You grew up in Houston and went to school at the University of Texas at Austin, where you studied philosophy. How did you end up making movies?
I studied philosophy, but I wanted to make movies. The two big things for me when I went to the University of Texas were that it had a big, great library of movie books—and, at that time, VHS tapes and laser discs—which I spent a lot of time going through from A to Z. And I met Owen Wilson.
You and Owen wrote Bottle Rocket together in college. How did that come about?
We were tinkering with it and rehearsing it for years. We didn’t have a camera, and we didn’t have any film, but we were trying to do it anyway. We met some people who had equipment; one was a director of photography and had a 16-millimeter camera. We borrowed money, got some film stock and sort of cobbled together a little film production. We started shooting the movie. We made a schedule to shoot the first five minutes and then the next five minutes and then the next five minutes. We were going to make the movie in installments because we couldn’t wait any longer; we needed to start doing it.
I sense the influence of J.D. Salinger in your movies. In Bottle Rocket, Luke Wilson is coming out of an institution and has a little flavor of Holden Caulfield. The Max character in Rushmore could be a distant cousin to Salinger’s famous Glass children. The same with The Royal Tenenbaums. Was Salinger or anyone else a literary influence?
When Owen and I met we were movie buffs, but we really met in the creative writing program at the University of Texas. We were writing short stories, and what we first talked about together, really, was books and writers—and Salinger was certainly someone we both loved. Raymond Carver was another big one, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A big part of our getting to know each other was helping each other write short stories, and those stories were probably all influenced by these writers.
Music also plays a big role in your movies. The music in Rushmore stands out; you brought it in in such a way that it really works into the scenes. The music in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou becomes almost as much of the story as anything else. Who influenced that?
Probably Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. Martin Scorsese reinvented how music was being used in movies. And Mike Nichols. How the music fits into The Graduate is special. In some quantifiable way, music is a big part of a movie. I always feel I want to get the advantage of it.
You have a very specific style that you plan out. How do you get actors to do what you want without it becoming stiff?
There’s not a lot of improvised dialogue in the movies I’ve been doing lately, but I usually don’t know what the actors are going to do. They’re sort of improvising everything but the dialogue—how they’re going to say it, how they’re going to play it. But I have such a lack of perspective about what it’s like to work on someone else’s movie versus working on one of my own. I’ve spent so little time on anyone else’s set. When we were doing Bottle Rocket, we’d never been on a movie set before. It was me, Owen and Luke, and we just filmed it the way we thought. James Caan arrived when we were doing the first scene and said to me, “You understand that this is not how it’s done, right? What we do is, we come to the set, we rehearse the scene, we block the scene and figure it out, then we go back to trailers, you light the scene, we come back and you shoot it.” What I had done was set up the cameras, lit the scene, brought in the actors, told them where to move, and then we shot it. He thought it was crazy. And you know, I still do it that way to some degree.
You now live in Paris. Does that environment inspire how you approach your work?
Sometimes I feel like my own experiences lead me into a kind of story. It’s someplace where I want to have a certain kind of experience. Our movie The Darjeeling Limited, for instance. One part of it was me, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola being together in a certain kind of moment in our lives, feeling some kind of crisis that we may have just been imagining, but we were kind of embracing it. And I wanted to go to India. I wanted to work in India; I wanted to see what it was like and spend time there. The thing that appeals to me is that the part of my life that I get to use in the movies is the movies. The experience of making a movie forms the next one. That’s what I wanted to do; that’s what I want to do. It’s something I’m happy about.