ALL ABOARD THE DARJEELING LIMITED: ABOUT THE STORY
THE DARJEELING LIMITED comes from three of Wes Anderson's interests: trains, India and brothers. Anderson has already chronicled the often simultaneously funny and calamitous vicissitudes of love and family relations in a prep school setting with RUSHMORE, a household of former geniuses in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and below the decks of a marine exploration ship in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU.
Now, with THE DARJEELING LIMITED, he sets his story of a reunion between three estranged brothers in perhaps the most intriguing locale yet: onboard a train headed across the deserts of Rajasthan, speeding the shell-shocked brothers through vast foreign terrains both physical and emotional.
"I'd always wanted to make a movie on a train because I like the idea of a moving location. It goes forward as the story goes forward," Anderson says. "I already set a movie on a boat."
Trains have inspired moviemakers since the earliest days of cinema. In 1895, the Lumiere brothers' pioneering 50-second movie ARRIVAL OF THE TRAIN terrified audiences who had never before seen an image hurtling at them. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter created the first narrative film with THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. And ever since, from the lavish sophistication of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to the chaos of A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, trains have been a means of kinetically propelling all kinds of characters on all manner of journeys.
The trains that called to Anderson, however, were not just any locomotives but those that crisscross the world's most train-centric country - the capacious, explosively growing nation of India with its roiling tapestry of color and culture, beauty and absurdity, poverty and spirituality.
Anderson had never been to India before he conceived of the film, but had long been in love with a landscape that had popped off the screen in some of his favorite movies, especially Jean Renoir's visually stunning THE RIVER, a coming of age story set on the banks of the Ganges, and the sweeping, emotional films of the master Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. The idea of bringing his own comically bittersweet sensibility to a world so jarringly different from his own intrigued him.
So it was that all three of these story strands started coming together - and Anderson found himself setting off on his own three-man quest to India. "I decided I would like to make a movie in India, I decided I would like to make a movie on a train and I thought I'd like to make a movie about three brothers," Anderson says. "Then I asked my friends Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola to join me in writing the movie and we all went to India together."
Before India, Anderson, Schwartzman and Coppola started writing while all three were temporarily living in Paris. Jason Schwartzman recalls that this process began casually, but soon ramped up into an odyssey. "I know this sounds kind of corny and picturesque but we started writing a lot of the film in little French cafes late at night," he recalls. "Then at some point Wes just said: you know, maybe it would be good if we went to India. And so we all went in March of 2006 and that's when we began participating in the very things we were writing about."
Much of the initial inspiration for the characters came from Anderson, Schwartzman and Coppola's own personal relationships and travel experiences, notes Coppola. "We each ended up sharing personal experiences and germinating some of the ideas that factor into the story," Roman explains.
Thus were born the three Whitman brothers who have been summoned to India one year after they buried their father together, seemingly never to speak to one another again. It is Francis, the eldest, who reunites the disparate siblings after a near-death motorcycle wreck that has left him swathed in a mummy-like mask of bandages and headgear. Claiming his brothers was the first thing on his mind when he came back to life after his accident, Francis has pre-arranged a minute-by-minute, carefully controlled itinerary designed to bring the brothers in this ancient land of enlightenment, to a unified spiritual epiphany - or at least maybe bring them a little closer.
Meanwhile, Peter, the middle child, arrives steeped in his own anxiety as a man about to have a child with the woman he always thought he would divorce; and little Jack, the baby of the family and a writer who bases his "fictional" characters on everything that happens to him, comes to India still so obsessed with the ex-girlfriend he left behind in Paris, he can't stop eavesdropping on her answering machine, for which he still has the code.
Anderson, Schwartzman and Coppola brought these personas with them on their own trip to India, which changed everything -- the elegiac mood, buzzing energy and redolent atmosphere of the country seeping by osmosis into the hilarious twists and poignant turns of the brothers' tale.
"It's really not like any place else," says Anderson of India. "It's a place where so many aspects of daily life are so radically different from our own, and that really affected the screenplay. Even though 90% of the story is about Francis, Peter and Jack negotiating, arguing and trying to understand one another, we felt it was very important to have those conversations take place on train tracks truly moving through this ancient country."
As the three writers experienced the country for the first time, more of the story's comic mishaps, from the NIGHT AT THE OPERA-style crowding on the train to the clash of cultures where tourists meet ancient spiritual traditions, began to unfold.
"We got a lot of ideas in India that were things you couldn't really ever create or imagine - I mean just wonderful moments that were really worth capturing in one way or another," says Schwartzman. "The train and India really did become characters. The interplay is quite interesting because at first India is very much in the background as a blur because these three guys are really in their own world even in this foreign country. But then India and the brothers are forced to meet and the brothers get closer and closer to the kind of real experience they were looking for."
Adds Coppola: "I think we all hope that the vibrant, chaotic spirit we found in India, and that the Whitman brothers find in India, will really come across in the movie."
When producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, whose past productions include the acclaimed, India-based THE NAMESAKE from director Mira Nair, received the finished screenplay she was taken aback - in a good way. "I had heard that Wes was making a film about a train trip in India and my first thought was - a documentary?" she recalls. "I was very curious about it and then I read the script and found it was this amazing story of these three brothers who had gone off in their ways after their father died and never resolved things between themselves - and now suddenly they've been brought together in India."
Pilcher loved the story, but was even more excited when she heard how Wes Anderson planned to approach it. "Wes told me that he really wanted to make this movie in a completely different way than anything he had ever done before," she explains. "He wanted to abandon the traditional entrapments of making a movie and really pare down the process. So, he wanted the actors to do their own makeup, to dress themselves in the morning and to really try to create an environment where the characters are functioning in this fictional world as if they were real people taking this trip. It was a very compelling idea."
That compelling idea would become part and parcel of the film's distinctively East-West style. "Once we were shooting, we realized the process was part of the storytelling and that this kind of kinetic energy and environment where no one knew what was going to happen next was part of Wes's creative vision for the film," says Pilcher. "That really set the tone."
Indeed, Anderson would create a kind of yin and yang throughout the production - at once keeping everything crisply choreographed and designed as he is wont to do, yet staying entirely open to the utterly spontaneous mayhem, comedy and beauty that India can spark. This, says Roman Coppola, is what really gives the story its distinctive power to slowly work its way under the audience's skin, leaving a lasting impression of the characters' inner experience.
Sums up Coppola: "The whole spirit behind the movie was to put these characters on the train and then to move fast into chaos, to really roll with the punches, and to always let the unexpected happen."
THREE BROTHERS ON A TRAIN: WILSON, SCHWARTZMAN AND BRODY ON THEIR CHARACTERS
The trip on THE DARJEELING LIMITED kicks off when Francis Whitman, following his brush with death, drags the two younger brothers he hasn't spoken with in a year to India for a reunion journey - one that he intends, perhaps against all better judgment, to bring a much-needed spiritual awakening to their family relations.
To play the three brothers, Wes Anderson cast three leading actors with a unique affinity for each other, yet who also serve as delightful foils for one another's temperaments. As the Whitmans, cool, wry Owen Wilson plays off the simmering intensity of Adrien Brody and the whimsically poignant comedy of Jason Schwartzman with an organic kind of family feeling.
In his role as the somewhat imperious eldest brother Francis, Owen Wilson appears as he has never been seen on screen before: achingly vulnerable, with most of his face heavily bandaged, covering the stitches and scars of his recent motorcycle crash, and limping along with a cane in a fragile state of desperate, if still utterly anal, seeking.
Francis' physical appearance, so key to his character, is one that Wes Anderson developed after seeing an impossible-to-forget image. "I saw a guy at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in a motorcycle jacket whose face was covered in bandages. He had foam pads on the side of his head, his eyes were all black - and he was walking around the place in this sort of startled daze, with tears just sort of standing in his eyes. You really felt like this guy had been through something horrific and you couldn't stop watching him; and that was really the inspiration for Owen's character in the film."
Anderson and Wilson's collaboration goes back to the beginning of both their careers, when they co-wrote Anderson's directorial debut, the runaway indie hit BOTTLE ROCKET, which also launched Wilson as a screen star. Wilson went on to co-write RUSHMORE with Anderson, and the pair garnered an Oscar® nomination for co-writing THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, in which Wilson also joined the ensemble cast. Wilson most recently reunited with Anderson with a role in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU.
When Anderson sent Owen Wilson the screenplay for THE DARJEELING LIMITED, he reacted immediately to the story. "You know I'm from a family of three boys and it just seemed to capture that dynamic of how brothers are with each other. It was very funny and kind of sad too," he says of the script.
As for Francis, Owen immediately liked his overwhelming sense of burden. "Francis really sees himself as the one trying to keep this family together," he says. "You know, because our father is dead, our mother is AWOL, Francis is literally damaged, Jack is coming out of a bad relationship and Peter is having trouble with his wife - and in Francis's mind this is a real emergency and he has to get his family back on track. So he's united the brothers on this great adventure in India, and he has this funny idea that they're going to have a spiritual journey --- whether they like it or not."
Of course, things don't go exactly as Francis and his assistant so carefully planned on their laminated itineraries - or even close to it. "The story reminded me of one of those family vacations you had growing up where everything would end in disaster," Wilson muses. "Even though we're supposed to be having this blessed spiritual experience, we can't quite get past the bickering that kept us away from each other for so long in the first place." This, in turn, leads Francis to do the one thing he never would have tried on his own - letting go a little. Wilson continues: "Francis is the type of person who thinks if you're going to have a spiritual experience, you have to really put in the effort. It's comical, of course, because you can't really approach the spiritual with that kind of methodical determination, but in spite of Francis, they do each kind of have a spiritual experience."
Wilson notes that one of the things that really helped the realistic feeling of a family to gel among the three actors was actually being on a train in India themselves, so far from anything that resembled home. "Filming in a country and culture that feels so different and foreign affected us all and helped to get everyone in the same frame of mind," he says. "You know, on the train there was no disappearing into your trailer or going home at night and turning on ESPN, so we really got to know each other very well. People always bond on film sets, but something seems to have happened that was particularly strong on this one. Being in India almost forced everyone into a true sense of family."
Francis' chief rival is Peter, the middle child of the Whitman family, who at first glance appears to be the most stable of the three brothers, with a wife and child on the way. But he, too, is at a crossroads - and he doesn't want to talk about it. To play Peter with the right mix of reticence and fire, Anderson chose Adrien Brody, the versatile actor who came to the fore with his remarkable Oscar-winning performance as a musician trying to survive Nazi-occupied Poland in Roman Polanski's THE PIANIST. Having become a major screen star, Brody was most recently seen starring as screenwriter Jack Driscoll in Peter Jackson's acclaimed re-envisioning of KING KONG.
The only one of the trio who hasn't worked with Anderson previously, Brody jumped at the chance. "When I got the call that Wes wanted to meet me, it was very exciting news because I've been a huge fan of his," he notes. "What I love about Wes is that he's a young man whose perspective is really that of someone from our generation." Then Brody read the screenplay and was even more intrigued. "I think the beauty of the story is that you have these three guys going through relatively painful stuff but it's being dealt with in a very comedic and really wonderfully odd way. It brings a beautiful, lighter view of resolving the problems we all face in life."
Brody especially enjoyed the character of Peter, who shows up in India flaunting the many possessions their father left him, yet clearly not having dealt in any way with the depths of his grief. "I knew it would be a lot of fun as an actor to play a character with this kind of skewed perspective," Brody confesses. "Peter's a man searching for answers. I think we're all looking for answers and I guess some appear and some are never answered and that's also what happens in this story. As the middle child, Peter's constantly fighting for his independence. But, at the same time, Peter's at this point in life where he's in a situation he completely wants to avoid. He's really in denial -- so taking the trip to India has come in handy for him. But what he doesn't realize is that trip is going to force him to come to terms with himself and his relationship with his brothers."
Once on the set, Brody says the feeling of family was palpable. "There's this chemistry that can happen when people are really genuine and cool and you get this natural sense of camaraderie and friendship - and that's what happened on this film. It was exciting for all of us, and Wes was kind of like the fourth brother. We're all so similar in intangible ways - it's almost a little weird."
No stranger to diving deeply into the reality of his roles, Brody also welcomed Anderson's existential approach to the shoot. "Everything that you see in the film is pretty much happening - when you see us freezing in a river in India, we're freezing in a river in India, not in Colorado somewhere. I think that really helps to literally put you in the shoes of your character because you're so immersed in that environment."
Indeed, Brody believes it is the environment of India, as much as his brothers, that ultimately has such a disarming effect on his character. "Peter comes in contact with so much life in India, it kind of awakens him," he observes. "I mean the thing about India is that life is very precarious there and everywhere you turn you are seeing people on the verge of death or extraordinary beauty and there is a kind of fluidity to it all - and I think Peter's denial has prevented him from experiencing these parts of life, until he goes to India."
In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Peter faces the bracingly real prospect of mortality and random suffering. "Shooting that scene was pretty powerful," says Brody of the village funeral at which the brothers become unlikely honored guests. "It's such a devastating moment for Peter, but within that devastation comes a moment of appreciation for life and the desire to nurture that."
For Brody, Anderson's ability to merge the most shattering and most absurd of moments into a singular life-like tapestry is the key to the story's tone. "Wes has a very specific yet unusual interpretation of life so that the timing of events in this movie makes them comedic even though what the brothers are experiencing is not a joke," he observes. "In a sense, we're kind of straight men in an amusing situation."
But that wasn't necessarily straightforward for Brody. "In the river scene, Wes's direction to me was basically the opposite of what I would usually do, the opposite of being very present, and kind of blocking emotions and being matter of fact. That's not how I personally would react. But it is almost sadder because you see the character's inability to deal with what's happening."
Finally there is the youngest, smallest and perhaps most accomplished of the Whitman brothers: Jack, the writer who has used the family as fodder for his novels and short stories. It was clear from the beginning that co-writer Jason Schwartzman was perfect for the character.
Schwartzman and Anderson go way back, beginning their collaboration with the movie that would bring both to international attention: RUSHMORE, in which Schwartzman starred as Max Fischer, the rebelliously determined 10th grader at elite Rushmore Academy who battles Bill Murray for the affections of an alluring First Grade teacher. Schwartzman would go on to star in such films as Roman Coppola's CQ, SLACKERS, I & 9829; HUCKABEES, SHOPGIRL and, most recently, played Louis XVI in MARIE ANTOINETTE - but he was thrilled to work once again with the director who gave him his start and became a close friend.
"I'll always think of Wes as my mentor, someone who I look up to very much," he says. "It's wonderful to work with someone who you really believe in, and with Wes, I'm really happy to march in and try to do the best job I can." Having spent so much time thinking about the characters, Schwartzman especially got a kick out of Jack. "He's got a mustache, no shoes and big, big dreams. He's a really good guy but I think he's got a bit of growing up to do," he observes.
As one of the writers, Schwartzman was also keenly aware of how subtle the underpinnings of each character's epiphany in the course of their expedition would have to be as the trip progresses. He explains: "I think it's the kind of thing where if you're living with someone who is losing weight, you don't necessarily notice that they're getting skinnier until you haven't seen them for awhile. So these three guys aren't really aware of the rate at which they're experiencing things and changing, how far they might have come, until they are a long way from the opening scene of the movie," he explains.
Most of all, Schwartzman believes the true camaraderie between the three actors really helped to bring the brothers to life on screen. "The most important thing to me was always that the three actors playing these roles really care about each other --- and I'm very happy to say that Owen and Adrian and I got along so well, and had such a great time together, that it really was like a brotherhood," he says, adding: "Plus, being on the train we had nowhere else to go! We were there with every man, woman and goat and there was no place to hide, so we had to get along great."
As for working with Anderson, Schwartzman notes that this time around it was a wholly different experience - in part because Anderson has grown creatively as a director over the last decade and in part because the film's design was so unconventional. "I think Wes is more focused and he just knows more I suppose," Schwartzman comments. "But what I really noticed with Wes on this movie was his ability to roll with whatever happened and let things be unpredictable and accidental. That was what he wanted by shooting on a train in India - and that's what we experienced."
A MOTHER TURNED NUN AND A STEWARDESS WITH SAVOURY SWEETS: ANJELICA HUSTON AND AMARA KARAN
DESIGNING AND SHOOTING A MOVING TRAIN & SHOOTING ON LOCATION
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