Interview with Wes Anderson

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Interview with Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson sits happily in his private space, shielded from the world by medical screens. But the man critics call America’s most visionary young film-maker isn’t in hospital. He’s in the VIP chill-zone of a German church hall that’s become a miniature Wes-world, decked out as a 3-D version of his new movie, The Royal Tenenbaums, for its European launch at the Berlin Film Festival. The party mood is euphoric: while his previous Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) failed to break out of cult status, Tenenbaums has already racked up an impressive $50m at home.

A cast-list including names like Paltrow, Stiller and Hackman doesn’t do any harm at the box-office, of course, but there’s the real sense that Anderson has finally arrived: along with his co-writer (and Tenenbaums star) Owen Wilson, he’s been nominated for his first Oscar. This time, it’s for the script – American critics reckon that Director and Picture nominations are only a matter of time for the wunderkind they see as combining aspects of Preston Sturges, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, no less.

But when he finally emerges from behind the screens, I find this lanky, bookish 31-year-old philosophy graduate wearing the burden of praise and expectation lightly. His view of Welles is forthright and practical: “In as much as he was ‘oppressed’ by the studio system, ultimately it had to be in him,” he says. “He always seemed to find a way to thwart his own process – he does the second movie, and he leaves before it’s done – he could have stayed with the movie and preserved it,” Anderson comments, dismayed.

That ‘second movie’ was of course The Magnificent Ambersons – to which Anderson nods not only with his title but by deploying an unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin) who opens the movie with a very literary introduction to Manhattan lawyer Royal Tenenbaum (Hackman) and his archaeologist wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who raise their three children Chas (Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and the adopted Margot (Paltrow) as Salingeresque child prodigies ill-equipped to deal with the adult world.

Not that this is the ‘adult world’ anybody actually lives in – Anderson meticulously creates an alternative New York based on ideas he formed growing up in distant Austin, Texas: “My first impression was from reading the New Yorker magazine in the school library,” he says – writers like E B White, now best known for creating ‘Stuart Little’. The recent talking-mouse movie version adapted White’s stories into a sunnily Tenenbaums-ish vision of the city, but Anderson’s palette is darker – when I ask which Manhattan movies were his main influences, he mentions Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, another outsider’s blackly-comic vision of the Upper East Side.

Because, despite the humour, there’s also a very wintry, late-afternoon tone that runs through all Anderson’s work – with Tenenbaums he even considered having snow falling as a permanent backdrop. That might have been a stylised step too far: the movie is already a balancing act between the troubled lives of the characters and their cartoonish appearance, each of them permanently kitted-out in a distinct quirky wardrobe. “For me,” Anderson says, “that’s a fun thing to work on – coming up with peculiar costumes for the characters, the strange settings, the unreality of it all, inventing a world that’s not real.”

Music is crucial – Anderson soundtracks are like compilation tapes from a friend with terrific, offbeat tastes, and anyone who still thinks Cameron Crowe is a talented director should watch the scenes in Rushmore and Almost Famous set to Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind.’ In Tenenbaums, the moods range from jaunty euphoria (Paul Simon) to wistful longing (Jackson Browne via Nico) to suicidal depression (Elliot Smith) with equal flair, as Anderson once again crafts an alternative reality into which we all may segue. Or not: “Some people kind of get these movies, and some people really don’t …” he laughs. “I don’t even know if Hackman thought it was a comedy or not until he saw the finished movie.”

Many viewers share that uncertainty, and there are moments when Anderson seems more like a goofy student film-maker than any kind of great cinematic artist. Asked why he did this or that, his response is often along the lines of “I don’t think we have any real theories about that stuff, it’s just what makes us laugh.” Why, for instance, is The Royal Tenenbaums presented in the form of a book? “I don’t feel any real purpose for that, it’s just a stylistic choice.”

But there’s no uncertainty in his technique: the only time time he’s used a fade is at the end of Bottle Rocket – he favours sudden, clean cuts, as definite and clear as the ‘Futura Bold’ typeface that runs through his work. While the results can be exhilarating, there’s also something airless about this straight-edged, obsessively compartmentalised approach. Impressive as it is, Tenenbaums falls short alongside another third movie by a prodigy named Anderson (and edited by Dylan Tichenor, coincidentally), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which has the maturity to embrace messiness and ambiguity as routes to emotion and truth.

Wes Anderson’s films explore the limitations of genius – they’re full of people who can’t or won’t grow up – and he must surely now show how he’s learned from his characters’ mistakes, and risk leaving smart-kid cleverness behind. The Berlin party features a replica of the Tenenbaum’s toy-cupboard, a tiny closet packed from floor to ceiling with hundreds of board games. But the recreation lacks the stifling claustrophobia of the original – and there’s no sign of the title I reckon might be Anderson’s own favourite: Go To The Head Of The Class.


25 th February, 2002

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index