EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on March 14, 2014
Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York magazine and Vulture.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. A Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker, Seitz has written, narrated, edited or produced over a hundred hours’ worth of video essays about cinema history and style for The Museum of the Moving Image and The L Magazine, among other outlets. His five part 2009 video essay Wes Anderson: The Substance of Style was later spun off into the hardcover book The Wes Anderson Collection. Seitz is the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, now a part of Slant Magazine, and the publisher of Press Play, a blog of film and TV criticism and video essays. He is the director of the 2005 romantic comedy “Home” and the forthcoming science fiction epic “Rabbit of the Sith.” He is currently writing memoir titled “All the Things that Remind Me of Her.” [via ROGEREBERT.COM]
PHAWKER: Please explain the premise of the book and how it came about and how you were able to secure Wes Anderson’s cooperation.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Wes Anderson Collection started out a series of video essays called The Substance Of Style and that was a five-part series for Moving Image Source which is the online magazine of the Museum of the Moving Image and the purpose of the series was to explore the worlds of Wes Anderson’s style and look at the various pieces of art, particularly cinema, that had fed his imagination. To kind of lay it all out for you visually. I published that in March or April of 2009 and a little while later I got a nice email from Wes saying that he had seen it and appreciated it. And then not long after that I got a call from the editor of Abrams Books who had also seen it and had said ‘Hey, I want to publish a book on the films of Wes Anderson. Would you like to write it? And is there some way that we could almost make it like a book version of the series of video essays, which is to say very visually driven? The result was eventually the Wes Anderson Collection and it took a few left turns along the way but the basic idea of the book is a tour of the artist’s stylistic development over time. There are a lot of different elements and one is an interview with the filmmaker himself and the other is artwork, such as frames from the movie and images from other films that the artist has borrowed from and stolen from and otherwise used. The book is trying to look and feel like a Wes Anderson film.
PHAWKER: It’s a beautifully designed and illustrated book and beautifully written, you should be proud. Now for my next question I’m going to stand in for all the Wes Anderson haters and make a brief statement and then I will allow you to sort of rebuff me and mount a brief defense of Wes and his output. That would be, Wes Anderson is an insufferably precious twee stylist, a masturbatory aesthete whose films begin and end with ‘air quotes’ and have no emotional resonance or actual connection to the business of being alive. Over to you, Matt.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Well if you feel that way I certainly can’t argue you out of it, that’s the way you feel. And I don’t think that Wes would try to argue you out of it either. But I would say that when large numbers of people say they do in fact have a strong reaction to the films of Wes Anderson, and I say films plural, are they lying? Have they all been fooled? I think this is more a question of subjective reaction to works of art than it is any sort of objective yardstick being applied. I will say that I understand why Wes Anderson’s movies are not for everybody, in the same way that I understand Alfred Hitchcock’s or Stanley Kubrick’s movies aren’t for everybody — they are extremely distinctive, very peculiar and singular works of art. They are mainly trying to scratch an itch that Wes Anderson has. He is making the films for himself, first and foremost. Obviously he would like if an audience enjoyed it to0 and it appears that just enough people do enjoy them enough that he can continue making movies. But the guy is not Michael Bay, you know?
He doesn’t hit a lot of the sweet spots that someone like Christopher Nolan hits, he’s a little more specialized than that. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that his movies are a lot of things at once, and some of the things that are going on at once are contradictory things. They are very, very heavily stylized to the point where people have accused them of being live action cartoons. There is no one extreme self consciousness to the way the stories are told and that is part of the story. I mean, often he tells stories that are framed as stories and in a lot of cases there are actual storytellers there telling you the story on screen in some way. Like The Life Aquatic is presented as almost a Steve Zissou film. Rushmore is broken up by curtains being drawn apart as if you are seeing a stage production by the hero of the film, Max Fisher. He goes even further in his later films where you get something like The Fantastic Mr. Fox which is a straight up adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel that is done in a style that suggests storybook illustrations. The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is this Russian nesting doll situation where you got a young woman reading a book which becomes an interview with an old novelist which becomes a recollection of how the novelist met this man who inspired him to write the novel which we saw the girl reading in the first place. So you know this is not ‘sit down, let me tell you a story.’ There is much more going on to it than that. But I would say that it does satisfy the basic ‘let me tell you a story’ aspect we go to the movies for, and that’s where the emotion comes in. Like the fact that he can do all of these things that are so intellectual to the point of being abstract and still have moments that hit people emotionally like a ton of bricks is nothing to sneeze at, I think.
PHAWKER: Okay, counselor, that was very persuasive. I would like go through Wes Anderson’s filmography and have you give us a summary of the essay you wrote about each film in the book. Assuming you have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel let’s start there and move backwards.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably his most overtly farcical film. It’s almost like a two hour climax, its really, really fast. It starts out fast and gets even faster as it goes along and it tells the story of this concierge played by Ray Fiennes who is handing off his traditions to a younger man and at the same time he is involved in this really complicated plot involving this painting called ‘Boy With Apple’ which he inherited through one of his many octogenarian lovers that he takes. I would say that this one really, really teases out the idea of Wes Anderson’s films being about stories and storytellers and need for stories. It’s framed as a story within a story, within a story, and is about the passing down of traditions. Of course storytelling is one of the ways traditions are passed down so it is a very self-conscious film in that way but it is also a very light and peppy film. I was surprised by it and I’m always a little surprised by his movies. Whatever his next film is it’s never quite what I think it’s going to be based on descriptions and this is definitely like that. I thought it would be something a little more melancholy, I didn’t think it would be as light and filled with slapstick as it is. In the end you also get this Rushmore kind of thing where even though it’s essentially a comedy, there’s a melancholy undertone that sort of sneaks up on you and it becomes more apparent each time you watch the film. The second time I saw the film I was quite touched by it and I have a feeling if I go back and see it a third time I’ll have that Rushmore reaction where it will seem like less of a comedy and more like a drama.
PHAWKER: His films seem to have the same effect on me, the more I see them the more I like them. In fact, the first time I’m always kind of like ‘I thought that was gonna be better,’ then I see it again and I’m like ‘This is great’ and then they become my favorite movies.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: I had that reaction to Moonrise Kingdom the first time I saw it, actually. And I was in the process writing the book by that point and I had this moment where I thought ‘Hmmm this is good but I don’t know if it’s really great,’ and then I saw it a second time and all of the objections I had to it the first time kind of disappeared. Like there were certain aspects that I thought…I thought maybe it was too short, and maybe the characters weren’t developed enough, and maybe this push for emotion at the end didn’t really feel earned somehow. Then I saw it the second time and it felt like the perfect film to me and I couldn’t remember what I objected to the first time. It reminded me of something a friend of mind always used to say about Stanley Kubrick which is that all Stanley Kubrick’s movies need to be seen twice because the first time is to get over what you thought it was going to be and the second time is to appreciate it for what it really is.
PHAWKER: That’s good. OK, The Fantastic Mr. Fox…
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of his most formally perfect films. I think I would rank it up there with Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore there’s barely a frame of it that I think could be improved and certainly not a moment that I think is unnecessary. It’s also a very sneaky film in that it is an animated movie aimed at a family audience but it’s based on a Roald Dahl book and it has its own version of this sneaky, wicked, at times sort of dark sense of humor. And it also is a movie that feels like a happy movie with a happy ending but if you actually look at what happens in the film I don’t think it’s all that happy. It’s more like a cautionary tale about what happens when you follow a charismatic, visionary leader/father figure like Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is this person that everybody rallies behind but where does it get them and where does it get him? They start out the movie by living in the burrow then they move up to a tree and by the end of the movie them and everybody else they know is being forced to live underground in the sewer because of the adventures they went on with Mr. Fox. So this doesn’t really feel like a victory to me. It feels more like they gained something and then they lost something and that’s often how Wes Anderson’s movies end I think. I always call Fanstastic Mr. Fox the gateway drug movie for kids particularly. I am amused to think about all the children who saw The Fantastic Mr. Fox as their first Wes Anderson film and then years from now hopefully they will see something like like Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic and go ‘holy crap that’s familiar and I’m not sure why.’
PHAWKER: The Darjeeling Limited.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: I’m actually a very big fan of this movie and I have found it to be one of his least appreciated films. There’s a lot of reasons why I like it and one of the reasons is in many ways it feels like a second attempt to tackle some of the themes he explored in The Life Aquatic specifically the stages of grief and what trauma does to people and how it affects their worldview. And also on a simpler level this idea of the tension between chaos and control. And how life is essentially chaos in the sense that it is random but also in the sense that you can’t control it but then you have to try to. There are all these different ways in which we try and control life and they are expressed in a very comically ridiculous fashion in The Darjeeling Limited with this character Francis Whitman having planned this spiritual journey throughout India down to the minute complete with laminated itineraries and how long they are going to spend at each place and what they are going to do and the minute he orders lunch for everybody without them asking him to, to the end of the movie where there are some hard lessons that have to be learned here. But what I really love about The Darjeeling Limited is it is not one of those movies where people go in needing to learn these lessons and then they learn them and they end the movie completely changed and you get the sense that everything is going to be hunky dory. At the end of the movie you get a glimmering of something like there is some kind of potential of change. However it is still off into the future, like the needle has been moved off the compass a couple of degrees to the right and considering who these brothers are that’s a major victory.
PHAWKER: I think that is his darkest movie. These guys are pretty fucked up at the beginning of the movie.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: They are. And they are marginally less fucked up by the end of it and that’s about as much as he gives you. And I think you come away from that with a basically happy feeling and it’s another one of those movies that it’s not until you ponder it a bit and let it sink in that you start to realize that he didn’t give you quite what you thought that he gave you. A lot of that is the conditioning we experience as moviegoers. When we see a movie that has a particular feeling or contains particular signifiers we expect it to be a certain way and it makes it very easy for a filmmaker like Wes Anderson to make movies that feel conventionally satisfying and then it’s only after you look at them or think about them for a bit before you realize that they are not. Or at least they are not satisfying in the way that you thought they were
PHAWKER: Okay, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: That’s my favorite Wes Anderson movie, I guess somewhat surprising to some people because it is his artistically, critically, and commercially least successful film. There’s long sections of the film that don’t entirely work for one reason or another, and a lot of experiments that he tries. I don’t know a whole lot of people who think it’s a success from start to finish but I love the openness in it and the sense of experimentation in it. I particularly love the way that it expresses this idea of the tension between chaos and control in relation to the grieving process. This movie is about this guy Steve Zissou who is dealing with mortality and his own fear of death as he moves through middle age. He is also worried about his legacy, like ‘what am I going to leave behind as an artist’, but also as a man. His marriage is failing, he doesn’t have any kids, at least none that he knows about while the film begins, and it’s been quite a long time that he has made a movie that makes any sort of an impact at all. You can get into an existential funk when you let your mind wander in the directions that Steve is going in. Then this guy enters his life who says ‘Hey I’m your son’ and they sort of agree that he is Steve’s son and we never find out for sure if he is or isn’t. The movie begins with the death of Steve Zissou’s partner which is what drives him on this mission of revenge where he is going to chase and kill this jaguar shark who is essentially this aquatic grim reaper, this death figure. So in a sense this movie is about a guy who sets out to personally track and kill death. And of course you can’t do that and the end of the movie is him coming to terms with the fact you cannot do that. And also realizing that death is not personal and just something that happens. The jaguar shark wasn’t trying to personally hurt Steve Zissou, it’s just something that happens. It’s a very deep film.
PHAWKER: Do you think the ending works?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: It works for me. I find it emotionally overwhelming. The climax at the bottom of the ocean where the jaguar shark bites the fish and they just sit there watching it. It reminds me of the end of Close Encounters where they are waiting on the airstrip for the mothership to land. Knowing what a huge fan of Steven Spielberg Wes Anderson is, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that was one of the films he had in mind when he was putting that scene together. It’s a miracle it’s like they gathered together to witness a miracle. And that’s the most amazing thing about that movie to me, that this creature who signifies death, which is as Wes himself put it basically a huge 14 foot metaphor, it becomes something holy and beautiful at the end. It’s certainly not what I expected from it.
PHAWKER: You mentioned that some sections of the film you don’t think actually work, can you identify them? Is it characters, or scenes or subplots?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: It’s a little bit of everything. I feel like the shootout with the pirates doesn’t work for me and I keep wanting it to but it never does. I feel like the movie gets bogged down a bit with the rescue of the hostages where it kind of turns into a parody of a James Bond film but also a straight up adventure movie and it kind of gets lost in that a little bit. There are times when the juxtaposition of tragedy and farce is a little jarring even by Wes Anderson’s standards. But all in all, I don’t particularly feel that any of these things really damage my love of the film. I’m somewhat unique in that way that I know a lot of critics penalize movies for trying to do too many things and not pulling them off but I kind of give movies bonus points for that. Like I do think there’s a sense in which I grade in a slight curve if the movie is ambitious. The Life Aquatic is one of those movies for me.
PHAWKER: Now if you haven’t already answered this with what you just said to me and if that is the case just say so, but why is this your favorite Wes Anderson film? What makes it stick out from all the others?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Well it’s probably a personal thing, I went through a period of three years where I lost my wife, my best friend, and my step mother and considering the themes of The Life Aquatic it’s probably not a huge shock that it would really resonate with me. It’s on a short list of movies that I would say have made a positive, tangible difference in my life.
PHAWKER: The other ones are?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: On the Waterfront, Born on the 4th of July, The New World, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sunrise, Wings of Desire, Days Of Heaven, there’s a few others but that’s the short list.
PHAWKER: Fair enough. The Royal Tenenbaums. And my belated condolences by the way, that’s rough, sorry to dredge that up.
MATTH ZOLLER SEITZ: Thanks.
PHAWKER: The Royal Tenenbaums.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Royal Tenenbaums is like a lot of his movies about disappointment or feelings of failure. Whether or not the people involved who are having those feelings actually are failures is another matter. That’s also a subject of the film. That sense that the entire world is looking at us and staring at us and passing judgment on us when in fact they probably don’t even notice us. They certainly aren’t spending as much time looking at us as we think they are. And it’s a really remarkable movie in terms of Wes Anderson’s evolutionary progression as a filmmaker because it seems like it’s going to be a bigger, bolder continuation of themes that he touched on in Rushmore but then it takes off in this really startling direction into tragedy, or near tragedy when Richie slits his wrists. When Richie slits his wrists in the sink…I can’t even describe to you what a shock that was. For me in the audience, and for everybody that had seen his previous two films, because he was not joking around. This is clearly not a guy who is going to be content to make some cute little hermetically-sealed comedies about precocious young men for the rest of his life. There is some heavy duty shit being worked through and he continued to do that in all of his movies. I would say actually that Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited could be shelved together in a box set as like The Grief Quartet, because they are all to some degree about loss. And they are dealing with not so much about a specific death, even though the movie ends with a death. It is also about the loss of this intact family unit that comes with the divorce of the parents and what that does to people. It’s a profound film.
PHAWKER: Walking back to the suicide scene, I think that is one of the most perfect moments in cinema history, with that incredible Elliott Smith song, “Needle In The Hay,” and the way it’s edited with the weird, stuttering jump cuts and the way he whispers how he is going to kill himself and then Dudley’s silent scream when he finds him bleeding out and the silence when they are busting through the hospital doors with Ritchie on the gurney. It’s at once horrible and mesmerizing.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Then the music comes in as they are rushing in with the gurney. That’s something else, and also little things like the way that he represents those moments of near death. That near death experience and the feeling of your life flashing before your eyes. I have watched the scene so many times and it’s remarkable how few shots there are in it. And I feel like what you are seeing are all the things that are the most important to Richie as he is cutting his wrists. There are very similar sequences in The Life Aquatic during the helicopter crash.
PHAWKER: For the record, The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite Wes Anderson movie. I think that is his most perfect movie to date, I love them all because I am a super fan but that one remains. Okay we are getting down there, Rushmore.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Rushmore is a perfect film. What can you say about it except ‘wow.’ I remember the first time I saw it in a screen room in New York, the Disney screen room. This was after Bottle Rocket had come and gone and got no attention critically or commercially. I was so relieved when I saw Rushmore because it felt bigger, bolder, and more confident in every way. It’s just a better film and a richer film. And its very very short but it doesn’t feel short. It feels longer in a good way, it feels like it is very substantial and very densely packed. It is also a very deceptive film like a lot of Wes’ movies in that it feels like it is playing at a particular way and that’s all there is to it. Then once you let it sink in you start to notice all the different emotional valences in it, all the different shadings. I think of it as a drama more and more each time I see it. That’s not to take anything away from the humor because it is a very funny film. This kid is such a tragic character and there’s something so heroic about him as misguided as he is in many ways. In the way that he is trying to rise above this terrible blow that was afflicted on him when he was too young to even process it. Also great soundtrack.
PHAWKER: Yes, for sure. I always thought of it as a drama with a lot of funny moments, not a comedy with a few heavy moments.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Well he tells a story in the book when he put a cut together of the film that wasn’t too much longer, only a few minutes longer and it was more a matter of a slightly different emphasis in a few scenes. When he showed it to a collaborator they said ‘oh my god this is such a sad film.’ Then he went back and re-cut it a little bit and everyone agreed that it was a comedy. That to me proves that there is such a thin line between comedy and tragedy.
PHAWKER: Then the last one is Bottle Rocket.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Bottle Rocket is his sweetest and in some ways loosest movie. It’s definitely a first film. I feel like his sensibility is not quite formed in that. It feels like a Wes Anderson movie if you have seen other Wes Anderson movies but it also feels like a James L. Brooks film. It has a touch of a Say Anything kind of quality. Cameron Crowe came out of the James L. Brooks mentorship program as well. I feel a tension in the movie between wanting to be mainstream and wanting to be uncategorizably eccentric. I also think it’s got that distinctive mood and distinctive feeling and it’s definitely got that peculiar mix of absurdist comedy and kind of borderline depressant melancholy drama. It definitely comes out in the end in that final sequence in the prison ending with the slow motion series of images of Dignan going back behind bars and waving to his friends who are behind a chain link fence. The whole things seems more substantial than it probably had any right to and a lot of that is because even at a very young age Wes Anderson had a great mastery of tone.
PHAWKER: Right, right. Last question, what do you know that he is up to next? What is his next project?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: I don’t know what his next project is. That’s one of the funny things about Wes is that he keeps his cards so close to his vest that you don’t know what he is going to do next until he is almost done with it.
THE WES ANDERSON COLLECTION IS PUBLISHED BY ABRAMS BOOKS
[Artwork courtesy of BAD DADS]