Indie hero Jason Schwartzman can add "cowriter" to his resume with The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson's new road-trip flick on rails-but he still hasn't figured out how to get girls to talk to him.
This is an extended version of the Q&A that appeared in print.
It’s been nine years since Jason Schwartzman’s film debut as Max Fischer, the misguided prep-school hero who unleashed a boxful of bees on romantic rival Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s classic Rushmore. He’s reunited with Anderson in the upcoming The Darjeeling Limited, but this time Schwartzman shares cowriting credit, along with his cousin Roman Coppola, in the tale of three brothers (Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody) who embark on a bumpy spiritual quest-—on a train across India—after their father’s death.
The poignant Darjeeling is more Royal Tenenbaums than Life Aquatic, exploring the tension and humor among family members torn apart and trying to find their way back together. Schwartzman plays Jack, the youngest Whitman brother, who is an easygoing writer unaware that his fictional tales are thinly veiled accounts of his own life. He’s also a hopeless romantic reeling from the breakup with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman). We spoke via phone with the affable Schwartzman about bickering siblings, the pitfalls of filming on a moving train in India and the one thing every straight guy has in common.
What did you want to film in India?
Wes had the original genesis for this film before he went to do The Life Aquatic. We were having lunch together and he said to me: “How about a movie about three brothers on a train?” And I said, “That’s a great idea. I can imagine your style of filmmaking and writing on a train, that seems like that would be great.” But I didn’t realize it was kind of a creative invitation to me work on it with him. I thought he was just bouncing it off me as a friend.
So he was the one who had this idea about India, and he wanted to go make a film in India about these three brothers on a train. That was how it all came about. And myself, because I didn’t know much about India—at that time, really all I knew about India was from Beatles documentaries--I was excited to go there. But more than anything, I was just excited to have been asked to write a movie with Wes. It seemed like a pitch for a whole new way of making movies for him, which was: “I want to do this with you and Roman [Coppolla, co-writer of the film]. I want us to write this movie together. I want to make the movie in India with no trailers for the actors, no hair and make-up department, very fun, a very small crew, on a real train.” He had the whole creative process just seemed totally exciting to me and amazing.
Was it vital to the story that you capture the essence of this exotic country from the perspective of wide-eyed outsiders?
Yeah, basically. These three brothers lose their father a year before this movie begins. As a consequence of that they are shot out, they are blown apart as a family. The mother’s already gone. And the father dies, and these three brothers really kind of become unhinged and lose touch with each other. And Owen [Wilson]’s character, before the movie starts, has a motorcycle crash, and after waking up from that motorcycle crash he wants his three brothers to get back together and become a family again. And he wants to have a spiritual experience, which he feels like he can in India because it’s a very spiritual place.
So for the first half of the movie I feel like--until they’re kicked off the train--India really is in the background through windows and things like that. They keep taking stabs at trying to have a spiritual experience that’s on an itinerary. [Laughs] And every time they go, “OK, we’re going to go to this temple, and it’s the most spiritual place in the world,” they go there and it’s like they can’t see past their own problems, their own tension. And so they keep trying to initiate these experiences that never quite happen until really, they are kicked off their train and they lose their itinerary, and then India kind of envelops them.
Wasn’t shooting on a moving train a logistical nightmare?
It truly is amazing. Like I said before, Wes had said: “I really want to get a train; I don’t want to go 30 feet back and forth in India with the desert in the background and fake it.” He wanted to really get a train, fix it up and take it around through India. Basically, to get a train out there, you have to get permission from the Indian government to go ride around. And you’re on a real train schedule so that you don’t, you know, bump into other trains. [Laughs]
So you have your production schedule, and then you have your train schedule.
Yeah, we would go to work every day, we’d go to a train station and get on a train. And the train leaves--you cannot be five minutes late to a set like this. The set won’t be there if you’re late. And it’s an actual size train; it’s very small. And when we’re shooting a scene, [and] there’s only enough room for the cinematographer and the boom guy. And Wes sometimes is hidden around in a corner in a closet or something, or sometimes he’s in another room holding a little television watching it. So then you’re on this train moving around and you’re shooting scenes and you’re in the middle of a take and you hit a bump and you fly through the air and you grab onto something and it’s very unpredictable as an environment. It’s very unstable. Things are always happening on the train, and I think they’re really good for acting because--we didn’t improvise any lines, but it’s impossible to do the same thing twice on a moving train.
That’s a good point.
It’s volatile in a wonderful way. And I’ll say that the hard thing is, in the middle of a take, you can be acting and all of sudden the train will just start to slow down and come to a stop because we have to make way for another train to pass by, or there’s people crossing the thing. So it’s very unstable and it’s hard to shoot on a train.
That whole sense of movement and motion, was that really important to the tone of the film?
Well, the idea of three actors in a thing that’s moving is just kind of nice cinematically—the movie is moving forward and the story is moving forward and so is the train. The environment is moving, so I think it’s a nice backdrop and a nice kind of device for a movie. [But] you don’t always remember that the thing is going to be moving. So you write these scenes that are very contained, and you try to write them as well as you can, [scenes] that have structure to them, but then it’s nice when you go out and really shoot it out there on a train that’s moving, because it does kind of come alive in a different way.
Also, what’s great too is, like I said before, Wes didn’t want any trailers and stuff for the actors or anybody. So we had a green room in one of the cars of the train where we would all hang out and play music, and then each actor had a little sliver of a room to sleep in if there was a lunch break or something. But really, Wes didn’t want the actors to walk away between shots.
With the train stopping at any time and all these unpredictable things, you really need to capitalize on time. The last thing we want to have happen is, everyone is ready and you can’t find one of the actors. So we would all stay in this little train compartment between shots, and I think that really helps with the camaraderie of the actors--especially if they’re supposed to be brothers.
I think if we shot the movie in Los Angeles for instance, or a place where someone had their automobiles or their favorite restaurant or their dog or their bed—those things are great, but for this type of movie, I think it would have hindered the relationship of these three guys. When you have three guys in a train and you’re visitors in a very foreign, exotic land, you really watch out for each other and you really are there for each other. There was nowhere to hide.
I especially appreciated the petty bickering of the three brothers. How much did you draw from personal experience?
The movie is completely personal, so it all comes from my real life, Roman’s real life, and Wes’ real life. It does feel like these guys really are bickering and fighting over petty things. And I think, to me, the love you have for your family, though it’s very complicated, is what allows brothers to fight and bicker in a certain way that’s specific to family. I think you fight your best when you really love someone.
I think if you were watching the movie and you felt like: “Oh, these are the three actors playing these guys and they really don’t care about each other,” you would feel like: “Who cares if they don’t grow in India; I don’t believe that they ever were together. I don’t feel like there’s a real loss if this doesn’t work out for these guys.” Whereas, I feel if you watch the movie, and these three actors really did love each other and care about each other, and I think the three brothers look like they have loved each other, it would feel like a tragedy if they didn’t regroup in some way and get it together.
Owen’s character reminded me of his character Dignan from Bottle Rocket: he would meticulously plan those heists that would always go wrong. Francis [Whitman, Owen Wilson’s character] thought if he planned it just right, then his brothers really would come together during their spiritual journey. How much of that character was Owen’s own interpretation?
First of all, when you said that, I was going to say the words aggressively sensitive came to mind. But I feel like we wrote it, and it’s just this weird thing where you write it a certain way and then Owen read it and it’s like: “There it is.” For me, he put everything he had into it. It’s a very complex character and, to me, he’s [the Francis character]: very funny and also very sad. You know what I mean?
After his recent scare, I was thinking his characters may reflect his personality more than people ever thought. Eli Cash [a character filled with self-doubt that has a drug problem] in The Royal Tenenbaums, and this aggressive sensitivity you were talking about with Francis [his character in Darjeeling]. Obviously, I don’t know him as a person, but looking at his performances, I read it a little differently knowing: here’s a guy who maybe really is hurting.
Oh, I don’t know; I don’t want to talk about that really. It was really great to watch him work; because he works really hard. If he didn’t feel like he’d done the best he could, he really knows it. I think he knows what he can do. And so [on set] he’d say: “I didn’t do it right.” And I’d be thinking to myself, Man, that’s great. Like, I don’t think you can do [it] better. And he’d say, “Give me one more.” He works, strives to get it right.
He comes off so effortless.
That’s a skill right there. And he’s also--we would be working and he’d say to me: “How would you do it? What do you think of this character?” He’s also not territorial about it. He seemed like he wanted input and advice and perspective.
When said that line “I’ve still got a lot of healing to do” that really resonated with me. Do you think it’s misguided to try and connect anything with an actor’s personal life and the performance they give?
I feel like I’m not the right person to ask about it. I don’t think I’d give you a good answer. I’m not that good. I’m good, but I’m not that good.
This was your first writing credit, right? So it must have been a very different experience from Rushmore, which was your very first film.
Totally. I mean it’s hard to compare anything to Rushmore, because it really is an isolated incident-type situation where I feel like it doesn’t feel like we made a movie. It was just this whole mind-blowing experience in my life. It’s so different than anything I’ve felt or known since. I just remember that year of my life, like September rolled around, I started my senior year of high school; I’m making a record with my band--I thought I was gonna go to college and continue with my band--and literally six weeks later I was in Houston with Bill Murray. I still can’t really get my head around it.
I read an old interview Wes did with Bill Murray when Rushmore came out, and Wes basically says that Bill Murray scared the shit out of you on the first day of shooting. But then they went out for chicken-fried steak or something and you calmed down. So it must have been cool to come to this set, and you’ve worked with Dustin Hoffman and Steve Martin, and now you’re going toe-to-toe with Adrian Brody, right?
Yeah right! [Sarcastically] I have a problem, which is, and it’s unfair of me to do to other actors, but I’m a fan of movies. And they do mean a lot to me and I’m very kind of star-struck around other actors. It’s very unnerving. Some actors just feel so comfortable on a movie set. But I’m thinking, the whole time I just want to ask them questions about their movies. [Laughs] “How did you do that scene?” I’m just, like, a fan. I think no matter how much I work or how much experience I have, I constantly feel totally like an imposter.
Would you compare your character in Darjeeling with your character in Rushmore? In some ways he could be Max Fischer all grown up—Max Fischer with a bushy mustache. A driven guy, but kind of a schemer who steals the code to his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine.
Yeah probably, [but] I feel like Max is working with a whole other thing. He’s an only child who is just trying to have friends and he falls in love, and it’s a whole different thing he’s going through. [Whereas] I think this guy--my character in this movie--he’s trying get over the death of his father, and trying to figure out who he is: What is a man? Who is a man? Who is a role model for me? I think he wants to be used by women.
You seem to have that role down pat—the guy who pines after the girl he can’t have Are you that guy…or did you used to be that guy? I think every male has been in that situation.
I don’t think when it comes to the human male race that I’ve experienced anything other than what every guy goes through their whole life. Which is: Why won’t she talk to me?
Yeah, it’s like if you wear them down, or if you say just the right thing, you can change their mind. That never works.
I hear all different things. Like, I ask couples [the story of] how they get together, and the girl’s like: “Oh I didn’t like him. But he kept asking me for years.” And they’re saying that while they’re bouncing their child on their knee. [And I’m] like: Wow, I guess it can [work]. But then, other times, people are like: “It was love at first sight.” More than girls, what I can relate to with these characters is being frustrated because you don’t know how to get something.
Are you going to continue to focus on writing? You mentioned this was a big step for you being approached by Wes [to co-write Darjeeling].
I love writing, and I don’t want to seem like the quintessential actor who says they want to direct a movie, and they’re currently taking an art class. I mean, I just did finish taking an art class. [Laughs] And I would like to direct and to write. Personally, I don’t think I’m the type of actor who can just sit around and wait for some director to say, “Yeah you, you’d be good in my movie.” I think the more self-generating you can be the better…if you make things yourself.