The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Backstage with 'Fantastic Mr. Fox's' Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman

November 4, 2009 |  4:58 pm

Last night, as part of an awards season film series sponsored by my newspaper, I hosted a screening of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" with its filmmaker, Wes Anderson, and Jason Schwartzman, who voices Ash, Mr. Fox's ungainly, often not entirely beloved son. After the film's credits rolled, we took the stage and I basically played the straight man, lobbing up some (hopefully) not entirely dumb questions that gave the two guys an opportunity to tell funny stories about their childhood and the making of the film.

Yes, it is true, for example, that Bill Murray, who voices Badger in the movie, tried to cajole Anderson into letting him do the character in a Wisconsin accent, since the University of Wisconsin's football team's nickname is--ahem--the Badgers. Anderson said no dice, although he did allow Murray to assume additionally the tiny, but pivotal role of the film's lone wolf, a mystical creature who is held in awe by all the foxes in the film. 

Before we took the stage, we hung out in the Landmark Theater's bar, where Anderson and Schwarztman dissected the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," which they both had recently seen. We agreed that it was easily their most--perhaps only--personal film, with Anderson, who is clearly a fan of the Brothers Coen, admiring how sneaky smart their work is. He acknowledged that it was easy to underestimate a Coen film immediately after having seen it. "I remember being pretty unswayed by 'The Big Lebowski' when I first saw it," he recalled. "But after a few days, it started to sink in and then I went back to see it again and realized that it was pretty amazing, having found myself quoting dialogue from it ever since."

For me, the nicest moment of the evening was provided by Schwartzman, who is also a talented songwriter and musician, having played drums for years in the band Phantom Planet. He now has his own solo project, called Coconut Records. At some point in our discussion, I asked him about his youthful enthusiasms. As it turned out, even though he was surrounded by movie royalty--his mom is Talia Shire, Francis Coppola's sister, which makes him cousins with Nic Cage, Sofia Coppola and (regular Anderson collaborator) Roman Coppola--his true love was always music. As a typically awkward, alienated teenager, rock music spoke much more directly to his psyche than films.

"When I was kid, I only went to see comedies, so while I enjoyed them, I always thought it was music that spoke most deeply to me," he explained. But at some point in his teenage years, he found himself preparing for an acting audition without really understanding what movies could have to say. When he confided his concerns to his mother, she told him to stay put while she hurried off to a video store. She returned with three movies: "The Graduate," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Harold and Maude," which Schwarztman watched all in one sitting that night.

"It totally changed my life," he said, realizing for the first time that film could be just as powerful and soulful as the best rock and roll music. From that day on, he was committed to pursuing acting and filmmaking, leading him to his first great role, as Max Fischer in Anderson's "Rushmore." For some reason, I found Schwartzman's story especially inspiring, in the sense that even someone who grew up in a hall-of-fame movie family still needed a jolt of great movie-watching to understand the special glory of the medium. 

I've had a similar experience--for me, it was the first time I saw Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." But I'd love to hear if any of you had similar "gotcha" moments when a movie rocked your world. If you can still remember the visceral thrill of the moment, please share!

Photo of Jason Schwartzman by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times