“That’s the kind of movie that I like to make, where there is an invented reality and the audience is going to go someplace where hopefully they’ve never been before. The details, that’s what the world is made of.” - Wes Anderson.
Books, architecture, costumes, and curio items: they fill the busy frames of Wes Anderson’s work (in collaboration with longtime DP Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg), and in part serve to make the writer/director’s eight feature films and four shorts so rich, rewatchable, and increasingly successful with audiences. But as much as the emphasis on Anderson’s work tends toward the visual, it’s the way he uses his fictitious universes, details, and cast dynamics to support a human emotional base that elevates his films.
“Somehow I feel like [my film] needs its own world to exist in,” the director recently explained to us on the eve of his latest ambitious work, the WWII era-set “Grand Budapest Hotel” (review here). “And then I have a whole group of people who I have worked together for years and that’s kind of what we like to do together: make the place for these characters to do their things.” Whether it be The Republic of Zubrowka, The Ping Islands, or Rushmore Academy, the world-building in Anderson’s films occupies a unique slot in each of his narratives, so strap in as we chart how each universe strengthens and focuses each film, starting with the acclaimed debut feature that launched his career.
A Texas Trail of Ill-Conceived Crime - “Bottle Rocket” (1996)
ANTHONY: “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I would rather go water skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question… or see any of these people again… for the rest of my life.”
Anderson’s 1996 directorial debut, a short-turned-feature written with Owen Wilson while they studied at UT Austin, finds the director at his most imprecise—hinting at many of the themes and visual motifs to come, but locating a shaggy charm in its tale of three misfit criminals in Texas. As Anthony (Luke Wilson) completes his stay at a mental hospital for “exhaustion” and pairs with old pal Dignan (Owen Wilson) for a string of low-level robberies, the film delves into its own singular version of Dallas and its surrounding towns.
Unlike in most of Anderson’s later filmography, the locations remain largely unvarnished, whether it be Hinckley Cold Storage at 4000 Commerce in Dallas—home to the film’s final botched heist—or the Hillsboro Motel, where Anthony and Paraguayan maid Inez’s romance first blossoms. This being Anderson’s first feature, the relatively small budget ($7 million) can answer for some of that approach. However, he also wisely uses the value in inspired character moments and a variety of wry visual cues: witness getaway driver Bob’s relationship with his drug-dealing brother, Future Man, Dignan’s incredible 75-year-plan for he and Anthony, or the delightful internal dynamic of a strip mall bookstore, revealed mid-robbery as Anthony approaches a young clerk. (“Rob?” “Uh-huh?” “Why aren’t you in literature?” “It’s all full up.”)
The production design of Wes Anderson movies takes a quantum leap after his second film, so like his debut, “Bottle Rocket,” the world of 1999’s “Rushmore” is comparatively stripped-down (and some of this is due to budget of course; filmmakers are taught to think small in order to get films made at first, but his imagination and scale would soon take off).
The invented part of “Rushmore” is the heart of the movie: Rushmore Academy, the elite prep school that the film's underachieving overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) attends. Based on the St. Marks school in Dallas (that co-writer Owen Wilson attended) and St. John’s School in Houston (which Anderson had attended), Rushmore is not just a private school in the movie, but has deep meaning for both of its protagonists. For Max Fischer, it’s a purpose, but one that he cannot reconcile with the future. “Just gotta find something you love to do and then... do it for the rest of your life,” he says. “For me, it's going to Rushmore.” Graduation is almost out of the question. Max's Rushmore is an imagined world that also doesn’t really exist: the movie opens up with a dream of Max being the most gifted, respected and well-liked student at the academy, but the reality is far different.
For Herman Blume (Bill Murray), it represents a class system, his work ethic, and all that he had to fight to achieve. “Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone,” he says in a speech while donating money for a new wing of the school. Blume is a millionaire now, but he couldn’t afford to go to the school as a child (class is a big theme too; they bond because Fischer can’t afford it there either—he’s attending on scholarship).
From there, “Rushmore” doesn’t have many overtly invented elements in it. Sure, there are lots of little details: Max is the publisher (and editor-in-chief) of the school paper, "The Yankee Review," the president (but not founder) of the Rushmore Beekeepers, and of course there are those elaborate plays that he puts on inspired by “Serpico,” “Apocalypse Now” and other movies. And while those plays are exceptional like much of Anderson’s work they’re familiar enough compared to the more fantastical milieus Anderson would soon create.
Family Dysfunction In A Fairy Tale New York - “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
“I was really fixated on New York for many years,” Wes Anderson said in a 10 year anniversary talk about “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the first overtly imagined world of his third movie. “And that’s why I came to live here. It was inspired by movies, books and plays about New York and I always loved the New Yorker magazine.”
“Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” have their own worlds like any movies, but they’re grounded and realistic; not very “imaginary.” “The Royal Tenenbaums” was the first real invented milieu of his films that doesn’t actually exist. That location was New York City, but of course, ‘Tenenbaums’ the movie doesn’t even name the city specifically even once. Instead, it’s Wes Anderson’s imagined version of a ‘70s type of New York filled with old buses, vintage old money hotels (the Waldorf Astoria standing in for the imagined “Lindbergh Palace Hotel”) and eccentric houses that might be lived in by someone out of a J.D. Salinger novel or Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
And the key to this New York is pastiche. Apart from the “Franny and Zooey”-esque element that influenced the movie, Anderson’s also referenced F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Malle’s 1960s film, “The Fire Within.”
"There were some parts of the movie where we were thinking of 1930s and '40s New York, kind of like [the playwrights] Kaufman and Hart,” Anderson said. “And there were other parts of it that were more like William Friedkin's New York, or the movie, 'The Warriors.'" Anderson even says some of the graffiti was influenced by Walter Hill’s aforementioned gang film in the 1970s. And so in Anderson’s pastiche there are modern day bodegas (that arguably haven’t changed in decades anyhow), gypsy cabs, creaky old hospitals and a YMCA on 375th (a street that does not exist in Manhattan). It all ads up to a New York that many either lived in or saw through books and movies, but one which its disparate elements never existed at one time.
Anderson and his production team went even as far as to hide major New York landmarks. On the first day of shooting, Kumar Pallana and Gene Hackman shot an exchange in Lower Manhattan and Wes purposely staged Pullana so he would block the the Statue of Liberty out of the camera’s view. Hackman, who originally thought including the landmark was a nice idea said of the idea in frustration, “That’s stupid.”
Extra credit for anyone paying attention to the Ramones-set Gwyneth Paltrow montage in the movie that has imagined New York elements like the "Crosstown Local" bus, the "Irving Isle Ferry," The "23 Ave Express" subway stop.
Extra, extra credit for anyone paying attention to this 1999 Charlie Rose interview with Anderson where the young filmmaker talks about the influence of Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (which is also set in New York). "It's a horror movie... but it's a little off from reality. The behavior is all real, but there's something about everything in the movie that's a little off." Does that not sound pretty much like the world of Anderson's films at the very least Anderson's New York in 'Tenebaums.'