Screened as a Special Presentation at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival just as it opened in local theaters, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited premiered in early September at the Venice Film Festival to mixed reviews and was recently the opening night feature at the New York Film Festival, where it likewise weathered a critical reception fraught with staged ambivalencies. It's hard for me to appropriately gauge that reception because, believe it or not, this is my first Wes Anderson film. No, I have not seen Bottle Rocket. No, I have not seen Rushmore. No, I have not seen The Royal Tenenbaums. No, I have not seen The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. What part of no do you not understand? And quite frankly, I might not have seen The Darjeeling Limited had it not been for Brian Darr's clever Hell on Frisco Bay entry where he simulated a boxing match between Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson when the Castro Theatre programmed both directors' films side by side. No, I did not catch any of that programming; but, YES, I read Brian's entry and, yes, I was amused and, yes, I caught The Darjeeling Limited. Phew! As a film writer I feel like I am constantly playing catch-up to everyone else or—in the immortal words of Alice—"The hurrier I go, the behinder I get."
Notwithstanding, with only one Wes Anderson film under my belt, I agreed to meet with him and Darjeeling Limited co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola earlier this afternoon at the Ritz.
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Michael Guillén: I'm in a curious position with regard to your work because, admittedly, The Darjeeling Limited is the only one of your films I've seen and, therefore, I can only accept the film on its own terms. But judging from some of the film's critics (some of them who come off as downright bitches), you're reiterating thematic scenarios you've used in your previous films. My gut reaction to that is—as with any artist—you are burnishing themes, not necessarily repeating them. What's your take on this criticism that you're repeating yourself?
Wes Anderson: Well, it might not be good to respond to what critics say. It's probably not a good idea to defend yourself or feel like you've [had] your feelings hurt by critics, because they respond with their honest reactions and that's their job. My approach to my work is there are things I know that I repeat; different things that have to do with my point of view and what I am most interested in. I'm interested in a lot of different things with each film. In this movie, the main principle subject matter is India; but, I don't mind if my movies follow a certain train of thought over the course of them and if at the end of it they can sit on a shelf together and can be connected to each other. I don't mind that. I'm okay with that.
Guillén: It's somewhat of a facetious criticism anyways. If you look at any auteur, you're bound to find striking resemblances between their films and/or a consistent effort throughout the body of their work, themes they're preoccupied with, themes they've developed, and progressed through, and perhaps even cited back to self-referentially.
Anderson: Yes. Right.
Guillén: Following through on the criticism you've received, I was amused by Steely Dan's open letter to you of, I believe, last year. Did you ever respond to that letter officially?
Anderson: No. I didn't really know what to say. I didn't know how to be exactly funny about it in the right way. I just thought, "We'll let this be their project." I mean … now I have responded to it! [Laughs.]
Guillén: And it's an honest response at that. I'm just curious that they were trying to give you such advice.
Anderson: Yes. I appreciated their advice.
Guillén: That's fair.
Anderson: And they wrote some lyrics. I think they had a song called "Bottle Rocket 2", which they proposed I should do. I thought it was pretty good. And they wrote a song about this movie, about their idea of this movie, possibly about what it shouldn't be. I don't remember exactly.
Guillén: At least it was a clever critique. In contrast to some others. Some of these critics, I feel like—if Van Gogh were alive—they'd say, "Paint another Starry Night!" And then if he did, they'd be the first to bite off his other ear.
Anderson: I can't say that Steely Dan made me feel like a million bucks actually; but, I think it was kind of funny.
Guillén: It was at least funny. So how did it come about that the three of you wrote this script together?
Jason Schwartzman: Wes?
Roman Coppola: We were invited by Wes. We all happened to be in Paris around the same time. Jason and I were working on Marie Antoinette and Wes was staying with Jason and ended up living in Paris at that time. There was something on Wes's mind, the notion of making a film in India with three brothers and there was something bubbling up. He started talking to Jason about it informally, just started with something in the air, and then—since I was there—I was invited to talk about this and the first act of beginning the project was Wes's choice to include Jason and myself. We have all these histories. Jason and I have known each other forever and Wes and I have known each other for many years and Jason and Wes have their own separate relationship and friendship, so right off the bat there was something that resembled three brothers and history and that was the beginning of the project.
Guillén: How did you coordinate the development of the script?
Schwartzman: We wrote it while we traveled together. We went to India together. We had the idea that we wanted to make the movie as personal as we possibly could. Whether that's a good idea or a bad idea, I don't even know if it matters, but that was our philosophy about the movie. Anytime we could answer the question "What happens next?" with "this happened to me" or "this happened to him" and come up with something that had details from our own experience, well, we thought that's the kind of movie we wanted to make. That was the kind of story we wanted to tell.
Guillén: So how much of the brothers' experiences were actually your own?
Anderson: Well, in a way it sort of all [is]. I mean, we didn't buy a cobra. But there's some correlation between moreorless everything in there and something in our own experience and a significant amount of it that was direct.
Coppola: And then some of it was us kind of play acting, testing out the roles and assuming the characters to improvise and come up with ideas. We were a little bit more bold to go to some temple in the middle of the night or go jump in a rickshaw and drive aimlessly because that's what these guys would have done. In a way we tried to experience things in that way to help us.
Schwartzman: We always said say yes to everything, be open.
Guillén: Jason, did you write the scene where you have the tryst on the train?
Schwartzman: The characters are all fictional. [Laughs.] I didn't write specifically for my character.
Anderson: But that came from somebody that we knew.
Schwartzman: Yeah, it comes from something that's very real. It's an honest story from someone I know very well that we put into the film. I'd say the three brothers really are equal shards of the three of us dispersed amongst them and each character, each brother in the script, in the movie, he is made up of the three of us.
Guillén: That being said then, Chris Norris's Film Comment article….
Schwartzman: You say "that being said", did I just walk right into something? Did I just bite hook, line and sinker? [Laughs.]
Guillén: No, no, no, that's just the way I talk. Relax. I'm not out to get you. [Laughs.] In Chris Norris's Film Comment article [September/October, 2007; Vol. 43, No. 5, pp. 30-34], he described the three Whitman brothers as "three greedy tourists grabbing at epiphany." Did the three of you have such epiphanies as you were filming The Darjeeling Limited? It's a movie about a spiritual quest in India. As you were making the film in India, with the knowledge of the many people who have made a pilgrimage to India for spiritual enlightenment, did you three experience anything or walk away with any kind of acquired insight?
Anderson: I would say it was a very emotional experience making the movie. I don't know that I would go so far as to say we had spiritual epiphanies, but I can't remember having a work experience or travel experience that I felt was more life-changing than this one, just in terms of how it affects your point of view and just the feeling coming out of it.
Schwartzman: And the distance. I've never been so far away from my home for so long with people that I feel were such a small, tight little bundle. It was life-changing for me and life-changing for all of us together as a group, as friends. I know I feel closer to Wes and Roman and to the actors as well, much closer than I've ever felt to them ever, and I feel that (hopefully) will last.
Coppola: For my part, I think we were all in this quest or search but—what it really was—was the movie. We were trying to figure out what this movie was going to be. We were trying to accomplish this thing. I don't know if there's any tidy answer but the movie is the result of this experience and that's the answer.
Anderson: The thing we found.
Guillén: How long did it take to film this movie?
Anderson: Well, we went to India together to write and that was maybe for six weeks or something like that? Five weeks?
Coppola: Four or five weeks.
Schwartman: Four weeks. Five if you include traveling.
Anderson: And then when we went to make the movie, we were there for four months.
Coppola: Four and a half months.
Anderson: Four and a half, five months. So I'm not the guy to ask. They seem to remember the numbers better than I do.
Guillén: Did you film in the places where you were traveling?
Anderson: Yeah, we found a lot of locations when we were writing.
Schwartzman: We'd be walking around India and—if we had a scene that would take place in a temple—we'd see a temple and we'd take our scripts out and we'd do the scenes, act them out, see how it felt in those environments and often times those would be the ones we'd go shoot at.
Anderson: Also, while we were writing, we met a lot of people that ended up in the movie.
Guillén: Being that this is the first movie of your's that I've seen, it's like dropping a pebble into a pond and watching the concentric rings ripple out. From this moment of entry into your work, I'm now excited to explore your previous films and looking forward to what you will create next.
Anderson: I like that. That sounds good.
Guillén: Barbet Schroeder's appearance in The Darjeeling Limited intrigued me. Can you talk about how that came about?
Anderson: Yes. I'd gotten to know him over the last few years. Part of the time he lives in Paris and I live in Paris part of the time also so I'd met him [there]; I think first through Milena Canonero, who's our costume designer who worked on Darjeeling, who worked on Life Aquatic, who worked on Marie Antoinette, and who we've all known [for a long time]. So I got to know [Barbet] in Paris. He's very smart. He's interested in things. He has tremendous curiosity. He always knows much more about what's new than I ever would and I also like the way he's worked. He's worked all over the world. He's had his own personal projects that he's done, that he's made in South America, now he's working in Japan, and he's worked in America, he's worked in France.
Coppola: Also, he's made some pictures that were intimately [crafted], like La Collectionneuse and whatnot, that were productions on such an intimate scale. That was something we were attracted to.
Anderson: Inspired by. In fact, La Collectionneuse—do you know that movie?—it's an Eric Rohmer film but it's produced by Barbet. It's a great one and was a visual inspiration for us.
Guillén: So was there the character of the mechanic first and Schroeder slipped into that role or was the character written for him?
Anderson: We had a mechanic and we thought, "If Barbet would do it, that would be great!"
Coppola: And it was a Porsche and I think that was a connection that connected Barbet through his name.
Anderson: He looks like he could play … you could definitely cast him as a Nazi. We wanted a mechanic who looked like a Nazi but then turns out to be a good guy.
Guillén: Can you speak about the film's production design?
Anderson: With The Darjeeling Limited our goal was to discover the way the movie was going to look by going there and saying, "What surprises us that we see?" [India's] a place where there's just no shortage of ideas, if you're interested. There's just so much to see and so much to learn. That was really where the whole look of the movie [came from]. It's my point of view, organized maybe, somewhat, but it's all from India. What we made, we made with people we met there who brought their own talents and ideas on how things ought to be done. Often, we'd have somebody—like a guy who paints walls, for instance—and we'd say, "We'd like something like this" and then he would set to work and we would come back and he would have done something completely different and that's what's in the movie. That was our rule: whatever we get back, that's what we want.
Schwartzman: Wes said early on if we wrote the script and it called for a red car but when we go to shoot it that day we have a blue truck, we just shoot the blue truck.
Anderson: From our point of view, whatever is contributed is probably going to be quite interesting and it's a way to learn about the place, by just accepting what comes back.
Guillén: Visually, the film is fascinating. The colors are so vibrant. The production design especially exceled in the "train of thought" montage. That sequence astounded me. Where did that idea come from? How did you construct it? What were you going for?
Anderson: The idea of it was simple. Roman had this idea that Anjelica Huston's character would say, "Maybe we can express ourselves more fully if we do it without words." And then Anjelica was very good in this silent moment but then we wanted to find a way to visually express whatever it is they were saying to each other and we didn't want to explain it. That was our answer to that. We searched for a while to figure out how to physically express it. In the end, we took a train car, gutted it, and we built these sets all in the train car and then we set out into the desert on the train and we shot it live with this construction. A very odd thing.
Coppola: Just to go a little deeper. What I recall is that we were in that moment of let's communicate without speaking and then you hear the bell ringing. At first it was kind of literal. You'd see this person here and this person there, just have a visit, and then that was the first step that led to that thought of somehow….
Anderson: …linking them on a train. We also thought it might be nice because it's a train movie and because there are a lot of metaphors that would come easily.
Coppola: But what's interesting to me is that it was not a conscious thing like "Oh, this is what we're going to do for this reason"; but, it was one little thing that leads to another and leads to another and, before you know it, that's what you have and you didn't think of it; it's just the way it should be.
Guillén: Within that montage, what jumped out for me was the image of Peter's pregnant wife coming to meet him. That profoundly moved me. It was an "aha!" moment where I grasped what was actually happening, that these were thoughts moving through their minds as they were in a state of silence, and that some of those thoughts were desires/fears, and this was Peter's. It told me so much about him. So returning to the construction, you gutted the train car, you dressed the set, and then you just moved the camera along a trolly? Nothing was moving but the camera, right?
Anderson: And the train.
Guillén: The train was actually moving?
Anderson: Yes, the train was actually moving. Because out the window you can see the desert going by.
Schwartzman: The whole movie's shot on a moving train.
Guillén: Let's talk a bit about Hotel Chevalier.
Anderson: It was originally separate.
Schwartzman: It was always a short film that had a beginning and an end and wasn't attached [to The Darjeeling Limited]. It was a companion piece to the feature film. The idea was that it was a prologue, homework really for an audience, and if you see it you will learn a little bit about my character, his backstory….
Coppola: Don't say homework.
Coppola: Homework, that doesn't sound good.
Anderson: The connotation.
Schwartzman: Oh. That makes some people feel weird?
Guillén: I'm not going to watch that short now. [Laughs.]
Coppola: Have you seen the short?
Guillén: No, I haven't.
Schwartzman: They didn't show it with the movie? You saw the movie in the theater?
Guillén: Yeah, I saw it in the theater and they specifically indicated I would have to go find it online.
Anderson: Go to iTunes. You have to get it from iTunes.
Guillén: Oh, okay. But then that means I have to sign up for an account with them.
Anderson: You don't have an iTunes account?
Guillén: No, I'm kind of a Luddite. But I go to movies!! Is that too old-fashioned? [Laughter.]
Schwartzman: Basically, Hotel Chevalier is just a little bit extra information about my character that, hopefully, will help make some things [clear] and fill in some blanks if you want the blanks filled in when you see the film. It was great from an acting point of view because you shoot this thing in chronological order that has happened to my character before The Darjeeling Limited's begun and so usually, at least for me, when you go to work on a film, you think about, "What has my character gone through? Where's he coming from? What are his experiences?" And it's wonderful not to have to imagine an experience but to have really been able to have shot it and to have experienced it and to have lived it and then to just be able to watch a DVD of it. Without sounding funny about it, it's true. You can see it and it really gets inside your body so that—when I'm on the train—I can feel that fucked-up feeling of having been in that room with that person.
Guillén: It's an interesting exhibition strategy to connect the movie theater experience with home computer viewing. Since they initially started as separate projects, at what point did the two become conjoined for purposes of exhibition?
Anderson: While we were writing the movie, I started thinking, "Jason is playing the same character; they should be linked." We thought, "Well, it's a short story and a novel and they're two separate things but they'll refer to each other." It was only after they were done that I said, "Okay, now how are we going to present these?" I had to puzzle that out. At a certain point I thought we would add the short in with the prints of the movie in the theater; but, first I wanted to make it available for free to anybody who's interested to see it and have it not be in the movie and have the movie just play by itself. It will be on the DVD and different people will see it in different ways.
At the end of the movie you hear Jason saying, "I wrote the ending of this short story. I don't know how it starts, but, do you want to hear it?" He reads this scene between him and the girl.
Guillén: The wonderfully mean scene.
Anderson: Yes, the mean scene; well, that's the end of the short. So, if you've seen the short, there's links. At another point in the story, he takes something out of his suitcase and it's a bottle of perfume. He later smashes it. Well, in the short she puts something into his suitcase. You don't know what it is but you see her slip something into his suitcase. It's a bottle of perfume. So there are links between the two.
Guillén: Speaking of that scene where he smashes the perfume bottle, I understand that was configured in the dark?
Anderson: Yeah, we rehearsed it in the dark because we lost the power.
Guillén: How could you see what was going on?
Anderson: It was just the compartment so we could sort of see a little bit. We just didn't have any power. But it gave us a calm, peaceful environment to work in. Everything was sort of stopped because there was no electricity; the power had gone out, which would happen from time to time. So we had a quiet, thoughtful rehearsal in the dark and I have to say that I really liked it. It was a great way to practice the scene. With some of your senses … what would you say?
Anderson: Incapacitated? Yeah, altered.
Guillén: Speak about the film's score, much of which is taken from Merchant Ivory films and from the films of Satyajit Ray. Was his music a conscious influence while you were writing and shooting the film?
Anderson: I think so, yeah. We had a CD of all those cues, of lots of music from Satyajit Ray's films, Merchant Ivory films, and we played it all the time. The three of us would go to the set together, we would go on location scouting together, we were traveling a lot together and we always played this music during that so it was really not just the soundtrack to the movie, for us it was a soundtrack for the making of the movie. It definitely was in our minds often.
Guillén: The film is richly textured with citationality. For example, I'm old enough to remember when The Beatles went to India so I can see those references going on in the movie. I mean, I'm assuming they were there, right? You were playing with that?
Anderson: Yeah, but I think without even realizing it. Jason looks like a Beatle, with that moustache especially. And then the four of them walking and Jason's barefooted and it looks like Abbey Road. It was not so much planned. We went to Rishikesh at Jason's urging where The Beatles had gone and it was definitely something that was in the mix for us.
Guillén: And also Renoir's The River?
Anderson: Most definitely. That's the movie that made me want to go there. We watched it together a couple of times, but once in Dehli at the end of our long trip together when we were writing, the last thing we did in India was watch the river together.
Guillén: Going back to The Beatles reference, I think Jason looks a little bit like Ringo.
Coppola: This is a good chance to plug something.
Schwartzman: I play Ringo Starr in a movie.
Guillén: You do?!
Schwartzman: It's funny because I'm in the preview for this movie Walk Hard. I'm in the movie but I'm only in it for one scene but—because I'm in the preview—I've been getting a lot of questions: "So did you research the part of Ringo Starr? How long did that take you to do?" I'm only in it for a cameo.
Anderson: What do you say?
Schwartzman: I don't know because—in the style of Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan—in those movies you say a lot of different things during the course of a day and you don't know what's actually going to end up in it.
Anderson: Are you doing a Ringo voice?
Schwartzman: Well, yeah, I'm doing a Ringo voice; but, my whole take on Ringo was that I'm not going to say anything. So I was very quiet and everyone else is improvising and I just kind of sat there. I do a face.
Anderson: Can you do it?
Schwartzman: [Blushing] I can't do it right now.
Anderson: Can you do your Ringo voice for a second?
Schwartzman: [Doing a few words in a Ringo accent, making all of us laugh.] I have some moments where I slide in sideways and talk about drug taking and then slide out. It's kind of like Yellow Submarine. It's a caricature of a Beatle. I was doing more a Yellow Submarine than a Ringo Starr. But my only problem is that I love Ringo Starr so much. He is my favorite drummer of all time and I'm a little nervous that he'll be offended by it because it's definitely a broad depiction of him. It would bum me out if he saw it and was upset.
Guillén: I doubt he would be offended by that.
Anderson: Probably not. I mean, he's Ringo. Does Ringo get offended? I don't know. I doubt it.
Guillén: Ensemble-wise, though I haven't seen your other films, I've read enough about them to know you use the same ensemble of actors. For future projects, is this how you work? When you get an idea, you call up everybody you've worked with and say, "I think I have a new one for us?"
Anderson: Often, my first instinct is to go to the people who I've liked working with who are my friends. I like working with my friends. I like the beginning of the movie to be a reunion. I feel like that can find its way onto the screen. That's usually my first instinct.
Coppola: Anjelica tells an amusing story where she'll get a figurine of a nun in the mail and knows that something's bubbling.
Schwartzman: That's true?
Anderson: Uh, yeah.
Guillén: You sent her a nun?
Anderson: I sent her a nun, yes. And then I think I sent her another nun, having forgotten the first nun I sent her.
Schwartzman: A nun-a-nun?! [Laughs.]
Guillén: Did you send it anunymously? [Laughs.]
Schwartzman: Let's have nun of that. [We all groan collectively.]
Anderson: Oh boy.
Guillén: So when Anjelica got this nun, did she know you wanted to cast her as a nun or is this some kind of code for you're wanting to cast her in a movie?
Anderson: As a nun.
Guillén: So people know you're suggesting something?
Anderson: Yeah, yeah, she started to think something's up.
Guillén: Well after two nuns in the mail, wouldn't you? Anjelica was remarkable in The Darjeeling Limited. She has a way of taking you limpidly into the depths beneath a comic veneer. Her eyes are so wet. They register so much life experience.
Anderson: Yes, yes, yes.
Guillén: So to wrap up here, I'll give you one more chance to refute your detractors. Another criticism levied against this film—if not all your films—that came up frequently while I was researching reviews was the heedless privilege of your characters and the obvious wealth that they have to be traveling around India, throwing away luggage, and what have you. Clearly, you have an artistic sensibility that is unique and creative and which leaps over the hurdle of your films having to be necessarily politicized.
Anderson: I like the idea of that. What I would say is definitely these characters … my theory is Owen's character has money. He's got a business. We don't know what he does; but, he's got this assistant for Francis Whitman Industries. I think he's got some business and he's made some money from his business; but, I don't know that he's that focused on it right now. Adrien's character, I don't know. We have a theory that we won't share what they do. We have information that we wrote that's not in the movie because we decided we shouldn't put it in there. But he probably doesn't have so much money. Jason's character probably got an advance that he's burning through rapidly. He's probably blown most of it. In the short you'll see how he's spent all his money. The father was probably reasonably well-to-do; but, there's a degree to which some aspects of it—like people might say the way they're dressed or something—well, I don't think that's the way rich people particularly dress. They're modeled on something else.
Guillén: Well Adrien didn't even have pants half the time. He was running around in boxers. They couldn't really do that in India, could they? Could he run around in boxers like that?
Anderson: A woman couldn't. A woman might be ill-advised to do so. But a man can do anything.
Schwartzman: That's exaggerated.
Anderson: You want to say anything on that? You had a couple of things on that. Your mother has some thoughts on it.
Schwartzman: My mom said something that's interesting….
Anderson: Because she was responding to the same thing.
Schwartzman: She said she thought it was really funny when people go like, "and they walked around in their suits with this $6,000 belt and this $3,000 loafer" and she said something that I think is really interesting. She said, "They just say it's that much money; but, these guys exaggerate and they're crazy and just because they say it's a $3,000 shoe doesn't mean it's necessarily a $3,000 shoe."
Coppola: My take on it is that they're heavily in debt.
Anderson: Yeah, but you've got to be rich to be in debt that much!!
Cross-published on Twitch.