Like everyone else, Owen frequently refers to Anderson’s head. I ask him how he would describe what’s inside. “It’s a lot more recognizable,” he says, “than people might think.” Then he mentions Vahram: “The thing about all that stuff with–what’s the guy’s name? Varn?–is that Wes has a sense of humor about it. He recognizes that it’s funny. It’s kind of like winking. You take away that stuff, that funny stuff, and Wes is, like, sensitive.”
WHEN WES ANDERSON talks, he thinks about what he’s saying so keenly that sometimes the words just stop. There are long pauses; he’s giving himself the time to get it right. After an advance press screening of The Royal Tenenbaums at the New York Film Festival, he takes questions from the standing-room-only crowd. As he grips the microphone in both hands and squints into the lights, he is asked if the film is about redemption.
“So much of the story is about these people accepting that they’re not what they once were,” Anderson says. “And then they sort of have to struggle with that. And it causes so much pain.” He goes silent. “It wasn’t like I planned for that to happen in the story. It just sort of emerged. More and more it revealed itself. That there would be healing, sort of? Even though that’s a word I’m reluctant to use, that sort of became the center of it.”
He looks out vaguely into the crowd to make sure everyone understands. “I think that’s what the whole movie is about,” he says mildly, as if he’d be open to other interpretations. He pauses again. “Did that answer that at all?”
The next afternoon Barry Mendel, the producer, asks me to be on call between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m. At 8:05 the phone rings. Anderson is ready. Come, Mendel says, at once. I walk into a dimly lit sound-mixing studio in the Brill Building, and there Anderson is. He has misbehaving brown hair and round glasses with clear plastic rims. He wears a baby blue button, down shirt and seersucker trousers that grab his skinny frame way below the navel. Pale yellow socks are visible above his Nikes.
The Royal Tenenbaums is to have its official festival premiere in two days, but Anderson and a team of mixers and editors are still tweaking the film’s color timing and making sure the music doesn’t overpower the dialogue. “I don’t know if stubborn is the correct word,” says director of photography Yeoman. “He’s very persistent. He’s tenacious. He does not want to compromise his film on any level.”
Before the script was written, for example, Anderson knew he wanted Gene Hackman to play Royal Tenenbaum. They met for tea at the Essex House, and Anderson told the actor he was writing a part for him. Hackman told him not to bother. He hadn’t found most writers to be successful at tailoring parts for him. Anderson did it anyway and then cast the movie around him. At the last minute Hackman gave in. If he hadn’t, Anderson says he might not have gone forward.
When we sit down Anderson is at the end of what he calls “the eighth day of a three-day mix.” “We’re going to the wire,” he says. He looks pale and exhausted. “All these movies are kind of confections,” he continues. “They’re this arrangement of things all put together. The whole souffle can fall–it doesn’t have much genre to rely on–and there are definitely people who think it’s precious. But the idea is to make this, like, self, contained world that is the right place for the characters to live in, a place where you can accept their behavior.
“The last thing I want is for it to be thought of as quirky, because there’s nothing we’ve done to try to make it weird, you know? Everything is in there to try to make it interesting or compelling or funny.” He pauses. Weird for weird’s sake, Anderson says–”that’s the last thing it wants to be.
The Royal Tenenbaums started with place, not plot; it was going to be a “New York movie.” On a notepad, in no particular order, Anderson made a list of the things he thought should inspire it. There were titles of films (Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons), short stories and novels (J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” and “May Day,” Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence), and pieces of music (a Maurice Ravel string quartet and a few Velvet Underground cuts).