It turned out to be the beginning of a European adventure that, somewhere along the way, ended up producing The Darjeeling Limited. The movie features Schwartzman, Wilson, and Adrien Brody as three estranged brothers who travel through India by train in order to find themselves and bond with each other and “say yes to everything,” as Wilson’s character puts it. This “spiritual journey” is played for laughs, though like all of Anderson’s work, the comedy is born out of sadness—a fractured family attempting to repair itself. (See David Edelstein’s review here.)
Anderson first got the itch to shoot in India after Martin Scorsese—an avowed fan who in Esquire once anointed Anderson “the next Scorsese”—introduced him to The River, a lush and evocative 1951 film made by Jean Renoir. The idea for the brothers traveling came from Husbands, a 1970 John Cassavetes movie about three suburban husbands escaping to London. “But my main idea was not the train, not India, not the brothers,” says Anderson. “My main idea was, I want to write with Roman and Jason.” One night when Anderson was holed up in Schwartzman’s Paris apartment, he read a few pages of his notebook to Schwartzman—a scene that ended up being the film’s opening. It wasn’t long before Schwartzman and Coppola had signed on, and the three of them set aside a month to travel through India by train. It was there that most of the script was written.
“I guess we went to India as research,” says Anderson, “but the more precise-slash-romanticized description would be that we were trying to do the movie, trying to act it out. We were trying to be the movie before it existed.”
On the trip to Rome, Anderson and company move about the train as if it belongs to them. They abandon the suitcase full of Bill Murray’s money and head to the dining car for pasta, prosciutto and melon, and numerous half-bottles of wine. After lunch they sneak into a business-class cabin (from which, later, they will be ejected when an Italian politician arrives with armed guards). Coppola and Furches decide to kill some time by completing the Times crossword puzzle; they are soon stumped, and turn to Anderson, an amateur crossword junkie, for assistance. “Mind if I hold the paper?” Anderson asks, setting the crossword in his lap, pulling an erasable pen from his pocket, and casually taking control of the situation. He gives the sense that everyone is participating, working together, and yet—as he fills in one answer after another—it becomes clear that the end result would be the same if Anderson were sitting there alone.
“I think we’re just being entertained,” jokes Coppola.
“Oh, no—I couldn’t do this without you guys,” says Anderson, a statement that comes across as both true and false.
It is perhaps not unlike his collaborative process. His friends seem to act as conductors for his imagination: triggering it, encouraging it, very rarely questioning it. There were times on the set of Darjeeling, for instance, when Anderson would doubt his instincts: “Okay, am I doing too much of a ‘thing I do’ here?” he would ask the crew. Coppola was quick to quell the director’s insecurities. “Roman would always express his appreciation for being inventive and making what we thought was a strong choice.” As Coppola puts it, “When you do something that really is your instinct to do, then what more can you ask of yourself?”
Still, Anderson was tense at the premiere in Venice. It is the same at all premieres—Anderson worrying about how his movies, crafted in something of a parallel universe, will play in the world at large. “Mostly it’s just a process of steeling oneself for what’s going to happen. I’m sitting there thinking, Is the movie gonna be received with a lull of silence? Or with a boo?” says Anderson. “That’s a common thing in Europe, you know? They boo here.”
For the record, they did not boo. The early reviews were mainly positive, much more so than with Aquatic, though there was the requisite grumbling that the movie was “good but more of the same,” as Anderson puts it, shaking his head, after reading what Variety had to say. But the director does not seem particularly hurt or defensive this time around. “It’s probably not a good idea to put too much of your self-esteem on something like this, because, really, you can make a bad movie and it can be well received, and you can make a good movie and it can be badly received,” he says. “I think people who’ve done it a lot have learned, like the Coen brothers, for instance. My impression of them is that they really aren’t that vulnerable to what comes back at them. And they could get anything from any of their movies. Like The Big Lebowski, the first time I saw it I thought it didn’t quite work, but the second time I saw it I thought, Oh, I didn’t get it. I just didn’t understand it. And I really loved it then.” He adds, “You know, everyone’s limited. You can only do so much. I think in the end all I can do is say, Let me live the moment. I can still do what I want to do. I’m lucky enough to be able to do these movies so far.”
Two weeks later, over the phone from his Paris apartment, Anderson briefs me about how he fared during the rest of his travels. After we parted ways in Rome, he tells me, he delivered the money to Luigi, clearing Bill Murray’s outstanding debt. For the next few days he dined at his favorite restaurants until he decided it was time to head back to Paris. A sleeper train was momentarily considered for the journey, until a better idea struck. “We ended up slowly wandering our way back to France in a Roman taxi,” Anderson says, as if nothing could have made more perfect sense.