The TV reviewer for New York magazine and a pioneer of the video essay as a mode of film criticism, Zoller Seitz has been studying Anderson’s meticulous and melancholy movies for 20 years. Now he’s gathered the yearbook photos from Rushmore and the novel jackets from Moonrise Kingdom into one 336-page clubhouse. The Wes Anderson Collection serves as a huge coffee-table menagerie, a filmmaking interview that rivals Hitchcock Truffaut, and a visual catalog of influences and echoes.
On the eve of his visit to Portland, Zoller Seitz talked to WW about James Caan biffing his lines, how The Life Aquatic is like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and why Bill Murray makes everything better.
WW: Is there a running mood that you’ve noticed in Wes Anderson’s films?
There’s always a melancholy undertone to his films, even the ones that are outwardly light. Rushmore seems to grow darker every time I rewatch it, to the point where it increasingly seems like a portrait of a kid who is wrestling with a period of extended mourning and projecting that onto the world. A recurring theme is this sort of fast-talking, charismatic, inspirational character who gets everyone to join him on his mission and who wreaks tremendous damage along the way. There’s also the idea of families, whether biological or makeshift, struggling about who they are and whether they can make it.
Which one’s your favorite?
The Life Aquatic. It’s emotionally the closest for me. It was his most expensive film and a financial and critical flop, and I think it really stung him. That was the one where the grumbling began: Maybe there’s nothing to him, or maybe he's just a bag of tricks. I didn't feel that was fair to say on the basis of that particular film, because it was extremely personal. It’s personal in the way that Temple of Doom is personal for Spielberg—it seems to be made with almost no concern for how the filmmaker comes off to the audience. I don't believe Wes exposed himself quite that way ever again. He’s not so profligate with his imagination.
Is there a film you consider a weak link?
I’m not as crazy about Bottle Rocket. I have tremendous personal attraction for it, not only because it was the film that introduced me to Wes, and it was shot in Dallas, my hometown. But I don't feel like it plays like a Wes Anderson film as we now know it. I don't think it’s until Rushmore that you really get the full-on, 110-percent Wes Anderson effects, with the wide screen and the very careful compositions and the camera moves and every frame packed with 10 times more detail than you can absorb in one sitting. All that stuff is the product of Rushmore. Which isn't to say that Bottle Rocket is a bad film, but to me it’s not a work of imaginative richness on the level of all of his other films.
Bottle Rocket is also the only one that doesn't feature Bill Murray.
That’s a good point. And in fact, I know Bill Murray was one of the actors who was considered for the part of Mr. Henry, and I’m not entirely sure why that didn't work out. It might've been that Bill Murray just didn't answer his answering machine that day. But James Caan doesn't really work for me in the way he should. I don't think he gets Wes’ humor in that movie.
He seems distinctly uncomfortable.
I mean, he’s exciting because he’s James Caan and James Caan is never boring. But he doesn't seem to intuitively get Wes in the way that Bill Murray always did. In fact, I was on set when they shot a lot of Bottle Rocket, including the scene where they're at the country club and Bob’s bully brother comes in, and Mr. Henry stands up and says, “The world needs dreamers,” and he’s twisting his hands. The actual line in the script reads, “The world needs dreamers to ease the pain of consciousness.” I was on set that day, and I can tell you that the reason he didn’t say that entire line is because he couldn't. He kept stumbling at the halfway mark and saying, “The world needs dreamers to—ahhh, fucking shit!” For some reason, he just couldn't get the second half of that line. I guess they eventually decided, “To hell with it; just let James Caan say half the line.”
Over the course of your interviews with Anderson, did you get into the nature of his relationship with Murray? They don't seem to be all that personally close and yet they get each other.
That’s the best way to put it: They just get each other. I don’t get the impression that they hang out as friends. Bill Murray seems to be down for pretty much anything Wes wants him to do. But he does seem to be an actor that just gets Wes. And who knows why that is? I know Wes and Jason Schwartzman also have that kind of energy. They traveled around in a train for weeks with Roman Coppola to write The Darjeeling Limited. You’ve got to really like somebody to do that without killing them.
Where were they traveling?
They were traveling through France, originally. That film was originally going to be set in France. And Wes decided to set the movie in India after he went to see Jean Renoir's The River at a special screening that Martin Scorsese had funded. It’s funny that Wes is such a control freak as a physical director, but really he’s easygoing. He just suddenly decided, “You know what, this film needs to be set in India instead.” Life Aquatic was also like that. That film was supposed to be set somewhere off the coast of the United States, but while he was touring European festivals to support The Royal Tenenbaums, he was in Rome, and he visited Cinecittà, where Fellini shot most of his movies. He fell in love with Rome and with that studio and said, “You know what, there’s no reason Life Aquatic has to be set in the United States. Maybe it can be set over here, where Fellini shot all of his movies. Wouldn’t that be cool?” And that’s how it ended up having this sort of weird, non-distinct European, Asian flavor. I still marvel at the complexities and contradictions of Wes’ personality. He can be so meticulous and fastidious. But also can be open to enormous changes at the last minute, many of which he creates himself. I often think that to some degree all of his movies are grand experiments, where he’s trying to create this set of conditions that are extremely tidy and neat in order to see what happens when there’s an accident. It’s like that line in Darjeeling Limited: “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails.” His movies are always on rails yet somehow he tends to get lost, you know?
Reading through your book, Wes doesn't offer very much in the way of autobiographical or personal interjections. It’s a very technical interview.
He is a private guy, and he made it very clear that he didn't want to do the whole David Copperfield thing where he talked about his childhood and all that stuff. In all the years I've known him, we’ve never talked about personal stuff. It’s all about what movies we’ve seen, what books we’re reading, that kind of thing.
He’s voluminous on those subjects?
He is, but if you try to ask him questions about a play he wrote in fifth grade, he doesn't really want to talk about that. He’ll talk about the art but not about the more personal stuff. It’s just not his way. He also doesn't like to get too close to the thematic center of his work. I think there's something almost superstitious about that. He’s very explicit about wanting his work up for interpretation. He doesn't want to validate or dispute any interpretations, because he feels like it closes down people's responses to his work, rather than opening it up. He sees attempts to unpack the metaphors and themes in his films like landmines. He just doesn't want to step on them. He doesn't want to blow them up and leave no fun for the viewer.
Is there a Wes Anderson line that runs through your head more than others?
“I wonder if it remembers me,” from The Life Aquatic.
Good choice. I noticed while I was reading about The Life Aquatic in this book that the film is a Moby-Dick-style confrontation with God.
Yes, he’s trying to kill death.
And the indifference of the universe is ultimately accepted.
He wants to kill death but he lets it live—I mean, if he could let death live. You know?
GO: Matt Zoller Seitz appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 23. Free.