a white-sky November day, Wes Anderson is lounging in a darkened
studio in the Brill Building, formerly the silvery hub of Tin Pan
Alley. His slight six-foot frame, all 155 pounds of it, is decked
out in undersize beige corduroys and an undersize beige shirt; his
auburn hair, once unruly, has settled into a subtle and rather
stylish alliance of tamed cowlicks. ''We're doing a weird little
recording session,'' he quietly explains. ''Yesterday, our editor
was whistling along with the soundtrack, and I thought, Wait --
Anderson immediately realized that this was a perfect touch. It
matched the sound in his head that, somehow, this crucial scene
lacked. So, at this late stage in the editing process of his new
movie, ''The Royal Tenenbaums'' -- and despite the fact that the
Brill Building is teeming with musicians -- he has enlisted a ragtag
assortment of crew members to lay down a whistling track, which will
then be added to the score.
Dylan Tichenor, the editor of the film, steps up to the
microphone first and blows out a shockingly off-key version of the
melody. No one whistles well under pressure. Tichenor jokingly calls
for a mimosa to loosen him up, but Anderson is not on terms with
defeatism. ''No, no, that's really good,'' he keeps saying, albeit
tentatively. ''Try it again, and leave a space for a bigger breath
before the dramatic part. And do that Disney sound you were doing
Listening to the soundtrack in headphones and staring up at a
screen flickering with Gene Hackman's muted image, Tichenor tries
seven more times, but his shower-and-household whistling talents
have abandoned him. ''Try a few more runs -- they can adjust the
pitch later,'' Anderson says.
''I'm nervous, man,'' Tichenor jokes. ''My lips are
Even in these tense weeks of postproduction, Anderson doesn't
seem to have a care in the world. ''It's important to remember that
no one expects you to be a professional whistler,'' he says.
Tichenor is unconvinced. But Anderson stands in front of him,
backlit by the glow of the screen, and closes his eyes to listen.
Tethered like an astronaut to his own headset console four feet
away, he conducts his tuneless virtuoso with crisp, happy Mitch
Miller gestures, each of which concludes with a swirly little
''The Royal Tenenbaums,'' opening Dec. 14, is a tale of familial
dysfunction, failure and redemption. But that rough description
belies its peculiar sense of joy. The three children of Royal
Tenenbaum (Hackman) and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), are
child prodigies: a 12-year-old playwright, a tennis champ, a boy
financial whiz. But two decades later, after the separation of their
parents and other mishaps, their promises of glory have turned to
dust. Royal, a charming but reprehensible lawyer, hasn't seen his
family in years. The movie is set in a storybook New York and
chronicles Royal's comical schemes to win back his place in the
Tenenbaum clan. In the scene Anderson is now tweaking, Hackman plays
for sympathy by announcing that he is terminally ill.
Looking on as Anderson spryly conducts Tichenor's hapless
performance, I'm reminded why the press sometimes treats the
32-year-old director like a nifty kid who happens to make swell
movies. Judging from appearances alone, he's an easy mark. He
addresses the world through clear-framed spectacles and with the
diffidence of a grad student; he carries his credit cards bundled
together by a rubber band. During the ''Rushmore'' shoot, one actor
recalls, ''he would always have only half of his shirt tucked into
his pants -- always. Only half. The other half would be hanging out
Anderson may straddle the worlds of adulthood and childhood, but
he's hardly a case of arrested development. His work is not the
product of emotional immaturity; quite the opposite. The appeal of
movies like ''Bottle Rocket'' and ''Rushmore'' (with its reverence
for stamp collecting, Swiss Army knives and BB guns) comes from the
fact that Anderson has retained a boy's way of conceptualizing the
world -- but he conveys it with a sophistication that a boy could
never articulate. By exercising meticulous control over his films'
characters and structure, he recreates the fun and cruelty of youth
in a lexicon that real adults have forgotten and real children have
yet to acquire.
The tone of elation in Anderson's movies relies in no small
measure on the careful little touches -- something as seemingly
minor as 23 seconds of whistling. Which makes this odd recording
session anything but frivolous, despite Anderson's sunny sense of
''What ever happened to those old Disney whistlers?'' he muses.
''Weren't they great? Are there whistlers like that anymore?''
One of the crew suggests that they try Meryl Streep; after all,
she'll be in the building Monday to loop another film. ''I bet she
could whistle,'' Anderson says wistfully. ''She certainly can belt
out a song.''
Inside a studio, Wes Anderson moves gingerly, like a man
afraid to wake a sleeping child. But outside its shadowy confines,
he is nimble. He arrives at his Upper East Side address late one
night after another long day of editing, clambers up the stairs two
at a time and enters his apartment. He sweeps past a giant
''Alphaville'' poster into the bathroom and begins brushing his
I'd been warned about Anderson's living habits. James Caan, who
played a pivotal role in ''Bottle Rocket,'' recalls that after the
first day of shooting, he stopped up to see Anderson in his hotel
room. ''I've never seen so much stuff in my entire life,'' Caan
says. ''I looked around for Wes, and there he was, looking like a
pinky in clothes. If you go to his house, bring a searchlight.''
Anderson's place looks like a prop-storage warehouse. Instead of
mementos or family photos, the apartment is scattered with relics
from his films: a Stetson hat from ''Tenenbaums,'' a Cousteau book
from ''Rushmore.'' A large painting of Winston Churchill -- also
from ''Rushmore'' -- smiles down on the living room from above the
fireplace. One of the few traces of noncinematic life are volumes of
Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson that, judging from the Dewey
Decimal coding taped to their spines, appear to have been cadged
from a library somewhere.
''Oh, those aren't real,'' Anderson says after emerging from the
bathroom. ''They were made to look that way by the 'Rushmore' art
department.'' On inspection, it turns out they've been cleverly
disguised as library books, right down to the fake date-stamps
inside the back cover, detailing when nonexistent students checked
them out. They're never shown in the movie and call to mind the old
story about the director Luchino Visconti, who insisted that
cabinets in his scenes be filled with exquisite china, even though
their contents were never going to be seen on camera.