of a real ship. I want to be on the real sea, stuck out there with a company of actors experiencing all the absolute nightmares that you have when you try to shoot at sea.’ ” He was aware, he said, that his blend of reality and artifice “ends up being a combination that is not quite one thing or the other, but is its own thing.”
“The Life Aquatic” was proof of Anderson’s maturation as an artist, but it fell outside the norms of popular movie-making; he made a sixty-million-dollar art film, which was marketed to a general audience, and he paid the price at the box office and with the critics. If “The Life Aquatic” also cost Anderson some of his hipster acolytes, it wasn’t only because of its uneasy straddling of genres. The film is bleaker than Anderson’s earlier movies, its message far less reassuring. The young people at the center of “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” benefit, in the end, from the wisdom of elders who love them. In “The Life Aquatic,” the wisdom of Steve Zissou is invested only in his movies, the making of which costs Plimpton his life. Anderson’s bitter paean to the destructive yet redemptive power of cinema may be comforting to cinéastes, but it offers little hope to anyone else.
In 2005, Jason Schwartzman was in Paris, playing Louis XVI in Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette.” Anderson was there for the final days of a short publicity tour for “The Life Aquatic.” Schwartzman invited him to share his apartment, and Anderson stayed for two months. “We were like a married couple,” Schwartzman said. “We’d go shopping together, buy food together,” all the while talking about their lives, their work, their “histories and feelings about the future.” Along with another friend in Paris, Roman Coppola—who had been Anderson’s second-unit director on “The Life Aquatic” and was now fulfilling the same function for his sister Sofia on “Marie Antoinette”—they started to work on a new script. Schwartzman recalled, “Wes said, ‘I think we should write a movie about three brothers in India. That’s kind of all I have now, but the three of us will get together every night and we’ll tell our stories. It will be the most personal thing we could possibly make—let’s try to make it even too personal.’ ”
Anderson rented an apartment of his own in Paris. “I started going to the movies in the Latin Quarter, and developed a catalogue of restaurants,” he said. He shot “Hotel Chevalier,” a short film with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman in a plush hotel room, which would ultimately serve as a prologue to, and backstory for, “The Darjeeling Limited.” (He also shot—and starred in—a now legendary commercial for American Express, based on François Truffaut’s “Day for Night.”) Then, in March, 2006, joined by Coppola, Schwartzman, and Waris Ahluwalia, an old friend who had appeared in “The Life Aquatic” and whose family is from Punjab, he went to India to scout locations, write, and “get into situations to see what would happen.” In preparation, he watched Louis Malle’s seven-part documentary series, “Phantom India,” films by Satyajit Ray, and Jean Renoir’s 1951 Anglo-Indian drama set on the Ganges, “The River.” Another prime influence, he said, was John Cassavetes’s “Husbands,” in which three men grieving over a friend take off on a trip. “They’re all on the cusp or in the middle of some kind of meltdown,” Anderson said. “Jason, Roman, and I watched ‘Husbands’ together, and we really felt connected to it.”
“The Darjeeling Limited,” too, revolves around grief: its main characters are three brothers, who meet in India for a journey of reconciliation a year after their father’s death. Anderson gave them the names Francis, Jack, and Peter—as in Coppola, Nicholson, and Bogdanovich—and something of the personae of these icons filters into the performances of the three lead actors, Owen Wilson, Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody. In India, the three young men’s “spiritual journey,” as Francis calls it, turns intensely physical. They have entered a land where death is a prominent part of life, and, though they actually learn little of India—they are too busy working out their personal problems—they are deeply shaken and definitively changed by the experience nonetheless. Still in mourning for their father, the brothers are even more desperate for their absent mother, whose refuge in a remote convent in the foothills of the Himalayas turns out to be the destination of their journey. Yet, as ever, Anderson prevents the characters’ teeming emotional life from spilling over; he brings it out gradually, in poignant touches, and condenses much of it into a remarkable material world of his own design. The set of suitcases that the three brothers schlep throughout India (made by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, with animal intaglios from drawings by Anderson’s brother Eric) are so vivid as almost to become characters themselves, while serving as a symbol—obvious, yet potent—of their owners’ emotional baggage. (Anderson insisted that the luggage actually be heavily packed with possessions befitting the characters.)
The script’s freewheeling, intimate tone was matched by the method of production. Schwartzman said, “Wes not only pitched a rough idea for a movie, he also pitched a rough idea of how he’d like to make the movie, which was: ‘I want to do a movie with no trailers; all the actors do their own makeup; we shoot it in the streets, without blocking off streets. I don’t want it to be a big production. I don’t want actors wandering away and sitting in their trailers for thirty minutes. I want everyone to stay on set.’ And he made the movie like that. Our suits were pre-wired with our microphones in them; actors did their own hair and makeup.” Anderson rented an Indian train (which was completely redone, in a highly ornamented style, for the shoot), and got permission from the government to film while running it on public tracks. But much of the shoot took place outside the train, in the streets and public spaces of India, without crowd control. “People always ask if we were improvising in the movie,” Schwartzman said. “There was no improvisation, but when we were shooting on real live streets our bodies were improvising. We’d be walking down the street saying the same lines, but in Take Five a woman walks by holding food, so we’d have to move and make way for her while we were talking. We were just mixed in with life.”
Because of its setting, “The Darjeeling Limited” aroused some debate on ethnic issues. In Slate, Jonah Weiner wrote that the film “showcases an obnoxious element of Anderson that is rarely discussed: the clumsy, discomfiting way he stages interactions between white protagonists—typically upper-class élites—and nonwhite foils—typically working-class and poor.” In particular, Weiner argued that a scene in which an Indian boy drowns “isn’t just heavy-handed, it’s offensive. In a grisly little bit of developing-world outsourcing, the child does the bothersome work of dying so that the American heroes won’t have to die spiritually.” The charge was trumped-up—the accident is entirely plausible, the brothers’ response to it humble—but, for Weiner and other writers, it recalled questions that had come up in reference to scenes in earlier Anderson movies, such as Max Fischer’s mangling of an Asian girl’s name, in “Rushmore”; Royal Tenenbaum’s race-baiting of his wife’s suitor, played (eloquently) by Danny Glover; and the jokey depiction of Royal’s sidekick, an Indian man, played by Anderson’s friend Kumar Pallana (who has appeared in four of his films), who is incongruously named Pagoda. In an e-mail, Anderson explained, “These are supposed to be jokes, and the joke is meant to be on the person who gets it wrong. That’s kind of obvious, though, isn’t it?” One writer who seems to have got the joke responded with one of his own: in early 2008, Christian Lander put Anderson’s movies tenth on a long list of “Stuff White People Like”—behind organic food and Barack Obama, but ahead of yoga, microbreweries, and “The Colbert Report.”
The response to “The Darjeeling Limited” does serve as a reminder of the absence of real-world politics in Anderson’s movies. His filming in Asia shows no trace of the two wars that the United States was embroiled in nearby. He explained to me that he wanted his movies to feel “like they were made some time ago, like they weren’t necessarily dated,” but that he doesn’t think this approach makes them apolitical. “The politics in them is the politics among the characters,” he said. “The thing I’ve been thinking about lately is less about how to get more Costa-Gavras into my movies and more about how to get the politics of a movie like ‘Dune’ ”—by David Lynch—“where the politics have been created for the story. It can deepen the fantasy of the movie if there are political layers to the society that you’ve invented.”
By the time “The Darjeeling Limited” was released, in 2007, Anderson was already working on his next project. Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the first book that Anderson remembers owning. (Owen Wilson told me that he was still talking about Dahl in college.) Dahl’s book is short; Anderson knew that to turn it into a feature film he would have to stretch it. He said that he and Baumbach, his co-writer, gave the story “first and third chapters,” treating the book itself as the second. They amplified the characters’ relationships, as well as their conflicts, invented new characters, and gave names, identities, and backstories to the characters who, in the book, are merely sketched in action. The result is not just a longer narrative but also an expanded emotional spectrum. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Fox (who are voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep) bring to life a view of marriage—of a couple whose extraordinary complicity is threatened by ambition—that’s as bittersweet and insightful as that of any live-action romantic movie of recent years. Anderson, whose understanding of childhood is one of the hallmarks of his art—a point of similarity with Truffaut—builds another axis of drama by giving the Foxes a nephew, a gallant young athlete, and setting him up as a rival to their more idiosyncratic son. Anderson and Baumbach, who wrote part of the script in Dahl’s house, also sought to root it in Dahl’s life. The farmer Mr. Bean and his wife derived some of their attributes from Dahl and his widow. Bean’s house is similar to Dahl’s, and the fox runs and the tree where much of the action takes place resemble those in Dahl’s garden.
For stop-motion animation, the actors’ voices must be recorded in advance, so that the figurines’ mouths can be moved in synch with the dialogue. The recording is usually done in a sound studio. Anderson did things differently. In the fall of 2007, he took a handful of actors, including Clooney and Murray, to a friend’s farm in Connecticut. In order to make the voices and the film’s soundscape realistic, Anderson had his actors perform the motions—running, digging, and climbing—that the figurines would perform; he recorded the exterior scenes in the fields, and the interiors in the farmhouse.
Anderson’s direction, with its protracted long takes and tight closeups, treats the figurines like actors, emphasizing their “performances.” The production designer, Nelson Lowry, told me that Anderson’s approach to animation was “very counterintuitive.” He made, Lowry added, “unconventional choices, such as keeping characters still. Usually, animators keep characters constantly in motion; if they’re doing nothing, they blink.” Lowry calls Anderson’s expressive stillness a “compression of character.”
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” offers a dazzling profusion of visual detail, across the height and width of the frame, which repays—even requires—multiple viewings. From the beginning of his career, Anderson has taken pleasure in filling his films with anachronistic tchotchkes similar to the ones that have pride of place in his home. His films are living tributes to the analogue age, with their black-and-white televisions, obsolete office equipment, and hulking electrical devices. “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” for which plausibility is not a problem—talking animals, after all—is replete with them, from the Dictaphone and the typewriter in the law office to a seventies-style bicycle with a banana seat. And it’s in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that the point of these objects, their essential place in Anderson’s world view, becomes apparent. “I wanted to make a children’s movie like some of the ones I grew up with,” he told me. “And that went with the idea of how you didn’t have to wear helmets when you rode bicycles. I never wore a helmet riding a bicycle, and, in a way, the movie is for children who don’t wear helmets when they ride bicycles. Maybe that sounds terrible. I support children wearing helmets on their bicycles—there’s just a certain nostalgia for when they didn’t. For when we didn’t.”
In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson evokes a nostalgia for risk, for danger faced with an unspoken courage and audacity. This nostalgia was the indirect subject of discussions between Anderson and executives at Fox. The results of two secret test screenings held in the New York area, in April, were said to be favorable, but the studio requested that Anderson make some changes to align the film with more conventional children’s movies—getting rid of the cigarettes (smoked by villains), for instance, and what Anderson calls “occasional blood, but nothing horrible.” Anderson did not make the changes. In the tacit bargain that followed, Anderson, who usually takes an active role in the marketing of his films, agreed to trust the studio’s expertise in the field. When Fox released a trailer for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” in July, many of Anderson’s fans were surprised to discover that it contained neither his name nor Roald Dahl’s. (According to Rothman, it was only the first of several trailers—the one destined for the widest audiences, and “aimed at a mother in New Jersey who’s never been to an art house”—and was followed by another, for Anderson fans.)
Dahl’s book ends with Mr. Fox and his family and friends hiding deep underground from the farmers who are awaiting the chance to kill them. Despite the depths of their isolation, however, Mr. Fox has found a steady source of food for them—the farmers’ own storehouses:
“And you know what this means?” said Mr. Fox. “It means that none of us need ever go out into the open again!”
Anderson changed the ending a little, based on something that he found in Dahl’s manuscripts. The new version remains true to the writer’s vision but adds Anderson’s own philosophical twist: the animals, in their underground exile, don’t merely subsist, they prosper; they are sheltered from the wild winds of nature and predators, while enjoying the pleasures and comforts that only human culture can offer. The ending, which Anderson had worried about from his desk in Paris, seems, in some ways, a celebration. The animals’ adventure may have had a high cost, but, when all is said and done, they have come together as never before. They have achieved something utterly original, and, from the safety of their sanctuary, they are free to do still more. ♦
*Correction, December 1, 2009: Anderson transferred to Saint John’s School, not St. John’s Academy, as originally stated.