Why does it take Wes Anderson so long to make a movie?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 15 2006 4:57 PM

Dear Wes Anderson

Why does it take you so long to make a movie?

American Express: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson's new film is a lustrous widescreen ode to moviemaking. It's an ultimate movie-movie, a cinephile's wet dream that is, actually, a spoof of François Truffaut's 1973 movie about movies, Day for Night. In fact, Anderson's film is better than Day for Night: It's more complex because it doesn't just fetishize movies the way that Truffaut did. Plus, it's shorter. This two-minute epic was commissioned by American Express to promote the just-ended Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the movie fever that momentarily enchanted New York City.

Anderson lets us in on behind-the-scenes production secrets. "Making movies. How do you do it? What's it like?" he says to the camera. This caprice turns the current American indie filmmaking process—a three-ring circus of directing traffic, problem-solving, and capital management—into a dream-time fable. Appropriating the heraldic French horns and exultant strings of Georges Delerue's Day for Night score (a score that could lift anyone's spirits), Anderson gives movies a rapturous, comic importance in contemporary culture. His short film is both daring and irresistible.

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OK, it's a commercial. You've probably seen it on television or, best of all, among the trailers and ads that precede current theatrical features. If you did, then you also heard gasps of delight from the patrons who recognize Anderson's style (confirmed by his celebrity-director cameo appearance). They've been waiting for Anderson's next billet-doux following 2004's The Life Aquatic. This AmEx spot will have to do until Anderson gets off his butt to make another full-length feature film.

The reason Anderson's AmEx short-subject, titled My Life, My Card, feels so welcome is that contemporary movie fans suffer withdrawal pains between the ever-lengthening time their favorite directors make movies. For unaccountable reasons, it seems to take forever for this generation of bright young film artists—Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola—to make their next move on the Hollywood chessboard.

Captiously dubbed the American Eccentrics, these filmmakers speak to the contemporary audience with whom they share a sensibility about culture and society. They differ from the entertainment specialists (Quentin Tarantino, M. Night Shyamalan, Bryan Singer, Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, John Moore), who work regularly in the Hollywood system and turn out updated genre vehicles as if on schedule. These Eccentrics have added luster to independent filmmaking through stories and visual approaches that are slyly intellectual and charmingly mannered—truly millennial. The Eccentrics also differ from the last "movement" of young American filmmakers in the 1970s who were responding to Vietnam and the '60s counterculture. Anderson and his peers offer an unabashed solipsism, whimsy, and undisguised film savvy that make them Eccentric.

But since they're so smart, why are they also so slow? Jonze, Russell, Payne, Coppola, and both Anderson dudes are well aware of movie history. Standing on the shoulders of giants should give them certain advantages, like speed of production. But they don't seem to burn with moviemaking fervor the way Truffaut, Godard, Malle, and Chabrol did in the French New Wave; as Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders did in the German New Wave; or as Altman, Bogdanovich, Ashby, Walter Hill, and Woody Allen did during that '70s period known as the American Renaissance. Instead, they contemplate their upcoming projects with more trepidation than battlefield generals. The Eccentrics seem to be guarding their personal ideas so jealously that it sometimes suggests a creative block. The eternity of anticipation has frustrated those film lovers who look to certain artists to provide the Great American Movie.

Although swifter methods of financing and production were, presumably, paved during the '80s-'90s indie era (when Spike Lee was producing movies with horny-rabbit speed), the Eccentrics seem stymied. They raise the question: Is it really that difficult to make a movie? It's especially puzzling when you consider that Election, Sideways, Adaptation, and The Virgin Suicides were based on pre-existing sources or were essentially expanded riffs on other pop art, familiar cultural precedents, and pop philosophy. Wes Anderson's nostalgic remix of Jacques Cousteau and Steven Spielberg in The Life Aquatic, P.T. Anderson's heavily sampled remake of Altman's Popeye in Punch-Drunk Love, Russell's Midwestern burlesque of Sartre and Ayn Rand in I Heart Huckabees were rich stuff, overflowing with graduate-school enlightenment. All were "original," but none were pulled from thin air.

Is it the mediated response to such current events as the Middle East (Russell's Three Kings), social fragmentation (P.T. Anderson's Magnolia), and family chaos (Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Coppola's Lost in Translation) that saps their energies? Is there some Generation X malaise that stifles productivity? Or are these guys just being precious? Anderson, Russell, et al., have cultivated a perfectionist mystique, implying that they take so long between movies because each one must be complex and sublime. But this is a false premise. Their recent films have had uneven moments—even clunky moments that have led to box-office disappointment. Meticulousness is no guarantee. They'd be better off working faster and imitating Robert Altman's casual approach to creativity and profundity, and hitting the cultural bull's-eye here and there.

At one time, the Hollywood studio system was considered inhibiting and restrictive. Yet, through its production apparatus, great artists like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks were able to make two or three films a year and a great one every year. Vincente Minnelli released Gigi, Some Came Running,and The Reluctant Debutante—two classics and one elegant trifle—all in 1958! Examples like those make today's indie lethargy bewildering for moviegoers. It's also troubling to consider that the Eccentrics' habit of ivory-tower contemplation, and their courting of the Muse as well as financiers, might be hindering their growth. This decade, the example of Steven Spielberg's own studio-sponsored productivity has shown the benefit of an artist whose ideas and reflexes keep flowing. He's limbered up, his juices are flowing as he sprints from topic to topic, style to style. It should be remembered that Spielberg's productivity results from the enormous popular success that makes him bankable. This profitability is the envy of the Eccentrics (and is subtly mocked in The Life Aquatic in the form of the intrepid, unstoppable lead character Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray).

It seems that the Eccentrics' own egotistical indolence has resulted in self-imposed limits to their skills—at the very least it deprives the world of more of their unique cultural prognostications. If they are ever to truly change film culture, their maneuvers have to increase. When Anderson casually pays for extra production expenses in the AmEx ad, he pokes mischief at the '80s archetype of a hungry filmmaker using credit cards to see a film to completion. (The ad opens with typical Anderson piquancy: Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman onset in a new guise shouts, "François!" at the sight of an auto accident—a Day for Night in-joke as well as a mournful cry for Truffaut, who died in 1985.) But it's not really the way Anderson works—he pretends to be making a gimmicky action movie such as he never really has. My Life, My Card is insistently money-conscious, but its charm comes from envisioning a paradise of art-making, where all problems are immediately solved and where instinct flies with nature. Indeed, while riding a floating crane, Anderson is attacked by a flock of Hitchcock's birds. It bemuses him. (You have to be a real cinephile—perhaps own a certain Truffaut-authored interview book in your library—to appreciate such delicious free association.)

That Anderson came up with this fanciful new-millennium fabrication suggests that he, and the other Eccentrics, want to work more, and that they need a mythology to define their own filmmaking era. Anderson's movie-within-a-commercial recalls the antic film parodies staged as prep-school pageants in Rushmore—a poignant act toward wish-fulfillment and self-realization. That's the impulse the Eccentrics have in common: They want to be appreciated as whiz kids—the gifted children of the counterculture. This social development gains nuance and significance each time you see Anderson's celebratory, confessional spot. Because My Life, My Card has the stylish breadth and the Crayola-bright look of Anderson's previous films, it raises your hopes for the splendidly eccentric movies we're thirsting for. But, as funny, lovely, and candid as this mini meta-movie is, given the paucity and slowness of the Eccentrics' output, it's just a mirage.

Film and music critic Armond White's book on Morrissey, Knee Deep in Great Experiences, will be published next year.

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