Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Photo: ?Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.
Let me tell you about my book, The Wes Anderson Collection. These are some of the things I learned while reporting it.
1. Wes Anderson and “Wes Anderson” are not the same guy.
“Wes Anderson” is the nattily dressed impresario who relishes his public role as an artist and filmmaker. “Wes Anderson” appeared in an American Express ad as “himself,” in a long tracking shot modeled on Day for Night, a film by his favorite director, Francois Truffaut. But the actual guy — whom I first met about twenty years ago in Dallas, when he was starting out as a filmmaker and I was starting out as a journalist — is more reticent. Odd as it might sound, given that his name appears above the title of his movies, he’s not crazy about being the center of attention for very long. The Wes Anderson Collection was conceived in late summer of 2009, but it took almost a year to get Wes to agree to sit for a book-length interview about his work, not because of the time commitment, but because he was skittish about participating in a whole book focused on his films.
2. He will happily discuss the technical or structural aspects of his movies, or the history of cinema or popular music, but when it comes to interpreting his own work, he clams up.
There are parts of the book where we go off on long tangents about the structure of the screenplay to Rushmore, or the evolution of his particular style of tracking shot, but almost every time I’d propose a theory about the unifying themes of his films, he’d either respond noncommittally (his “Hmm” responses in the book are already infamous) or else give the barest hint of agreement or disagreement.
3. It is important to him that viewers imprint their own values and experiences on his films and not worry too much about what he personally is trying to communicate.
Back in 2010, I did a video essay on The Darjeeling Limited for the movie’s Criterion Blu-ray edition. Wes’ only note was that he wondered if there was some way to make the narration sound less authoritative, because he didn’t want people thinking that my interpretation of his work was in some sense the “official” or “approved” interpretation. It was important to Wes that every viewer feel that his or her own take on the film was equally valid. So I re-recorded the audio track of the video essay to make it sound more extemporaneous—as if I was just making up the thoughts off the top of my head and they were just one guy’s opinion. The finished piece expressed exactly the same thoughts as the first version, but the tone was warmer and more casual, and hopefully communicated to viewers that it was just one way of looking at the movie.
Similarly, during the writing of The Wes Anderson Collection, Wes repeatedly told me it was important to communicate to readers, through tone and design, that the seven critical essays were my take on his work, that he himself neither approved nor disapproved of their observations, and that readers should feel that their own take was just as valid.
4. He doesn’t find reviews terribly useful, whether they’re positive or negative.
“There’s one thing you can absolutely, 100 percent rely on,” he told me, when we discussed reviews, “which is that if you show five different people the same thing, they’re all going to have a different complaint or compliment. Each is going to have a different response, and you’d better know what you’re gonna do, otherwise you’re going to get confused… [H]ow much good can come from putting any time into studying how people are responding to your movies? The best case scenario is that it makes you feel flattered for a certain period of time, which doesn’t really buy you much, in life: and inevitably, it’s not going to just be the best-case scenario, so learn to spare yourself that experience, I’d say.”
5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was sparked partly by Anderson’s childhood fascination with Jacques Cousteau, but also by “an idea about a boat that’s been cut in half.”
6. The story of The Royal Tenenbaums was inspired by the chance purchase of a CD of Maurice Ravel music in college.
Listening to Ravel’s “String Quartet in F Major” prompted a fantasy about “…an F. Scott Fitzgerald-type New York story. I pictured it being set in the 1960s, though. It was probably a bit like Good Night and Good Luck, something like that!” Anderson fantasized about using that quartet in the film’s opening credits, in “the scene where Margot is coming off the bus, and the tennis court scene where Richie has his meltdown.” He ended up using the second movement in the sequence where the major players are introduced.
7. His favorite Alfred Hitchcock film is Rear Window because of its point of view.
Wes was introduced to Hitchcock via a bunch of reissued films on Betamax video in the eighties. He latched onto Rear Window because it never leaves the hero’s apartment. “Some of the other people who live there, you never see them close at all — you just see them from across the way.” Anderson’s movies often include images of voyeurism, particularly Moonrise Kingdom, whose heroine Suzy Bishop carries binoculars with her everywhere she goes.
8. He was introduced to the concept of video piracy by his childhood doctor.
“The idea of a pirated anything was introduced to me by the fact that Star Wars was playing on the TV set in my doctor’s office,” he told me. “Somehow he got hold of Star Wars. I think that would be frowned upon today.” Or maybe not!
9. His fascination with tree-houses probably comes from The Swiss Family Robinson.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot writes a play called The Levinsons in the Trees. The idea of characters living in trees is central to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and a treehouse figures in Moonrise Kingdom. In interviews, Anderson said he wasn’t entirely sure where this obsession came from, but that he’d long been fascinated by Johann David Wyss’$2 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson, about a family that gets wrecked in the East Indies and builds a number of structures, including a treehouse, to survive.
10. He became close friends with Owen Wilson because Owen Wilson just suddenly started acting as if they were close friends.
Anderson and his frequent leading man and sometime screenwriting collaborator took a playwriting class together at the University of Texas at Austin, but they didn’t hang out or talk. Then one day Wilson came up to Anderson in the corridor of a building in the English department. “We were signing up for classes and he started asking me to help him figure out what he should do, as if we knew each other. As if we had ever spoken before or knew each other’s names. I almost feel like he was taking it for granted that if we didn’t know each other yet, soon we would.”
11. His breakthrough, the short film “Bottle Rocket,” was originally meant as the first section of a feature to be shot piecemeal
“We wrote it as a feature,” he told me. “We started shooting it in 1992. I want to say: When we made the short, we felt we were making installments of the feature.” Then James L. Brooks got Anderson and the Wilson brothers a deal at Columbia to shoot the whole story in color, with James Caan in a supporting role…’Bottle Rocket’ the short was never meant to be a short. We always meant to just keep shooting. We were never thinking, ‘Let’s throw out what we’ve already done and start over form the beginning with more money.”
12. Anderson and Wilson technically never attended the Sundance directing lab with Frank Oz, Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy), and other established filmmakers, as some journalists (including yours truly) had mistakenly written; they actually audited the class.
“It was a directing lab,” he told me almost two decades later. “But I probably didn’t tell you at the time that we were in the lab. I probably choose not to accentuate the fact that we were kind of second-class citizens. … No one explained that to us. We arrived there and it was like, ‘OK, now you two go over there and talk about your scene while everybody else is doing something a bit different.”
13. Bottle Rocket, the feature, was rejected by every festival Anderson submitted it to.
“We didn’t get into Sundance. We didn’t get into Telluride. We didn’t get into New York. I don’t remember what other festivals we tried to enter it in, but those were the big ones, the ones we were really hoping for. And we didn’t get in…Well, the whole thing was a disaster…By then, the Cinderella story was long over. Once we screened the movie for an audience and eighty-five people walked out, we knew the coach was about to turn back into a pumpkin.”
14. The idea for Rushmore predated the idea for Bottle Rocket.
Anderson and Wilson submitted treatments for both movies with their film school applications. They thought of Rushmore first, but it ended up being Anderson’s second film as director.
15. Rushmore was originally going to be scored entirely with the Kinks.
“They seemed to be kind of a good model,” Anderson told me. “They’re in blazers but they’re more like sort of lunatics, which is also our character [Rushmore hero Max Fischer]. Eventually, it became more of a British invasion idea.”
16. Bill Murray worked on Rushmore for scale.
He got a piece of the profits, but his day rate was Screen Actors Guild minimum. By Anderson’s estimate, Murray made about $9,000 from acting in Rushmore.
17. When Disney didn’t want to pay for a helicopter shot for Rushmore’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” montage, Murray wrote a check to cover the costs of chopper rental.
The helicopter shot ended up being cut from the film anyway, but Anderson still has Murray’s un-cashed check for $25,000, $16,000 more than he was paid for acting in the movie.
18. The role of Royal Tenenbaum was written for Gene Hackman “against his wishes.”
Hackman told Anderson, “I don’t like it when people write for me, because you don’t know me, and I don’t want what you think is me.”
19. Royal’s line in Tenenbaums, “I know you, asshole!” is lifted from Witness.
Harrison Ford says it to Danny Glover — a future Tenenbaums co-star, as it turned out — in the scene where he gets shot.
20. When young Richie Tenenbaum releases Mordecai the Falcon from the roof of his house in the prologue of The Royal Tenenbaums, you’re actually looking at two birds, a falcon and a hawk.
There were three falcons used in the falcon sequences, plus a hawk. The hawk was a rehabilitated bird authorized to be released into the wild again. “That’s what flies away at the beginning,” Anderson told me, “A hawk. The actor releases a falcon, but then we cut to a hawk.”
21. The tracking shot through the train at the end of The Darjeeling Limited, ending with the tiger in the bushes, was all shot on a real train traveling through actual countryside in India.
The film crew gutted a railroad car and built a set with multiple rooms, filled the rooms with actors, and moved the camera among them, ending with a pan from Bill Murray to reveal the movie’s resident Grim Reaper figure, a man-eating tiger (actually a puppet created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop). At one point, the camera seems to move between cars so that you can see that it’s real countryside in the background.
22. Anderson’s first spectacular tracking shot was a reaction to bad weather.
Anderson’s first elaborately choreographed tracking shot is the aquarium groundbreaking in Rushmore. It was originally meant to be a more subdued shot facing the athletic field. The day before shooting there was a torrential rain that turned the field to mud. Anderson turned the camera around and shot toward the bleachers instead, and compensated for the less attractive background by moving the camera in an intricate pattern and filling the background and foreground with action. Anderson liked the result so much that “after that, I kept doing it. More and more, I’d say, ‘I’d like to do this on a train track.’”
23. The very first member of the Star Wars fan club was Roman Coppola, Wes Anderson’s screenwriting collaborator on Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Limited.
Coppola’s dad, Francis Ford Coppola, produced Star Wars creator George Lucas’ American Graffiti and worked with him on many other projects, so Roman had the inside track.
24. Anderson is comfortable admitting that classical storytelling is something he’s neither good at nor particularly interested in.
“I read some of Roald Dahl’s notebooks and journals and things, and he would have a sentence that says, ‘Idea for story where a husband’s cheating,’ and it lays it out, and you see there’s a whole story there,” he told me, by way of discussing Rushmore. “I’ve never had any of those. I don’t have any gift for that. Every movie I’ve done is this accumulation of information about these characters and who they are and what their world is, and slowly figuring out what’s going to happen to them.”
Find The Wes Anderson Collection here.