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The Darjeeling Limited - Jason Schwartzman interview

Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JASON Schwartzman talks about co-writing and starring in The Darjeeling Limited and why the movie is one of the most personal experiences he’s ever enjoyed.

He also talks about how he came to check in to Wes Anderson’s Hotel Chevalier with Natalie Portman and whether or not he feels the director has changed over the course of the 10 years since they last worked together on Rushmore

Q. What do you like about working with Wes Anderson?
Jason Schwartzman: I love him and his movies. He has a very specific perspective on things and his advice to me personally and professionally is always so specific. I hate to say this but it’s so him… he has a style that’s his own. I think he finds humour in things that are not so funny and I think he has a good balance and a pretty even perspective on reality.

Q. You co-wrote the screenplay [with Anderson and Roman Coppola] over a long period of time. How did that work out? Were you together the whole time?
Jason Schwartzman: It was always different. It was hard at the beginning because Wes lived in Paris at the time and I live in Los Angeles, as does Roman, so a lot of the time we were doing conference calls, which were expensive because a lot of the time I had to call Wes for some reason. I was always the one making the calls [laughs]! I kind of felt I couldn’t really complain because I was writing a movie with Wes after all – but at a certain point it would get to the stage where Wes would hang up and ask me to call him and I’d be like: “Well, you can call me…!” [Laughs] So it would be via these conference calls and then we’d write for five weeks at a time in Paris for two years. But Wes said right off the bat that he wanted this to be the most personal movie we can write and make, and the most honest, so he’d like it to be written without inventing things. It was more: “Let’s investigate our own lives and our own histories and see if any of them are relevant to the story of these three brothers on this train.”

In a poetic kind of way, my feeling about the writing process was that we were less telling these characters what to do because it never seemed like we had the confidence to do that. To me, it seemed like these three brothers were real, and their trip was real and we were all equally in the dark about it and all equally trying to describe it to one another. It seemed more about asking questions to one another, such as “why did they get kicked off the train?” Then when it came to looking for the light out of that darkness, we’d always look for it in our own lives. So we’d ask: “Roman, what happened to you?” And he’d talk for an hour about anything that was on his mind – his life, girls and travelling – and that might inspire me to say: “Oh, one time when I was five, I remember this…” And before you know it, it’s just three people talking who are kind of telling secrets.

The nice thing about writing with three people who are in the dark is that they somehow unanimously manage to agree when they found what they were looking for. That was nice too. We always seemed to know at the same time whether it was right or not. It was kind of an intuitive process but we never seemed to have the foresight of a whole movie – just the next scene. And that meant that we wrote the movie in sequence, so it was kind of like pulling a string out of a jacket – except in reverse!

Q. Did you shoot in sequence?
Jason Schwartzman: Yes, in the sense that if a scene took place on the train, we shot all the train stuff first. And then if it took place by the river, then we did that too. That was nice too because the characters are going on a journey but the actors were too – so tonally we felt a real shift when we got to that village; it wasn’t what it was like on the train, it was much heavier. So at the end of the movie I’m always personally touched when I see the three brothers smiling because they felt like they’d gone through something – and I know they had. It wasn’t like they were pretending to have had this experience; I knew it took three months to get there so it’s nice…

Q. Are there any particular bits of your own history that define the character?
Jason Schwartzman: The whole thing is about me. I would hate to separate who’s who. The nice thing was that over the course of the script-writing process, the script had so many different shapes and sizes, there were so many things that ended up not being in the movie, so many back stories, that eventually we realised that we wouldn’t have to include all those things. Because in the course of including all of those things, we were basically saying: “Well, here’s everything you need to know about these guys on this journey…” Nothing was implied and you don’t have to do any thinking – and here’s how you should feel also. I just felt that it seems like the way a lot of movies are made, and that’s fine, but it always felt icky when we were writing it that way. We always felt: “This isn’t our movie, our movie is different.” So we’d always take out these back story things as much as we could and these explanations and leave only a piece of them in.

So, when you see the movie a lot of the things that people think are quirky or thrown in are actually connected deeply to something that has great meaning. But the fun thing is that now it’s a movie that’s very sparse and a lot is implied with it. These are now three guys who are the products of the things that have happened to them and so I hope you can tell from your own life experiences what they’re thinking and why they’re doing things. It now leaves a lot of room for yourself to imply things – for you to bring your self to this movie and make up your own back story.

What I will say, however, is that when I was acting in the film I was so focused on the writing of it I had neglected the fact that I would have to eventually attempt to act it. And when I looked at the script before I left for India I was like: “Holy shit!” Because of the amount we’d removed from the script, when you read it there’s not a lot of information in it, a lot is implied and it’s scary as an actor because you realise you’ve got a lot of work to do. I felt ill prepared to go to India to act.

I suddenly felt that I had no idea who this character was – he’s quiet, he’s elusive, he’s mysterious, he’s guarded, what is going on with this guy? I called Wes and said: “I have no idea what to do! I have no idea who this guy is!” And he said: “You’re kidding me, we’ve been writing this movie for two years! You know this guy.” I then realised that he had a point, which was that just because it’s not in the script, doesn’t mean it’s not in the character and all these shapes and sizes and places we’d gone in the writing were still vital to who my character is. So, eventually the screenwriting became everything to me for the acting.

How does Hotel Chevalier fit in with The Darjeeling Limited? Was it made before?
Jason Schwartzman: It was made a year before. We were writing the movie for about two months and we had the opening scene and a couple of scenes after that and nothing more but a lot of ideas. Then one day Wes called me and read me Hotel Chevalier. I loved it but I was confused by it because we were writing a movie about these three brothers on a train in India and now we were suddenly in Paris with a girl! Was it a flashback? I didn’t understand what it was, so I asked and Wes said: “It’s a short film that I would like to make with you and Natalie Portman – and if she agrees to do so, I’d like to do it immediately.” I’m not sure if it was decided straight away whether or not my character in the short was the same one as in the feature… it might have been just a short film that he wanted to do, but then after an hour or a day of thinking about it we said: “You know what? Maybe this is the same guy! Maybe this is the girl that’s been torturing him and maybe this is a companion piece.” It was definitely never intended to be part of the feature film but was always going to be linked to it.

It was difficult but fun to act in it because we shot it a year before the film and I was nervous to start acting out this character that really wasn’t even fully formed yet in the screenplay. Because the screenwriting process was changing all the time, it made me nervous and I’d have to ask: “What happens if I portray him as we’d written the character this far and then suddenly we decide that it’s not the same guy?” It’s not going to be fluid. What if we decide that my character should have a limp? But it was also fun because whatever we’d go and shoot was going to be this guy.

Q. So it had consequences for the film?
Jason Schwartzman: Yes, but hopefully positive ones. But another fun thing was deciding whether there was anything we wanted to put in the short that we’d reference later in the movie? What can we think of? Then we thought: “Well, maybe she puts something in the suitcase.” We didn’t know what it was going to be, so in the short Natalie Portman puts a brown box in my suitcase – but when we shot it we didn’t even know what was in that box. We even shot three different sizes of it and then later we thought that maybe it could be her perfume. The iPod thing, for instance, was not something that was in the feature film, it was just part of the short. But then later we thought: “Maybe it could be nice if this was part of the character; he plays music because he likes to set the tone, set the scene and score the moment…” And that was also something that seemed like it came out of real life because Wes, Roman and I always had the iPod playing when we were writing.

Q. In the 10 years since you last worked with Wes on Rushmore, do you feel his directorial style has changed?
Jason Schwartzman: I can’t tell if it’s like a growth… Owen [Wilson] or Bill Murray would be better people to ask because they’ve worked on all of the movies. But I can’t tell for sure. To me, the process seems different but I can’t tell if it’s brand new or if it’s each movie that’s completely different. If I compare the two I’ve done, then for one Rushmore was shot at his old high school – he wrote it to take place there and he knew every inch of that place.

In India, however, he’s a tourist. He did not graduate from India, he did not go to school in India and he doesn’t know that country as well. So I think he knowingly went into a place that he could not control and I think he wanted to surrender to that environment. I remember he said early on: “I don’t want to build India, or my version of it – we could do that in New York. I want to walk around the streets with my camera and just shoot people…” So I think he would do what he could and the rest was up to India. He’d say: “If we’ve written in the script that the three brothers get picked up in a red car but when we come to shoot it they bring us a blue truck, well we’ll just shoot the blue truck.” Likewise, the train, we built it from an old rusty train but during the building process we let the Indian men do what they wanted to do. We gave them some ideas but then whatever they painted was up to them.

b>Read our review of The Darjeeling Limited

b>Read our interview with Wes Anderson