The Royal Tenenbaums is conceived as a tribute to New York, but it's certainly an offbeat portrait of the contemporary city. Though the film is shot on location, the viewer is often hard pressed to identify what the location is; and though it is set in the present, everyone's costumes are slightly quaint-looking, and the street signs seem of an earlier vintage. There are references to odd places like “the 375th St. Y,” and the only cabs trolling the boulevards for fares are of the gypsy variety. Come to think of it, the name New York is never mentioned in the movie.
This is filmmaker Wes Anderson's storybook view of his adopted city, and it infuses every aspect of The Royal Tenenbaums, especially the production and costume design. Anderson, who made his first two pictures, Bottle Rocket and the critically lauded Rushmore, in his native Texas, moved to New York a few years ago and has from all accounts embraced it wholeheartedly. “He loves Manhattan, and he is smitten with the architecture,” says production designer David Wasco, who has worked on all three Anderson movies. But since the director wanted to make the world of The Royal Tenenbaums his own, he chose to avoid the more familiar iconographic views of the city. Says Wasco of the film, which Touchstone Pictures released in December after its debut at the New York Film Festival, “It's a wonderful, magical tip of the hat to New York, but not hit-you-over-the-head New York.”
Co-written, as are all his scripts, with Owen Wilson (who also plays a role in the movie), The Royal Tenenbaums is a Salingeresque portrait of a family of brilliant eccentrics. Royal (Gene Hackman), the Tenenbaum patriarch, separated from his archeologist wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) two decades before the main action of the film. After years of wandering, he reappears in the lives of his ex-wife and three grown children, who as minors were so precocious that their mother published a book about them titled A Family of Geniuses. Chas (played as an adult by Ben Stiller) emerged as a real estate and international finance prodigy in his early teens; Richie (Luke Wilson) was a junior champion tennis player and gifted artist; and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter, was a famous ninth — grade playwright. Now, all are mired in various stages of failure and disappointment, and have also retreated to the family roost.
The visual and narrative framework for the film is a storybook, with chapter headings and illustrations by the director's brother, Eric Anderson, and voiceover narration by Alec Baldwin. Costume designer Karen Patch, who has also collaborated with Anderson on each of his movies, says she constantly kept this device in mind while working on the wardrobe, most of which was built — which is unusual for a film essentially set in the present. “I wanted the costumes to set a visual mood, but I sometimes felt we were pushing things, that we were going a little crazy,” she says. “But everything is as the storyteller imagines or remembers it. So you could go any way you wanted.”
Both designers say they benefited from months of conversations with the director before prep, and from Anderson's unusual interest in their production areas. “Traditionally, I talk about things with the director, and then I go off and carry out the ideas,” says Wasco. “But in Wes' case, even when you've got your actors coming onboard and time is limited, he still would be in the art department every day. He's visually a very smart guy, and he's actually a pretty good sketch artist himself. I'm accustomed to being asked to help create a backdrop, to help tell the story, but this was taken beyond that, into a whole stylized world.”
The most important piece of this world is the Tenenbaum house, a multi-story manse with pink walls and whimsical set decoration ranging from African masks to a pitched tent in one of the rooms. “As with Rushmore, where we went to a lot of trouble to find the school, here we went through a lot of trouble to find the house,” says Wasco, whose wife, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, was set decorator. “We could have gone to Toronto, and done a less expensive New York — looking movie. But Wes was really set on the atmosphere Manhattan gave.” Anderson was willing, however, to look far and wide in the borough, and he eventually located his house at 144th St. and Convent Ave., in the architecturally quirky pocket of Harlem called Hamilton Heights.
“It was an unaltered mini-mansion designed by Adolph Hoak in the 1880s,” says Wasco of the chosen house. “Hoak did this eclectic mix-match of facades with different architectural elements on the block, almost like a Disneyland blend of facades. Our house was about 60% intact, with Tiffany windows and things that would have been pulled out if it were in a part of the city that was gentrified. A young family had just bought the house, and we were supposed to work in concert with their architect, but I got them to hold off on their work, because it would have been too chaotic. It was almost derelict; we made it safe, replicated molding elements that were missing, added a few doorways, and added the doors and molding to the little phone booth under the stairs. We also added a Victorian fence around the roof to tie in with some of the other roofs. We had it for six months, and the owners ended up getting a restored house.”
The warm pink color of the house's walls was arrived at through a number of camera tests, says Wasco. “We ended up repainting the whole house a couple of times to get it right. There wasn't any heavy meaning to the color, it was just something Wes wanted to go with.” The pink motif extended to Patch's costumes. “It shows up in Royal's shirts and ties, and in Margot's gloves,” she says. “And Etheline has a suit made of pink cashmere.”
Patch adds that, since their first collaboration on Bottle Rocket, Anderson has “become more and more involved and interested in using wardrobe as a tool to develop the characters. The way we work together is, he starts talking about the characters, and it may or may not have anything to do with the wardrobe. He'll say, ‘Well, I saw this locket…’ it can be the smallest detail. I keep a notebook, and keep adding ideas as he calls me. I do a lot of sketching, but Wes does too. I would send him sketches, and then he would send back a sketch — basically, a drawing in one continuous line, like an outline. He'll say, ‘I think maybe the lapel is wider’; We're talking buttons here in terms of how specific. By the time I get the script, we've pretty much fleshed out all the characters.”
For The Royal Tenenbaums, each character is given a “uniform” — a look that may involve several costumes, but all within a specific template. Etheline, for example, is seen in several tightly tailored suits that vary only in color. Though Anderson took elements of the character from his own mother, who is an archeologist, the director also sent Patch a taped interview with an elderly aviatrix to study. “I think it was because of who this woman was — she was a very strong woman, ahead of her time, and had a life apart from her family,” says the designer. “But there was a suit she wore, and Wes said, ‘I like that suit.’ We had to adapt it for Anjelica, because it was really a conservative look. But everything was cashmere and hung very nicely.”
The high quality of all the fabrics used in the costumes helped to compensate for “the oddness of the fit,” says Patch. “I would say for all the characters, we cut everything kind of small, and close to the body, which is a cut Wes prefers for himself. There's a snugness in the shoulders, the sleeves are cut a little bit short, and on the men, the pants are cut a little bit short.” This is particularly noticeable in Richie's camel-hair suits, and in the costumes for Danny Glover, who plays a bow-tied colleague and romantic interest of Etheline's.
For Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum, “this sort of flamboyant, unreliable father figure, we started talking early about Saville Row, and finding a suit with a 70s cut,” Patch says. “I looked at old pictures of Melvin Belli, a flashy 70s lawyer who was always around the Rolling Stones, and who wore bright shirts and vivid ties.” Another model was Peter Sellers' character in Being There. “His suits were custom-made and very refined looking, double-breasted and with a wide lapel.” Though Hackman's suits weren't actually made by on Saville Row, they were built in the Saville Row style by a New York tailor, using Italian fabrics.
As the dramatically world-weary Margot, Paltrow is dressed in Lacoste fabrics. Patch says of the French design house, “They didn't have in stock the style that I needed, which was something cut a little bit longer and tighter. And they actually don't make dresses in horizontal stripes,” which is what Margot wears. “So they combed their archives for striped fabrics and sent me swatches, and I made the dresses.” The character's crowning touch is a Fendi fur, also custom-assembled by the designer's crew.
Margot's adoptive brother Richie is modeled on Bjorn Borg, so Luke Wilson's longish hair is pulled back in a headband, like the tennis great's. “Wes loved all the Fila that Bjorn Borg wore, so I contacted them, and was again able to get fabrics and make everything up,” Patch says.
Wasco saw to it that the children's bedrooms in the Tenenbaum house were as tailor-made as their clothes. Margot's walls are papered with a zebra print the designer borrowed from an Upper East Side Italian restaurant, and her room is decorated with set models from her plays. Chas' space is not only a bedroom but a working office, while the blue walls in dreamy Richie's room are studded with paintings of Margot and with other Saul Steinberg — style illustrations. “Eric Anderson did these as little thumbnail sketches, which were blown up by the scenery department and painted right on fabric, and then glued to the wall,” says Wasco.
Apart from choosing unconventional locations, the art department helped to subtly alter the Manhattan cityscape by designing their own car license plates and, indeed, street signs “that were a variation on the old yellow, camel-bump Manhattan street signs.” Like the buttons on the characters' clothes, like the paint colors on the walls, such details were compiled as part of what Wasco calls “an anguished, painstaking process.” Despite the film's lightness of spirit, its distinctive, unified aesthetic apparently didn't come easily. Says the designer, “All of that was carefully created, and then redone if it wasn't right.”
Photos: James Hamilton/Touchstone Pictures