What's Wrong with Wes Anderson?
If we were back in Wes Anderson's native Texas, the plate of food he's showing little mercy might be called the Morning Roundup or the Wildcatter's Special. Unfortunately for my wallet, we're in a booth at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and here it's called Barry's Breakfast and costs about four times more than it has any right to. Anderson spears an Italian sausage link (butterflied and grilled), bites off a chunk, holds the remains in the air for a moment and confesses, "It's my second breakfast." Despite that, he's more than game when I suggest splitting a side order of pancakes. The thin man's unexpected voraciousness reminds me of the last time I saw him.
It was a little more than ten years ago when I accompanied Anderson on a road trip that started in Los Angeles on the morning that his breakthrough movie, Rushmore, opened there and in New York. With each mile marker on our way to Texas, the first stop in a journey that would propel him to New York and beyond, came reports from theaters on both coasts. The reports were good. Anderson's quirky story of a love triangle between a rich industrialist played by Bill Murray, an eccentric prep-school rebel played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman and a first-grade teacher touched a nerve with a certain audience that appreciated its postmodern updating of The Graduate by way of Harold and Maude.
As the miles passed and the momentum built, it became clear that the horizons of Anderson's future were expanding in ways that few people experience. Just two years earlier, his first feature, Bottle Rocket, had crashed and burned so badly that his panicked writing partner and muse, Owen Wilson, suggested they put as much distance as they could between themselves and the now-beloved cult classic. "When 85 people get up and leave the theater, you kind of get the message that something's wrong," says Anderson, remembering a particularly bad screening. That all changed in a day: Rushmore would soon be nominated for Independent Spirit and Golden Globe awards and be placed on many critics' year-end Top 10 lists, not to mention relaunch Bill Murray's career. Suddenly, we were driving into a landscape of endless possibilities — terrifying in some ways, or so it seemed. Anderson, though, seemed poised and welcoming. Besides, the white Ford Explorer he had apparently convinced Disney to rent for him in perpetuity was stocked with a cooler full of sandwiches, sodas and various snacking items. What could go wrong?
It wasn't yet noon when he asked if I wanted a sandwich from the cooler.
"In lieu of In-N-Out Burger?" I asked, worried we were going to blow past one of the few reasons to stop in Barstow. "No, not in lieu of In-N-Out Burger. Let's stop at the next In-N-Out Burger!"
Anderson managed to talk, drive and wolf down his burger, fries and vanilla shake without missing a beat or a lane change.
Ten years can change some things. The guy driving the Ford Explorer had soft features, unstylish glasses and a schoolboy haircut. He dressed in an oxford shirt and corduroys that looked like they were bought during a back-to-school sale at Kohl's. The guy across the booth at Kate Mantilini has a leaner body and a sharper face. The glasses are gone and the hair looks expensively trained. His oxford is crisp and monogrammed above the breast pocket in a delicate font that reads W.W.A., for Wesley Wales Anderson. His suit is a made-to-order burnt-orange corduroy number.
These clothes rest on wood hangers, not the floor. Sure, he looks a little overly art-directed, but who's to begrudge him? He's 40 now, in love, lives in France and is one of the singular voices in American cinema. He can dress how he pleases. But his eyes, arch then behind those nerd glasses, now seem like they're on the lookout, giving way only occasionally to the bursts of mischief that punctuate his often dolorous movies. Of course, not everything has changed. Anderson can still talk a blue streak while simultaneously gulping coffee and mashing up Texas-size gobs of food. There's another thing: Now as then, Wes Anderson's future is at a critical juncture.
We meet up the day after his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, kicks off the AFI Fest film festival at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It's not quite like a reunion of long-lost friends, but there is a certain familiarity. I ask him if he remembers leaving behind one chapter in his life and starting another during that trip a decade ago.
"I think, on that trip, without knowing it, I was moving permanently to New York, or moving to New York for the next seven years, or something like that," he says. "So, to me, that was a big change, becoming a New Yorker."
We had departed from the house he shared with Owen and Luke Wilson on Citrus Avenue just south of Wilshire. It was the last place he lived in Los Angeles.
"I never particularly wanted to live in Los Angeles," he explains. "Owen liked L.A. a lot. Owen had been at USC for a year and he loved it here and I think he wanted to live here. I wanted to live in New York."
"I guess it's because of books and movies and I love the theater and the idea of the theater," he says, "So that appeals to me more. Owen likes the ocean...Owen has a really nice way with the ocean and the sea."
Anderson tells me that throughout filming of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the entire cast and crew would be intensely focused on a scene until, inevitably, something just off camera distracted them — Wilson splashing around in the sea.
"It's like somebody who gets up and walks out of the classroom and you can look out the window and he's outside climbing a tree or something," Anderson says. "Owen would end up in the water, you know, in almost any circumstance."
Anderson now lives in Paris, an event that, like his move to New York, was less planned than just happened. He had been in Europe promoting The Life Aquatic and wound down the tour in Paris for a few days. Meanwhile, his friend Schwartzman ended up in town shooting Marie Antoinette. After a while, Anderson moved in with the Rushmore star for a couple of months.
"Then, I got my own apartment and it kind of went from there," he says. "I didn't leave Europe for a year and a half. I didn't come back. I was supposed to go away for two weeks on this trip and I didn't come back."
I wonder if the choppy waters his picaresque, big-budget Cousteau send-up was navigating back home encouraged the exile, but Anderson says it was simply a matter of wanting a new experience.
"For me, in France, I'm a foreigner all the time. If I'm walking down the street and I turn a corner that's not familiar to me, it's like going to a movie or something," he says. "I feel like I'm on an adventure and seeing something new."
Anderson has a measured, folksy way of telling a story — even when he's reading from cue cards, as when he introduced Fantastic Mr. Fox at the sold-out AFI screening by reminiscing about "the last time I was in this famous movie palace."
It was in 1996 for a midnight showing of Independence Day, July 3 turning into the Fourth. "You could tell this movie was going to be a hit," he deadpanned. "There was a lot of excitement. And unlike tonight, we paid money for our tickets. I don't think it was any more crowded than it is now and I personally would like to believe that there is at least as much excitement here at this moment, at least for me..."
It was impossible to tell whether or not he was poking fun at something — Independence Day, the American Film Institute, himself. He went on to thank lots of people involved with the production of the film. Pointedly, he left out his director of photography, Tristan Oliver, who, along with animation director Mark Gustafson, had been quoted in an October 11 Los Angeles Times piece blaming Anderson for tension during the Fox shoot.
"He made our lives miserable," said Gustafson.
"I think he's a little sociopathic," added Oliver. "I think he's a little OCD. Contact with people disturbs him...he's a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain."
Any way you slice it, an animated film done entirely in stop-motion — an exacting process that employs puppets, figurines and microscaled sets that are moved in tiny increments and shot frame by frame to simulate movement — is going to be a bitch. Anderson also insisted his animators refrain from using their favorite tool, computer-generated imagery. In other words, every shot in Fox was built from scratch. But the real issue for Gustafson and Oliver was that Anderson rarely set foot on the studio floor during principal photography. Instead, he called the shots from his Paris apartment via a system that allowed Anderson and his editor, Andrew Weisblum, to look through some 30 cameras on the film's London set remotely from their computers.
In effect, principal photography was directed via e-mail and phone.
Tension between a strong-willed director and his crew on a long, complicated shoot (more than a year in production) isn't exactly news. Still, having two key collaborators go on the record with their grievances is uncommon, and the Times piece seemed to be pleased that Anderson was being thrown under the bus.
The controversy was then aired on a fanboy site called The Rushmore Academy — The World of Wes Anderson. Oliver posted twice apologizing for "a couple of careless, flip remarks" that he says were taken out of context at a press junket, and stating that he has nothing but "the utmost respect" for Anderson. He also asked that the death threats stop.
For his part, Anderson says he initially misjudged how the movie would be made. His original plan was to write the script, record the actors' voices, work with the production designer to create the sets and puppets, draw some pictures and plan the shots. Then, he would hand the project off to the animators, who would send him back the shots.
"That's not the way it happened," he says. "In fact, all those things were kind of happening at once. And in the process of animating, I realized I wanted to be more involved than I thought. So we kind of had to make a system. What ended up happening was, for two years, all I was doing was working on this movie. I thought when the animation would be going on, I could direct another movie. Instead it was all day, every day, all weekends, a continual thing. And it was fun."
Fantastic Mr. Fox's unveiling comes after a lengthy gestation. Anderson, a huge fan of the original 1933 King Kong movie, had wanted to adapt the classic Roald Dahl children's story for years.
"The idea of doing stop-motion and doing this book kind of occurred to me together around the time when we met before — a long time ago," he says. "Before we did The Royal Tenenbaums, I'd already met with Roald Dahl's wife."
Various snafus, including the difficulties Anderson's Rushmore champion (and former Disney Studios chairman) Joe Roth was having getting traction for his startup Revolution Studios, put the project on hold. "So, I did other movies in between," says Anderson.
Those movies have comprised an oeuvre saturated with droll humor, signature color palettes and nostalgia for an often idealized past. His trademark moves — deadpan, retro, British Invasion, eccentricity, pastiche, a fetish for objects/artifacts and, not least, characters in various states of arrested development — have formed a trademark aesthetic. Whether that aesthetic serves to leaven his films' pathos or hedge their emotional bets by creating a safe distance for both auteur and audience is debatable. What isn't, though, is that by the time The Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2001, the highly literate, postmodern, Prozac-popping kids who listened to Elliott Smith and read McSweeney's had made Anderson their Chosen One. And Tenenbaums, which more than tripled the box office of Rushmore while earning Anderson and Owen Wilson an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, was a generational movie.
Then, the air came out of the tires. Released in 2004, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou cost $60 million and took in $24 million. The more modestly budgeted Darjeeling Limited grossed $12 million in 2007, $5 million less than Rushmore. These were commercial failures, sure, but the critics were also starting to pile on. Phrases like "too precious," "cloying" and "detached" popped up more and more in Anderson's reviews.
In one case of hipster cannibalization, The Hipster Handbook author Robert Lanham, writing for the übercool Viceland Web site, said of The Life Aquatic: "Wes Anderson doesn't make movies anymore. He creates overly precious paintings inhabited by emasculated man-children who knit sweater vests to the accompaniment of Belle & Sebastian while fantasizing that they're macho enough to skin a caribou with a pocketknife. The set pieces to The Life Aquatic are stunning, but watching this film is like visiting the Natural History Museum. It's a beautiful building, but most of its pleasures are filled with lifeless things."
More ominously, and more irresponsibly, Slate pop critic Jonah Weiner came just short of calling Anderson a racist after the release of The Darjeeling Limited. "Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty," he wrote. "He's wise enough to make fun of it here and there, but in the end, there's something enamored and uncritical about his attitude toward the gaffes, crises, prejudices and insularities of those he portrays. In The Darjeeling Limited, he burrows even further into this world, even (especially?) as the story line promises an exotic escape. Hands down, it's his most obnoxious movie yet."
It's hard to say why the criticism became so vitriolic or why audiences stopped going to his movies. One catches a whiff of schadenfreude for the wunderkind who could be seen on TV around the time of Life Aquatic paying homage to Truffaut while also lampooning himself and all directors in a hilarious American Express commercial. It's almost like someone in charge couldn't wait to serve Anderson his comeuppance for being given too much too soon. It probably didn't help that Martin Scorsese had singled Anderson out as the next Martin Scorsese in an Esquire article published after Rushmore came out.
Anderson admits he was a little taken aback by the failure of The Life Aquatic — his biggest and most beautiful film, brimming with mirth, mischief and longing. It's also the most metaphysical of Anderson films, ending on a scene in which the mysteries of nature — symbolized by the heretofore mythological jaguar shark — swallow whole the existential angst and self-absorption of team Zissou, replacing them with a transcendent awe.
"When it came out, it seemed like it just sank and I didn't really know what to make of it because I kind of thought, Well, this is like a seagoing adventure, this ought to have an audience," he says. "But, stepping back, it's kind of a big, very odd...not deliberately odd...I don't know what movie to say it is like. It's just sort of its own thing. Maybe if it came out 20 years earlier in a different environment, it would have been fine...in a time when MASH is a huge hit, where a movie can be released on one screen and play for three weeks and then it can move to another place and play for a year and people can process it in a different way."
Anderson also concedes that some of the recent criticism has gotten into his head.
"I think certain criticisms that I've heard about myself repeatedly start to linger," he says, looking out the window, almost embarrassed for exposing himself in this way. "The things that I think about are whether or not I'm telling the same kind of family stories and whether these movies are so meticulously art-directed or organized that people can't get into the story. I feel like with Darjeeling Limited, I got a lot of people saying I was repeating certain things. But for me, I was doing a movie in India about these three brothers and those things are different. I mean, it's in India. It's a completely different movie.
"In the end, I just do whatever I do, probably," he says.
In some ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox can be seen as a referendum on what Anderson does. As with Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, goodwill toward the source material isn't in question. And it's unlikely that studios will continue to fork over Life Aquatic– or Fox-size budgets to Anderson without some evidence he can pay them off.
To his credit, Anderson hasn't let the pressure of dealing with either a sacred text or his recent track record cow him: Fox is a Wes Anderson movie through and through, despite the curious absence of the director's name from distributor 20th Century Fox's early marketing campaign. In fact, it might be the most Anderson movie to date, seeing as he designed every aspect of it from scratch, including the vulpine principals and their coalition of furry friends. To say the movie is meticulously art-directed is an understatement. In many ways, it is art direction.
"I liked the idea of just doing a movie where we could build the whole movie, and working in miniatures is kind of interesting because, in a live-action movie, you're not designing somebody's face and you're rarely designing a tree, you know?" Anderson says. "That was something that appealed to me. Building landscapes and things like that."
To get the film's look and feel right, Anderson visited Dahl's widow, Felicity, at the late author's estate in Buckinghamshire, England.
"When I was there, it was really muddy. It was the fall, or maybe the winter, and it was not like a green, English wonderland at that time. And I started taking pictures around his house and said, 'Let's build this little bit of landscape,' and had this thing of keeping it really fall type of colors," he recalls. "So everything was [about] taking pictures of landscapes or objects, tons of things from Dahl's house, and making them in miniature."
Visually, the film is a masterwork, and all the justification anyone should need for Anderson's insistence on applying old-fashioned techniques to what has become filmmaking's most progressive idiom — animation. In Fox, the textured, burnished, autumnal hues evoke an endless pumpkin patch in a New England October. Fur bristles, wind blows across meadows, sunlight radiates — the whole thing feels as tactile and pregnant as a field ready for harvest.
To write the screenplay, Anderson moved into Dahl's house for two weeks with his friend and sometimes collaborator Noah Baumbach, the writer and director of Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale. But whom, I ask Anderson, did they have in mind for the film's audience when crafting the script?
"I don't know what our audience is," he says. "I certainly sat down to write it as a children's film and we didn't do anything while we were writing it to make it more adult. We didn't really do much to try to make it more for children, either."
The film has gotten rave early notices, critics calling it a return to form. Personally, I was left scratching my head at the end, wondering what's so fantastic about a fox whose ego and narcissism damn his family and friends to a life eating processed grocery-store food in a sewer system far beneath the gorgeous landscape the director rendered with so much love. It seems no cause for celebration, yet that's how it's played. And the celebration feels forced and tacked on — a concession one wonders if Anderson would have made a few years ago.
After everything has been eaten, including the pancakes, and the sun is starting to set, casting a soft glow right out of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I ask Anderson what his biggest surprise and biggest disappointment have been over the past ten years.
"What is a nice surprise is to have with Jumon, my girlfriend, this sort of life in Paris, for instance, that we know how to do," he says. "We know how to survive and have a nice time there and function in what was once to me a distant, exotic place."
"Does it still feel romantic there, the way you thought it would be?"
"Yeah, and I feel like it always will, because of the history. That will not go away, the history of that place. A negative would be...for me, the hardest things are just the movies you spend years on. Not everybody's occupation in their life is [about] this moment where it's kind of yes, or no, where there's a kind of deciding moment for the three years you just spent. And when the movie comes out, it can go badly."
I'm not sure why Anderson's recent movies have gone badly. All seem like different expressions of an artist's singular voice — each unique in its own way yet instantly recognizable as an Anderson film.
There's a scene in The Darjeeling Limited that crystallizes that voice and the deep, inchoate weltschmerz Anderson seems to have been grappling with since Bottle Rocket. In it, the lovely train attendant with whom Schwartzman's Jack (as in Nicholson) has become infatuated asks him, "What is wrong with you?" as he and his brothers are being kicked off the train.
"Let me think about that. I'll tell you next time I see you," Jack replies, staring after her as the train pulls away.
"I feel like, 'What's wrong with you?' — that could almost be addressed to practically my entire circle of friends," Anderson says. "The world is saying that to us, 'What's wrong with you?' When you ask me, 'What are you grappling with?' That's more or less..." He pauses and laughs. "Let me think about it and I'll tell you the next time I see you. I don't really know, but it's kind of vast enough that you can sink your teeth into it."
We say our good-byes, and I wonder as I drive north on a tidy side street if it'll be another ten years before he can tell me. Then, I see a figure striding through the Beverly Hills flats with the late-afternoon sun reflecting off his corduroy suit like it would a shield. There are no people anywhere and the trees are little and white and the Spanish-style houses are little and white and the yards are precisely manicured. There's nothing out of the ordinary going on here, other than somebody walking in L.A. And yet, for some reason, the whole thing strikes me as the loneliest thing on Earth. I pull over and ask if he wants a lift.
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