The Royal Tenenbaums Essay

Although I had never seen a Wes Anderson film until very recently, I had always known him to be a quirky, indie, offbeat, and whimsical filmmaker. This assumption most likely grew from friends or family who have mentioned him in conversation, or critics whose reviews I have come across. Additionally, Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style has been parodied on pop culture platforms such as Saturday Night Live, NBC’s Community, an American Express advertisement, and more. When I finally watched my first Wes Anderson film, the 2001 comedic drama The Royal Tenenbaums, I finally understood the humor and charm that is identified with Anderson’s films. However, rather than identifying his unique characters or dry humor, I was completely enamored by his visual artistry and mise en scène. In every shot of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson uses deliberate color schemes, negative space, symmetry, or composition to create a visually pleasing picture, evoke an emotion, or give insight into characters (or sometimes, all three). In doing so, Anderson is able to enhance his storytelling past writing, acting or plot, and into visual art.

The first element of this artistry is Anderson’s choice of color. By his deliberate color selection, Anderson assumes the role of not only director but also painter in this film. Examples of this can be found in any given shot of The Royal Tenenbaums.

In the image above, we see Richie Tenenbaum (played by Luke Wilson) and Margot Tenenbaum (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) seated on their living room couch, conversing with their father Royal Tenenbaum (played by Gene Hackman), off-screen. The colors in this shot are extremely consistent, using mostly warm tones. The warm tones are used not only in Margot’s red striped shirt and red clip, or in Richie’s beige suit and beige sweatband, but in the couch, lampshades, and walls as well. Anderson considers all components of this shot – costumes, accessories, props, and scenery – when selecting color. To add slight contrast to a primarily warm shot, he adds a light blue to the stained glass windows, bringing out the blue in Richie’s collar and sweatband. He is careful not to overwhelm this shot in one particular color, but uses three or four colors to create a visually pleasing picture.

In the image below, we have another example of consistent colors in the film.

Here, we are introduced to Chas Tenenbaum (played by Ben Stiller) and his sons, following the death of their mother/his wife. Contrasting the image of Margot and Richie, here Anderson chooses to use mostly cool tones, such as the teal of the lockers, the light blue of the swimming pool, and the whites of the shaving cream and the shirts. Similarly to how Anderson uses a subtle blue tone to contrast the warm palette of Margot and Richie, he uses the pale yellow-orange of Chas, Ari, and Usi’s skin to contrast this cool palette. Again, our finished result is a well-thought-out and balanced portrait.

The question still remains of what intention Anderson had in creating these, amongst other, colorfully balanced, consistent, and pleasing shots. In Louis Giannetti’s Understanding Movies (Tenth Edition), the author speaks on the subconscious or psychological impacts that color can have on an audience. Giannetti speaks specifically on the contrast between warm and cool tones. He says, “… cool colors (blue, green, violet) tend to suggest tranquility, aloofness, and serenity” (Giannetti 24) and “Warm colors (red, yellow, orange) suggest aggressiveness, violence and stimulation” (27). If we take these concepts and apply them to shots from The Royal Tenenbaums, we can see the intention behind Anderson’s color schemes. Looking back at the image of Margot and Richie, in the context of the film, the characters are at odds with their estranged father. There is a significant amount of discourse between the characters. Choosing a warm color palette implies a level of aggression and hostility in the atmosphere, very fitting for Margot and Richie in this scene.

Another example of this can be found in Chas’s, Ari’s, and Usi’s bright red tracksuits, shown below. In the context of the film, Chas is paranoid about the safety of his children. The stimulation of the bright red color reflects Chas’s overly heightened senses, and the matching red suits that Ari and Usi wear emphasize Chas’s influence on his children. In this particular shot, the stimulated bright red is contrasted perfectly with Royal’s duller shades, as Royal is constantly urging Chas to relax throughout the film.

The shot of Chas, Ari and Usi shaving in the gym locker room is a perfect example of the influence of cool colors in film. Chas shuts the world out following the death of his wife. His separation from the world is suggested strongly in these cool tones. More powerful shots that capture the impact of cool tones – as well as the contrast of warm tones – are found in Richie’s attempted suicide scene, shown below.

In the first image, we find an almost exclusively cool palette. The blue wallpaper brings out Richie’s blue eyes, while the white tile brings out the white bandage and shaving cream. Our warm, dominant contrast here is in Richie’s beige skin tone; however, Anderson intentionally keeps it very unsaturated to emphasize his despair. The cool palette in this scene is perfectly appropriate, as it can be analyzed in multiple ways. For one, it could represent a certain peace or tranquility (as Giannetti describes), as Richie is at peace in his decision to end his life. Additionally, blue is a color often associated with sadness – an ideal fit for this dark scene. By choosing this palette for this moment, Anderson is then able to create a shock factor when the sharp, bright red blood trickles down Richie’s arms. Rather than showing action, like Richie actually slitting his wrists, Anderson frequently uses color to present his ideas.

On the topic of mise en scène, Wes Anderson’s compositional style goes against the grain – thus enhancing his originality and unique storytelling. One example of this in The Royal Tenenbaums is how Anderson puts his subjects in the center of the frame, or has his subjects split center. To many filmmakers and critics, this style is somewhat childish and amateur. In film programs at colleges and universities, student directors are often encouraged not to place subjects directly in the center of the frame (Crow, “The Perfect Symmetry of Wes Anderson’s Movies”). Giannetti writes:

Since childhood, we have been taught that a drawing must be balanced, with the middle serving as the focal point. The center, then, is kind of norm: We expect dominant visual elements to be placed there. Precisely because of this expectation, objects in the center tend to be visually undramatic. (53)There are two ways in which Anderson maintains a heightened level of drama in his shots, despite the idea that a centered shot is amateur. Firstly, following one of Giannetti’s conditions for centered shots, Anderson’s characters are certainly interesting enough for a centered shot not to feel undramatic. Secondly and more importantly, Anderson pairs his centered subjects with perfect symmetry that, as studies have shown, is pleasing to the human eye (Brodey, “The Science Behind Why We Love Wes Anderson Movies”). Sometimes this symmetry is blatantly obvious, and sometimes his shots must be studied to find it.

The shots above are examples of easily recognizable symmetry. Anderson’s subjects sit in the center or split center, and are framed by two equal – or mostly equal – sides. In the first shot of Margot, she clearly stands in the center of the frame and is balanced by the identical Green Line buses on either side. Royal also sits in directly in the middle of the second shot, balanced out by two red chairs and three candlesticks on either side. Additionally, Royal shares center with the chandelier, hanging directly above him. The third shot is an example of characters that split center – still creating the same visual effect – and are again balanced out by perfect symmetry on either side of center.

The three shots below are equally balanced, though it might take a second look to identify the symmetry. In each shot, the subject still remains in the center of the frame.

Instead of the mirror effect we receive from the previous three examples, here we have suggestions of balance. For example, in the first image, we see a photo of the Tenenbaum family to the left of the record, and an album cover to the right – both of identical size and shape. To the left of Margot’s car in the second shot we see orange traffic cones, and to the right we see orange graffiti and a man in an orange coat. In the shot of Raleigh St. Clair, he is balanced by an equal amount of props on either side of him; no one side is heavier than the other. Anderson’s intention in including so many balanced, symmetrical shots is a brilliant and ironic contrast to the characters in the story, which are anything but balanced or centered.

A final visual element of The Royal Tenenbaums that assists in telling the story is Anderson’s composition. Aside from color, his staging, proportion, and use of space are the strongest elements that suggest character or mood. In this first example above, without knowing the context, we can assume that the character standing in the background is somehow separate from the three characters seated in the foreground. Sure enough, within the context, Chas is the only Tenenbaum child that is not comfortable with his estranged father moving back in. The harsh dialogue between the two during this scene would not be nearly as effective if Chas were not physically separate from his family (as he is mentally). Additionally, the characters are placed so that Royal, the father, appears much larger than his children, Richie, Chas, and Margot. Although the characters are now full-grown adults, it is a comical commentary on their new relationship. This visual effect is achieved by placing Chas in the background, Royal in a small chair, and Richie and Margot on a large couch.

The shot above digs deeply into the life of young Margot Tenenbaum. The use of negative space to her right, filled only with her plays, strongly suggests young Margot’s isolation from others. The presence of her plays in the negative space suggests the emptiness in her young life being taken up by her work – an emptiness that is undoubtedly caused by Royal referring to her as “my adopted daughter.”

Similarly, if we look again at the above image of Richie’s suicide attempt, we see a significant of negative space around him. To put that into context, Richie feels completely empty inside, and there is nothing that can fill that emptiness.

The shot above is another brilliant example of character description via composition. The background simply consists of dozens of board games. It is a perfect tip of the hat to the shot’s subject, Royal Tenenbaum, as his character is childish, manipulative, and happy-go-lucky. One could equate his deceit and trickery to playing a board game.

Although Wes Anderson’s successful filmmaking style, especially in The Royal Tenenbaums, may be defined by his choice of actors (Billy Murray, Angelica Houston, the Wilson brothers, etc.), his offbeat humor and honest writing, or interesting plot and characters, to me it is his visual style that garners his success in this film. Whether a shot is completely symmetrical, the subject totally centered, filled with negative space, or color-coordinated, Anderson is always incredibly conscious of tailoring each element on the screen to create a pleasing picture, evoke an emotion, or describe a character. Whether the audience is conscious of it or not, every detail of every shot, from its color to its composition to its mise en scène, effects the viewer’s experience. He has proven that The Royal Tenenbaums is as much visual art as it is film.

Work Cited

Brodey, Sam. “The Science Behind Why We Love Wes Anderson Movies.” Mic. N.p., 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.Crow, Jonathan. “The Perfect Symmetry of Wes Anderson’s Movies.” Open Culture. N.p., 19 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.Hulls, Alexander. “5 Things You Can Learn From Wes Anderson’s Symmetrical Style.” RSS. N.p., 30 June 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Wes Anderson. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD.Temple, Emily. “The Colors of Wes Anderson’s Films.” N.p., 16 June 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.Than, Ker. “Symmetry in Nature: Fundamental Fact or Human Bias?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 21 Dec. 2005. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. “MOONRISE KINGDOM: Wes in Wonderland.” Observations on Film Art. N.p., 20 July 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. <>.

Wes Anderson loves family dramas dressed as fantasies, and this notion is no less palpable with The Royal Tenenbaums, the film that essentially set him on the map. A lot of us remember finding Bottle Rocket in video stores or trekking out with friends to see Rushmore, but that was mostly because of Bill Murray. The Royal Tenenbaums was the movie that made people realize this voice in the world of independent film making had arrived.

11 years later, and Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, another light-hearted drama made to look like a fable, is upon us. However, we felt it was time to go back and see exactly what the writer/director had to say about his pinnacle film, The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s sure to be references of French movies and anecdotes about writing with Owen Wilson, but that’s the obvious stuff. We’ve got 28 more items beyond that. So help yourselves with what we learned from the commentary for The Royal Tenenbaums.

Cue the Elliott Smith.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

commentators: Wes Anderson (co-writer/director)

  • “One of the initial ideas for this movie was that it would be based on a book, a book that doesn’t actually exist,” says Anderson right at the beginning of the commentary. He notes this is why the opening shot of the film is of someone checking the book, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” out of a library. He also mentions the opening title shot is a reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s opening titles, particularly The Red Shoes.
  • Owen Wilson had told Anderson he should write a screenplay about his parents’ divorce, and this was the director’s intent with this film. “As soon as Royal began to speak, his answers were nothing like the answers my father had given under similar circumstances with my brothers and I,” Anderson says. He goes on to say the more he wrote Royal and the events in the film, the less it became about his own experiences.
  • The shooting incident seen at the beginning of the film was inspired by a real event where Owen Wilson shot his brother, Andrew, with a BB gun. According to Anderson, you can still see the BB under Andrew’s skin on his hand. You know, something for him to remember Owen by. The shot of Chas showing his father the BB in his hand is actually Andrew Anderson’s hand.
  • Originally, Etheline, played by Anjelica Huston, was to blow out the candles to Margot’s birthday cake. A few shots of this were captured, but, as Anderson recollects, her hair caught on fire on the fifth take. It was Kumar Pallana’s quick thinking that got the fire out before Huston got too badly burned. This makes up for him stabbing Gene Hackman later on.
  • Anderson notes before Royal Tenenbaum was even a character, before he had him fleshed out and set in the story, he knew Gene Hackman was going to play him. “That was one of the core ideas,” he says. “I just wanted to do something with him. That was the mission.” And there are far worse missions you can set for yourself.
  • The time setting for the film is brought up, as Anderson doesn’t have a specific period of time in which the events of the movie takes place. He does point out that each character is dressed in the attire that calls back to “when they were at their best.” When Ben Stiller asked Anderson why his character and his two sons are always wearing a bright red warmup suit, the director mentioned it was so his kids could find him and each other in crowded areas. He made this reason up on the spot. “It’s the same reason why they have curly hair,” Anderson says. “I thought it was funny.”
  • “I don’t think you’re really allowed to go this far without starting the story, but we did,” says Anderson at 11:34.
  • Bill Murray’s character, Raleigh St. Clair, is based off of Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist who Anderson is a big fan of. The director read a piece of him in the New York Times that spelled out his lifestyle. Anderson felt this character would be a perfect fit for The Royal Tenenbaums. “Before you’ve ever heard of him, you might have read a profile of him in the New Yorker back when the New Yorker wrote profiles about people you’d never heard of,” Anderson says. “I feel like that’s part of the New York the movie is kind of about.” Anderson wrote the part for Murray more or less just to give the actor a part.
  • Hackman was “disturbed,” as Anderson says, by the way Kumar was positioned in an early scene, directly in front of and completely hiding the Statue of Liberty. This was early in shooting, and the director found difficulty in trying to explain to Hackman why he had Kumar stand in this spot. “I don’t think he ever fully agreed with the choice,” Anderson says. No one stands between Hackman and Lady Liberty.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums is the third movie Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote together, and the director mentions how their writing collaboration has been different in every one. He mentions Bottle Rocket as the movie where the two worked the closest, but Wilson quickly became a successful actor and then star after that. “In the case of this movie, I ended up on my own much more than I would like to be,” Anderson says. He goes on to say the center of their collaboration as writers is the voice they established together in their similar senses of humor and books and movies they admire. “Even if I’m writing something alone, I’m drawing on something Owen and I share,” he says.
  • The scene where Richie, played by Luke Wilson, sees Margot as an adult, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, stepping off the bus was one of a few scenes Anderson had written down on notes a number of years before he even wrote the screenplay. “This music would go with this image,” he says, “although I didn’t know who was really walking off the bus, and I don’t even think it was a bus. But the thing I didn’t know about was the expression on her face, which is the thing I think that makes it work.”
  • Anderson notes music in his films is very important, as he likes to incorporate songs and pieces of music that inspired ideas in his screenplays. He also mentions music can drive the overall tone or themes of the film.
  • The dalmatian mice were created using a Sharpie marker. “I don’t know if that’s illegal,” notes Anderson. We’re not sure either, but you gotta have dalmatian mice, right?
  • Anderson’s mother was an archaeologist. The director remembers visiting her dig sites with his brothers as a child, and he incorporates much of this into the scenes at Etheline’s dig and much of his own mother into the Etheline character in general.
  • Margot’s wooden finger was an element Anderson originally intended for the Margaret Yang character in Rushmore. The finger was meant to have been blown off in a science experiment, but he brought it back and used it fully for the character here.
  • The voices of the commentators during Richie’s awful tennis match are Andrew Wilson and Wes Anderson. “Some people think it’s Jason Schwartzman for some reason,” says Anderson, sounding nothing like Schwartzman.
  • Anderson goes through the paintings in Eli’s house and mentions who painted what, but they’re a bunch of names you’ve never heard before. Listen to the commentary if you wanna know. The point is, the painting behind Eli while he’s sitting was purchased by Anderson a few years before he filmed The Royal Tenenbaums. He thought it was funny and notes how he thinks the characters are probably on mescaline, like Eli.
  • The director mentions how important the house was for The Royal Tenenbaums. He had written the screenplay, and they were about ready to shoot, but it didn’t really come together until they found the house in which they shot. The first time he walked through it he knew exactly which rooms match which character. He also notes how the house helped the actors connect to their characters and the other characters. Location, location, location, you know?
  • Anderson and Wilson don’t think about themes when they’re writing, and any themes that come out in the end, he says, come from the characters. “The movie didn’t mean anything for me until the characters started to become connected to things that I had been through,” he says. He recalls showing the screenplay to a friend who found obvious themes in it that Anderson didn’t even intend. “We just didn’t discuss them, I guess,” he says.
  • As Anderson explains, “Coltrane,” which Royal calls Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), is a rare racial slur. Hackman wanted to change the line to Satchmo, but Glover agree with the director that Coltrane seemed to work better. “I don’t know what it means, exactly,” says Anderson.
  • Don McKinnon, who plays the detective, hadn’t acted in a film before but was a friend of Anderson’s and Bob Wilson. Anderson introduced McKinnon to the writer and director Hampton Fancher at a party. It was Fancher’s idea to use McKinnon as a detective. Anderson stole his idea. “I apologize to Hampton for that,” says Anderson, with very little genuine remorse in his voice.
  • Anderson mentions confusion he has heard from audience members about Richie’s line “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” followed by him slitting his wrists. The director explains it’s a line taken from Le feu follet or The Fire Within, a Louis Malle movie, which Anderson notes was a huge influence on The Royal Tenenbaums. He explains this was a “turn” Richie makes and decides then and there to kill himself immediately.
  • Anderson forgot to establish Royal’s new job as an elevator operator, and decided on set to include the shot where Royal is told of Richie’s attempted suicide.
  • Originally, Richie and Margot were brother and sister, not adopted in Margot’s case. This was another reference to The Fire Within and was also pulled from like situations Anderson saw as a kid. He recalled a kid he knew in fourth grade who was in love with his own sister. “But, eventually the Margot character, I decided to have her adopted because of other things it would do to her character,” he explains. He also mentions it filled out the character better and made the relationship between the two more realistic. Because nothing says “bogus” like incest.
  • Anderson notes they included the bird Mordecai’s caw in the film here and there, almost to show the bird is always in Richie’s life and always watching over him. The bird in the scene where Mordecai shows up is actually Mordecai’s sister. Let’s call her Esther. According to Anderson someone in New Jersey found the bird, kept it, and tried to get ransom money for it. Police became involved, and it took two weeks to get the actual bird playing Mordecai back. “It’s very complicated to fly birds in the city,” says Anderson. “It really shouldn’t be done.”
  • He isn’t sure if it’s lost on the audience, but every table at the ice cream parlor during the scene where Royal tries to reconnect with Margot has fathers and their daughters. He also notes this scene was written as being very funny, but it became more dramatic once the actors performed it.
  • The beagle seen throughout the movie, Buckley, was a reference to Snoopy of the Peanuts cartoons. Anderson notes they tried to get it across that the dog was sick and dying, and even thought about including coughing sounds from the dog, but this idea was scrapped thinking it too cartoonish. “I think you have to do CGI or something to have dogs coughing,” he says. This was intended to help lessen the drama when the dog gets run over near the end. Take that as a lesson. Driving over sick dogs? It’s not that bad.
  • Before shooting the scene between he and Hackman near the end, Ben Stiller asked Anderson if he’d be shooting coverage, that is shooting from many different angles to provide a comfortable amount of footage for editing. This question is what gave Anderson the idea of showing all the characters – Margot excluded – after the aftermath of Eli crashing his car in one, continuous shot. Anderson recalls Stiller letting out a dejected sigh after the director told him the conversation between he and Hackman would be one shot. Anderson believes the scene between the two of them works, though. “This is take 18,” he says. He also mentions it’s the most important moment of the whole movie.
  • The line “Wind’s blowing up a gale today” was improvised by Owen Wilson. Anderson notes Wilson improvised this line in Behind Enemy Lines, as well.
  • When Anderson told Luke Wilson he would be the last one to leave the grave site in the final shot, the actor was surprised. He never felt there was much emphasis on Richie, but Anderson notes he thinks this is the “center of the movie.” “And then Kumar closes the gate to the family plot, and that’s the end of the movie.”

Best in Commentary

“The movie was always meant to be a New York movie, but, somewhere along the way, it became, as I feel everything I’ve done, a fable.”

“I think, among other themes, one of the big ones in the movie has to do with failure, and the effect it has on people. In the case of this family, all these children…I got this expression from Bob Wilson, which is they peaked early.”

“I’d quit smoking. This movie ended that.”

Final Thoughts

Remember what we said last week – and the week before – about director flying solo on these commentary tracks? Scratch that, because Wes Anderson knows exactly how to deliver ample amounts of insight and anecdotes about The Royal Tenenbaums here. Granted, this is a Criterion Collection disc, and if there’s anyone who won’t stand for 10 minutes of silence in a commentary track, it’s the people at Criterion. Once again they prove their worth, and, once again, Anderson makes it clear how incredibly talented and full of knowledge he is.

There are several references brought up in the commentary, most of them being relayed by Anderson brushing on what inspired certain sections of the film. There is a definite passion for films of old, outside-the-box music, and left-of-center artists he is fascinated by. All of that comes through on the commentary, and it’s one that anyone, not just fans of the man’s work, should seek out and listen to.

Now if only Criterion would be us a Fantastic Mr. Fox Blu, we could all die happy.

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