This is an accomplishment that comes with a price, guaranteeing for the director that everything that followed would look and feel like something: a Wes Anderson movie. Three years later he released The Royal Tenenbaums, a more ambitious ensemble piece about a New York family of gifted children who, as adults, had fallen on hard times. Thanks in part to a cast that included stars like Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Tenenbaums introduced a larger audience to Anderson’s style, which this time out seemed, depending on your tastes, to be either more defined or more distracting. As a meditation on family and adulthood, the film succeeds, movingly, and it certainly made clear how much more exciting American cinema is with someone like Anderson around. But there were moments—remember the Dalmatian mice?—when Tenenbaums risked being a bit too curious with its curiosities. (“Yes, yes, you’re charming, you’re brilliant,” chided A.O. Scott in his review. “Now say good night and go to bed.”) Then came The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau–inspired fantasia that left even some of Anderson’s most loyal fans impatient. There was a sense that the director had become pickled in a world of his own creation.
Novelty has a shelf life. Aquatic was seen as a beautiful failure, a study in style stripped of substance. In talking to Anderson you can tell that Aquatic was a difficult movie for him—beginning with its making. Like just about everything in his life, Anderson prefers a movie set to be a communal and intimate environment, which was difficult to maintain while dealing with the cold world of sound stages, special-effects crews, and the heightened expectations that come with an ever-expanding budget. (Aquatic cost close to $60 million, more than twice what Tenenbaums did.) “There were so many damn trailers,” he says of the filming process. “Every actor had like three trailers. And it’s not just the expense, but when you have all your actors watching ESPN on satellite, they’re not thinking about the work, so you have to pull them into it. You tell the actors you’re ready, you wait, you check their makeup, you monkey around, you wait some more—all of this over and over, and it doesn’t make the movie any better.” Discussing it seems to exhaust him, as if he were reliving the experience. “We just put everything into it, and it kind of, you know, got a bit of a rough ride,” he concludes. “I think it’s generally thought of as the least loved of all my movies.”
“When they say a movie is ‘too smart for its own good,’ as if we’re trying to show how great and cool we are…sometimes it hurts my feelings.”
It’s hard to gauge how personally Anderson has taken the criticism. At one point I bring up a recent essay by Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic Monthly arguing that, as a culture, we are “drowning in quirk,” an aesthetic he defines as the “embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream.” Citing Anderson’s movies as a prime example, Hirschorn claims that the problem with quirk is that it “can quickly go from an effective narrative tool to an end in itself.” Anderson, who in person is typically quite calm, becomes suddenly animated by the topic. “You know, I’ve heard that argument a million times, and it’s completely uninteresting to me,” he says. “It’s just deadeningly unoriginal. If you have ideas that you think can contribute to a movie, that you think might help you honestly enjoy it more…” He trails off, thinking. “Now I’m sounding bitter, aren’t I? Okay, my response to that is that sometimes it hurts my feelings.” Another pause. “When they say a movie I make is smarter-than-thou, that the movie is ‘too smart for its own good,’ as if we’re making movies to try to show everybody how great and cool we are…well, that’s just not the case. We’re trying our hardest to entertain people, to make something people will like, something people will connect with. I don’t think there’s a great effort to try to make some statement about ourselves, you know?”
Some artists thrive on defending their work, on the idea of being in combat with the culture; Anderson is not among them. By the time he was finished promoting Aquatic overseas, in the summer of 2005, he says he found himself feeling depressed. This was not a monumental or debilitating sadness, more like the low-simmering melancholy that defines his characters. He had some ideas for a new project, but they remained stalled in the Anderson gestational phase: sketches of disconnected scenes and dialogue scribbled in the small notepad he keeps in the breast pocket of his blazer.
Anderson decided that in order to be productive he had to leave New York, where he has lived and worked for nearly a decade—that it would be “interesting” to live outside of America for a bit. The director called up Schwartzman, who was then living in Paris, shooting Marie Antoinette. “Could I maybe crash in your guest room for a bit?” Anderson asked. “Whenever you want,” Schwartzman assured him, and shortly thereafter the two were roommates.