Wes Anderson: Hollywood's new king of comedy

Wes Anderson overcame all sorts of obstacles (Gene Hackman included) to make The Royal Tenenbaums. Matthew Tynan meets a rising star
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The Independent Culture

Even when Wes Anderson is late, he arrives punctually so. I have been pre-warned that he will arrive 15 minutes later than our arranged time. And he does. We risk the blustery New York skies and perch beneath a thin strip of canopy outside a West Village restaurant. Anderson kindly volunteers to take the most exposed seat. He is ergonomically turned out, tall and trim – streamlined. His dress is simple and elegant (narrow corduroy trousers, light sweater). His hair, though, is distinctly untidy. Like a cresting wave, it launches haughtily above his brow. Everything about Anderson is understated and contained, except for that rebellious shock of brown hair.

Anderson, at 32, is the co-writer and director of three films: Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (which opens here on 15 March). With a star-studded cast (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover and Ben Stiller) and a budget in excess of $37m, this is by far his biggest film and his biggest gamble. It looks like he might be onto a winner. In the States, the film has already grossed more than twice Rushmore's final tally. This success is due, in part, to his continuing working friendship with his fellow Texan Owen Wilson, who has co-written all of Anderson's films to date. Together, they have been nominated for this year's BAFTA award for best Original Screenplay. Anderson attributes their success to a simple formula: "We find the same things funny."

There is, though, some trouble in paradise. "It doesn't work as well as it used to," Anderson confesses. "When we did Bottle Rocket we worked together on the whole movie, but when we did Rushmore it started to fall to me a little more since he was being cast in all these movies." Since then, Wilson's rise in the Hollywood ranks has been meteoric. He is shooting I Spy in Vancouver with Eddie Murphy, and will then rush off to join Jackie Chan in Prague on the set of Shanghai Knight, the sequel to the enormously successful Shanghai Noon. When it came to writing The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson took the lion's share of the work. Wilson was just too busy.

That said, Wilson does a lovely turn in the film (as Eli, a drug-addled author), and will be putting his acting skills to use in Anderson's next project. They're still friends. "Even on this last one," says Anderson, "when I was writing on my own most of the time, our unified approach was something I was conscious of the whole time." Anderson has already begun work on his new film, set in France and Mexico. This time, he'll be flying solo.

Anderson admits, though, that in most things it is Wilson who takes the upper hand, especially at games. He remembers a vicious bout of chess while they were students together at the University of Texas. "Owen bet me he was going to beat me in three moves – and I was like, there's no way you're gong to beat me in three moves. But he had some really great gambit that he'd read about – and he did, he won! I was stunned." They haven't played chess since. "He's also a terrible winner and a terrible sport – winner or loser. He's very well known for welching on bets, for not paying debts and trying to do anything he can, double or nothing until it goes away... I'm his perfect opponent because I'm going to lose and it's gonna mean a lot to me that I lost."

In that respect, Wilson is rather like Royal Tenenbaum, the estranged family patriarch of the film, a charming rapscallion, the lovable rogue who somehow always wins, if only by denying that he has lost. These are men at ease with themselves, who have their own odd kind of authority. "I like those type of guys," Anderson explains. "The guys who can make the dog sit right off the bat." (In the film, Royal has an uncanny power over canines.) Anderson sees the same quality in his friend Hampton Francher, who directed Wilson in the indie sleeper Minus Man. "It's something sort of animal... It's somehow being sincere on some level where people know you are not faking it."

The Royal Tenenbaums is the least overtly comic of Anderson's three films. Compared to the "wistful melancholy" of Rushmore, this one can, in Anderson's words, "be a little depressing at times". The film tackles themes that could certainly be deemed "depressing" (divorce, suicide and incest, to name but a few) but the overriding tone is light, candy-coated, insulated somehow from raw human emotion.

The family Royal first abandons and then seeks to reclaim – his serene wife, Etheline, and their three gifted but troubled children, Chas, Margot and Richie – live in a house that, like an archaeological dig, is full of unearthed treasures; records, electric tie racks, even a boar's head. It is in these details that the story is grounded. Through these things, the characters live out their emotional lives, dipping into the past, imagining a world where children are not disappointed by their parents and growing up isn't so damn hard.

Anderson's parents divorced when he was eight, and he describes it as "the most crucial event of my brothers and my growing up". They were raised in Houston, a sprawling Texan city, where their parents still live. Mel Anderson runs an advertising and public relations company, the improbably named Texas works in real estate and is also an archaeologist.

It's obvious what Anderson inherited from her. He was obsessed with reading as a kid, "especially when you are younger, you get totally swept into the world of a novel. You walk around in a cloud and almost all you want to do is read it." As a student at St John's High School in Houston, he read Susan Cooper's fantasy classic The Dark is Rising. He remembers carrying around these wooden mardi-gras beads he'd been given by his grandparents in New Orleans. He's not even sure if the beads were relevant to the book, but they took on great significance. He describes them as "talismans" – magical objects invested with great power.

The Royal Tenenbaums is an uncanny film – to use Anderson's phrase, "everything feels slightly off". One misguided journalist at a recent press junket was convinced the film was set in London. Another friend thought it really captured the magic of Chicago. I, for one, was sure that the film was an homage to New York. But I am only "slightly" right. There is nostalgia at work but not for anything real. This is New York sifted through the imagination of some preternaturally bright child; a city where gypsy cabs and the imaginary Green bus company ferry you down broad wind-swept avenues to dusty museums and grand hotels. A world where perhaps only the director is truly at home.

One could argue that Anderson's real home is on a sound stage, behind a camera. "Some of my favorite times are during the production process," he explains. "When things are going right, that's when it feels really exhilarating." But he admits that "there are also phases where it is absolutely miserable." He often falls ill during principal photography, and confessed there were a few difficulties with his leading man, Gene Hackman. "I was excited by what he was doing in the movie, but he doesn't make it easy. He's very private and one of the ways that manifests itself is that he doesn't like to be directed."

Somehow, something worked. Hackman's charismatic performance is the driving force of The Royal Tenenbaums. In one scene, cradling a whiskey, Royal critiques Margot's first play. "It didn't seem believable to me." Margot (11 years old at the time) is, of course, devastated. "Sweetie," he calls after her. "Don't get mad at me. That's just one man's opinion." The scene is tragic but hauntingly funny. Hackman has already won a Golden Globe for his performance. A director can only dream of an actor this "difficult".

It was all plain sailing for Anderson with the rest of his cast. Another pro, Anjelica Huston (who plays Etheline) says of Anderson: "He's very calm and pragmatic. I think those are fantastic attributes for a director. I didn't stay up at night like I've been known to do after a shooting day, pondering whether what I did was right or the director was pleased." She added that to understand Anderson, all you need to do is look around him. He creates a world on set that nurtures him, a safe haven, surrounded by friends and family. Another Wilson, Andrew, was around for much of the shooting and has several cameos in the film, while Anderson's real-life girlfriend plays Chas's wife. Much of the crew, including production designer David Wasco and Karen Patch, who designed the costumes, have been working with him since the very beginning. I am reminded of a scene where the grown-up Richie Tenenbaum erects a tent on the living room floor and fills it with his favorite things. Anderson recalls how, as a young boy, his friends and he would take any opportunity "to put a blanket over five chairs and be able to go under it. I don't know why it was so appealing". I suggest rather crassly that it might relate to the womb. He chooses, wisely, to ignore the comment.

At this point, we are interrupted by a fan. Here in downtown New York, Anderson is quite the celebrity. "I always tell my husband that I hope our son grows up to be like Max Fischer" she says, referring to the inimitable lovestruck hero of Rushmore, a master of extra-curricular activities who makes going to school seem like a career choice. After politely thanking her, Anderson whispers conspiratorially to me, "That sounds like a recipe for disaster". Other than having written plays as a young lad, Anderson denies any further similarities between himself and Fischer. "I was never that cool," he explains. "I'm too shy." When I protest that he works in one of the more social work environments, he counters that directing offers him a unique position of absolute control. It's the only time when he has all the answers. "It's power," he muses, "it's an easy way to compensate for the fact that in other situations I would rather not say anything."

After lunch, Anderson and I head West on Bleecker Street. He is on his way to visit his brother Eric, who is responsible for most of the artwork in The Royal Tenenbaums. Rain has begun to fall and the wind has picked up, buffeting usfrom side to side. Anderson's lean frame looks particularly vulnerable. Out here on the streets of New York, his adopted city, he's no longer in "absolute control". But on set, I imagine the wind itself would be at his command.

The Royal Tenenbaums shows at the Berlin Film Festival on 13 February

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