If you see Wes Anderson's new film The Darjeeling Limited for no other reason, see it for a single extraordinary shot, one that's instantly recognisable as pure Wes Anderson. The camera tracks along a series of compartments in the Indian train of the title, but they don't all seem to belong on a train: one resembles a cramped corner of an aeroplane, another an elegant Paris hotel room (for reasons that don't make sense unless you see Anderson's short Hotel Chevalier, which will accompany The Darjeeling Limited in British cinemas). The 38-year-old Houston-born director has a habit of arranging his films into highly designed, densely filled compartments: watching The Darjeeling Limited, with its sleeper carriages segmented into rectangles within intersecting rectangles, you feel you're seeing an image of Anderson's own obsessively organised imagination.
Admirers and detractors alike often characterise Anderson as an overgrown child prodigy, who has turned the film set into a luxury version of a spoilt kid's playroom. His 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums was largely set in a New York mansion that Anderson customised into a cartoonish giant dolls' house. For its follow-up, the $60m maritime fantasy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson built a huge set in the form of a ship, its interiors fully exposed in cross-section. Now he's built a working train that's also a film set and taken it to India. The Darjeeling Limited is about three American brothers – played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman – and their misadventures on the train of that name. Some might question whether the film is really set in India at all, or simply in that part of Wes Anderson's brain that resembles India. But then a tenuous and playful relation to reality is the pleasure (and for many, the irritation) of Anderson's wry, elaborately artificed comedies.
Lanky in a beige corduroy suit, Anderson looks less gauchely preppy than he once did, having ditched his old boffinish clear-rimmed spectacles. Distractedly swinging his knees from side to side, he enthusiastically explains his work in a quiet, reedy voice. He bears little relation to the brash Hollywood monster he lampooned himself as in his recent American Express ad, in which a safari-suited Anderson barks his way ("I've blown up buildings, hunted sharks, crashed planes... Where's my snack?") through a preposterous spy movie shoot. "It's all pretty exaggerated," he grins.
Anderson shot The Darjeeling Limited on a train shuttling to and fro on a Rajasthan railway line beginning at Jodhpur for up to 14 hours a day. "It really was an adventure every day, even though we were always on the same track." Inspired by his love for the films of the Indian master Satyajit Ray, Anderson had spent a month travelling in India with his co-writers, Jason Schwartzman and the actor's cousin Roman Coppola. Then again, since the trio's purpose in going there, he says, was specifically to write a script based on their travels, the process seems characteristically self-enclosed. "The movie," Anderson notes, "is from the point of view of tourists. We were tourists and the brothers [in the film] are tourists, but nevertheless I certainly went there wanting to learn about India."
Inevitably, The Darjeeling Limited feels like a reworking of other Anderson dramas, with their themes of sibling rivalry: the film's quarrelsome Whitman brothers could easily be kin to the neurotic Tenenbaums. "When we started the script, I thought we shouldn't have any parents for these brothers, we shouldn't refer to them, it should have nothing to do with the story. By the time we'd finished it, the whole thing's about the death of the father and they go to see the mother at the end. I almost feel with some of these things, one doesn't entirely have a choice – it just reveals itself and it's gonna be what it wants to be."
Like the Tenenbaums, the Whitmans also have a wayward, domineering father (in this case, dead before the film starts) and an imposing mother, again played by Anjelica Huston. Anderson himself was the middle of three brothers; the youngest, Eric, contributes his distinctive drawings and paintings to Wes's films. Their father ran an advertising company, their mother was an archaeologist – like Mrs Tenenbaum – and they divorced when Anderson was eight. Both parents are alive, but here and in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson displays an odd penchant for symbolically killing off fathers: "Well, yeah..." he sighs, grinning. His real father, Anderson stresses, is nothing like the rascally Tenenbaum patriarch played by Gene Hackman, nor the absent Croesus of Darjeeling. "He's more like the father Seymour Cassel plays in Rushmore, who's a barber, and he's a very gentle father. But for some reason I have these fathers in the films who are a lot more aggressive and domineering."
Anderson's directorial idiosyncrasies seem inexhaustible: they're visible not just in the way he shoots and narrates, but in every corner of his crammed screens, whether it's in his favoured sans-serif title lettering, a certain hot yellow, or the imaginary jukebox that makes Anderson soundtracks some of the most distinctive in cinema. In Rushmore, it was 1960s British Invasion pop, in Tenenbaums, Nico and the theme from It's a Charlie Brown Christmas. For Darjeeling, Anderson borrows the soundtracks composed by Satyajit Ray for his own and James Ivory's films, plus some Kinks rarities and bouncy French variétés. "My tastes and predilections are very visible," Anderson admits. Yet, while Anderson is certainly the most extravagantly visual, and sonic, of film-makers, he regards his sensibility as literary at heart. "Starting from when I was 15 till I was 20, all I wanted to be was a writer, I wasn't even thinking about movies at that point. And I feel like the movies that I've done, I relate more to what I wanted to do as a writer."
Nevertheless, the first fiction he has actually tried to adapt is a children's book – Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr Fox, which he has just embarked on as a stop-motion animation. George Clooney is speaking the role of the dashing vulpine hero, and the film will have an Eastern European feel, Anderson says.
It sometimes seems that, encumbered or protected by his own cultural luggage, Anderson may not always see the world beyond his imagination. In The Darjeeling Limited, India rather takes a supporting role to the brothers and their bickering. True, the film ridicules the trio's self-fixation, but in the US, it has been rebuked for insensitivity and racial stereotyping. The most uncomfortable moment is the death of a young Indian boy, a tragedy that seems placed purely to trigger a turning point for the brothers – or rather, to allow them to stride across the screen in that dreamy slow motion which is another Anderson trademark. The director shrugs in response. "I just knew that that was going to be the defining moment of the story. You can without question say that about any dramatic event in any story – it's there for the drama. In the case of this story, it's the centre of the movie for me."
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If you appreciate the organic or happenstance in cinema, Anderson's films are not for you. This director abhors a void, and every space must be filled: in The Royal Tenenbaums, he would build entire sets just to illustrate a jokey aside. It can be fatiguing for the viewer, but it can also make for exhilarating fun: at his best, Anderson simply gives your eyes and brain more to play with.
"For me," Anderson says, "creating a world for a movie is about just trying to put as much of my imagination into it as possible. I look at each scene, each character, and I feel like, 'Well, here's a challenge – what information can we give about this character, not just in the dialogue and the story but visually too and musically.' And some people think, 'This is too much, who are you trying to impress?'
"I'm trying to reach out to the audience,but it's also my personal preference," he says. "I don't think I'm particularly a minimalist."
'The Darjeeling Limited' is released on 23 Nov
Wes's world: Into the artful mind of Mr Anderson
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Anderson expanded his 1994 short of the same name into a Dallas story of three would-be crooks tangling with James Caan's crime kingpin
Jason Schwartzman makes his debut as nerdy private-school prodigy Max Fischer in Anderson's comic tribute to his own schooldays
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Wilson brothers make up a dysfunctional family de luxe in a story set in Anderson's own private Manhattan
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Elaborate ocean-going tribute to Jacques Cousteau, starring a bearded Bill Murray as a melancholic TV seadog
American Express TV advert (2006)
Spies, cars, pigeons, cranes... The essential Wes Anderson in a brisk, brilliant self-spoofing two minutes
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