In Sugar Hill, Harlem, on the southeast corner of Convent Avenue and 144th Street, stands an elegant brownstone. Inside, the walls have been painted pink. Entire rooms have been ripped apart and redecorated with intricate murals featuring cartoonish tennis players floating against sky-blue backgrounds. Odd knickknacks have been carefully placed everywhere: ancient Forbes magazine binders; stacks of vintage board games; shelves of plays by Brecht, Shaw, and Sophocles; grade-school drawings of spaceships and aliens with goofy names like ”System Destroyer” and ”Cosmic Warriors.” Piece by piece, writer-director Wes Anderson has built an oversize dollhouse to showcase his latest creation, the Tenenbaum family.
In the room reserved for cast and crew, the architect of this odd world sits on a tattered couch. Wearing a blue puffy jacket and chunky, clear-rimmed glasses, he’s the shy kindergarten kid who played with bugs. His feet are propped against a coffee table, knees pressed together in lieu of a writing desk. He eyes the pad on his lap warily. ”I’m trying to write a scene,” he says, removing his specs. ”I wanted to wing it. But the [assistant director] said I had to write it out.” A crew member snickers. As if a control freak like Anderson has ever really winged anything.
The Anderson myth — how he met Owen Wilson in a University of Texas writing class, how they became friends and creative collaborators, how Owen introduced him to brother Luke and how, with the help of ”Taxi” creator James L. Brooks, they made a little movie called ”Bottle Rocket” in 1996, then a bigger one on their own called ”Rushmore” in 1998 — has been told again and again. The success of ”Rushmore” was far ranging — earning everything from major critics awards for costar Bill Murray to an invite for the young filmmakers to whip up parodies for the MTV Movie Awards. The ”Bottle Rocket” boys’ entry into elite circles was preternaturally quick, almost as precocious as the former child savants who grapple with the return of their father in their latest film, ”The Royal Tenenbaums.”
”It came time to do something new, and Owen was always telling me I should do something on my parents’ divorce,” says the 32-year-old Anderson, who has cowritten all of his films with the middle Wilson child. ”I mean, that scene in the beginning where the three kids are talking to the father about divorce came from a conversation my brothers and I had with my father. The answers were nothing like the answers my father gave, but that’s where it started.”
”Wes and I drove from the Toronto film festival to New York after ‘Rushmore’ premiered and he said he wanted to do a movie with me in New York,” remembers Luke Wilson (not the blond one). ”He and my brother only had 35 pages for, like, a year.” What finally evolved was a story about a family of geniuses living in a kind of dream New York of dented gypsy cabs, archaeological digs, and nearly real places like the 375th Street Y. It was a tale with deep literary influences, from the subtle (children’s books like E.L. Konigsburg’s ”From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”) to the obvious (J.D. Salinger’s fictional Glass family). ”Salinger was the inspiration,” explains Houston native Anderson. ”It was New York to me before I knew New York.”
The director assembled a glittery ensemble, a testament to how much Hollywood fell for 1998’s ”Rushmore.” Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, and Alec Baldwin all joined previous Anderson collaborators like Murray, Seymour Cassel, and, of course, the Wilson brothers (including eldest sibling Andrew, who plays Margot Tenenbaum’s axe-wielding biological father). But harder to get was Gene Hackman, for whom Anderson and Wilson had written the title role. ”He wasn’t going to do ‘Tenenbaums,”’ remembers Owen Wilson of his ”Behind Enemy Lines” costar. ”It was during [‘Behind Enemy Lines’] that Wes wore him down. Gene had already done two movies [back-to-back], and he wanted a break.” Says Anderson: ”Hackman’s no teddy bear. But we needed him. And we got him.”