Personal Experience: Set Designing "The Darjeeling Limited"

My friend Mark Friedberg, set-designer for Wes Anderson, sent me his "Personal Experience" story about his work on the film, so I thought I'd share:

The Darjeeling Limited is the second film I have designed for Wes and it is the second film that I have designed in India . 11 years ago my wife, the producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and my son, the 4-month-old infant, Oakley Dean and I set out for Khajarjo and Jaiphur in order to work on Mira Nair's Kama Sutra. The combination of worrying about a small baby, the lack of infrastructure in India and my own cultural deafness made it a very tough experience. I suppose contracting Malaria did not help either. Kama Sutra was the last film my wife and I collaborated on together. The idea of returning had become forbidden territory. Which explains why when Wes invited us to come along on his latest adventure set In India, I was less than enthusiastic. I have rarely been as happy to have been wrong.

Working on a Wes Anderson film is a wild ride. He comes with pretty clear and sometimes intractable ideas of how the film needs to be made and what will be the process of making it. Life Aquatic was a Roman holiday. We were set in an anonymous old world European Capitol and the Mediterranean . We worked ourselves to death but then we went out and ate quite well. We became close. The crew began to resemble Zissou's team. Everyone with a role that was both professional and social. Each with our expertise as well as our emotional quirks. I was a newcomer to the team then but have achieved full membership at this point. Many members are still my closest friends off the set.

Wes's master plan for the Darjeeling experience was a streamlined team living together in Rajasthan, working with an Indian crew and shooting on a moving train on the Indian Railways tracks. We set up shop in Jodhpur and found a Palace cum hotel where the cast and creative team lived together for half a year. Lydia and I had also brought our children now 12 and 7. They quickly became the film's mascots and provided a refreshing release from the self-seriousness of working under strict deadlines in a country and especially a bureaucracy that had little interest in western film or in deadlines in general. After a grueling poker game of a negotiation we were able to secure our train and rail time.

Our workshop was in a primitive warehouse complex in an old train yard in the bustling but simple market city of Jodhpur . We were a mixture of Bombay film construction crew and local Rajasthani artisans with little or no film experience. We hired a band of local laborers who showed up with a few truckloads of bamboo, some rope and plastic tarps. These materials were thrown together and the resulting Gilliganesque structure became the shop. It was built along the tracks in the yard. Wes and I had designed the train to be both a fully functional filming facility as well as highly designed India Touring train. My team and I had who had been working every single day for a few months preparing in Bombay now kicked into 24-hour mode as we waited for the train, we were to renovate to arrive.

I will never forget the evening that the train finally arrived. We had been struggling to come to terms with the Indian Railways. They are one of the world's largest bureaucracies with over 10 million full time employees, and had never had a film ask for the kind of access we needed. Similarly in a typically post colonial and more typically bureaucratic manner, they were loath to establish precedent of any kind. No manager or minister wanted to call any attention to themselves. Wes had refused the traditional approach of building an interior set on a stage and the fate of the film was in the balance. Having intimate insight into the process I can safely say that the film almost didn't happen. Many sleepless nights in the bed of the designer and the producer were had leading up to the beginning of our shooting schedule. On the night the train arrived the entire crew showed up at the shop and cheered. Lydia and I shared a hug that was second only to the ones after my children were born. I can still feel the loving squeezing arms around mine.

Wes's confidence in his own vision is one of his finest qualities. The fact of actually being on the train and actually being in India gives the film its lifeblood. In the heat of the mortal combat some call film making I often find myself wishing he was more flexible but once we arrived and were shooting on the moving train I was sure he was right. To this day I am not sure whether the greater achievement was the train's design or securing the use of the train itself.

Ironically I may have had the best time in India of anyone on the crew. The only exception was my son who mastered rickshaw navigation and became a fixture in the local market. The re-experience of working with Lydia was rejuvenating and added a renewed sense of cooperation to our relationship. I had a great crew, there is now electricity, airlines, cell service and Internet and I left in relative health. In fact the 20 lbs I lost by virtue of the local fare is still there and off of me.

The first time I went to India expecting spiritual enlightenment only to be disillusioned by India 's harsher side and my own inability to embrace its differences. This trip I was much more open and I found the time spend there empowering. The mix of a new world youthful exuberance of a country on the move mixed with the personal un-corporate un-mass produced beauty of traditional handmade craft made me recoil upon reentry to our cooperate mass produced culture. I return to the west with a clear sense that we are need to fight to preserve individual vision and have much to learn from our eastern friends.

Video Below From Production Day 8: A Walking Tour of the Train: Interior