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'Tenenbaums' writer/director attracts stellar cast, led by Gene Hackman

Sunday, January 06, 2002

By Rebecca Redshaw

LOS ANGELES -- Who is Wes Anderson? Wunderkind? Directing phenomenon? Boy genius? Intuitive writer?

Check any or all of the above.

Anderson's physical presence initially makes you want to check his ID. Even though he is slight of build and a very youthful 32, the director of "The Royal Tenenbaums" has a demeanor that oozes thoughtful self-assuredness, a rarity in show business circles.

His rise to prominence in the film community is due in no small part to the early interest of James L. Brooks (producer and director of "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News"). A family friend of Owen Wilson, Anderson's co-writer on all three of his films, helped guide their first project, "Bottle Rocket," to movie producer Polly Platt, who in turn passed it on to Brooks.

Given the fact that Anderson and Wilson were in Texas, seemingly far away from the Hollywood scene, the 1992 connection proved to be an advantageous one for their futures.

Eventually, "Bottle Rocket" received enough interest -- and financing -- to extend what had been a 12-minute short into a full-fledged, fully scripted 92-minute movie.

Anderson and Wilson were on their way. Their next co-written feature, "Rushmore," starring Bill Murray, earned critical acclaim from no one less than Martin Scorsese, paving the way for the making of "The Royal Tenenbaums."

As to the creative path their work has taken, Anderson is quick to speak of a learning curve.

"There's a lot of stuff we learned from making 'Bottle Rocket,' where we had to reshoot and recut. When we made 'Rushmore,' we didn't reshoot anything. And this one ['Tenenbaums'] ... was very, very complicated."

He credits Brooks, who produced "The Royal Tenenbaums," with providing "a real crash course in screenwriting."

The Anderson/Wilson writing team got its start at the University of Texas in Austin. As students, the two men helped each other write short stories. It's clearly a relationship Anderson values, yet Wilson's blossoming career in front of the camera may put a dent in their future projects.

"I feel like Owen and I have a sensibility ... a voice we have found for ourselves, and we're going to continue it. The only tricky thing is Owen also acts and makes other movies," Anderson says.

Wilson and his two brothers, Luke and Andrew, have been in all of Anderson's projects, lending an air of family to the set.

"The Royal Tenenbaums," which opened in Pittsburgh on Friday, is all about family. Some characters in the movie are based on people Anderson knows or has known -- a point that didn't escape Anjelica Huston, who plays the matriarch of the eccentric clan and had some concerns about her role.

"Wes would send pictures of his mother in aviator jackets or on archaeological digs, and he very specifically wanted me to wear a certain locket. Finally, I asked him, 'Wes, am I playing your mother?' "

To Huston's relief, he assured her she was not.

In addition to Huston, the ensemble cast includes Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Luke and Owen Wilson and old friend Murray. This much talent assembled on a set at any one time might intimidate the most seasoned of directors, but Anderson remained focused on what he wanted.

"The direction was extremely complicated because there were so many actors, so many locations and so much art that needed to be created," he explains. So the biggest challenge was organizing it all into a cohesive picture. "That's why the script took a couple of years. That's a long time."

When he started writing the script with Wilson, Anderson envisioned Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum, the head of the family. The actor turned down the project numerous times before signing on just before the shoot. Once on board, Hackman was totally involved.

"I was very excited to work with Gene," Anderson says. "He's such a spontaneous actor, and he brings a real force to every moment. ... He was one of the guys we most wanted in our movie."

The respect appears to be mutual.

"I understand [Anderson] is a young man who has a concept, and a lot of young people don't," notes Hackman. "They do a lot of films that they've seen before. They just remake something. To Wes' credit, this film does not look like other films."

Hackman isn't offered many comedic roles, but he reveled in Royal Tenenbaum's personal and family eccentricities.

"I like the idea of constant conflict between Royal and his family," Hackman says. "Nothing ever goes smoothly for him, and as an actor, that is something I can recognize and I can play. That's the essence of drama."

With the script complete and cast in place, Anderson scouted potential sets. Eventually, he found a tall, narrow house in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan that proved perfect.

"I had a great time in New York City," Anderson says. "It's completely different from shooting anyplace else. There's no edge to the movie set; the street brings it all together. In some ways, the inspiration of the movie was the architecture of the buildings, the library, the clubs, the houses that are unlike any I've seen anyplace else."

Although it's timed for release in major markets for end-of-year Oscar consideration, Anderson is nonetheless blase about "the buzz" for his atypical movie.

"I feel like it has nothing to do with me. It would be great if Gene Hackman or any of the others were nominated, but it doesn't color my attitude in the least."

And that attitude, he says, is that conventional wisdom be damned. He knows he doesn't make mainstream movies, but he balks at having the term "quirky" applied to his work.

" 'Quirky' is the thing I don't want to be. I'd say we're trying to make ['Tenenbaums'] as original as it can be and trying to make things as exciting as we can make them by bringing surprises in. I'm trying to make something good and new that will catch your eye."

He pauses, then allows himself a moment of personal reflection.

"So I feel a little defensive when people think I'm just trying to make it weird. The last thing I would do is try and make it weird. Then people think I'm weird, and I'm generally weirder than they give me credit for."

Stiller uses a less incendiary word to describe Anderson's work.

"I think Wes makes very unique films that have a great visual style and are funny. The characters have their own point of view. He's not worried about making them likable."

Wunderkind. Genius. Intuitive. And yes, "unique" fits, too.


Rebecca Redshaw is a free-lance writer who lives in Southern California.

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