Matt Zoller Seitz is a busy man. He is the TV critic at New York magazine, he is the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and he is the author of an upcoming book being published by Abrams in October called The Wes Anderson Collection. As you might have guessed, it is a sort of compendium on the filmmaker, with loads of content sure to delight any Anderson fan. Seitz is one of the most trusted and insightful critics working today, always having something unique to say and with a wonderful way of saying it, too. I had the excellent pleasure of speaking with him over the phone about Wes Anderson, the book, Netflix, Breaking Bad and more. It was a great conversation and Seitz was very nice, despite the early hour. Check it out.
Arbitrary Analysis: I’m pretty groggy right now.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Yeah, me too.
AA: Okay. I guess the first thing, why Wes Anderson? I was looking at the Amazon page for the book, and it talks about how he’s an auteur with all his aesthetics and everything, is that what drew you to doing a whole book about him?
MZS: No, it’s a little more complicated than that, I mean, for one thing I think he’s a major director. I think he’s as stylistically unique a director as Hitchcock or Scorsese, so there’s that. But on top of it there’s this whole personal backstory, which is that I met him in 1993 when I was a film critic for the Dallas Observer, just starting out, and he was a filmmaker just starting out. Nobody had heard of him, nobody had heard of me. His short film, Bottle Rocket, was in the USA Film Festival in Dallas and I was writing about the festival and they gave me a stack of VHS cassettes of all the films that they were gonna show and I watched them all, and the one that really stood out was Bottle Rocket.
I singled that one out for praise in the little capsule that I wrote, and if I remember correctly I think I wrote mostly about Bottle Rocket and the other films were kind of an afterthought. That turned out to be the first review that he got of anything he’d ever done as a filmmaker, and I don’t remember if he got in touch with me or if I got in touch with him, but that film got into development at Columbia Pictures as a feature film. And I just thought he and Owen Wilson were really, really talented guys, and I was constantly looking for local people to write profiles of, so I wrote a profile of them a few months later, I think it was when they had gotten the greenlight to develop this thing as a feature. Then I wrote a cover story about the making of Bottle Rocket [the feature version] where I followed it from beginning to end, and that was published in September of 1995. I think that was the longest cover story that had ever been published at the Observer at the time, it was almost like a little book it was so long.
Wes Anderson, with actor Jared Gilman, on the set of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’.
And then I stayed in touch with him, you know, when I moved to New York and he moved to New York, we’d have lunch occasionally and I interviewed him a few more times, him and Owen Wilson, but always for subjects that had something to do with things they were obsessed with. It was like with the 30th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, I did a piece on that and interviewed them, and when Charles Schultz retired I interviewed them for that. Schultz is a gigantic influence on Anderson’s films. I did a video about the influence of the animated Peanuts TV specials on [his films], I do some side-by-side comparisons to the films and those cartoons.
So we just had all these personal sort of connections, I guess you’d say. When The Royal Tenenbaums came out, weirdly enough, Wes shot some scenes from that on the street where I was living in Brooklyn, and my house is in the movie. The scene where Gene Hackman and the grandkids are running around by the schoolyard there’s a shot where they throw water balloons at the gypsy cab and the cab comes to a full stop right in front of my house. I knew they were shooting on my street but I didn’t know they were shooting on my block, since the day they did I was at work in Newark and my wife was working as a secretary in the basement of the church which is in the background of the shot. That was a big surprise to me and I didn’t find out about it until I was watching the movie in a screening at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2001 and when the cab screeched to a halt in front of my house, I actually pointed at the screen and yelled, “That’s my house!”, and the other critics in the room said, “Shhhh.” [Laughs]
There’s all these weird personal connections and affinities but over and above that I just love the guy’s movies. He’s a unique director and one that people imitate, often badly. He’s made an impact. I did a series of video essays in 2009 that studied his style and it was called “The Substance of Style”. Wes saw them, I hadn’t spoken to him in many years at that point, he saw them and wrote me a really nice note, saying “Hey, thank you for taking the time to study my movies this closely, I liked the series a lot, let’s get together some time”, you know. Not too long after that, Abrams Books called me up and an editor there, Eric Klopfer, said “we’re looking to do a book about Wes Anderson and I just watched the series of video essays so what do you think about writing a book about Wes?”. So that’s the long version of how the book came about, and that’s an epic answer, but that’s it.
The cover. Click to enlarge to see it in all its beauty.
AA: So what exactly can we expect to find inside the Collection, is it an assortment of goodies from Anderson’s films, pictures and that kind of thing?
MZS: It’s built around a book-length interview with Wes. So it’s me talking to Wes about his artistic development over 20 years, and we go back to his childhood and adolescence a little bit, but mostly it starts with the Bottle Rocket short and feature and then we just work our way forward through his films. It’s also heavily illustrated with screenshots from the movies and behind-the-scenes stuff, some of which has never been seen before anywhere. We commissioned a lot of illustrations that are sort of tangentially related to Wes’ movies, like the cover of the book, for example, isn’t from any Wes Anderson movie, that’s sort of meant to represent the totality of Wes Anderson’s universe, and we have some other things in the book that are like that. Interspersed among this book-length interview are critical essays by me about each of [Anderson’s] seven films, and those are basically reviews, I guess you would say, of his movies and that’s also new because this is the first time I’ve published reviews or critical examinations of [his films]. So that’s the book.
It’s somewhat of a weird book, honestly, because it’s very analytical and gets pretty deep into his influences and how they manifest themselves in his films, but there’s also a lot of personal anecdotes. And we wander off the beaten track a lot, like there’s parts where we’re really not talking about his movies, we’re just talking about movies, or we’re talking about fiction, or music, or weird personal stuff. Like in the Darjeeling Limited chapter, he goes on for quite a long time about the experience of traveling abroad and how that sort of opened his horizons as a filmmaker, and we don’t get to Darjeeling Limited until fairly deep into the chapter. At that point, it’s mostly about his development as a person. So you can kind of tell as you’re reading it that this is a book by a guy who actually knows the director personally and [they] have been acquainted for a while. There’s a degree of comfort here that maybe you might not get if I was just walking in cold.
AA: So it’s more of free-wheeling conversation type of thing.
MZS: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, maybe a little too free-wheeling. [Laughs] That’s part of the charm of it. We go off on a tangent for like three or four pages about the use of music in movies which is kind of fun. And that’s basically just two guys talking, and there’s other things in the book like that.
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in ‘The Darjeeling Limited’. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight.
AA: I want to ask about Anderson’s critics, because you obviously love the guy, but a big criticism of Anderson is that he has no inventiveness as a filmmaker and how every movie is kind of the same, at least stylistically, so what would you say to that?
MZS: I don’t really know what people want from a guy. That just seems dumb. [Laughs] Honestly, because what great filmmaker or artist can you not say that about? All his movies look the same? Well, I kind of feel like all of Kubrick’s movies look the same. All of Orson Welles’ movies kind of look the same. The directors who make movies that look completely different from one film to the next tend to be hacks that have no style, that’s been my experience. If somebody has a strong personality that comes out in everything that they do…I think what throws people about Wes is that his style is so simple. There’s maybe like 15 or 20 shots that he does, over and over, and there’s particular moods and modes that he has that he shifts into that you see again and again. But to me, that’s simplicity, that’s like when you read Ernest Hemingway and there are few adjectives. Wes doesn’t overcomplicate things, and that’s one of the things that makes him stand out. And all you have to do as far as I’m concerned to appreciate Wes’ uniqueness is to watch his films and then to watch Juno or Garden State, which could’ve been called, “Wes Anderson Called and He Wants His Style Back.”
AA: [Laughs] Yeah. I think we’ll switch gears away from Wes just for a second. There’s this big debate in TV criticism right now about Netflix, like I was reading the recent article in Time about Orange is the New Black where it talks about how this way of distributing TV seasons all at once is liberating but also causes this confusion over how you talk about these shows. I want to get your take on whether this is a good shift, a bad one, or just something new?
MZS: Well, I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think that every TV show needs to be made in the way that Netflix is making shows but I really like the way they’re making shows. Although I should say, to be specific, that I like the fourth season of Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, because those are shows that are not TV shows that happen to appear on Netflix, they’re shows that were clearly made with Netflix in mind, and the way they’re telling the story is very unique, in that they’re jumping back and forth amongst different characters, and in the case of both of them, through time. And they’re doing them at a greater length than they would do if it were just airing on television, because they would be afraid that they would lose the thread of the story, and confuse the audience. The reason that they’re able to make those shows in that particular way is because they know that people are gonna be watching, sitting there with their remote control in hand, and be able to watch 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 episodes in the same sitting.
Taylor Schilling and Yael Stone in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Courtesy: Jessica Miglio/Netflix.
AA: And just binge.
MZS: And they’ll remember what happened because they’re not waiting a week. That’s kind of major. Shows that air on a traditional broadcast network or cable channel, they have to split the difference, they can do complicated storytelling but they can’t do so complicated that when they pick up a thread that they dropped four episodes ago, the audience goes, “Who’s that guy?” or “Where are we? I’m confused,” and you can’t have that. So I think it’s an evolutionary advance, at least if you’re doing it right.
AA: Okay. So what has been some of your favourite TV of the year so far?
MZS: Arrested Development. Orange is the New Black. I’d be shocked if Breaking Bad wasn’t on there [once it’s finished], because it’s been on there every season since its been on. [Laughs] Behind the Candelabra, the Soderbergh film. Justified, probably. The Americans is tremendous, that’s the best new show to come along in a while, I think. Rectify on the Sundance Channel, I really liked because it was so quiet and subtle and almost like a stage play, which is unusual for television. Top of the Lake I thought was great. It’s a really good year, in fact I would say this is the best year for scripted television since I became a critic. I mean, there’s so much stuff. In a year where I’m wrestling with whether or not to put Mad Men in my top ten, what does that tell you?
AA: I kind of have to ask this. What would be your favourite Anderson film?
MZS: My personal favourite Wes Anderson film, the one I think about the most, is The Life Aquatic. I find it almost overwhelmingly powerful. It’s so strange, it’s such a strange mix of tone. To some degree all of his movies are, at least since The Royal Tenenbaums, which was the first Anderson film that veered between comedy and tragedy. I think the swings are even more extreme in The Life Aquatic, and the story is a little more focused on one thing, which is mortality. The climax with the jaguar shark on the bottom of the ocean floor is tremendous, that’s still my favourite ending of any Anderson film.
Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. Courtesy: Beuna Vista Pictures.
I like all of his movies. I think The Darjeeling Limited might be his most structurally perfect film, and I think not too many people would agree with that, but if you really study that thing and you look at what every scene does, it’s kind of a marvel of precision. And then, of course, Rushmore…I mean, hell, man, I could talk about his movies all day, that’s why I wrote a book about him. [Laughs] He’s made I would say three or four films that I would consider perfect, which is a pretty great batting average, and the ones that are less than perfect are not like anything that you’ve seen before, ever.
AA: So how did Michael Chabon get involved? [Chabon wrote the book’s introduction] He’s one of my favourite authors so I was curious about that.
MZS: Well, as it turns out, I wanted to find somebody to write an introduction, and I don’t know why I thought of him. I didn’t know if he liked Wes’ films, I just knew from his fiction that he seemed like the kind of guy that would. And it turned out I was right about that. Wes didn’t have anything to do with it, so it was kind of a wonderful coincidence that it turns out that he and Chabon kind of know each other. So I said, “Hey, guess who’s writing the intro to the book,” and he goes, “Oh I know that guy!” [Laughs]
AA: So my last question: How’s Breaking Bad going to end?
MZS: I don’t know, I’ve been debating that with my daughter for the last two months. I don’t know if Walter’s going to die or not, I’m starting to feel like he has to die because the show is a tragedy and in a tragedy things don’t end very well for the hero. I just can’t see it suddenly reversing course and then he somehow saves himself and everybody forgives him. And since this is the kind of show where people who do bad things tend to be punished. So I feel like it’s kind of the end of Walter’s suffering. I’m not exactly sure what that means but, it’s going to be painful.
Bryan Cranston in the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’. Courtesy: AMC.
AA: Okay, well on that note…
MZS: [Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised if they went in a direction like The Shield, which is to say maybe more of a whimper than a bang. But a bang wouldn’t surprise me either because it’s Breaking Bad and things blow up. In any event, I think that it’s going to be a good ending. It won’t be disappointing, I know that. I have enough confidence to know that. They give you what you didn’t expect, but it’s equal to what you did hope for. You sat there all day fantasizing about what they’re going to do next, and then you see it, you go, “that’s better than I imagined”. There aren’t a whole lot of shows or movies that you can say that about, usually what you come up with on your own is more interesting than what they give you. That’s the hallmark of a really great show.
The Wes Anderson Collection comes out October 8. Pre-order it on Amazon here.