When you’ve seen all eight of Wes Anderson’s movies, they can’t help but colour your perceptions. The director enters a beautifully furnished room in a Georgian private members’ club wearing a grey herringbone suit, striped shirt, tie and brown leather shoes. In an ideal world there would be a turntable in the corner playing a Kinks single but never mind, he still looks like a Wes Anderson character stepping onto a Wes Anderson set. Like his movies, Anderson is a fusion of contradictory elements. He combines courtly manners with a nebbishy East Coast intensity, neither of which suggest his Texan upbringing. He is 44 but so youthful-looking that Cate Blanchett compared him to Dorian Gray. He’s a pale, skinny aesthete who’s capable, when necessary, of Hawksian derring-do. He is modest about his successes and candid about his mistakes, yet animated by the kind of conviction that persuades studios and movie stars to take risks on improbable endeavours.
Anderson is arguably the most distinctive American director of the last 20 years (legions of imitations and YouTube parodies attest to that), which is a mixed blessing. His detractors see him as a fussy hipster control freak who creates airless dioramas full of implausible figurines. But what kind of control freak crafts screenplays in collaboration with strong-willed writers such as Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach and Roman Coppola? Or, when he tries animation, forsakes the neatness of CGI for the handmade imperfections of stop-motion? Or is so fun to work with that he’s built an ever-expanding family of regular performers, the newest arrival being Ralph Fiennes, star of The Grand Budapest Hotel?
"I DON'T THINK I'D BE SUITED TO A WIZARD TYPE OF MOVIE...
Anderson resists overarching theories about his work. He insists that his real concern is story and character; all the recurring tropes that get critics and film-school students excited are secondary. “I probably wouldn’t even notice if I rewatched them but if someone tells me I say, ‘Oh yes, you’re right!’ When you watch a movie and you get some kind of meaning that’s not on the surface, I feel like it’s just as well if they didn’t do it on purpose. It’s subconscious. That’s why I don’t like to think thematically. That’s the last thing I want to do.”
For someone who accepts that he’s a specialist taste, Anderson has navigated Hollywood with enviable panache. He always retains final cut. He always gets funding, even if it’s never as much as he’d like. He’s never been compromised by a high-stakes franchise although, he reluctantly reveals, he was once approached about “a wizard type of movie”. “I have a feeling my name doesn’t come up that much in those types of conversations and I don’t think I’d be suited to it.”
Because Anderson does exactly what he wants, even his flops have integrity and the ability to grow on you. “I remember a friend said, ‘It’s going to be ten years before people appreciate [The Life Aquatic],’” he says. “And she was kind of right. They did a screening of it in New York recently and it was a great night. Like The Royal Tenenbaums. We opened it at the New York Film Festival and it was fine, but we screened it again ten years later and I was like, where were these people ten years ago? It was the exact same room but a completely different experience. So I wouldn’t mind only seeing my movies ten years after they come out.”
Anderson was 23 when he started filming his debut movie with his University Of Texas classmate Owen Wilson in 1992. It first surfaced as a 13-minute black-and-white short before James L. Brooks agreed to produce a full-length feature. “I think I was the most confident starting a movie when I did that one because I didn’t really understand,” Anderson reflects. “I had a pretty good idea of what I thought I was supposed to be doing.”
Anderson and Wilson spent a year reworking the screenplay under Brooks’ guidance. “We’d written an epic comedy, like 250 pages, when it should be 100 pages at the most,” says Anderson, laughing at his naivety. After calamitous test screenings, he tightened it even further. “When we first screened the movie it really didn’t work and it needed a lot of attention and tinkering to make it a functional movie. I wasn’t really tuned in to the possibility that it wasn’t going to work. From that point on I was.”
A few Andersonisms are already evident in this loping heist caper: the evocative use of montage and slow motion, the formation of an ad hoc family around a quixotic enterprise, and, in James Caan’s Mr. Henry, the dynamic father figure who turns out to be needy, unreliable and in need of some fathering himself. “I have no idea who that character was based on,” says Anderson. “I think it might have been some combination of people from books and movies. Since then I’ve gotten to know a number of different people, movie directors especially, who are [like] that, so maybe that’s a kind of figure I didn’t know then but I’m drawn to in later life.”
Bottle Rocket didn’t take off, but it made Anderson some influential fans, including Martin Scorsese. A year later, Brooks assured him: “We made cult.”
From the red theatre curtains that divide the movie into chapters to the final dance sequence, set to the Faces’ rueful Ooh La La, Rushmore announced that Anderson had found his voice — one defined by bold contrasts. Rushmore is rooted in Anderson’s own life (it was shot in his old high school in Houston) yet audacious in its use of artifice. It moves like a comedy yet it’s fuelled by grief and depression. It’s never one thing or the other, but it’s close to perfect.
Anderson and Owen Wilson had written a rough treatment for what they called “the school movie” before starting Bottle Rocket but it only crystallised after a meeting with New Line’s Mike De Luca. “Some of the ideas for the movie came out of making something up to tell Mike in that room,” says Anderson. “Then [New Line] didn’t want to do it but Joe Roth at Touchstone did.”
Among other things, Rushmore was a miracle of casting. As thorny overachiever Max Fischer, newcomer Jason Schwartzman cradled a soft centre of pain inside a shell of abrasive precocity. “Jason doesn’t carry the tension that he did when he was playing the character but he was 16, 17 and he was himself already,” says Anderson. “I’d met so many people that age for this part and when you meet someone who’s a grown-up already and he’s smart and funny in his own way, that’s kind of a surprise.”
Bill Murray’s career-rebooting turn as sardonic, melancholy industrialist Herman Blume made him independent cinema’s go-to guy for midlife affluenza in the likes of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. “We thought we didn’t have a chance to get Bill,” says Anderson. “We were told we’d never hear anything. But somehow he read the script and he was in and it was a very simple, quick thing. Probably the easiest casting process I’ve had.” Working for scale (Anderson estimates it was just $9,000), Murray was a reassuring presence. “He wants to have some fun on set. He’s good at keeping the morale up, separate from his job as an actor. He’s sort of a cheerleader at the same time. We couldn’t have asked for a better movie star to turn up on day one.” Murray obviously enjoyed himself: he’s appeared in every one of Anderson’s movies since.