Alec Baldwin so enjoys the story of how he ended up narrating “The Royal Tenenbaums” that he told it twice at the virtual reunion that followed Monday’s Tribeca Festival anniversary screening. He used it to open the conversation, which he moderated, recalling that co-writer/director Wes Anderson “asked to do me a favor and do this narration for this film. He said, ‘I’m never going to use it, I don’t really want it, the producers are insisting that I have a voiceover track.’” It was only when Baldwin revisited the story nearly a half-hour later – “That’s what you said to me, ‘I’m never gonna use this, I’m never gonna use it’” – that Anderson felt compelled to pipe up: “I never said that!”
The story does fly in the face of what we know about Anderson and his meticulous process (and indeed, Matt Zoller Seitz, who literally wrote the book on the filmmaker, confirms that the narration was “always there in the screenplay”). But perhaps Baldwin’s confabulation, which he’s presumably told at an uncountable number of cocktail parties over the past twenty years, speaks to how Anderson’s meticulous methods fly in the face of the “happy accidents” that we’re assured are necessary to every great movie. Certainly, some of that had to happen on this one, right?
Well, not really, at least according to the parties assembled for the reunion – not only Anderson and Baldwin, but co-writer/co-star Owen Wilson and co-stars Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anjelica Huston. The vision was clear from the beginning, as Wilson and Anderson sat down to write their follow-up to “Rushmore” with a handful of influences in mind. “It is one of those things that we could list so many different things we stole from,” Anderson recalled. “I know ‘Magnificent Ambersons’ is sort of one of them, and we were definitely trying to do some kind of J.D. Salinger sort of thing, and I was thinking of ‘You Can’t Take It With You.’ But at a certain point, it also was its own thing, you know.”
Anderson and Wilson began the screenplay together in Dallas, working out of Wilson’s father’s office, then continuing to work (separately and together) in California and New York, where the film was shot. They followed that script pretty closely, as Wilson remembered, with little in the way of material that wasn’t shot or included: “I think after ‘Bottle Rocket,’ where so much stuff didn’t make it in, and there was a lot of fat on the script, that you were kind of very focused, Wes, on not having wasted stuff. And I think that’s kind of continued with everything, that if it gets shot, it seems like it’s in the movie.”
Paltrow, who hadn’t done much comedy, found the film to be a breeze, partially because of Anderson’s famous attention to detail. “It was such a wonderful relief, in a way, to be with a director who was so incredibly specific about what he wanted,” she said. “I found it actually really relaxing and great because I barely had to do anything!” (She also remembered being particularly pleased by one of those specifics: “I felt very excited because it was a legal way for me to start smoking again.”)
Not everyone had such an easy time, however. Luke Wilson recalled a costume fitting that turned into conflict, with Anderson yelling at his frequent collaborator for the first and only time that his cuffs were going to be where the director wanted them. “I feel bad about raising my voice. I don’t think there wasn’t a need for it,” Anderson said ruefully. “I think I was under a certain amount of stress at the time.”
Some of that stress came from his leading man, Gene Hackman – one of the finest actors of his generation, and also, the stories go, a bit on the prickly side. “It was a great experience working with him,” Anderson insisted. “He was – it can be hard. But it was kind of thrilling.” And the director had some ideas about where the tension came from. “I hope it is not indiscreet to say this,” Anderson explained, lowering his voice a bit. “But Gene objected to the… the money on the film, which was not very, I mean, it was not very significant money. It was not what he had been used to getting. And so I think maybe when he finally settled on the fact that he was really going to have to do the movie, he had to make it worth his while, somehow. So I think he gave us a lot! With that small amount of money, I feel like Gene gave us everything he had.”
Anderson wasn’t the only one who felt a bit nervous around the legendary actor. “He had a great thing too, that he did, where he was on set all day,” chuckled Luke Wilson. “He just sat in his chair between shots; he never was not just sitting there. So even if another scene was going on, even if he wasn’t in it, he was always right there. Which is also intimidating!”
But ultimately, those were momentary ripples, and the filmmakers and his cast remembered the shoot with not only affection but awe. “We shot so much of the movie in this one house in Harlem on Convent Avenue,” Anderson explained. “There’s a scene with Luke and Gwyneth near the end of the movie; her character has a cigarette stashed in a chimney, inside a brick. And Luke and Gwyneth sit up there together, at the end of this wedding. And I remember for me; I didn’t say anything to them. But I felt like these two people have just totally taken over these characters, and they’re living this moment in front of me. And it was really like – I’m not sure how it felt to you guys if you guys even remember doing this moment. But to me, it was one of those things where, you know, you hope that the actors just do something with it that makes it feel perfect to you. And it felt perfect to me.” So maybe there was a little bit of room for some magic in there after all.