Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Class: The Royal Tenenbaums

Anjelica Huston's Rustic Irish Soda Bread w/Smoked Salmon & Crème Fraiche
Mixed Green Salad w/Gwyneth Paltrow's Vinaigrette
Gwyneth Paltrow's Sea Bass w/Salsa Verde
Alec Baldwin's Red Beans & Garlic (& Rice)
Danny Glover's Sweet Potato Pie

A version of this post appears at the Criterion Collection website.

Class went really smoothly tonight. I don't like to make judgments, but I think this may have been the best class yet. Over half the attendees had been to a previous class and I was really happy to see people making this something to look forward to on their calendars.

But let's get to it. This is the seventh movie I've written about here that is set in New York, and for sure not the last. But is it because I grew up in New York? If I had grown up in Oklahoma, would I be writing about Midwestern movies? I don't know.

Writer/direction Wes Anderson said The Royal Tenenbaums is set in his fantasy of New York, but really aren't all movies set in New York fantasies of the city? The city is certainly too dense to be represented in all its shades and aspects in one movie. But after over 30 years of not living there, even my idea of New York doesn't really match the reality. When I walk its streets, I don't always see what's there. I often see my memory of what was there and selectively ignore that which goes against that memory. In fact, I have often been known to say that New York is not really New York anymore. It's someone from Ohio's idea of New York - as so many people, like Anderson, grew up with their own fantasy of it, moved there (like Anderson did after making The Royal Tenenbaums) and then reshaped the city to conform their imagination. It's why there aren't pizza places on every corner anymore. And why most of those pizza places make crappy pizza. No one actually from New York would ever order a white sauce pizza with broccoli on it. That is just so wrong.

The Royal Tenenbaums is available for home rental via NetFlix, and can be streamed/downloaded or purchased @ Amazon.


"I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know? But it doesn't mean what it used to, does it?"

Wes Anderson, a young man growing up in Texas, had a dream of becoming a filmmaker. He came up with a few ideas for movies when applying to film school and those three ideas eventually evolved into his first three feature films. The third, like his other two ideas (Bottle Rocket and Rushmore), drew from characters and situations from his friends and family, but differed in that it was inspired by his fascination with New York City. Like many people who live west of the Hudson River, his vision of New York was not from first hand experience, but rather constructed from movies, theater, books, and reading The New Yorker magazine.

"The movie was made from not knowing [the city]," he admitted. "[T]here were so many novels and movies that are New York novels and movies that were among my favorites," he continued elsewhere, "and so I had this sort of - not quite accurate idea of what New York was like. And I wanted to sort of create some sort of exaggerated version of that imaginary New York."

Some of his reference points for The Royal Tenenbaums, besides The New Yorker magazine, included J.D. Salinger, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the plays of George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart (You Can't Take it With You), as well as movies ranging from Rear Window to The French Connection and Martin Scorsese's films. Another film which Anderson has tagged to have influenced the film was Louis Malle's La feu follet (The Fire Within).

Though we never call it New York in the film, I was looking for a certain feeling of living in New York, not the real New York, more a New York of the imagination,” Anderson said (PDF). “Since the people in the story are to some degree made up from literary associations and characters from other films, they all sort of live in an alternate reality, and that led us to creating an entire world in which the sense of reality is intensified and embellished. The house the family lives in, the clothes they wear, and the New York that they inhabit – everything in their world has a heightened quality and is highly stylized.

At one point I considered shooting the entire movie on a soundstage – building all the interior and exteriors on sets – to get the exaggerated, almost surreal feel I was looking for. I was thinking that it would be snowing through the entire movie,” Anderson recalled (PDF). “But somewhere along the line I decided that we had too much fantasy and that we should go in the opposite direction to ground the story in the fact that the house really existed, that the streets really existed." (For more on the Tenenbaum house, see Background & Context below.)

It wasn't until Rushmore was done that Anderson turned his attention to The Royal Tenenbaums. He started with ideas for some characters, but they didn't yet have a story to tell. "[I]t’s about a family of geniuses, except that I always feel that’s wrong because it’s really more about failure. Then I want to say it’s a comedy, but then I think it’s as tragic as it comic. So I’m terrible at explaining it," he said.

"The other films did deal with the issue of family, but they were metaphorical families, groups of friends, someone obsessed with a school and wants to be part of it. This one is more directly connected with issues of family, issues that are deeply personal, emotional and serious," Anderson explained (PDF). What he knew starting out were that these geniuses' “family life was so awful that it left each of the children as they grew older particularly ill-suited to deal with any of the problems that most people are able to handle.... What is interesting to me is how they deal with the fact that it’s all behind them, that they must find their self-esteem elsewhere, and that leads them back to their family, where everything begins.”

Working with Owen Wilson, who co-wrote both Anderson's earlier films, they started to search for a storyline. The first character to have a life was Richie, the youngest son (played by Owen's borther Luke Wilson), a former tennis star who had run away after a breakdown during a big match. As the film opened, he would be returning home after a long trip on an ocean liner.

I wanted us to write Luke a fuller, more complex role than we had previously,” Anderson said (PDF). “I felt there was this potential for Luke. There’s a gentleness about him that comes across clearly. He’s someone who can be soft-spoken, good natured, really sweet-tempered.... But there’s a dangerous side to Luke. I’ve seen some things. You can tap into something real there and I wanted to make that quality part of the character, too.

From the get-go, Owen was also going to play one of the parts, though "[w]ith Tenenbaums I was in Los Angeles, and Wes was in New York, so it was just me trying to contribute where I could" to the script, he confided. “Eli Cash’s [his character] lines were mostly written by Wes. But there’s a lot of overlapping between us, which is probably why we have this friendship. There’s scenes Wes wrote, but when I look at them it feels like I wrote them, it’s just exactly what I would have done.” But Wilson noted while they shared co-writing credit on the film, "[I]t’s that world Wes creates that makes it stand out."

As for the other parts, Anderson recalled (PDF), "We wanted to cast the film with established actors, even in parts that may not have a lot of screen time, because the characters were written as larger-than-life people, people who can be seen as icons. I wanted to cast people who had the necessary presence and force, but who could also function as part of an ensemble.”

Owen recalled they were "trying to write an ensemble movie, rather than focusing on one thing, and it ended up pretty much being Gene Hackman's movie, I think. But early on we didn't quite know how it was going to work out."

"Royal was not the main character at the beginning, everybody had this malaise and were swirling around each other when that character came in and took over because he made things happen in the story," Anderson explained (PDF). “Gene Hackman seemed like the only choice for the part.... I don’t know why – it wasn’t as if there was a conscious reason we had our minds set on him. It just always seemed like a natural thing, that we would have him playing Royal. But then everyone else would have to be very strong, just to balance everything out. I don’t know what we would have done if Gene turned us down, which he did.”

Anderson had gotten in touch with Hackman about two years before the film eventually began shooting. "I had lunch with him in a hotel here in New York," Hackman recalled. "He told me he had an idea for a film that he'd like me to be in. And I asked him not to do that, not to write it for me, because I don't particularly like the things that are written for me. I'd like to kind of invent things rather than to have to do things that are somebody's idea of what they think I am. A funny kind of peculiar situation. But anyway, we had a nice chat and after I told him not to do it, he went off to do it anyway."

And when he sent Hackman the screenplay, Hackman turned him down. “I appealed again, and he passed again," Anderson said. "I had my brother do a drawing of the cast with him at the center and sent it to him, and then I sent him another draft and dozens of letters. I was essentially stalking him, even though for a while I had no personal contact with him."

It became something akin to a kamikaze mission. "I think the one thing we did have going on our side was the fact that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the movie if he wasn’t going to do it," Anderson said (PDF).

But eventually, Hackman agreed. Why? "I wish I had a really clever answer to that, but I'll tell you the honest truth," Hackman said. "I was in Montreal, down to the last week of [shooting] Heist, and I was having so much fun as an actor, and I realized I only had a week to go, and I knew that Tenenbaums was going to be done within about 6 or 8 weeks, if I committed to it. So I just called my agent and said, Let's do it. So I mean, I wish I could say that it was because it was a great script, which it was. But I was tired and yet I was still kind of committed to the work."

Anderson also had envisioned Anjelica Huston in the role of the mother early on. "[T]here's a lot more of my mother in the Anjelica Huston character than my father in the Royal character," Anderson said. "You know, my mother was an archaeologist and also... just her approach to raising the children and the kind of household – that character runs, I think is, you know, connected to my mother."

As soon as I accepted the role, I started to receive drawings that pertained to my character,” Huston recalled (PDF). “Mostly, she appeared in very small suits with strange hairdos in the drawings. Wes also sent me photographs of his mother, who is called Texas Anderson, an archaeologist, like my character. He even produced his mother’s old eyeglasses [to wear] for the early scenes. I asked him, ‘Wes, am I playing your mother?’ I think he was astonished by that idea,” she laughed. Anderson has said that his mother was only briefly an archaeologist, but then became a real estate agent.

For the rest of the ensemble, Anderson had wanted to work with Gwyneth Paltrow for some time, Ben Stiller was an early supporter of Bottle Rocket and had become a friend, and Bill Murray is someone he always likes to find a role for. Danny Glover was cast after the two had met at a United Nations function where Glover donates his time as a Goodwill Ambassador (as Audrey Hepburn was). “As soon as I met him, I was hooked on him. He has a real leadership quality," Anderson noted (PDF). "He seemed perfect for the role... and I was excited at the prospect of working with him.”

It also seemed perfect casting to include actors like Stiller, Paltrow and Huston - all of whom come from celebrity families. "[A]ll those families are real kind of achievers, you know, and fame is an issue for their whole families," Anderson said, and were able to bring those experiences to their characters.

At the film's 10th anniversary screening at the New York International Film Festival in 2011, some of the cast gathered and they all recalled they were intimidated by Hackman, even scared of him at times. (You can see the video of their conversation, here.)

He was kind of a bear of a guy. But I also found something sweet and sad there," said Paltrow at the gathering. While acknowledging how great of an actor he is, she added, “You know, if you’re Gene Hackman you can be in a bad f*cking mood if you want to be!

Back in 2001, when the film first was released, Hackman noted, "There was great love on the set. Yet at the same time I was very conflicted because people were much younger than me and I felt left out or ignored. And that wasn't even true. I knew it wasn't true, but I used it anyway."

If I may postulate, Hackman not only used it for himself, but it also gave the other characters stuff to work with in their relationship to Royal.

"For years, any time any group of [my friends] are together we always talk about Gene Hackman endlessly," said Anderson. "He was legendary and people were excited about the possibility.."

Luke Wilson, one of those friends, said (PDF) of Hackman: "Just watching him on set couldn’t be more exciting. I always love watching him in movies but when you get up close to him in a scene you find yourself thinking, they’re not even getting on film how really great he is. It’s like watching basketball close up seeing how big and fast the guys are in a way you can’t see on TV.

Okay, some quick tidbits before I move on. First, the Dalmatian mice. "We used sharpies.... I probably shouldn't go on record saying that, it's probably some violation of some humane society," Anderson said.

And second, where did they find an actor with a BB lodged in his hand?

"That's Andrew Wilson's hand," Anderson answered, speaking of the eldest Wilson brother who always gets a cameo in his movies. "That BB-gun incident is a combination of two stories. Owen once shot Andrew in the hand with a BB gun when they were on the same team. Another time, he shot a guy... in the back of the head with a Roman candle."

The Royal Tenenbaums screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, BAFTA, and Writer's Guid awards, and Hackman won the AFI Best Actor award that year.


There's a video you can find online made by folks at The Onion AV Club, but is really a disguised commercial for Fiat cars with the corporate-marketing-wannabe-hip title of "Pop Pilgrims" which purportedly will take you inside the house used for The Royal Tenenbaums. I say "purportedly" because they didn't get permission to shoot indoors, and you only see the house from across the street. I hesitated including it because it's just sort of entertaining and there's one piece of massive misinformation wherein "the host," one Brian Berrebbi (self-described as as actor/comedian/writer/ninja), explains to the audience "the house first, and then the script" suggesting that Anderson wrote the screenplay after seeing what would become the Tenenbaum house. This, as you've read above, is false. Another bit of misinformation is in the accompanying article in which the film's associate producer Will Sweeney says something about Mordechai, Richie's pet falcon, flying off after the first take and was never seen again. The bird did fly off, a substitute falcon was then used (not a hawk). The first falcon was eventually found by someone in New Jersey who attempted to ransom it back to the production, according to Anderson's commentary track on the DVD, and the police had to get involved.

So the house, 339 Convent Avenue, located at the corner of 144th Street and Convent Avenue, was either built by architect Henri Fouchaux, whom I've read referred to as both "world renowned" and "inventive though little known," or Adolph Hoak. Neither has a biography online, but nevertheless both were architects of numerous buildings in New York City, including some along that block of Convent Avenue. This area of Harlem was first known as Hamilton Heights and, depending on who you ask, the house is also included in what's known as the Sugar Hill District.

Now previous to 1879, the Hamilton Heights area was mostly rural with some scattered country homes, including that of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and thus its name. In that year, the IRT elevated train made its way there which got developers building residential housing. At first, the neighborhood was popular with teachers from nearby City College of New York (founded in 1847).

Hamilton's home, known as Hamilton Grange, was first moved in 1889 two blocks from where it first stood, then again in 2008 to a park one block away, and is now a museum run by the National Park Service. There's video of the house moving, which is pretty amazing.

"By the 1920s," according to this article, "the nearby black population began to increase and expand north from Central Harlem, eventually absorbing the Convent Avenue area. Affluent blacks began to move into the housing that white families had vacated and the neighborhood soon earned the nickname 'Sugar Hill' due to the high quality of the housing stock and the successful black professionals that made the neighborhood their own."

The New York Times wrote: "In those few blocks lived pioneering civil rights activists like W.E B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr.; writers like Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston; musicians like Paul Robeson and Cab Calloway; and professionals like Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to become a United States Supreme Court justice. Even into the late 1950's, Sugar Hill still delivered the good life, older residents recall, but by the 1970's, many of the row houses had been divided into rooming houses and heroin was sold on the streets." Other residents of the neighborhood during its golden era included Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

In 2000, when Wes Anderson stumbled upon the building at 339 Convent, he dropped a note in the mailbox. According to the New York Observer, "it turned out that it had been bought a year earlier for $460,000 by a 38-year-old private equity manager named Willie Woods... [who] was in the process of drawing up plans with a contractor to renovate the place."

"Many of the 8,000-square-foot house’s period details remained, from the old leaded stained-glass windows, which filter an ambient warm light into the living room, to the many ornate wooden mantelpieces," the article continues."On one mantel in the dining room, every little carved urn, flower and pilaster remained perfectly intact. And some of the house’s most dramatic elements-its network of antechambers, small dressing rooms, closets unaccountably fitted with skylights, and bedrooms with curved walls of windows overlooking the interlaced boughs of maple trees in the street below-had a suggestive, faded-photograph quality."

Anderson and Woods struck a deal to take over the house for six months for an undisclosed amount. Then, Anderson and his brother Eric began drawing up their own plans for the building and how it would be dressed. You can view some of those drawings here.

Currently, the ground floor is occupied now by an art gallery and the upper floors are private residences.


I really wanted to do a class on The Royal Tenenbaums because it just seemed like a great movie to enjoy a great meal with, and I imagined how much fun I would have putting it all together.

There isn't much in the way of food in the movie, I think the only person we actually see eating is Gene Hackman's character Royal gobbling down a greasy (but tasty-looking) cheeseburger. However, I had found a recipe from Anjelica Huston for Irish Soda Bread, and then there was Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook to dig through, and so I had a vision of creating an ensemble dinner made up of the film's ensemble cast. And as luck would have it, I found an Alec Baldwin recipe, and the sweet potato pie recipe below from Danny Glover. Thus a meal was born.

What I love about having found Glover's recipe is – can't you imagine his character in the movie, Henry Sherman, bringing a sweet potato pie to the Tenenbaum house for their bridge night? You know he has to have a recipe for one.

One of the great African American traditions is the passing down of one's family's sweet potato pie recipe through generations. It is without a doubt a crown jewel in the “soul food” recipe box. And its roots go deep into African American history.

Glover demonstrated how to make the pie on The Martha Stewart Show. “This recipe was my Mom's," he admitted. "She was an absolutely wonderful cook, a wonderful baker and she always used to tell my Dad that he didn't know how to boil water before he met her.... We all had to learn to cook in my family.”

First off, sweet potatoes are just distantly related to the white potato (often called the "Irish potato" even though they both come from the New World - you can read more about the white potato in my post on A Fish Called Wanda). Now often in the Americas you'll hear the word “yam” used almost interchangeably with sweet potatoes. But they are two different creatures, biologically speaking. According to Catherine Tilman, writing at Saveur magazine: "Yams, to set the record straight, are monocotyledons (plants that sprout from a single-leaved embryo) that originated in Africa or Asia. They come in many shapes, and most have a hairy, barklike coating and white or yellow flesh. Sweet potatoes are dicotyledons (from a two-leaved embryo), native to Central America, and often sweeter than yams." The skin of a sweet potato can range from white to yellow, red, purple or brown, and its flesh be white to yellow, orange, or orange-red.

According to Jennifer Harbster of the US Library of Congress: "The earliest cultivation records of the sweet potato date to 750 BCE in Peru. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the ‘New World’ in the late 15th century, sweet potatoes were well established as food plants in South and Central America.... Europeans referred to the sweet potato as the potato, which often leads to confusion when searching for old sweet potato recipes. It wasn’t until after the 1740’s that the term sweet potato began to be used by American colonists."

English herbalist John Gerard, in 1597, wrote that the sweet potato “comforts, strengthens, and nourishes the body,” as well as “procuring bodily lust.” So be careful serving it to your family, I suppose.

Now the confusion between yams and sweet potatoes comes from African slaves who were coming to the Americas and thought they recognized a food they had known back home when they arrived. They called it the “nayami,” but eventually it was referred to as the “yam.” But it was not the yam that they once knew. This was a sweet potato. Yams, in fact, came to the New World aboard those same slave ships. Slave traders discovered that they would have less of what we would call "collateral damage" (aka dying slaves) if they were fed foods they were familiar with on their voyage. One British slave merchant noted at the time: "A ship that takes in 500 slaves must provide above 100,000 yams." Yams were first cultivated in this hemisphere in the Caribbean.

By the 18th century, both yams and sweet potatoes varieties were being farmed in the United States. Both George Washington and George Washington Carver grew sweet potatoes.

While some are schooled to differentiate a yam from a sweet potato, it can be very confusing for the average consumer. In an attempt to deal with the confusion, but to me seems to exacerbate it as well, the US Department of Agriculture requires (PDF) that only "true" yams be labeled yams, but "what is marketed in the US as a 'yam' is really a type of sweet potato.... When used to refer to sweet potatoes, the word 'yam' must be accompanied on labels with the words 'sweet potatoes.'" Confused? But there's more....

Now according to the Louisiana Sweet Potato Advertising and Marketing Commission, "Yam also refers to sweet potatoes that are grown in Louisiana. When the orange-fleshed, Puerto Rican variety of sweet potatoes was adopted by Louisiana producers and shippers, they called them 'yams' to distinguish them from the white-fleshed sweet potatoes grown in other parts of the country. The yam reference became the trademark for Louisiana-grown sweet potatoes.”

And did you know that 2008 was the International Year of the Potato? I totally missed it.

Anyways, as we ate the pie in class towards the end of the movie, I couldn't help but further imagine one of the first dinners at the Tenenbaum house with new père Sherman at the helm. How could the dessert not be Henry's sweet potato pie – a recipe handed down to him by his great-grandmother, of course – and that would one day – fast-forward – be taught by Henry to his step-grandchildren Ari and Uzi in the Tenenbaum kitchen. A perfect ending... and shot in slow motion, of course. I hear a Bill Withers song playing. Cue end titles.

As always.... cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!

Danny Glover's Sweet Potato Pie
adapted from a recipe at Martha
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes one 9-inch pie

1 9-inch deep-dish pie shell
1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Whipped Cream, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Either microwave sweet potatoes by piercing a few holes in them with a fork, then wrapping them tightly in plastic wrap and cooking at high for 5 to 8 minutes depending on your machine until done. Then carefully remove (they're hot!) from microwave and let cool a minute or two before removing plastic wrap.

OR.... Fill a medium saucepan with 2 inches of water; place over high heat and bring to a boil. Fit saucepan with a steamer basket, add sweet potatoes, and cover. Steam until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. You may need to add more water as sweet potatoes steam.

In either case, let sweet potatoes cool slightly before removing skins.

Put sweet potatoes in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the sweet potatoes are well mashed and, if any stringy pieces of sweet potato have wrapped themselves around the paddle attachment, remove paddle attachment, wipe clean, and return to mixer.

With the mixer on low speed, add butter, and beat until well combined and cooled slightly. Slowly add sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and lemon juice. Continue beating until well combined.

Pour mixture into pie crust. Transfer to oven and bake until center has set, about 45 to 50 minutes.

Let cool. Serve with whipped cream.

The Royal Tenenbaums Screeenplay
The Rushmore Academy: The Films of Wes Anderson (Fan Page)
How to Dress Like a Tenenbaum @ Esquire magazine
Boyish Wonder: Wes Anderson, by Marshall Sella @ NY Times
Conversation with Cast Members @ NYIFF 10th Anniversary Screening (part 1- 6)
Sugar Hill: Reclaiming a Place that Music Once Played, by Nancy Beth Jackson @ NY Times

The Royal Tenenbaums (The Criterion Collection) DVD
The Royal Tenenbaums OST CD
My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness, by Gwyneth Paltrow

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