Cover Story: Wes' Head

Understanding the funny world of The Royal Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson

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Director Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is not one to overlook a telling juxtaposition. So it hasn't escaped him that, as his third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, about a family of geniuses, is hitting theaters, Anderson himself is being branded a genius by the entertainment media. How does a still young (32) filmmaker react to being called the savior of American cinema?

"I don't know," Anderson says in Los Angeles, his voice tinged with a natural hesitancy. He pauses a moment, before adding, with a shy smile, "I like it."

The Royal Tenenbaums itself serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of believing in your own hype. Once the subject of a book called A Family of Geniuses written by their mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston), the three Tenenbaum children were genuine prodigies: financial wizard Chas (Ben Stiller), prolific playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and tennis phenomenon Richie (Luke Wilson). But as adults, they haven't lived up to their early promise, and each returns home to the family's ramshackle New York City mansion, followed by the aloof, wayward patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman).

For Anderson and his writing partner, Owen Wilson, the fate of the Tenenbaum children was a way to explore the elusive nature of genius, and they treat their characters with the sort of amused but respectful fascination found in writer Joseph Mitchell's New Yorker magazine piece, "Joe Gould's Secret."

"In this case," explains Anderson, the Tenenbaums "all peaked early.

It doesn't usually last, really. Something Owen and I were really interested in was what happens afterward.

"Often, having some special skill or a real knack for something also makes you different from everybody else, and it makes you not fit in in some ways, and less able to cope with some of the normal things. And then have the thing that you're focused on so much sort of disintegrate, that leaves these people in a strange position."

Anderson's films are built up through the layering of detail upon detail, like a pointillist painter who applies a series of small, colorful strokes to a canvas. It might seem random, but they're part of a grand design, which is fully formed in the artist's mind.

"I think he knows exactly what he wants," says Huston. "That's a great trait in a director. He's very much the author of his film and so, from the inception, from the script all the way down, he's involved minutely in how the film should look."

"His brother Eric does these amazing illustrations," she continues, "which are completely precise with these little bubbles and arrows. The costumes ... it's the first time in my life I've ever had a director send me his idea of what the character should look like. In this case, a thin little drawing of a woman with a sort of little mouse nest on top of her head."

The genesis of the film occurs when Anderson and Owen Wilson revel in any minutiae, which might interest them, and try to make each other laugh.

"We begin with a funny idea or a funny character," says Owen Wilson, "and we kind of spin it out from there." One such concoction is the character Wilson plays, Tenenbaum family friend Eli Cash, who writes the historical fiction bestseller, Old Custer, which imagines what Custer's life would have been like if he survived Little Big Horn.

"I think what makes it easy for us to write together," Owen Wilson continues, "and why we're close friends is that we have similar sensibilities. So I don't think of it as a relationship where one person is really good at writing female characters and the other guy's good at plot. If anything, our weaknesses are the same. Neither of us is that great at plot, and both of us like funny, odd characters."

The story of how kindred spirits Anderson and Wilson met at the University of Texas and collaborated on a screenplay, which would become Bottle Rocket, is now part of indie film folklore (although it's interesting to note that all of Anderson's films have been financed and distributed by major studios). Bottle Rocket (co-starring Luke Wilson, Owen's brother) was released in a few theaters and with very little fanfare after a disastrous test screening.

"People just walked out in droves," recalls Luke Wilson. "We really had the feeling that this is probably the last movie we'll ever get to make."

Bottle Rocket (1996) was followed by Rushmore (1998), about an academic failure who's the most enthusiastic student at his prep school. A modest financial success, Rushmore developed a devoted cult following and formed the foundation for the trio's Hollywood success. (The current issue of Los Angeles magazine calls Anderson and the Wilson brothers "the three best reasons to go to the movies.") So expectations are high for The Royal Tenenbaums. At $25 million, it's Anderson's biggest film to date. Yet, it's another cool, cerebral comedy chock-full of oddball characters.

"Right now," Anderson says, "I feel like one thing I've been able to do is make movies that I've really wanted to. I was dying to make the three movies I've done."

When asked if movie audiences are finally getting his sense of humor, Anderson is philosophical.

"More people are, maybe, I think so," he says. "This movie might have a bigger audience possibly because of all the movie stars, which is like a bigger chance for more people to not get it. We have to see how that plays out." ©

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