First Ten Page Breakdown: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Screenplay by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Breakdown by: Megan Tambio

The Royal Tenenbaums is revered as a fan favorite amongst Wes Anderson films for good reason. The traits that both fascinate and frustrate viewers about his directing style (the bone- dry tone juxtaposed by whimsical visuals and often undercut by bleeding heart characters) seep into every scene of the script from the very first page.

Establishing tone and/or genre:

Chas wears a blank expression, Margot looks as if she is about to cry, and Richie has tears all over his face.

MARGOT
Are you getting divorced?

ROYAL
(gently)
At the moment, no. But it doesn’t look good.

RICHIE
Do you still love us?

ROYAL
Of course, I do.

CHAS
(pointedly)
Do you still love Mom?

ROYAL
Very much. But she asked me to leave, and I had to respect her position on the matter.

MARGOT
Was it our fault?

ROYAL
(long pause)
No. Obviously, we had to make certain sacrifices as a result of having children, but no. Lord, no.

RICHIE
Why’d she ask you to leave?

ROYAL
(sadly)
I don’t really know any more. Maybe I wasn’t as true to her as I could’ve been.

CHAS
Well, she says –

ROYAL
Let’s not rehash it, Chassie.

The very first scene is chalk- full of Wes Anderson-isms. Design minutia, dry tone twinged with darkness and punctuated by dark humor. The Tenenbaum family perhaps represents these elements more than any other Wes Anderson character. Still, beneath the artifice The Royal Tenenbaums is ultimately a family drama, and opens appropriately with the first major fracturing of their clan.

The Royal Tenenbaums has the rare kind of script where any of these scenes could easily fit into any of the categories for this breakdown. From the first scene we not only establish the tone and genre, but already get distinct visual set up of character, theme, and plot.

Introducing the main characters:

INT. CHAS’ BEDROOM. DAY.

Chas’ room looks like a businessman’s office, except it is very small and has bunk beds. There is a desk with an Apple II computer and an electric coffee pot on it. There is a water cooler in the corner, with a paper cup dispenser. Chas stands talking on the telephone while Etheline brings in his lunch on a tray.

NARRATOR (V.O.)

Chas Tenenbaum had, since elementary school, taken most of his meals in his room, standing up at his desk with a cup of coffee, to save time. 

On a shelf in an alcove there are ten cages connected together by plastic tubes. White mice with tiny black spots all over them race around outside the cages. Chas feeds one of them a drop of blue liquid from a test tube.

NARRATOR (CONT’D)

In the sixth grade, he went into business, breeding dalmation mice, which he sold to a pet shop in Little Tokyo.

There are twenty-five pinstriped suits in boys’ size twelve and an electric tie rack hanging in the closet. Chas pushes a button on the tie rack and the ties glide along a track.

NARRATOR (CONT’D)

He started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance. There are a small weightlifting bench and punchbag in the corner. There is a set of exercise charts neatly drawn with felt-tip pen tacked on the wall. Chas bench-presses about fifty pounds on a small barbell.

The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps Anderson’s most character-driven film. While the rest of Anderson’s filmography has memorable characters, there is a hyper-attention to detail here that spans beyond the usual set design and style. On page and screen each main character is fully fleshed out to the most minute detail. As always, Anderson and Wilson do a lot within a short amount of time, and within half a page we get a complete snapshot of Chas and the other Tenenbaums.

Clarifying the World of the Story.

Etheline hangs up. There is a schedule of activities — guitar, ballet, yoga, scuba-diving — written on a chalkboard behind her and divided into columns labelled Chas, Richie and Margot. She changes an Italian lesson from 4:30 to 5:30.

NARRATOR (V.O.)
She wrote a book on the subject.

INSERT: A copy of Etheline Tenenbaum’s book, Family of Geniuses. On the dust jacket there is a photograph of the three children conducting a press conference in a room crowded with journalists. It appears to have been published in the late seventies.

CUT TO:

The press conference. Chas points to a reporter.

CHAS

The gentleman in the blue cardigan, please.

REPORTER

Thank you. I have a two-part question.

CHAS

Go ahead.

As with Anderson’s other films, The Royal Tenenbaums adheres to its own, absurdly twee reality. Of course Chas negotiated the purchase of Royal’s summer house, Margot was an award- winning playwright and Richie a professional tennis player before even coming- of- age. Tenenbaums may swing for the fences in its portrait of its titular over-achieving family, but it’s never without specificity to each individual character. Each child’s ‘profession’ plays into their personality and even role within the family- Chas the neurotic, big brother, Margot the silent black sheep, Richie perhaps the most ‘normal’ of the kids.

Introducing Theme.

There is a small stage-set across the room for a play that appears to have taken place on a ship.

CHAS

What’d you think, Dad?

ROYAL

It didn’t seem believable to me.

Chas looks at Margot. She is silent. Royal says to Eli:

ROYAL (CONT’D)

Why are you wearing pajamas? Do you live here?

RICHIE

He has permission to sleep over.

Royal shakes his head.

CHAS

Did you think the characters were –

ROYAL

What characters? It was just a bunch of little kids dressed in animal costumes.

MARGOT

Goodnight, everyone.

Margot quickly collects her unopened presents from the table. She puts Royal’s aside and sets it in front of him.

ROYAL

Sweetie. Don’t get mad. That’s just one man’s opinion.

The lights go down. Royal looks across the room. Etheline stands in the doorway with a birthday cake on a tray. The candles are lit. She looks furious. Pagoda stands at the light switch. Everyone begins to sing “Happy Birthday.” Margot walks out of the room, and the singing disintegrates.

NARRATOR

He had not been invited to any of their parties since.

That being said, despite the prominent place of the family’s improbable gifts, the film is ultimately about the internal dynamics that plague them. Chas’ need for control, Margot’s seclusion, Richie’s innocence, Ethleine’s long suffering and Royal’s selfishness are what ultimately drive the story.

Illustrating the intent of the story.

NARRATOR (V.O.)

In fact, virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster. 

Spoiler alert: the events of the story are driven by the tumultuous nature of the Tennenbaum family’s relationships. All the talent in the world can’t change Royal’s cavalier nature to even his own children. And all the talent in the world will not leave Chas, Margot and Richie unscathed by their father or the world that surrounds him. In a way that harkens to many of our own daily lives, the film in large part is about examining how each individual copes with both their internal state and their strained familial relations in order to arrive at something that loosely resembles a happy ending.


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