Wes Anderson’s Dream House

With Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bill Murray to house, the only thing holding back director Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums was a roof for his clan of onetime prodigies. After weeks of combing the city, he found a house in Harlem in need of revival. Then, reports TOM MCGEVERAN, the house became a character itself.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s tragicomedy-in-the-making about a New York family that has fallen from greatness, Bill Murray plays Raleigh St. Clair, a lisping British anthropologist married to Margot Tenenbaum, Gwyneth Paltrow’s washed-up playwriting prodigy. Baffled by his wife’s erratic behavior and worried that she no longer loves him, Raleigh hires a private detective and uncovers photos of Margot in a series of unlikely scenarios around the world. Looking at the pictures, Raleigh discovers that his wife has led a life he’d never imagined. According to the script, the camera rests on the still images one by one, limning Margot’s past without a word.

Mr. Anderson has said he’s inspired by such elements of filmmaking as sets, music, costumes, props- the details. In 1999′s Rushmore, the quirky prep school was set on the campus of Mr. Anderson’s own alma mater, and the film was sprinkled throughout with a series of obscure pop songs from the 60′s. In the Tenenbaums screenplay, the best information about the characters comes not from soul-searching soliloquies-few of the lines in the script consist of more than 10 words, and most of those belong to a narrator-but from the specific arrangement of visual elements called for by Mr. Anderson.

A quintessential New York story about ambition and striving, fame and notoriety, success and failure, eccentric dysfunctional families and, of course, real estate, The Royal Tenenbaums is visually and narratively anchored by a house. This is the home where archaeologist and matriarch Etheline Tenenbaum, played by Anjelica Huston, has remained since her husband left her 20 years before; where she raised her genius children till they were grown and left; where the patriarch, a disbarred litigator played by Gene Hackman, returns to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged family; and where their three children-played by Ben Stiller, Ms. Paltrow and Luke Wilson-return to try to make sense of their tarnished lives.

Mr. Anderson is something of an armchair connoisseur of houses: As a kid growing up in Texas, he made a book of drawings of mansions he dreamed of living in. Now, as then, he knew the kind of house he was looking for. “We spent months searching for different houses,” said Mr. Anderson, who lives on the Upper East Side. “It must have been over a year ago.” The script was only half-written at the time, but it vaguely specified a New York location with references like “Archer Avenue,” “the Valenzuela Bridge,” “the 375th Street Y” and “the Lindbergh Palace Hotel.” The family comes across in the script as intellectual, proud yet bohemian, and their surroundings grand, even if somewhat dated and dusty. “It needed to be a New York house that wasn’t stereotypical,” Mr. Anderson said, “and where you’d have a real strong sense of family history.”

Last May, driving around the city, Mr. Anderson and his friend, a record producer, spotted a townhouse on the corner of Convent Avenue at 144th Street, in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights historic district. “[The house] kinda has a storybook quality to it, really,” Mr. Anderson said. At 339 Convent Avenue, it was blocks from where Ralph Ellison lived and wrote Invisible Man.

Though the house doesn’t appear any larger than the others along Convent Avenue-most built between the mid-1880′s and World War I for middle- to upper-middle-class tenants-its corner location had advantages. Running up the outside edge of the house, there’s a turret five stories tall that ends in a round spire-which, with the stone cladding at the base of the building and the bulky stone staircase that stands sentinel before the front door, gives the place a castle-like feel.

Mr. Anderson also appreciated the fact that 144th Street ends a block or so away. “There’s a dead end there, so you can’t see any further than a short distance,” Mr. Anderson said. For a director who creates films that are “their own little worlds,” this was an important consideration: The block has a smallness to it, a specificity of place. Long shots that placed the Tenenbaum house in a series of streets and similar houses would have given an outside context, and threatened the integrity of the Tenenbaums’ otherworldly reality.

The house appeared vacant, but Mr. Anderson and his friend dropped a note in the mailbox; 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. Mr. Woods was living further south in Harlem with his wife and child at the time, and he was in the process of drawing up plans with a contractor to renovate the place. “I didn’t take it seriously at first,” said Mr. Woods. Eventually, he gave Mr. Anderson a look inside.

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. 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.

“He got inside and realized that it was the exact sort of layout he needed for the house,” said Tom Whelan, location manager for The Royal Tenenbaums, of Mr. Anderson’s reaction to the house.

“It had all the original detail and character in it,” said Mr. Woods. “But it had not been upgraded for a long time, which, for their purposes, was perfect.”

Mr. Anderson had to convince Mr. Woods to postpone his own renovation. The film’s $25 million budget, mostly courtesy of Disney, helped in that respect. The two struck a deal in December for the director to rent the house for six months. Mr. Anderson would alter it to his needs, then clear everything out again. Neither would disclose their financial arrangement.

Having found his dream house, Mr. Anderson could finish the script. The distinguished building had given the picture a three-dimensional life, and the director some ideas. “It’s almost a character in the movie-it’s like half of the movie,” said Mr. Whelan of the house’s influence on the film. But it had to be made into a movie set. “We spent about a month prepping,” said crew member Chris Marsh. In some cases, the house did much of the work itself.

“Each room has its own identity,” said Mr. Anderson, who wanted to give the three Tenenbaum children very distinct personalities through the detailed decoration of their bedrooms. He had a clear vision and specific notes about each bedroom before he found the house, but the turret at the corner of the building offered him an easy way to create them. “All the main characters’ rooms were in the corner with the turret,” said Mr. Whelan. “So it had a sort of recurring motif, and I think that was significant.”

“There’s a part [of the film] that’s set in the past, and that’s when we spend time on each of the characters,” said Mr. Anderson. “In the script, there’s this attic bedroom for one of the characters, and it purposely has this really low, sloping ceiling. And one of the bedrooms was just perfect for it.”

The attic room at the top of the turret became the bedroom of Richie Tenenbaum (played by Mr. Wilson), a Jimmy Connors in the making who chokes one day and then becomes a radioman on a ship. Mr. Anderson had the walls painted a bright pastel blue and put a drum set in a windowless, cone-shaped alcove under the turret’s spire. Along one whole wall, he put shelves lined with trophies. Above the shelves and on the other walls, the director installed delicate little drawings by his brother, Eric Anderson, who has also worked as an illustrator for this newspaper.

In the room below Richie’s, Mr. Anderson installed Chas Tenenbaum (Mr. Stiller), an entrepreneur since high school who becomes a health-and-safety nut after his wife is the only casualty in a plane crash. Mr. Anderson decorated Chas’ room like an austere, well-ordered office, complete with water cooler and computer, except for the bunk beds and a punching bag in one corner. One wall is lined with bound copies of Fortune magazine. In the script, there’s also a closet filled with boys’ pinstripe suits.

Below Chas is Margot (Ms. Paltrow), a prize-winning playwright in the ninth grade who hasn’t written anything in seven years. Margot’s room is reminiscent of a fancy African safari, with the script calling for walls “a vivid shade of red, with little running zebras painted all over them.” In fact, Mr. Anderson wanted the very wallpaper that is the trademark of the Upper East Side Italian eatery Gino’s. Mr. Anderson contacted the restaurant, which had long ago made its own pattern so as to be able to replace the wallpaper. They gave Mr. Anderson permission to use it for the shoot.

Even the house’s roof-a complex of gables, dormers and spires clad in slate shingles-was used for effect. “It kind of has this widow’s-walk quality to it,” said Mr. Anderson of the roof. “We had a falcon coop and a ham-radio antenna up there.” Atop the turret, Mr. Anderson also flew a pink flag emblazoned with the letter T.

Not all of the house worked as well. There was some linoleum-tile flooring here, some faux wood-grain particle-board paneling there, and some of the house’s most impressive features were in mortal danger. In spots, the elaborate oak parquet floors, bordered in geometric patterns, were buckling severely, and the slats were shrunken and desiccated. The wooden stairway that ascends from the house’s large entry foyer pitches ominously downward to the left as one walks up the creaky flights.

Luckily, the script required certain pictures to be hung on the wall above the stairway, which livened it up. “It is a gallery of the [Tenenbaum] children’s art, done mostly in crayon, but with beautiful frames and careful lighting. The subject matter includes: spaceships, wild animals, sailboats, motorcycles, and war scenes with tanks and paratroopers,” reads the script. Mr. Anderson and his brother Eric drew some of the pictures themselves; for the rest, he commissioned local schoolchildren.

Beneath the heavy wooden stairs, the script called for “a small room the size of a closet.” The room had to be constructed out of the landing above the flight of stairs leading down to the basement; it serves as the “telephone room,” with old messages tacked to the walls and the children’s height at different ages marked in the door frame. It is here that we first meet Etheline Tenenbaum, played by Anjelica Huston, as she mysteriously intones into the receiver of a rotary dial phone on a shelf in the little room, “Bene, bene. Si. Grazie mille.”

And the house is also supposed to have a sweeping, dimly lit ballroom on the top floor; those scenes had to be shot elsewhere. So did the scenes in Etheline’s study, with its bamboo wallpaper and endless bookshelves studded with masks and skulls.

Touch-ups continued throughout shooting. One visitor said that Mr. Anderson stopped filming once when he noticed a Medeco lock in a door that was intrusively new-looking; the director borrowed a pen and colored the lock all over to make it darker.

A few days after filming on The Royal Tenenbaums had wrapped on May 21, a pair of blue flippers, their brightness jarring the light of a gray day, sat on the stone doorstep of 339 Convent Avenue. Mr. Anderson had finished his third film on schedule, spending exactly 22 days shooting at the Tenenbaum house. On one of those days, the director celebrated his 32nd birthday (with a visit by one of his favorite writers, The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross); on another, a soul-food dinner was prepared for the crew by the head of a local block association.

Despite the cavalcade of stars involved (including Danny Glover) and the big-movie budget, Mr. Anderson had still relied on the talents of his hometown friends, from his brother’s drawings to his friend’s eye for locations, to the acting and writing of his old best friends from Texas, Owen and Luke Wilson, to a man named Kumar Pallana, erstwhile proprietor of the Cosmic Cup coffee shop on Oak Lawn Avenue in Dallas (where Mr. Anderson used to hang out), who plays Pagoda, the confidante and personal assistant to Mr. Hackman’s character.

As the last of the props are removed, the house becomes the inspiration of another man: Willie Woods, who will turn his attention again to the house he has been dreaming of. He will move his family in and start making his own stories there-though none is likely to be told on the big screen. But Mr. Woods seemed satisfied with this latest chapter of the house’s history.

“I’m in a scene!” said Mr. Woods. “That is, if it isn’t cut.”