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Wes Anderson's Train of Thought

Wes Anderson's Train of Thought

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

We key into the fascinating mind of Wes Anderson after a journey aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The acclaimed cult film director enthuses about traditional movie-making techniques, his influences and his love of train travel.

Wes Anderson’s films shouldn’t work—or at least, he absolutely shouldn’t have a career by current Hollywood logic. The big bucks are in the big bang franchises—huge budgets, giant special effects and an army of stars all wrapped up in a wafer-thin plot and a hefty marketing campaign. It’s movies as sold by a burger chain.

Anderson’s films, on the other hand, are like handcrafted artisan pastries in a family patisserie. You would expect them to be loved by a tiny local crowd, but with six Oscar nominations to his credit and with his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, notching up close to US$200 million at the box office, he’s become that most unusual Hollywood icon—an auteur whose vision delivers hits.

“Well, the last couple of movies did well, but I’ve had plenty of movies that didn’t,” he cautions with a quick laugh. “I think movies like mine—the peculiar kind of movies—people watch them at home much more than at the cinema. But the Coen brothers keep making their movies, and people like Spike Jonze and David O Russell, too. They are not going anywhere.”

Wes Anderson on Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

We are sipping water in Home House, a modern private members’ club and hotel in London with sweeping Regency staircases and discreet drawing rooms. Anderson is in the bar, which boasts a slick contemporary décor. Moving from the front door, through the drawing rooms and into the bar to meet him, some 300 years flicker past the eye. Anderson, genial and charming with swept-back hair and sharp green eyes, manages to not quite fit into any of them.

He works like a Time Lord with a movie fetish, mining the past with the detailed glee of a true obsessive, but using an intensely modern approach. The result is both nostalgic and current, referencing the French New Wave, Orson Welles or the literature of JD Salinger with careful nods to films such as The Magnificent Ambersons and Jules et Jim right up to today’s American indie movie beatniks.

“I had this idea of making stories where you couldn’t put your finger on when it was set—that it was now, but not too now,” he explains with a crooked grin. “I thought maybe they wouldn’t become dated as quickly. It also means I can make the atmosphere be exactly what I want it to be.”

It’s that atmosphere that defines his style from Rushmore, about a precocious student at a private school, to The Grand Budapest Hotel, spanning decades in a once-grand European establishment—using details, palettes and patterns to convey an entire world. When preparing a project, he likes to immerse himself completely: “With Budapest Hotel, we couldn’t find the hotel we wanted with internet research so we just set off travelling through Vienna, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany.” His eyes glitter at the memory. “In the course of all that travelling, we picked up so many ideas. We had been to all these great grand hotels we had seen online, but the images were picture postcards. We saw the real, faded versions, which made for an entirely different story.”

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

In this exploratory spirit, he recently took the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express—travelling from Paris, where he lives most of the time, to Venice and back with his girlfriend, the Lebanese writer and illustrator Juman Malouf. It seems an appropriate journey for him—he’s wearing a suit for this interview, as he does in every photo, and the idea of formal, timeless travel suits him.

“I love train movies,” he says with a wry shrug; there is even a toy train in his animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. “I love the idea of a plot that unfolds in these small rooms, but where the whole story is moving across the landscape. It adds an extra layer of momentum. The Darjeeling Limited, set in India, was my first full train movie. Travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express recently, I do feel that I’m going to end up finding my way back in that direction.”

It will be newsworthy that he’s considering a second train movie—recent press reports suggested he was thinking about directing a horror film. He laughs this off. “If I was going to do big-screen genre, I would prefer to do a Western or science fiction. They are very basic genres and you can go a lot of different directions with it, so it seems natural at some point to try.”

The Darjeeling Limited is an almost ideal showcase of Anderson’s style—scenes and sets have a near-perfect symmetry and his trademark tracking shots add pace and tumult to simple exchanges.

The tracking shot—traditionally a camera mounted on rails keeping pace with moving actors—is rapidly becoming the signature of a clever director. Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón play with digital versions in Birdman and Gravity respectively. But it’s a style Anderson has been refining since he was a child in Houston, Texas, shooting short films on his dad’s Super 8 camera. He planned to become a writer, studying philosophy at the University of Texas, where he met actor Owen Wilson, a good friend and long-term collaborator.

They started making scripted shorts together—including the heist movie Bottle Rocket that Anderson remade into his first feature in 1996. You can see him developing his style as he grows—the early tracking shot in his 1998 follow-up Rushmore as Bill Murray walks through a clanking building site, his casting mix of friends such as Wilson and famous names such as Gene Hackman as the dysfunctional patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums, as well as his use of colour and framing in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—although he’s keen to avoid defining his body of work as being about anything in particular.

“The only times when I think about these movies in relation to each other is when I’m doing a DVD or Blu-ray version,” he insists, “or when I start a new project and think: ‘Is this too much like something we did before? Am I stealing from myself here and somebody’s going to notice?’” He does agree, however, that he has a few tropes. He loves traditional movie-making techniques—having experimented with stop-frame animation for Fantastic Mr Fox, for instance, he’s returned to the form for his new movie.

“Stop-motion animation is about as old as any movie technique there is, but we do it entirely digitally,” he explains, sparkling with enthusiasm. “We shoot with digital still cameras and they go directly into a hard-drive in a hi-tech capturing system. I shoot live-action films on film. We use digital to change the text on a sign, move an ashtray, very basic things. It’s not a philosophy or based on theory—I’m just observing where I’ve found myself.”

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

When he’s starting to figure out the story for a film, he makes a mood list—with a real-life figure who has inspired him at the top of the list. For The Life Aquatic, it was Jacques Cousteau; for The Darjeeling Limited, it was Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray; while novelist Stefan Zweig inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel. “In the case of Cousteau, I grew up watching his films,” he explains. “With Zweig, I was very taken with his writing.”

To fill out the mood list, he adds a movie or two by his favourite directors—a European-heavy list that includes Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Preston Sturges, Stanley Kubrick and Ernst Lubitsch, the mighty eye behind such 1940s classics as To Be or Not To Be and Heaven Can Wait.

In his shifting sense of place, he is following a map set by his early dreams of becoming a writer. Classically, the first novel of novelists is about themselves, the second about people they know and—if they’re good—they eventually move out until they tackle the world.

Anderson’s path started in Rushmore’s high school, moved in to the city with The Royal Tenenbaums and has since left America completely, moving out across the planet.

“I’ve sometimes wanted to do a movie because it’s something that’s happened to me, but just as often I’ve done it because I would like to go somewhere—like with The Darjeeling Limited, I wanted to go work in India,” he says. “And the thing with that one was we got our own train... It’s quite inspired by the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, actually, which I hadn't been on at that point, but I knew the mystique and legend.”

Home is mainly Paris these days. “I've spent a lot of time in Paris in the past 15 years or so—it’s one of my favourite cities,” he explains. “To write, there’s no place I would rather be. It’s not a huge city—it’s the sort of place where you can walk out the door and you’ve got the theatre, the cinema, or a museum within walking distance. Sometimes entertainment is just walking into a new neighbourhood and looking around.”

Again, he’s on that novelist track—American authors have clustered around the city for years, most famously in the 1920s when Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ford Maddox Ford hung out together on the bohemian Left Bank. That mixing of talents finds expression in Anderson’s work as well, with his cast of regulars making up a sort of repertory company of players, including Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and Anjelica Huston.

“I do work with the same people over and over again,” he nods happily. “If you’re lucky enough to find somebody who you think is great, you keep them and there’s something to be said for having them already know me. They can say to a new actor: ‘Don’t worry, he’s always like this, he’s going to make it work out eventually.’ If there’s somebody I haven’t worked with before, usually I make a diligent effort to draw them in. I send a script, but also other materials around it to try and involve them. Most of the time you don’t get the cast that you initially have in mind, although Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the few movies where we wrote the movie with actors in mind and that entirely matched the final cast.”

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Even as we speak, across the other side of London at 3 Mills Studio, there is a team working on his stop-frame animation, featuring the voices of Jeff Goldblum and Edward Norton and inspired by Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. “Yesterday, I went over to the studio and six of us sat in the room together,” he says, “and there was only one person I hadn’t done a movie with.” Taking a sip of water from his still full glass, he says he has to get back there now. There is some farewell small talk about travelling from London to Los Angeles by ship and train—he’s all in favour, although he thinks it takes about 10 days. “I may be the only person who sees the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express as a means of transportation,” he explains. “But I would rather go to a station, get on a train and take two days to get somewhere than go to any airport in the world.”

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers journeys across Europe to a list of destinations that include London, Paris, Venice, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Istanbul.

by Stephen Armstrong