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A mighty successful failure Add to ...

Wes Anderson: Born in Houston, May 1, 1969. Graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. Trademarks: soundtracks filled with Brit oldies; carefully-placed slow-motion shots.

Wes Anderson is one of the rare directors in Hollywood who has final cut on his films -- an unequivocal mark of respect and critical success. Still, he fancies himself something of a poet of failure. His first feature, Bottle Rocket (1996), was a quirky boy's tale of wannabe slacker criminals who get sidetracked on their way to a heist; Rushmore (1998) gave us Max Fischer, the failing high school student who competes against an industrialist for the love of a young widow; and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) put an entire family of screw-ups under the microscope for our delectation. His newest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which opens Christmas Day, stars Bill Murray as an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker on the ropes: He hasn't had a hit in years, his partner was just eaten by a jaguar shark, and his wife has left him.

I understand that some people identify so strongly with your films that they'll come up to you with the name of one of your characters tattooed on a body part.

That's really weird. It doesn't happen every day. But also, kids that age right now, they do tattoos. They're gonna tattoo something, so I'm just glad to get one of those slots.

Bottle Rocket had a $6-million (U.S.) budget; Rushmore, $10-million; Ten-enbaums, $25-million. Life Aquatic cost $50-million. Are you getting more confident in your ability to reach a wide audience?

I was never more confident than when we made Bottle Rocket. I felt like, "Just wait till they see this, this is gonna be great." I had people warning me, "This is an odd movie." And I felt like, "No, no, no, no, you guys don't understand." Then we had our first test screening and that was when my confidence was brought down to its current level, where it's stayed, because we had 85 people walk out of a 250-seat room. We started rewriting the movie. I mean, we'd already shot it and finished editing it, we thought. We wrote a new opening and we filled in all kinds of gaps and re-shot things. Because we had James L. Brooks producing it, he could get us more money. He basically gave us money of his own and said: "Let's fix it," and so from then on I'm always surprised and pleased to have any kind of audience.

Your films deploy an unusual level of deadpan. What's the attraction?

Some people see what I do as very deadpan, and I try to make it as naturalistic as possible, and sometimes it's not, but I want it to be. For me, the stuff that feels real is rather low-key. But I also don't feel like I'm ever saying "Take it down" to very many actors. It might just be partly the people who I cast. But I don't know, is Owen [Wilson]more low-key here than he is in Starsky and Hutch? Yes. But probably a lot of it's just what's written.

You've used Bill Murray in Rushmore, Tenenbaums and now Life Aquatic. Is he the best practitioner of deadpan around today?

He can be very deadpan, in fact cuttingly so. He does a lot with a look, and he won't do much more than that, if he can get it with a look. But one thing is, with Bill, you do feel a lot of pent-up stuff inside him, and a wildness under the surface -- that's there too.

In Life Aquatic, he takes his place as another in your growing gallery of failed individuals.

Failure seems much more complex to me. Success basically leads you to things being simpler in a lot of ways, and it gives you opportunity and luxuries, while failure leads you to self-doubt and confusion. But I don't know, I am oversimplifying it, too.

Certainly you've become successful as a filmmaker, and --

Yeah, my life's a mess. I don't perceive myself as being a success, but I see that I'm able to make the movies that I want to make, so I must be. But I do know that my life has not gotten simpler, it's gotten more complicated, and it's gotten screwier. Taking a year to go to Italy and making a movie on the water with a bunch of crazy people, including myself, is not a way to make your life easy.

I'm certainly more familiar with failure than I am with success. And the thing is, I think any time I'm experiencing a bunch of success in my life, I tend to focus on the parts of life that are failing, and I guess they're always there.

Well, the first weekends for Life Aquatic were amazing at the box office in New York and Los Angeles. What negative stuff is there to focus on?

I'd rather not go into it.

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