Though his films have collectively grossed only $100 million—a large-sounding sum until you realize it’s exactly what they cost to make—he is supported and adored by the studio system. “For studio executives, supporting Wes is like collecting art,” says one friend. “It makes them feel they have great taste.” The appeal is the films, of course, but also the persona of the eccentric auteur. He is an abnormally tall man, or at least a man so pale and so skinny that he appears to be abnormally tall. And he dresses primarily in suits custom-tailored to be a half-size too small, giving him the look of one of the off-kilter characters he puts on screen, further evidence that Anderson’s life is his work, and vice versa.
None of which is lost on Anderson himself. Last year, he made an excellent commercial for American Express in which he simultaneously parodied and breathed new life into the Anderson Myth. In the ad he is seen clothed in a vintage safari jacket, a viewfinder dangling from his neck, filming a (fictional) movie starring Schwartzman. Anderson walks through the set making sure every detail, no matter how absurd, is just so. “Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?” he asks a prop man, and two seconds later—presto!—a sketch of the nonsensical weapon is produced. Shot outside a French château, the ad borrows the theme from Truffaut’s Day for Night—just the kind of sly reference loved by Anderson. Shooting a commercial is, for many directors, simply a means to earn quick money. But for Anderson, who more recently shot an equally distinctive series of ads for AT&T, the experience had the unique benefit of allowing him to further the storybook life he was delicately lampooning. At the time he made it he was living in the Paris apartment recently vacated by Kirsten Dunst, who had been renting it while filming Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It was a decadent and exorbitantly expensive place that Anderson converted to an editing suite, with AmEx paying the rent.
His talent, in other words, has become his trust fund. But one gets the impression that even Anderson, these days, can find living in Wes’s world a bit claustrophobic. I first met him on a bright, windy afternoon in Venice, two days after Darjeeling had been screened for the public for the first time. With Schwartzman and Coppola, we were waiting for a water taxi to shuttle us off to lunch at an outdoor café. At one point Anderson complimented Schwartzman’s new sunglasses, and then suddenly turned to me, concerned with how I would interpret the seemingly banal exchange. “Oh God, I bet that’s the first line of your piece, isn’t it?” Anderson said. “Wes Anderson, notorious for his attention to detail, carefully observes the black retro sunglasses that the young Schwartzman has pulled from his pocket …” Later, when a breeze picked up during our meal, he turned up the collar on his seersucker suit and again quoted from the article he was writing in his head: “Anderson then pensively turns up the collar of his blazer, pulling it tight around his skinny frame to cover the monogrammed dress shirt underneath…” Pause. Laughter. “I’m sorry, man,” he then said. “I’m in a weird mood these days.”
Such a mood is understandable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the Venice Film Festival. One of the most prominent members of the Anderson contingent has been notably absent these past few days. It was just over a week earlier that Owen Wilson—a friend of Anderson’s since his days at the University of Texas, his first writing partner and most regular collaborator—tried to commit suicide. Anderson approaches the subject carefully. “He’s never had a time like this in his life before,” says the director. “His life has changed so radically in the last few years, and in ways that most people never have to deal with. He’s one of the funniest, smartest guys I’ve ever known, one of my best friends in the world. I know I’ve been depressed myself before—most of us probably know something about what it’s like…” He doesn’t complete the thought. “I went to see him last week in L.A., and, you know, he’s doing very well. He’s going to be fine.” Another pause. “I call him every day to keep him updated on what’s happening with the movie. I wish he was with us. He’s a major part of our project, and he has the right to be there with us.”
It was the 1998 release of Rushmore that radically altered Anderson’s life. He was hailed as a visionary, fetishized by his fans, encumbered by expectations. It was only his second movie—his first, Bottle Rocket, would become a cult favorite later in his career—but it offered everything an indie audience desired: an endearingly arrogant and peculiar teenage outsider (Schwartzman); a love triangle that was both twisted and innocent; and, of course, Bill Murray, in a surprising role as a wealthy, unhinged developer who, because he is Bill Murray, became an immediate icon of middle-aged angst. It also introduced to the world the Anderson aesthetic. Simply put, Rushmore did not look or feel like any other movie.