WATCHING MOVIES WITH: Wes Anderson; From Centimes, A Wealth Of Ideas
By RICK LYMAN
Published: Friday, January 11, 2002
”WHY did I pick this movie?” Wes Anderson asked himself, slouching against the wall in the glass-lined lobby of an office building on the Paramount Pictures lot, a sultry black-and-white portrait of Dorothy Lamour peering over his shoulder. ”I don’t actually have an answer for that.”
Mr. Anderson, it turns out, is the sort of person who tells you — a little sheepishly — that he has no answer to something, and then spends the next two and a half hours giving you one.
A slanted, self-deprecating smile spread across his face. Tall, bony and professorial, he leaned his forehead down so that he had to tilt his eyes up a bit to look straight ahead. ”One thing is, I’m a big François Truffaut fan and this is the most unpretentious movie that I can possibly imagine,” said Mr. Anderson, 32.
He is referring to ”L’Argent de Poche” — or ”Small Change,” as it was released in the United States in 1976 (some other English-speaking countries saw it as ”Pocket Money”) — a short, gentle and studiously improvisational comedy about schoolchildren in a small French town. The documentarylike ensemble piece, teeming with life, arrived amid one of the most fertile periods in Truffaut’s career.
”It almost looks like the kind of movie that would be projected on a 16-millimeter projector in a school library, or something like that,” Mr. Anderson said. ”And also, there’s something about the fact that I am about the exact age as a lot of the kids in the movie. Even though it’s taking place in France and I grew up in Houston, it’s my exact childhood period.”
In less time than it took a director like, say, Stanley Kubrick to make just one movie, Mr. Anderson burst out of the energetic Texas film community with the cult favorite ”Bottle Rocket,” first a short film in 1994 and then a feature in 1996. He followed it with a second Houston-based comedy, the widely celebrated ”Rushmore” (1998), and then assembled one of the best casts in a recent American film — Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, etc. — to make his latest film, ”The Royal Tenenbaums.” Along the way he also helped turn two of his closest childhood friends, the brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, into bona fide movie stars.
Still more of a critics’ darling than a mainstream force, Mr. Anderson has a visual approach and storytelling style — a distinctive and, to its fans, beguiling combination of the quirky and the formal — that has received much critical attention, although it has mostly eluded those trying to pin Mr. Anderson down. Some clue, it seems, lies in a film as unprepossessing and unpremeditated as ”Small Change,” with its small, acutely observed moments of everyday life.
”People talk about how the early French New Wave movies were so free, and the camera was so liberated and everything, especially in comparison to the films that came before them,” Mr. Anderson said. ”But not like this. In ‘Small Change,’ the camera is even more free. I think Truffaut makes a kind of point of not obsessing about anything involving light, or anything like that. The whole movie had a real documentary feel to it. It makes you realize how meticulous some of those earlier New Wave movies really were.”
Mr. Anderson says he tends to go on jags, immersing himself in the work of directors. He’ll see one film by a particular director, and it will lead him to try to see as many as possible of that director’s other works as quickly as possible. And sometimes, he finds, a director’s sensibility will elude him at one point in his life and then unexpectedly strike home years later.
”You have to be ready for them,” he said. ”That was the experience I had, for instance, with Luis Buñuel. The first Buñuel movies that I saw were some of the last ones — you know, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ and ‘That Obscure Object of Desire.’ I watched them when I was first in college and I didn’t get them at all. I just didn’t respond to them. And then, three years later, I saw one of his earlier films — I think it was Jeanne Moreau in ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ — and I suddenly understood his sense of humor. So I went back and started watching all of his films, and finally I arrived back at the ones that I’d started with, except this time I loved them. I got them, you see. I was ready for them.”
In retrospect and with cold objectivity, it is apparent that ”Small Change” is, in many ways, a minor-key Truffaut effort, especially compared with masterpieces like ”The 400 Blows.” Yet seeing it when Mr. Anderson did — as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, when his filmmaking sensibility was beginning to blossom — was part of what has made the film so important to him.
”I think I saw it first on video,” he said. ”It struck me at once, you know? It’s very wistful and sweet and sad. The first Truffaut film I ever saw was ‘400 Blows,’ and that had a huge impact on me. But there’s something about this one, too. And when you do something like this — pick a movie to watch for an article — you want to pick something that you want to proselytize about, in a way. And you’re also picking a kind of brand to put on yourself. Oh, he’s the guy who picked ‘Shane’ to watch, or he’s the one who watched a Roy Rogers movie. I was a little nervous to pick a French movie, because it can make you sound a little too, well, you know. It might not go over with some people.”
Coming From the Heart
Mr. Anderson walked around the corner and into a ground-floor screening room that had been set aside for the viewing. He settled himself toward the back of the theater, in one of the broad, upholstered chairs, facing the exact middle of the screen.
The film starts, with appropriate simplicity, on the shot of a girl standing outside a shop in what we are informed is the village of Bruère-Allichamps. The name of the shop, according to the sign above its door, is the Center of France, and the girl scampers inside to buy a postcard, then runs to an island in the middle of the main street to inscribe it. The tall monument behind her, which is also featured on the postcard, marks the exact geographical center of the nation. And it is in this way, quietly but with obvious symbolism, that Truffaut alerts us that his subject will be nothing less than the heart of France as reflected in its children.
As the postcard drops into a postal box, the scene shifts to another village: the girl’s hometown, Puy-de-Dôme, where the main action will take place. Happy, screeching schoolchildren run wildly through the streets on their way to school as the credits roll.
”I haven’t seen this in about five years, I’d guess,” Mr. Anderson said. ”I had a laser disc of it for a while and used to watch it a lot. And I think I screened it for the crew when we were making ‘Rushmore.’ They let me have access to a screening room at Disney, and I screened it with a few other movies for the crew, just to get the feel of it.”
Maurice Jaubert’s happy, energetic music plays over the credits, not quite drowning out the sounds of childish ebullience. Mr. Anderson’s own idiosyncratic musical choices have been noted by critics, so it comes as no surprise that he has made a study of Truffaut’s scores.
”I had always thought that Truffaut had these two main guys as his composers, Georges Delerue and Jaubert, and I tried to get my hands on copies of all of his soundtracks,” Mr. Anderson said. ”It was only when I really looked at them that I realized that the music he was using from Jaubert was recycled from films in the 20’s and 30’s. I’ve been trying to gather this stuff up. I loved these scores so much in the Truffaut movies that I thought maybe there were some other Jaubert pieces that Truffaut hadn’t used. But I’m finding that it’s very hard to put your hands on them.”
The giggling children are still scampering through the streets.
”Do kids in French villages really run to school in packs?” Mr. Anderson asked. ”I don’t know, but it feels natural, doesn’t it? There’s something about these shirts and sneakers that the children are wearing. It’s all the same kind of stuff that we were wearing right around the same time, in the mid-70’s. Although our streets in Texas didn’t look like this, obviously, the way they’re dressed really reminds me of the way me and my brothers would have dressed back then. And I really like them running to school, you know? I like the feel of it. It could come across as a little precious, but it doesn’t, does it?”
One by one, in the opening scenes at the school, the characters are introduced: a pair of lovelorn schoolteachers, a new student from an abusive household, a class clown, a precocious girl and so on. ”Oh, these are the Deluca brothers,” Mr. Anderson said. ”They’re great. I love them in this movie. They’re always up to something.”
Nothing Seems Fussy
The camera glides in and out of groups of people, focusing on one child and then another, cutting to a different classroom, its gaze sliding in and out of conversations and stolen glances. Nothing about the film seems fussy. The camera is where it is.
”That’s what’s so great about this movie,” Mr. Anderson said. ”There are all of these threads, all of these people and story lines, but it also feels very free, as though we can join any character at any moment. There are some characters who have just one scene or just one moment, and then a few who kind of continue throughout the whole movie and have their own developing stories. But when they’re introduced, they’re all introduced in the same way, so you’re never sure who is going to turn out to be important and who’s making their only appearance. It’s very rare to introduce characters that way, yet it doesn’t feel like a stunt the way Truffaut does it. It feels very natural.”
Julien, the new student from an abusive home, is shown standing in the school courtyard, his scraggly hair obscuring his face. ”Now, this is one of the stories that we’re going to follow, but he’s introduced in the same way as everyone else,” Mr. Anderson said. ”His story is probably the darkest thing in the whole movie, but it’s never really heavy. Nothing is. The whole movie has a real lightness to it.”
A Truffaut film featuring a troubled child inevitably begs comparison to ”The 400 Blows” (1959) and his other autobiographical films, in which the young director transformed his difficult youth into art. What intrigues Mr. Anderson is not just how differently Truffaut treated childhood trauma in ”The 400 Blows” and ”Small Change,” but how the entire tone and sensibility had shifted in the intervening decades into one that is lighter and more forgiving.
”This movie has so much innocence,” Mr. Anderson said of ”Small Change.” ”In ‘400 Blows,’ the character of Antoine, who is really Truffaut, is not so innocent. We are on his side, it is not his fault, but he’s a lot more complicated and troubled and angry, as Truffaut himself must have been, than Julien or any of the children in ‘Small Change.’ ”
Mr. Anderson remembered that as a college student he stumbled across a huge volume of Truffaut’s scripts and letters in the University of Texas library. He devoured it and can vividly remember many passages.
”There is one of Truffaut’s letters that is amazing and so funny and sad,” Mr. Anderson said. The young Truffaut was writing to one of his closest friends, who had entrusted the future director with his books and other valuable things, which Truffaut had promptly sold and kept the money.
”There is a letter of apology from Truffaut that is so overstated,” he said. ”The language is very flowery, and you get the feeling that, in this relationship, Truffaut felt himself to be intellectually superior and was the dominant personality between the two. But at this point, he was clearly guilty and kind of vulnerable and exposed, and he was trying to maintain the upper hand in their relationship at the same time he couldn’t be more guilty. What’s interesting is to see how this kid, who came from such a brutal background, went through all of this and came out, in the 1970’s, with this humane, gentle attitude about it all.”
A Documentary Feel
Several times during the film, Mr. Anderson remarked on the quality of the children’s acting, most of them simply recruited off the streets in the village where the movie was shot. There have been important child actors in all of Mr. Anderson’s films, and he has strong feelings on the subject.
”Both ‘400 Blows’ and this movie had such great kids in them,” Mr. Anderson said. ”I love working with children. They’re so surprising, you know? But the casting process is very involved. It takes a long time to really figure it out with them. But then once you get going with them, you can see which ones really snap to it and are completely natural. Some people can just do it and some can’t. Plus, they haven’t had any experience, so they haven’t had a chance to fall into any habits, good or bad. What I’ve found that’s interesting, though, is that the ones who can do it can just do it, right from the beginning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one improve over the course of making a movie. Either they can do it or they can’t. It’s odd.”
There is also something about the quality of the children chosen by Truffaut: they are attractive and personable, but not plastic or pretty. ”They’re more appealing than an average kid would be who you’d pull off the street, but they’re not like TV kids,” Mr. Anderson said. ”I have thought about this movie a lot. It’s not like, when I was working, I’d think, ‘Oh, I wonder how Truffaut would have done it.’ But these images have definitely come to me when I’m working. And also the casting. When you see these kids, they don’t look like TV kids, yet they’re very appealing. That’s always something I’m trying to capture.”
The scenes float past without any sense of rhythm or purpose, just captured snippets of daily life. The camera visits one child, then glides over to another. Life is going on all around it. In one scene, students are walking into a classroom. One unaffectedly steals a look into the camera, then continues on.
”Now, he could easily have shot that over again,” Mr. Anderson said. ”Normally, you don’t have your actors glancing into the camera as they walk by. But in this movie, it’s all right because the whole movie feels that way. The things happening in the movie seem like they’re really happening in real life, and in real life a kid might do something like that. In some movies, it would ruin everything. But here, it feels like Truffaut doesn’t have to make an effort to cast a spell. It’s all so natural. That’s part of why it’s so documentary feeling. We really feel like we’re in a real French school with real French kids and that we’re watching real life unfolding.”
Several times, Mr. Anderson pointed out an awkward camera placement or shakiness in a camera movement. ”Clearly, Truffaut is a filmmaker who knew how to make a smooth, polished film,” Mr. Anderson said. ”He made ‘Story of Adèle H.’ around this same time, and that feels nothing like this. Like here — see how that camera is shaking and a little crooked? And Truffaut just keeps going. It’s part of his strategy for this film. He wanted to get a certain spirit, a naturalness, and that’s how he did it. Plus, I think he shot this movie very, very quickly.”
Two scenes in the film drew the most comment from Mr. Anderson.
In the first, one of the most famous passages in the movie, a toddler crawls out onto a windowsill in an apartment building, 11 stories above the grass and hedges. As horrified passers-by watch from below, the toddler clambers over a low railing and plummets through the air, landing on a fluffy bush with a soft thud and a broad smile, totally unhurt.
”You just know, during all of that, that nothing really bad is going to happen to the kid,” Mr. Anderson said. ”It just wouldn’t fit the tone of the movie. And when the kid falls, you can tell that it’s a dummy falling. It’s so odd in a movie that’s been so realistic. And then he lands and he’s smiling and unhurt, and it’s — I don’t know, what is it? It’s not realism. Maybe it’s magic realism. But somehow it fits perfectly in the movie.”
A short while later, two schoolgirls are wandering down the town’s main street, past some shops and a sidewalk cafe. The camera follows alongside them, listening in on their conversation. When they go into a shop, the camera lingers outside, listens to another bit of chatter from a passing pedestrian, then continues to follow the girls down the street. When they go into the cafe, again the camera lingers outside, listening in on first one and then another of the conversations taking place at the sidewalk tables, and then rejoining the girls when they emerge.
”There’s not really anything happening in this scene,” Mr. Anderson said. ”There’s no particular agenda that we can see. And the way we move through different groups of people — hearing parts of different conversations, sometimes overlapping — it’s very much the way Robert Altman works. And then, in the end, the whole scene turns out to really have been about nothing. It doesn’t further any of the story lines at all. It’s just a little slice of everyday life, like a punctuation between two more substantial scenes.”
Truffaut as Muse
It becomes clear as the movie unfolds, drawing us in and out of so many lives, that at least one reason that Mr. Anderson chose it was to revisit so many of the influences that Truffaut had on his work, beginning with the use of children and continuing through the intricate ensemble structure. Even the narration (by Alec Baldwin) that Mr. Anderson used in ”The Royal Tenenbaums” has its antecedent in Truffaut. ”I love the way he uses narration, like the beginning passages of ‘Jules and Jim,’ remember how he was talking so fast? And it’s a narrator who’s not a character in the story. In so many movies, he uses narration and letters or books. ‘Story of Adèle H.’ was practically all about letters.”
When Truffaut did the credits for ”Two English Girls,” another of his 70’s efforts, he used multiple copies of the book from which the film was adapted in a checkerboard pattern on the screen. In ”The Royal Tenenbaums,” every major character has written a book, and when each is introduced, a copy of the character’s book is shown on the screen, just as in ”Two English Girls.” ”Actually, in that one, Truffaut also showed his written notes from preparing the script,” Mr. Anderson said. ”All we did was steal the way he had the covers arranged.”
Even more, though, than the way Mr. Anderson’s style mirrors Truffaut’s, what becomes apparent while watching ”Small Change” is how different the two directors are. While Truffaut’s film feels entirely improvised and ungoverned by fussy filmmaking rules, Mr. Anderson’s is formal and calculated and entirely fussy.
Making His Own Rules
”In this movie, it’s almost like Truffaut is saying, ‘We’re not going to have any rules here,’ ” Mr. Anderson said. ”I obsessively make rules. I have weird, pointless rules. I want the movies to be like math, almost. But only in the aspect of the camera and the cutting and how the music is used and things like that, not when it comes to the performances.”
His camera operators know there are certain types of camera moves that he does not allow. In ”The Royal Tenenbaums,” the entire film is shot using the same 30-millimeter. Why? Mr. Anderson shrugged. ”I need it to be that lens,” he said. ”If it’s another lens it’s like, that isn’t right, that’s not shaped right.”
Another rule: Whenever something is placed on a tabletop, the camera moves directly overhead and shoots the object looking straight down. ”It got to the point where they didn’t even have to ask me,” he said. ”They knew it was a tabletop scene, so they’d set up the camera over the table. ‘Oh, here it comes, another standard Wes tabletop shot.’ It’s more for me, I think, than it is for the movie. It feels right to me that way. But the ultimate effect is that it unifies the movie.”
Most immediately noticeable, though, is the way his characters are framed. Whether there is one character or a handful, they are always smack in the middle of the screen.
”In the movie we just did, everybody is in the dead center of the frame for almost the entire movie,” Mr. Anderson said. ”Even when you have nine people in a shot, they are obsessively arranged so you can always see all nine of them. No one is obscuring anyone else. I even had one shot where there were 13 people, and I wanted to pull straight back and reveal even more people at the edges. But in doing that, I found, some of the people got blocked. So I had Bill Murray and Owen Wilson and one other guy kind of lean forward unnaturally as the camera pulled away, just so they would clear themselves and remain in the shot. I have to admit, I think perhaps it’s more meticulous than is really healthy.”
A Diverging Path
Nothing could be further from the sensibility of ”Small Change,” in which characters peer into the camera, block out one another and seem to wander around the frame at will. That’s it, Mr. Anderson said; that’s the mystery of how one filmmaker can so fundamentally influence another and yet make films that are stylistic opposites.
”One thing I do feel a total connection with this movie about is the way the actors are free,” Mr. Anderson said. ”Except in weird cases where I have actors leaning so they can stay in a shot, when I have actors playing a scene I try to make it so they are as free as possible. That’s where I intersect with ‘Small Change.’ Maybe my actors have to hit a mark, but there aren’t too many obstacles in the way of them being able to do what they want to do.”
Many of the filmmakers who have taken part in this series have sadly remarked, at some point while watching a movie that has meant so much to them, that the film could not be made in Hollywood today. Too expensive, too quirky, too dark — whatever the problem, they seemed almost wistful about what it must have been like to work at the studios when such movies could be made. But Mr. Anderson just shrugged when asked if he felt that way about ”Small Change.” The question didn’t apply, he said.
”They didn’t make this movie in Hollywood,” he said. ”The reason you couldn’t do this movie today is that François Truffaut died.”
Watching Movies With . . .
This article is part of a series of discussions with noted directors, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers and others in the film industry.
In each article, a filmmaker selects and discusses a movie that has personal meaning.
Highlights of Wes Anderson’s directing career, and information on ”Small Change.”
What They Watched
”SMALL CHANGE” (”L’ARGENT DE POCHE”). Directed and produced by François Truffaut. Screenplay by Suzanne Schiffman and Truffaut. Cinematography by Pierre-William Glenn. With Claudio Deluca, Franck Deluca, Sylvie Grizel, Sébastien Marc, Marcel Berbert and Corinne Boucart. MGM/UA, 1976. 105 minutes. $19.98.
”THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.” Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow. 2001. In theaters.
”RUSHMORE.” Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams and Brian Cox. 1998. Touchstone. 93 minutes. $17.99.
”BOTTLE ROCKET.” Starring Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave and Ned Dowd. 1996. Columbia Tristar. 98 minutes. $13.99.