DATE December 13, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Wes Anderson discusses his new film "The Royal
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Wes Anderson, is the director and co-writer of "The Royal
Tenenbaums," one of the new films opening for the holidays. Anderson also
made the films "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore."
"The Royal Tenenbaums" is a comedy about a family. Royal Tenenbaum, played by
Gene Hackman, and his wife, Etheline, played by Anjelica Huston, separated
when their children were young. Royal is part-businessman, part-con man. He
runs a lot of emotional swindles on his family. He's never accepted his
adopted daughter as an authentic member of the family.
The three Tenenbaum kids were child geniuses, but when they grew up, they were
each stunted by family disasters and betrayals. The grown-up children are
played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. In this scene, the
father, Royal, is broke. He owes so much money to the luxurious hotel he's
been living in that he's been evicted. Having no place to go, he tries to
return to the Tenenbaum home, where he knows he will not be welcome. So he
needs a scheme. He tells the family he's dying of cancer and wants to
(Soundbite of "The Royal Tenenbaums")
Mr. GENE HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) I've missed the hell out of you, my
darlings. Well, you know, that, though, don't you?
Ms. GWYNETH PALTROW: I hear you're dying.
Mr. HACKMAN: So they tell me.
Ms. HOUSTON: I'm sorry.
Mr. HACKMAN: Well, I've had a good run.
Mr. LUKE WILSON (As Richie): You don't look so sick, Dad.
Mr. HACKMAN: Thank you.
Mr. WILSON: What have you got?
Mr. HACKMAN: I got a pretty bad case of cancer.
Mr. BEN STILLER: (As Chas) (Yawns) How long are you going to last?
Mr. HACKMAN: Not long.
(Soundbite of pages turning)
Mr. STILLER: A month, a year?
Mr. HACKMAN: About six weeks. Let me get to the point. The three of you
and your mother are all I've got, and I love you more than anything.
Mr. STILLER: Ho-ho. Oh.
Mr. HACKMAN: Chas, let me finish here.
(Soundbite of Chas making a noise with his lips)
Mr. HACKMAN: Now I've got six weeks to set things right with you, and I aim
to do it. Will you give me a chance?
Mr. STILLER: No.
Mr. HACKMAN: Do you speak for everyone?
Mr. STILLER: I speak for myself.
Mr. HACKMAN: Well, you've made your views known. Let somebody else do some
of the talking now.
Ms. PALTROW: What do you propose to do?
Mr. HACKMAN: I can't say really. Make up for lost time, I suppose. The
first thing I want to do is take you out to see your grandmother at some
Mr. WILSON: I haven't been out there since I was six.
Ms. PALTROW: I've never been out there at all. I was never invited.
Mr. HACKMAN: Well, she wasn't your real grandmother, and I never knew how
much interest you had, sweetie. Anyway, you're invited now.
Ms. PALTROW: Thanks.
GROSS: Wes Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
You know, dysfunctional family is probably the most common subject now in
contemporary fiction and in a lot of movies. What made you think that you
could take on the subject and still have something else to say? It seems like
so much has already been said.
Mr. WES ANDERSON (Director, "The Royal Tenenbaums"): Yeah. Well, you know,
initially, my writing partner, Owen Wilson, and I--he'd always been
encouraging me to write about my parents' divorce. He always thought there
was something there that would be a good basis for something. And so that's
what I thought we were doing. But the more we worked on the script, the less
it had anything to do with my family or my parents' divorce, and the more it
was sort of invented and the more dysfunctional it became. It kind of just
went off on its own.
So I sort of feel like--as we developed it, we invented a lot of new things
and then it kind of started to find its way back to people that we knew, and
little bits of things from real life. But it was sort of, like, when it
became not about my family, that it started to get really severe.
GROSS: Well, there is a line I particularity liked about divorce in the
movie, when Gene Hackman is explaining to the three children that he and his
wife are separating, that the parents are separating. One of the kids says,
`Daddy, is it our fault?' And he says, `Well, it's true we did have to make
many sacrifices to have you children.'
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, the worse thing. An honest answer is probably a terrible
idea under those situations.
GROSS: Did you pop the question and get an answer like that when your parents
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, that's funny, because that scene--there's a scene where
they're talking to their father about are they going to split up, and that's a
real scene that my--you know, I have two brothers and the three of us had this
conversation with our father. But none of the fathers' answers are anything
like what my father said. Every answer the Gene Hackman character gives is
the truth, which has got to be highly destructive for the children.
GROSS: So your father gave you the right answers.
Mr. ANDERSON: He gave us the right answers, yeah.
GROSS: Each of the children in the Tenenbaum family has a certain look that
they stick with through all or most of the movie. I'd like you to choose a
couple of characters and talk about the look that you gave them and why.
Mr. ANDERSON: Mm-hmm. Well, one thing in the story is that they're all sort
of stuck emotionally in the same place where they were 20 years ago, and
they're also stuck in terms of the clothes that they wear and the way their
rooms look and everything. It's all sort of just cemented in about 1978.
So the tennis player that Luke Wilson plays, Richie, is--you know, he wears a
headband for the whole movie. He always look like he's just about to head out
to the courts even though he hasn't picked up a racket in six years, or
something. And his whole look is sort of modeled on Bjorn Borg in the late
Mr. ANDERSON: And then, you know, Gwyneth Paltrow--her character sort of
wears one of these, like, fourth-grader Lacoste dresses that looks like a big
shirt and a mink coat. I don't know why those go together, but somehow they
seem to--and penny loafers.
And, you know, Ben Stiller goes through the whole movie in a red Adidas
warm-up identical to the ones worn by his two sons. And I think the idea for
that--I was just sort of thinking they could always spot each other in a
crowd. It's, like, for safety purposes. He's obsessed with their safety.
GROSS: Because his wife died in a plane crash.
Mr. ANDERSON: Right.
GROSS: Then there's the boy next door who desperately wants to be part of the
Tenenbaum family, and is always showing up at the door when he is a child.
The grownup version of his character is played by Owen Wilson, who's also your
screen writing partner for the film. Are you familiar with this kind of
character, or is this kind of character based on you? Did you--was there a
family in your life that you really envied because they had such, like, an
interesting house and interesting parents...
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...and creative siblings?
Mr. ANDERSON: You know, very much. I mean, as much as sort of devoted as I
am to my own family, I do remember a series of families over the years that I
was always trying to get myself adopted into because of the things that were
going on in their houses. And that's definitely where this Eli Cash character
that Owen plays comes from.
That's actually a good example of what's invented in the movie and what comes
from real life, and hopefully kind of how we rely on both of those things.
Because the character that he plays is initially this sort of concoction of a
kind of Cormac McCarthy, but it--it would be like Cormac McCarthy if he was
living in New York and going out to cocktail parties every night. And he's a
Western novelist, but I think he wouldn't be very comfortable on horseback,
you know. And I think his fringed leather jackets are custom-made, probably
in LA. But the real kind of heart of that character has to do with him going
up, you know, across the street from this family that he really wanted to be a
part of, and his kind of longing to be one of them.
GROSS: Well, you know, Owen Wilson, who plays this character--he has one
brother who is also starring in your movie, and another brother who also acts.
So they seem like the kind of creative family that the Tenenbaum family is
based on. I think you lived with all the brothers at some point in college or
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Well, you know, we all lived together for years and
years and years when we were trying to get our first movie done, which was
"Bottle Rocket," and then we were making the second movie. And, you know,
Owen and Luke and I were living together up until just, you know, two years
ago or so. So...
GROSS: Did you want to be a part of their family?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I was, so I didn't have to--I joined that one. But, you
know, their family is not much like the Tenenbaums, either. But the four of
us, you know, we're sort of together so much that it just felt like--you know,
I feel the same way about them as I do about my brothers, basically.
And Andrew actually appears in the new--Luke is in the movie and Owen is in
the movie. Andrew Wilson also appears in the movie three times, Owen's older
brother. One of his appearances is his hand, which has a BB imbedded in it.
And one of the stories in the movie is how one of them was shot with a BB gun
early on, and then we see the BB still in his hand 20 years later, which
Andrew has. So it's hard to replace. You know, that's crucial casting.
There aren't that many people who have that BB. So...
GROSS: How did he get a BB in his hand?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, Owen shot him.
GROSS: Oh, Owen shot him?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: Oh. Well, at least it came in handy for your movie.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. No, it came in handy in all kinds of ways.
GROSS: Wes Anderson is my guest. He directed and co-wrote the new movie "The
Now there's three children in this movie. One of them is an adopted daughter,
and she's married to a neurologist who's very much like Oliver Sacks. He has
long, white hair. He writes books of case studies about patients with rare
perceptual and neurological disorders. I think it's just so clever to base a
character on Oliver Sacks. What inspired you to do that?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know--I mean, I love Oliver Sacks. I love his
books. And I also love his--you know, he had a series on PBS, little
documentaries that would sort of profile different case studies that he was
working on. And I've always found him very charming and very peculiar. And
so, you know, he was just someone who I was drawn to. And Bill Murray somehow
seemed like the right guy to play it. You know, he had to grow--so he has a
white beard. So Bill Murray, you know, grew this beard. I think it was one
of the worst experiences of his life. I don't think he likes to wear a beard.
But I do feel like, yeah, he was just the right guy for it. He has a very
nice feeling about him. And...
GROSS: Did you make up the perceptual disorder that the boy he's studying
Mr. ANDERSON: I think--yes. Yes. He's described as having Heinsbergen
syndrome, which basically we just took every possibly perceptual disorder that
we could come up with and threw them all together. So he's color-blind and
he's dyslexic and he has a highly acute sense of hearing. So I don't know
exactly what that adds up to, but...
GROSS: The story of "The Royal Tenenbaums" is set in New York, but it's an
idealized version of the city, and all the landmarks are fake. Instead of the
92nd Street Y, there's the 375th Street Y. I don't even think there is a
375th Street anywhere.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I think that any 375th Street Y would probably be in
GROSS: Right. Right. Why did you want to shoot in New York, but have a kind
of fake version of New York that you are operating with?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, one thing that was--one of the--my sort of
initial thoughts about it--often I'm kind of am thinking about the setting
before much of anything else. And I just had this idea of this sort of
exaggerated version of New York, and I feel like--you know, which is just fun
to make up all the details to the place. But, also, I feel like it sort of
creates a setting where the kind of unusual behavior of the characters can
seem appropriate somehow, because the setting is so exaggerated and is a
little bit unreal.
GROSS: And why did you set your movie in New York?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, because I've always had this sort of semiobsession with
New York, and all the things that I felt like it represented. You know,
having to do--a lot of which came from The New Yorker magazine, which was my
consistent exposure to New York, you know, all through high school. And I
always felt like it seemed like people were up to so many different things
around the city. All these people had their own little projects. And that's
kind of what the movie is partly about, I think. And then I live there now,
so it's--you know, it's kind of a big thing for me.
GROSS: In your movie, "The Royal Tenenbaums," the family lives, well, in this
almost mansion in New York. It's an old building with a turret. I think
you'd call that a turret, the rounded...
Mr. ANDERSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. With a flag on the top.
GROSS: Yeah. Now I read about you as a kid. You used to draw pictures of
dream mansions that you would have liked to live in. How did you get that
sense of place, that sense of interest in mansions?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, for a little while, I wanted to be an
architect. But along with being interested in buildings, I was also, for a
period of time, I'm embarrassed to say that I was obsessed with being rich. I
was interested in limousines and I was interested in mansions and I was
interested in the fanciest restaurants. And it was like a James Bond kind of
thing that I was really drawn to. I wanted to learn how to play baccarat.
And so I think between the ages of about eight and 12 or something, that was
what I was reading about.
GROSS: Did you watch a lot of James Bond films?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I was obsessed with James Bond. Yeah.
GROSS: What was your house like?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, our house--you know, in some ways it--the ways that it
resembles the house in the movie is that I feel like there was always a lot
of, you know, kind of, encouragement to take on personal projects and there
were always people working on their own separate things in the house and
drawings and plays, and things like that. So, you know, that's sort of
connected to the movie, I think, in a way.
GROSS: Well--your mother encouraged you to do that?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. And, also, she was an archaeologist, which is what the
mother is in the movie. So there are some stuff that's kind of connected to
my own family.
GROSS: My guest is Wes Anderson, the director and co-writer of the new film
"The Royal Tenenbaums." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Oh, Tannenbaum")
GROSS: My guest is Wes Anderson. He directed and co-wrote the new film "The
Royal Tenenbaums," a comedy about a family of child geniuses who grow up to be
messed up adults. Anderson also directed and co-wrote "Bottle Rocket" and
The song that really stands out that you used in your previous movie,
"Rushmore," was "Summer Song"...
Mr. ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...by Chad & Jeremy. Talk about how you chose the records that you
use in the background for "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Mr. ANDERSON: Right. Well, for me, the songs are always a part of the
writing process. When we were doing "Rushmore," I had this idea of British
invasion and I just listened to lots of that, and I had some favorites that I
liked. There was a song called "Making Time" by a band called The Creation,
that almost became, like, sort of the theme of the movie, I think, and it sort
of led me into this whole British invasion thing.
And the new movie--I felt like--there was a Nico--a song by Nico--written by
Jackson Browne, but sung by Nico. And there was also this Ravel "String
Quartet in F Major." These two pieces of music I had from the beginning. And
somehow I felt like there was something kind of half-Scott Fitzgerald and
half-Velvet Underground that was going to be the sort of sound of the movie.
And in a way, you know, it almost influenced the way the movie looks, I think,
because when you're outside in the movie, it's a little bit like sort of '70s
New York. There's a lot of graffiti and stuff, and it's kind of like "The
French Connection" or "The Warriors" period of New York. But the inside--the
rooms that are inside feel like maybe they're more like the '30s or something.
I don't know what. So I feel like that sort of came out of the mixture of
And there is something to me sort of New York about a lot of the music, even
though it's--you know, even though there's Beatles and there's Van Morrison,
there's something about the feeling of these songs that makes me think of New
GROSS: I was wondering what was in your parents' record collection when you
were growing up.
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, my dad listened to jazz. He liked Chet Baker and--you
know, he was sort of West Coast jazz. But I don't feel like I was that
influenced by their music.
Mr. ANDERSON: I sort of got--my older brother was more of an influence with
music, because he is more musical than I am. I mean, I can't even tune a
guitar, and he has this perfect pitch. So I always heard what he was
listening to and sort of followed it.
GROSS: What was he listening to when you were in your formative years?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, he was listening to, you know, what was popular then,
you know, like The Police or U2 and that kind of stuff, and Elton John was an
early one that he introduced me to. But he was also listening to classical
music because he was playing the piano. And so I kind of, you know, learned a
little bit about that from him just from being in the next room.
GROSS: You have some great actors in "The Royal Tenenbaums," and Gene
Hackman's at the center of the movie, and he's just so much fun to watch. I
know you worked really hard to convince him to star in the film. What did you
learn about how he works?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I think he's quite different in his approach to a scene
from anybody else I've worked with. There's something about him where he
wants to be--he's very prepared when he arrives to do a scene, but he somehow
manages to make it completely spontaneous as soon as he launches into it. And
I don't think he even really knows what he just did after he finishes a take.
He somehow manages to sort of take all this preparation and then just block it
out and just dive into the scene.
So whenever you're starting a scene with him, there's this real feeling of his
attack to it and this energy that he brings to it. And, really, it's very
different from other actors who I've worked with. Although, a lot of actors,
which I enjoy also, you know, people will want to discuss it and think about
it and want to try some different approaches. He likes to figure it out and
then just launch right into it. And what I really think he likes to do is to
be great on the first take, and just immediately, you know, grab ahold of it.
GROSS: Do you ever run into trouble if somebody else was working slowly to
the good take, and they'd need like six takes, but Hackman wanted to do the
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, the thing with it is, he--as much as he can sometimes
nail it on the first take, he also gets better and he's able to make any
adjustment that you could possibly want. He's completely versatile. So I
think he probably enjoys more if he could just get it right off the bat. But
if there are other people that are figuring other things out, he's not
somebody who loses it over the takes. He absolutely maintains it.
GROSS: It's funny. Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson are in your film, "The Royal
Tenenbaums." At the same time, they're also in this new military action film
"Behind Enemy Lines."
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, which I haven't even gotten to see, because we've been
working on--you know, we're just finishing this movie. But I'm dying to see
it because I like to see the two of them going toe to toe.
Mr. ANDERSON: I know Owen does a lot of running and climbing in the movie.
Mr. ANDERSON: It's the first time that I'll get to see him doing that stuff.
GROSS: Wes Anderson directed and co-wrote the new film comedy "The Royal
Tenenbaums." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard")
Mr. PAUL SIMON: (Singing) Mama Pajama rolled out of bed and she ran to the
police station. When the Papa found out he began to shout, `Who started the
It's against the law. It was against the law. What dear Mama saw, it was
against the law.
GROSS: Coming up, we look at the early use of chemical weapons in World War I
with Eric Croddy, author of the new book "Chemical and Biological Warfare."
And we continue our conversation with Wes Anderson, the director and co-writer
of the new film "The Royal Tenenbaums."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Wes Anderson, director
of the new film "The Royal Tenenbaums," a new comedy about three child
geniuses who have matured into totally messed-up adults. The film stars Ben
Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson as the children. Their separated
parents are played by Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman. Wes Anderson also
directed and co-wrote "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore." His co-writer on each
film has been Owen Wilson, one of the stars of "Bottle Rocket" and "The Royal
There's a TV interviewer who's basically, I think, a Charlie Rose type in your
movie. It's a very small part, and the part is played by the actor Larry
Pine, who's a great actor who was one of the stars of "Vanya on 42nd Street,"
a production of...
Mr. ANDERSON: Louis Malle's.
GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering about using a great actor for such a small
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I just wanted an excuse to get Larry Pine in there. You
know, I've just admired him for a long time, and I did a--we did a TV
commercial together at one point, a Sony commercial that I managed to talk him
GROSS: You directed it?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I've only done one TV commercial, and it was with Larry
Pine and Andrew Wilson; that was the cast. So I had a good time. But--so,
yeah, I mean, in a way I felt guilty because I wanted to have, you know, a
bigger part for him or a fuller part for him. But I also knew he would just
bring something immediately to it, and he sort of nailed it. I also saw him
in a Mike Nichols production of "The Seagull" in Central Park over the summer.
He was great and, I mean, it was such a great production anyway. But Larry
Pine was one of my favorite performances. Did you see it?
GROSS: No. No, I didn't. You've worked with Owen Wilson on your three
movies. He's co-written them and he's starred in two of them. How did you
Mr. ANDERSON: Owen and I met--we went to school together in Austin. And we
had a playwrighting class together. We didn't actually meet in the
playwrighting class. We were in this class together with about five other
people. But we were both the sort of non-participants in the room. Owen
would just sit in the corner reading the newspaper, and I sat in the other
corner. I think I was trying to write something during the class, but neither
of us really quite joined in. But I think we recognized each other as, you
know, kindred spirits or something. And then we met, you know, shortly after
that and I think I met him in the halls. He asked me about which creative
writing class he ought to take, and he acted like we already knew each other,
so I, you know, acted like we already knew each other, too.
GROSS: Has it been interesting to know each other for so long and both end up
with pretty successful careers?
Mr. ANDERSON: You know, I think we've been really lucky to have each other
as we kind of figure out all this movie stuff, because I think it can be
pretty easy to lose your bearings a little bit. And, you know, I feel like
the Coen brothers. Those guys seem so secure in their whole approach movies
and they seem just to bear it like--I feel like the two of them being--going
through all the stuff together have really helped to keep each other quite
focused and sort of on track. And I feel like, you know, I'm glad to have had
Owen and Luke also, and just to sort of guide each other a little bit.
GROSS: Your movie has a kind of generosity of spirit even though it's a
comedy about a dysfunctional family and everybody's totally screwed up.
There's a spirit of forgiveness, finally, in the sense that the good in a
family can really outweigh the bad. Is it as easy for you to feel as generous
in real life, both about family and about people maybe within the family who
you've had to forgive?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I don't feel like I've had--my experiences with the
family are not really like the ones in the movie, so I don't really feel that.
Well, I don't know. I guess everybody has a certain amount of that stuff.
You know, what I feel like is that the movies we make--I'm drawn to some kind
of optimism or something about the characters; I want to have an affection for
the characters. And I also feel like we're drawn to characters that are very
flawed and capable of very questionable behavior. But somehow I always feel
like I don't want to have bad guys, and I don't know exactly how that relates
to how I feel in real life, but--I don't know. That's the kind of movie that
I'm drawn to.
GROSS: Do you have children of your own? Are you married or...
Mr. ANDERSON: No.
GROSS: Would it be an ambition for you to have a family?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. No, I do want to have a family, for sure.
GROSS: I want to ask you something about the pacing of the movie. Early on
in "The Royal Tenenbaums" you're just finding out detail after detail about
each of the children in the family. And there are so many, like, sight gags
and verbal jokes, and it's just one laugh after another. And the plot isn't
necessarily advancing, but the character detail is. And at some point, you're
wondering when is this going to slow down and the real story will evolve, and
at about that point, it slows down and the story evolves. And I'm just
wondering if you could talk a little bit about pacing the film...
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Well...
GROSS: ...and what you had to figure out with that.
Mr. ANDERSON: Right. I was always a little worried because it does--we do
spend quite a bit of time on--basically what happens is we give this whole
story of the family history. Then we introduce each character today; and
there are eight main characters, and we introduce them very--in the bluntest
way you can. We show an image of them with the name of the character and the
name of the actor and we go on to the next one. Then we go to the present.
You know, we revisit each in the present and a narrator kind of walks us
through where they are now. So we end up doing kind of three tours through
all the characters, and it takes up the entire first reel of the movie. And I
was always worried, can we do this, can we spend this much time laying the
groundwork. But I was also worried that if we didn't, it would just be
completely confusing because there's so many characters, and what they're up
to is not really very familiar territory. But we were very conscious of that,
once that was done we needed to get right into the story. It just--may
require some patience.
GROSS: Did you go through it and say, `How many jokes are there? How many
fun things happened in this, like, five-minute interval? Do we need to add
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, how much calculation is there in how many laughs there are?
Mr. ANDERSON: None. But I do feel like there are great directors who do
that. You know, I remember reading an interview with Fred Schepisi...
GROSS: The Australian director?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, a great director who's made many great films. And he
had a chart that he would sort of measure the level of tension and, you know,
he would sort of gauge, you know, how the movie felt at different points and
then try to sort of shape it to what he thought was a more ideal kind of
graph, which was, you know, beyond me to figure out how to do that. But he
clearly knows how to use that.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, of course. Thank you.
GROSS: Wes Anderson directed and co-wrote the new film comedy "The Royal
Tenenbaums." It opens in New York and LA on Friday and in more cities over the
Beginning December 24th, we're going to celebrate the holidays by celebrating
great American music with a weeklong encore presentation of our series on
American popular song. One of the programs will be devoted to songwriter
Hoagy Carmichael. Here's a song he co-wrote with Frank Loesser, "Two Sleepy
People," recorded by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in 1938.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BOB HOPE: (Singing) Here we are, out of cigarettes, holding hands and
yawning. Look how late it gets.
Ms. SHIRLEY ROSS: (Singing) Two sleepy people by dawn's early light, and too
much in love to say good night. Here we are in the cozy chair.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Picking on a wishbone from the Frigidaire. Two sleepy
people with nothing to say.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) And too much in love to break away.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Do you remember the night we used to linger in the hall?
Ms. ROSS: Yeah. Father didn't like you at all.
Mr. HOPE: Whatever happened to him?
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Remember the reason why we married in the fall.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) To rent this little nest and get a bit of rest.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Well, here we are, just about the same, foggy little
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Drowsy little dame. Two sleepy people by dawn's early
light and too much in love to say good night.
Ms. ROSS: Here we are. Gee, don't we look a mess?
Mr. HOPE: Lipstick on my collar.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) And wrinkles in my dress. Two sleepy people by dawn's
early light and too much in love to say good night.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Here we are, crazy in the head. Gee, your eyes are
Ms. ROSS: Yeah.
Mr. HOPE: ...even when they're red.
Ms. ROSS: Hmm.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Two sleepy people who know very well...
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) They're too much in love to break the spell.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Do you remember the night we used to cuddle in the car?
Ms. ROSS: Uh-huh.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing): Watching every last fading star.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) And remember the doctor said your health was under par.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) And you, my little snooks, were ruining your looks.
Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Well, here we are, keeping up the pace.
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Letting each tomorrow slap us in the face.
Mr. HOPE and Ms. ROSS: (Singing) Two sleepy people by dawn's early light
and too much in love to say good night.
GROSS: Bob Hope and Shirley Ross. Coming up, chemical warfare in World War
I. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Eric Croddy discusses chemical weapons used during
World War I
TERRY GROSS, host:
Ever since we discovered anthrax in the mail, Americans have had a new
awareness and heightened fear of the possibility of biological and chemical
attacks. Although it may seem like we're living in a new reality, chemical
warfare played a big part back in World War I. My guest, Eric Croddy, is the
author of the new book, "Chemical and Biological Warfare." He's a senior
research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in
Monterey, California. I asked him to describe the chemical weapons that were
used in World War I.
Mr. ERIC CRODDY (Author, "Chemical and Biological Warfare"): The first major
chemical attack was chlorine in Ieper, Belgium. The German military basically
hauled thousands of chlorine canisters up to the front and all at once opened
them up when the winds were right and allowed a cloud of chlorine gas to drift
towards the allied forces. Chlorine really lost its effectiveness. It's a
choking gas that primarily causes death through asphyxiation. Phosgene was
another gas that was used to a considerable extent. Probably, however, in
many ways a more effective chemical warfare agent when used in large quantity
in 1917 and 1918 was mustard agent. It's not so much because of it lethality
but because it caused so many contamination problems to the enemy--to either
side--that it injured and incapacitated a lot of soldiers. So mustard,
chlorine, phosgene, are really the top in terms of actual battlefield use.
GROSS: Mustard gas is what's called a blister agent, and that means what
exactly? Blisters can be fairly harmless things.
Mr. CRODDY: Well, yes and no. It depends on the size and quantity of
blisters, but also the infections that can occur following injury. In World
War I there wasn't much in the way of antibiotic therapy, so this was a real
concern, is a concern now. But mustard could be lethal, particularly in
larger concentrations when it gets into the upper respiratory tract, and
occasionally, given the rights amounts, can go straight to the lungs and cause
horrific damage. But by and large, you can think of mustard agent as being
one that causes extreme irritation to the tissues, primarily through cell
death down to the DNA level.
GROSS: Were the Germans the only ones to use chemical weapons during World
Mr. CRODDY: No. Germany was really in the best position to use them and to
utilize chemicals because, as even now, Germany then owned a substantial
market share in terms of chemical industry. It's really remarkable how far
advanced Germany was at that time in terms of dye manufacture, pharmaceuticals
and others. That gave them sort of an edge. But Fritz Haber, who was the
father of modern chemical warfare who worked for the German Wermacht, he, too,
realized that, you know, Germany could use chemicals to a great extent and
perhaps improve their chances in the war, but he also told the German
government that, `You'd better end this war quickly because the allies are
gonna catch up.' And so France, Britain and America all sort of cooperated to
develop their own chemical warfare agents to use as they're responding in kind
to how Germany used them on the battlefield. So it really was sort of an arms
race, if you will, in terms of developing chemicals that could be used
effectively in the battlefield.
GROSS: Did France or any other countries end up using chemicals?
Mr. CRODDY: Yes. France and Britain used them to a great extent. The
United States supported--we were latecomers to that war, and we did what we
could, but probably France and Britain were further along much more so in
actual production and also tactics. The United States was sort of a slow
learner, in a lot of ways, into the realm of offensive chemical warfare. Some
American expeditionary forces did actually use some in battle, but it's sort
of few and far between.
GROSS: There were a half million Russian soldiers who were casualties as a
result of chemical weapons during World War I? Do I have that figure right?
Mr. CRODDY: Yes. Russia and the former Soviet Union probably got the worst
of it when it came to chemical warfare in World War I, and this was something
that Solzhenitsyn writes about in November 1916. And in many ways, it helped
to form the military doctrines that were to be later adopted in the Soviet
Union by people such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who actually was the first to
modify chemical warfare into some sort of doctrine. But, yes, the experience
that Russia had was really an object lesson in how, for troops that are
unprepared, chemical warfare can be extremely devastating.
GROSS: So you think part of the reason why the Soviet Union built such an
arsenal of chemical weapons is because they were the victims of it?
Mr. CRODDY: I think that had a lot to do with it, that they had memories of
just how important these agents could be in a battlefield scenario.
GROSS: You open your book with a poem by the British writer Wilfred Owen, and
this is a poem about facing chemical agents in World War I. Would you tell us
why you selected it and then read it to us?
Mr. CRODDY: Well, we excerpted that just because it's a classic and no book
on chemical warfare would be complete without it. It describes in very
accurate and vivid detail, really, the effects of gas not only on the moral
psyche of the soldier but down to its effects on the lungs. And you get
this--with pulmonary fluid being filled up because of the damage to the lungs.
You also get a fair amount of fluid, a frothy, pink, blood-tinged fluid coming
out of the mouth. And so in those days and even now you can refer that to as
a dry-land drowning. The damage to the lung causes someone to basically choke
on your own fluid. And there's not too many other literary devices that one
can find that describes it so well.
GROSS: So Wilfred Owen wrote this poem in 1918. Would you read it to us?
Mr. CRODDY: Certainly. The poem is titled, "Dulce at Decorum est." `Gas,
gas, quick, boys. An ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in
time. But someone still was yelling out and stumbling and floundering like a
man in fire or lime. Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, as
under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless
sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.'
GROSS: Now the clumsy helmets that he refers to--what are they?
Mr. CRODDY: He's fit--he's trying to figure into the manic and frenetic pace
of trying to get your masks or whatever you had...
GROSS: So these were gas masks that they were putting on?
Mr. CRODDY: Probably ensembles, correct. Not only just the actual canister
and mask itself, but if there was other attachments to it, because you'd
probably have to take off your helmet, put on the gas mask. And there was a
lot of different types, some better than others. In the early days, they put
whatever they could find onto cheesecloth and covered their nose and mouths.
Sometimes even urine was used as a means to provide some kind of a chemical
barrier between you and the gas. And, of course, in this particular poem,
there's some points here. Gas, for example, is still in use as a warning.
You know, regardless of what agent is used, you'd yell out, `Gas,' and that
gives all your comrades the heads-up to put on your protective equipment.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Croddy, author of the new book "Chemical and
Biological Warfare." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Eric Croddy, author of the new book, "Chemical and
Biological Warfare." When we left off, we were talking about the use of
chemical weapons in World War I.
So chemical weapons were a very potent weapon in World War I. Were they used
in World War II?
Mr. CRODDY: Only in the Pacific theater. And to this--primarily, the use of
chemical weapons by the Japanese military against the Chinese Go Ming Dong(ph)
and other forces in China proper. There are some reports that perhaps some
Japanese soldiers through cyanide at allied forces in the Pacific war. None
of this has been really confirmed, and certainly didn't some to any great
effect. And the extent to which chemical weapons were used in China, it's
hard to say what overall impact they made, but it was considerable.
GROSS: During World War II, FDR pledged not to use chemical weapons unless
those weapons were used against us first. But in 1942, he did threaten the
Germans, saying that America would use chemical weapons against them if they
used chemical weapons against the Russians. What did we have that we were
threatening them with?
Mr. CRODDY: At that point, the United States had a considerable quantity of
a mustard agent, primarily, plus some other World War I stocks. What we did
not have were some of the newer nerve agents that Germany was developing
almost precisely at that time. In a sense, the threat was--or at least the
implied retaliatory threat was very real, and it certainly was not lost on the
German military. I think Roosevelt was just making sure that Germany
understood that Russia, Britain, the United States were in it together and
that any attack on them was an attack on us.
Now Roosevelt said something similar to the effect that the use of chemical
weapons by Japan against China would also be regarded in similar fashion, but
we never really followed up on that threat. And to a certain degree, modern
Chinese scholars and some of their security apparatus are still a little bit
irked by that, perhaps.
GROSS: Most countries would like to stop the production of chemical or
biological weapons. On the other hand, several countries like the United
States have nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons cause immediate death to the
people nearby and a fast death to the people on the periphery and then a slow
and painful death to many others. And the numbers can be remarkably high in
nuclear war. In your understanding, why are nuclear weapons still acceptable
for some countries like the United States to have, whereas mustard gas or
anthrax are considered unthinkable?
Mr. CRODDY: That's an outstanding question, and I think too few people ask
that. Regardless of what one feels about it, I think it's a fallacy, at least
a scientific one, to ascribe a certain moral outrage of one weapons system,
while allowing another. And the example you mentioned there, for example,
mustard agent, its effects on the body are described as radiomimetic, that is,
it mimics that of radiation, particularly at the level of the DNA and the
destruction it does to cell tissue and with repeated exposures can lead to
cancers. So they're really not very far removed from one another, if you
think about it, if you get right down to how cells are injured and die.
But I think the United States went through the same type of decision-making
when Nixon renounced biological warfare in '69. He and Kissinger sort of
looked at each other and said, `Well, we've got a very powerful nuclear
deterrent. What's the point in missing around in the technology here that
might only be used against us by some other countries? Maybe it's time for us
to take the lead on this and see what we can do to slow it down.' But, yes,
that's a very Machiavellian approach to arms control, if you want to put it
GROSS: Machiavellian in what sense?
Mr. CRODDY: In the sense that giving up a weapons system with a means
towards enhancing your own security advantage. That is, it's not so much of a
morality play as it is to playing for your own set of cards, how are you going
to stay on top of the security game?
GROSS: You study biological and chemical weapons, you know, and how they've
been used and what treaties have been come up with to try to prevent their
use. Do you have nightmares about this stuff?
Mr. CRODDY: Not particularly. I think the nightmares I have, to the extent
that I have them, are about more mundane things, about car accidents, my
brakes not working. And these are the things that really bother me. And I
think, you know, writ large, I think people should be worried about those
things, too, making sure your brakes work and making sure your smoke detector
is still working. These are the types of risks that we really face. Chemical
and biological warfare is still a rather obscure--it's an interesting subject,
but as we try to promote in this book, we want people to understand it and not
GROSS: Well, Eric Croddy, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CRODDY: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Eric Croddy is the author of "Chemical and Biological Warfare." He's a
senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies
in Monterey, California.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This week, HBO began rebroadcasts of its acclaimed series "Six Feet
Under." On the next FRESH AIR, an interview with the show's creator, Alan
Ball. He also wrote the screenplay for the film "American Beauty." I'm Terry
Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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