Wes Anderson didn't set out to create one of the year's most talked about short films when he wrote, directed and produced the 13-minute "Hotel Chevalier." Instead, the quirky, creative force behind such films as "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" intended the short as a kind of prequel or "introduction" to his comedic road drama, "The Darjeeling Limited," which lands in theaters Oct. 5.
As he envisaged it, "Chevalier" would play out like a piece of short fiction while "Darjeeling" would unspool like a novel. "I like short stories," Anderson said by phone from Paris. "I like the form. And I liked the idea of a short film as a companion piece to a movie."
In fact, he shot "Chevalier" in late 2005 -- around the time he had begun drafting the "Darjeeling" screenplay with Jason Schwartzman and his cousin Roman Coppola and nearly a year before that movie went into production -- making the shorter film a kind of working draft for the feature.
In both, Schwartzman plays the same lovelorn American abroad character, Jack Whitman. He is the youngest of three estranged brothers who set off on a familial bonding odyssey through India in "Darjeeling" (in which his celluloid siblings are played by Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson). And in "Chevalier," whose action takes place in Paris two weeks before "Darjeeling" unfolds, the character is working through some relationship rough spots with his on-again, off-again girlfriend -- namely, her sexual infidelity and mysterious bruises.
Recalling the low-key esprit de corps that prevailed during production, Anderson likes to emphasize the no-frills approach it took to get the job done. Production consisted of just two actors, a few borrowed props and two days' filming in a hotel room.
"I was financing it myself, so there was no money to raise," said Anderson. "We got a little crew together -- 15 people -- and shot quickly. We dressed it with stuff from my apartment. It was like making a student film."
Of course, not just any student production can land actors such as Oscar nominee Natalie Portman -- doing her first nude love scene for "Chevalier," to the scurrilous delight of fan boys worldwide -- and Schwartzman, the star of Anderson's cultishly popular second feature, "Rushmore." Nor could most student auteurs afford to shoot in expensive Panavision film stock on location in a sumptuous hotel suite in the City of Light. And for that matter, few aspiring Roger Cormans could land such pricey visual touchstones as whimsical handmade luggage by Louis Vuitton and wardrobe courtesy of Marc Jacobs -- especially not for a small passion project shot, essentially, on a whim.
Then there's the film's central talking point. Its passionate hotel sex romp comprises the most steamy scenario ever to appear in Anderson's oeuvre.
His characters have been known for deadpan humor and childlike whimsy but never libidinous overdrive.
Anderson contacted Portman after getting her e-mail address from "Darjeeling" producer Scott Rudin. The director says she was well aware that she'd be taking it all off for the small part but stipulated only one script change.
"Smoking. She didn't want to smoke," he remembered. That's why, in the final scene, "we changed it to Jason giving her a toothpick. I think it's better."
Taken strictly as a promotional stunt, Portman's part in the five-minute love scene, which, for the record, is handled with admirable restraint, has worked gangbusters, lighting up the blogosphere and capturing headlines as far away as Azerbaijan.
"Hotel Chevalier" is being shown in conjunction with "Darjeeling" at film festivals -- the Venice Festival earlier this month, the New York Film Festival on Friday and the London Film Festival in November -- before being rolled out digitally. The short will make its public premiere Tuesday at Apple stores in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Then on Wednesday, the film will become available for free download on iTunes (and later on the "Darjeeling" DVD).
And if Anderson has his way, "Hotel Chevalier" will be added to theatrical showings of the feature after it has run for a few weeks.
"We were unsure how this needed to be presented," he said. "We felt they should be connected and searched for how to do that. In the end, I liked the idea that one person could see it in one way, and another could see it in totally another way."