NYFF Interviews: Darjeeling Limited

Being at a press conference for a Wes Anderson movie is a little like seeing a Wes Anderson movie. There are lots of people crowded up on stage, each with their own distinctive trait: one looks sleepy and maybe hung over, another is carrying a cane for no apparent reason, another sports a turban. Despite their differences they’re all as comfortable with each other as old shoes, a family in practice if not in name. Talking about the experience of making The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson, co-writer Roman Coppola and several of the actors revealed what it takes to make a family work on-screen: become a family off-screen too.

A travelogue about three brothers on a poorly defined spiritual quest that goes awry (despite meticulous planning that involves laminated itineraries), The Darjeeling Limited is clearly an Anderson film-- his trademark fonts, symmetrical frames and bold colors feature prominently-- but also opens up the director’s aesthetic in a way none of his films have previously. Instead of creating his own meticulously art-directed world, as he did in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, Anderson sets his actors loose in the chaos of India, bursting with color, noise, comedy and pathos. As the brothers Whitman (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson) reconnect with one another and find a spiritual meaning in their trip almost despite themselves, we learn through subtle hints what brought them to this clunky train to begin with, and how they can possibly love each other after doing so much harm along the way.

It’s not my place to give a full review of Anderson’s film-- my editor Josh has already done a fine job, but I will say one more thing: it is absolutely key to see Hotel Chevalier, a 10-minute short, before The Darjeeling Limited, regardless of what Wes Anderson will tell you below. Set in Paris at some point before the events of the feature, the film follows Schwartzman’s character Jack in a hotel room in Paris, preparing for a visit from his ex-girlfriend. So many details about Jack’s personality are revealed that seeing the feature without them seems unimaginable. It’s available on iTunes, and possibly even better than the feature itself.

Joining Anderson and Coppola onstage for the conference were actors Schwartzman and Brody, as well as Waris Ahluwalia, who plays a humorless train steward, and Amara Karan, who makes her feature debut as a train stewardess who enchants Jack.

Was this film inspired by Jean Renoir’s The River?

Wes Anderson: I’m a great fan of Jean Renoir’s movies, but I’d never seen The River, a movie that I’d heard about for many years. I managed to see it because Martin Scorsese had gotten a print of it, and he thought I would like it. When he showed it to me, it was sort of the culmination of something that had been brewing in my mind. I had been thinking a lot about Satyajit Ray’s films, which I love. I had watched Louis Malle’s documentaries about India,Phantom India and Calcutta. Then I saw The River, and I suddenly realized I want to go there and I want to make a movie there. When we were writing, Roman [Coppola] and Jason [Schwartzman] and I, we were traveling in India. The last night of our first trip to India together, we watched The River together. That was part of what got us going.

How did the short evolve along with the feature?

Anderson: We made the short a year before the feature. I had written the short, and I had a few pages, the very beginning of the feature, and I went to Jason and Roman and asked them if they wanted to join me in writing the movie. Before it came time for the short, we had already realized that Jason’s character was the same character he would be playing in the movie. Then we started interconnecting them more and more. Our approach with the movie is, we wanted the movie to be very personal. Any time we had the question ‘What happens next?’, we tried to ask, ‘What has happened to you that could relate to this?’ We didn’t want to say too much. We wanted the movie to be spare in a way. We had scenes that we wrote that explain a lot, and we consistently made the decision to not reveal that information. It was part of our approach to the film. You need to see the short really to get the whole picture. It was a bit of a puzzle. It’s not a commercial idea, to make a short that you ought to see before the movie, but we don’t want to show it right before the feature. It took me a moment to figure out how I want to do this. In the end, we have the short on iTunes now, so people who are interested can see that before they see the movie, or after they see the movie. At a certain point we are going to add the short back in with the movie. I sort of like the idea that different people can see the movie in different ways.

Roman and Jason, can you talk about working on both of the films?

Jason Schwartzman: I would like to talk about it first as an actor. It’s been nine years since I’ve worked with Wes [1998’s Rushmore], though we’ve remained great friends. To go back to working with him, I was very excited about, but I couldn’t help being very nervous about it. To have the opportunity to make a short film with Wes after this time was the most gentle and wonderful way to reunite with someone professionally. It wasn’t so scary as to walk onto a film set with lots of people with lots going on. That was a nice way to get your feet wet. That was a nice way for me to be able to test out the character. It helped so much when I went to India, because that ‘s where my character is coming from, this moment with Natalie’s character, his head is a little bit unhinged. It was nice for me to have a real moment to experience that I could remember. Doing Hotel Chevalier was so helpful and so necessary. I wish I could do it for every movie.

Roman Coppola: I got this invitation from Wes and Jason to have this adventure, and Wes started off by giving us a few clues, that it takes place in India, there are three brothers on this adventure. He read the opening pages, which are very similar to what we see in the movie. I felt at that moment, I know what this movie is. I totally got it and understood and was excited to be part of this adventure. The whole thing’s been a whole process of adventure and discovery, which reflects the spirit and the theme of the movie.

As actors, did you find your experiences on the set reflecting the experiences of the characters?

Amara Karan: It was enlightening being in north India for the first time for me, and also being my first film. I think that what was enlightening about being in India is just reminding yourself, getting some perspective on your life, being in a completely different environment forces you to think about where you live and the background that you’ve come from. It was quite daunting, being my first film. Also just being on this moving train in this desert environment, it was quite daunting. Everyone was very helpful--it was so professional that it wasn’t as hard as it might have been otherwise.

Adrien Brody: I grew up here in New York. I thought New York was a very unpredictable place, but when you get to India, it’s a very different story. I think the key is letting go and really going with the flow so to speak, because you have to. It really made me very aware of being present in the moment. You realize the precariousness of life and the preciousness of life there. It was a story about three brothers reconnecting, and friendship, and I had a very similar journey with everyone up here. When I watch the film, I am reliving my adventures with Jason and Wes and Owen and Roman. There are more parallels than I normally feel with roles that I am less similar to. (Jason nods his head in agreement) It was a profound experience on a number of levels.

Waris Ahluwalia: I’m enlightened already, so it was a big waste of time for me. [everyone laughs] I go to India a lot, but what was amazing for me was to have old friends like Wes, and new friends, to come and see India through their eyes. It was rediscovering India. To see it through their eyes was incredible.

Could you talk about the very lovely luggage?

Anderson: In the short we wanted to make certain connections between the short and the movie. One of them was the luggage. It belonged to the father and it sort of represents him. It’s decorated with drawings of stampeding animals that my brother drew. As soon as we call it baggage, it becomes a pretty heavy-handed symbol, which I’m reluctant to touch on. It was just a spontaneous part of the story. When we got to the end of the movie, and they leave it all behind them, it wasn’t our plan, It was sort of just where we arrived. It’s going to seem like they’re letting go of all their baggage, but w e said, that’s what we want to happen in the story, so we’re gonna do it.

RC: The more we talk about it, the more it’s emphasis on something that doesn’t need emphasis.

Do you hope to have this distributed in India? And was any of the budget from Indian sources?

Anderson: The money is not from India. We’re planning to take the movie and show it ourselves in India, because obviously we made many friends during this process, and it’s their movie too. We’re a modest-sized film in American movies. The American movies that get distributed there might be a Hindi version of Casino Royale. I could see it being shown in Delhi or Calcutta.

I think the film really nails sibling rivalry. How did you achieve that?

Schwartzman: Coming from brothers myself, I find that siblings can fight with each other like no else really can. They’re in the same litter. They love each other in a very, very deep way. This film makes sense when I watch it because I see three brothers who have the potential and capacity to love each other, but they’re not doing a good job of it. Watching three people who could love each other but not love each other and stumble at it gives this film another texture. We were three American actors living in India with nowhere to go but towards each other. It really felt like family being on set, because of the camaraderie between us. We really didn’t leave the set between shots, there was really nowhere to go, it was on a train. We just stayed with each other, played games with each other, rehearsed lines. We all lived in a big house together, we all had dinner together every night. That was one thing Wes set out to do from the very beginning: ‘I want to make a movie in India, it’s going to feel like a family. I want us to live together and work on a train together.’ There really is that feeling on set. We really did have to be there for each other.

Wes and Jason, how do you feel the other one has changed and grown since Rushmore? [Wes suggests to Jason that if he speaks long enough, Jason won’t have to give an answer]

Anderson: When we made Rushmore, Jason had never acted before. He was this high school kid who came into our office. He was instantly so appealing that I really did feel immediately that we could shut down the casting search. We worked together in a similar way to the way we worked on this movie, in that we spent a lot of time together on this movie and became friends. In that movie he had lots of questions for me along the way that were really more about ‘What do people do on a movie set?’, coming from the point of somebody who had never watched before. Even when we did the short film, the thing that struck me was suddenly I was working with a very experienced actor who had done his own preparation that I wasn’t a part of. We hadn’t done a film together in all those intervening years, even though we had moments when were planning to. This student who I knew was suddenly a very experienced and very confident actor. Mainly I was just impressed--this is someone I can rely on.

Schwartzman: No comment.

This feels very different from Rushmore, Tenenbaums, and Life Aquatic. This reconnects with Bottle Rocket. Is that because it’s more freewheeling?

Anderson: The way we approached this movie was quite different from the way we approached Life Aquatic. [With Life Aquatic] we were dealing with some insurmountable problems involving the sea. In the case of this movie, we wanted to work very quickly, and sort of all stay together. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money. My thought was that I would like us to go to India and see what we could discover. It’s a place where, as a foreigner, you look in any direction and you see something that surprises you or puzzles you. Our approach was, let’s take everything we can and put it in our movie. Whereas a movie like The Life Aquatic, we were building everything. In the case of this movie, we had a story that we had intended, but the world that it’s set in is one that is waiting there.

What was the experience of shooting on a moving train?

Brody: Of course, shooting in a location that is authentic will only help the actors feel more connected with the moment and the material. Had we shot this on a soundstage in Burbank, it would be a very different movie. It made it very easy to connect to where we were and how we felt. It made the process authentic. I’ve had my experience working in very real scenarios and doing a lot of green screen work. It’s incredibly challenging to connect when things are not there at your disposal.

Schwartzman: This is the first movie I’ve ever worked on where if you’re late to set, it might not be there. That was an initial challenge and a very real fact that was there every morning. Because we were on a real train going through the Indian desert every day, you do have to yield to certain things, like other trains going by, animals crossing the tracks. At any moment the train can just slow down and stop. You’re aware of that when you’re acting. Those types of obstacles were always possible. That was a wonderful fire to have going on set. You’re always reacting. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where it’s constantly changing.

Karan: For my character it was very wonderful. Regardless of whether you had a scene scheduled that day, you were on set every day. It helped me get that feeling of claustrophobia, monotony. I felt that palpably. Ahwulia: All my scenes were shot in Burbank. [He cracks up the room again] The best part was that we were on actual train tracks on Indian railways. The movie feels like an adventure, but there was actually an adventure going on.

Did it ever occur to you what it would be like to do this movie in another environment? Also, was there a process of discovery of each other as brothers throughout the traveling?

Anderson: I did think about working in other places at certain times. The first part of it is in a little compartment the size of a closet, you could put it on a train anywhere. I had a particular fascination with India. I wanted to do a movie in India. I wanted to find a story to tell in India. The kind of experience that Owen’s character Francis wants to create for the brothers, this spiritual journey that he’s got planned, is probably tailor-made for India in the first place.

Brody: The normal process when you are working with people is to get to know them, and find what qualities you have in common. We had a few-week period before shooting of loose rehearsals and getting familiar with our surroundings. That was really fantastic. They’re wonderful guys, so it wasn’t difficult to connect to Owen or Jason. There were a lot of badminton games, so we felt some rivalry there. We all bought bicycles.

Schwartzman: I never felt rivalry.

Brody: Well, you’re a better player. It felt like I was at summer camp with all these guys.

Schwartzman: The script really was there-- that’s the blueprint. To build the house from the blueprint, that’s really just getting to know each other and spending time together and trusting each other.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend