The critic, writer and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz first met director Wes Anderson when he was still shopping around the short film that would birth his first feature, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket.” Seitz has been writing and analyzing his work since, even making a series of short videos on his films, “The Substance of Style." With “The Wes Anderson Collection,” Seitz puts his thoughts in book form, via a giant, lavish tome that also includes stills from his films, never-seen photos and a revealing and beguiling book-long interview with the director.
When did you decide this should be an interview book as opposed to another kind of book about a film director?
I like interviewing people. I like writing profiles of people. And the fact that I’ve known this guy for so long made an interview component more tempting. It took awhile to convince him. He’s very out front as an auteur and an impresario. But that’s not Wes. That’s “Wes.” The actual Wes is not this flamboyant, confident, cool Mr. Fox-type figure. He’s just a guy. I’m not close to him, really, but I did know him when he was just a guy.
When I talk to him I can still see just the guy. The guy is a Texas kid who is a little uncomfortable with being the center of attention for too long and having people pay him compliments. He doesn’t take compliments well. It’s kind of charming. Obviously he’s an artist, so he likes being paid attention to and he likes acclaim. But I think he just wants the work to be seen and absorbed. I think he finds adulation uncomfortable. He finds it useful in that it allows him to get more money and make more movies. But I think that’s as far as it goes.
Anderson is definitely open about his work, but one of the curious trends in this book is how you often rattle off theories and analyses of his films, and at the end he just goes, “Hmm.”
It’s like he’s taking it in. There are parts where he finds them valid, but he doesn’t want to go so far as to validate them.
He's very modest.
If you read between the lines of this book, you can get a pretty clear picture of the real Wes. He’s not an Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, where when you read an interview with them you feel they’re right there and completely transparent. I don’t know if that’s accurate — those might be performances as well. But with Wes he doesn’t even give you that. I think that’s very 20th century.
We live in the era where directors are on Facebook and on Twitter. They’re tagging other filmmakers and actors and critics. Twitter has turned into the food court at the local mall in the ‘80s. “Hey, there’s Rian Johnson over by the Orange Julius stand!” Wes isn’t into that. I don’t think it’s a statement. It’s just the way he does things. I think he thinks, “I’m the artist, I make my thing, you respond to it, and maybe I care what you have to say about it, but maybe I don’t. Then I move onto the next thing.”
He definitely comes off as one might not expect from his work — or from his lead characters, who are more outsized than he is. It's like the protagonists might not be him, or may be only aspects of him.
I think they are all [him]. The cliche is everyone in a dream is you. I think everybody in a work of art is the artist, or some aspect of the artist. It’s who they were or are or who they think they might be 10 or 20 years later. There’s a lot of that in Wes’ movies. Steve Zissou is a working through of the anxieties of a young artist — about where he’ll be in 20 years as a filmmaker and as a person.
There’s this sense that a lot of the characters in his films are very good at being ringmasters, but they tend to have tunnel vision and they use people. And they have to come to terms with having used people. I’m sure Wes has used people; every artist has. It’s something he deals with explicitly in his movies. “Royal Tenenbaums” is about that. “The Life Aquatic” is about that. That movie is so much about the bridges that guy has burned in his life. And “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — everyone thinks about it as this lighthearted movie. But think about it: Everyone follows this charismatic impresario on his little crusade, and they end up kicked out of their homes and having to live underground. They have to live the rest of their lives as fugitives because of this guy. It’s not quite the bowl of sunshine and lollipops people make it out to be.
There’s an issue of chaos and control in his work, too, and especially in “The Darjeeling Limited,” where characters try to have a free adventure but use rigidly planned schedules — laminated, no less — yet wind up on unplanned misadventures anyway, all while struggling to work through grief.
One of the ways you can tell a great or at least significant artist is you ask somebody what their work is about, and you don’t always get the same answer. I think Wes is one of those people. Chaos versus control is a big thing. The benefits and drawbacks of having a charismatic visionary in your life is another. The complexity and contradictions of family life is yet another thing. You can go on from there. You probably list a dozen things off the top of your head what Wes Anderson movies are about. And when you look at how breezy and short they are, that’s pretty remarkable. His movies don’t carry themselves as big important films. But there’s a weight to them.
Anderson has many detractors. What do you think about them?
I feel like whatever you feel about Wes is whatever you feel about Wes. There’s a point in the book where I floated one of my cockamamie theories, and I asked if he thought that was a valid interpretation. He said yes, it’s a valid interpretation because it’s your interpretation. You could see that as a non-commital answer, or you could see it as a very sensible answer. I don’t think you could say something against or for Wes Anderson that I think is unfair.
Well, some people do hold too much onto the charge of anal retentiveness.
I feel like Wes is making movies about emotionally arrested or childlike people, and they are about the condition of being anal-retentive or controlling or fussy. But I don’t think the movies are immature or that the movies are fussy. I think he’s working through something by making these movies. And he never quite gets there.
The first time I saw “The Darjeeling Limited,” I thought maybe the style of the movie should have changed a little bit after the river sequence, because it was so meticulously controlled before that happens, and then it continues to be a meticulously controlled movie. But then I thought, “Yeah, but that seems fair.” Because if the movie had become handheld and very loose and seemingly improvised after that, it would indicate a greater change in the characters than the movie can really support. I feel by keeping controlled it’s a more honest movie. I feel like Wes is very honest with himself about who he is and what he’s capable of. He’s very self-deprecating about things he did that didn’t come off. He’s actually self-deprecating about things that did come off.
He makes fun of the anal-retentive charge a lot. And you see it in the book. He acknowledges that critics think he’s too controlling and fusses over every molecule. And I get the feeling he doesn’t think that’s entirely inaccurate.