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Love on the Run: Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom

Set in and around a children’s summer camp off the coast of New England in 1965, Wes Anderson’s captivating Moonrise Kingdom is a movie about two 12-year-olds, young lovers who escape the adult world of counselors, parents and social workers to find a few magical moments in the film’s eponymous beachside paradise. A movie about childhood, Moonrise Kingdom is also, more importantly, a movie that feels of childhood. With its evocatively off-scale production design, tempered adult performances and moments of playful abandon, Moonrise Kingdom is stuffed with feelings and visions that, no matter what your age, transport you through time to your own younger days.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is our hero, a precocious orphan camping with his troop of “Khaki Scouts.” Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a France Gall-loving townie misunderstood by her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), is his paramour, and on their trail are a squad of scouts led by troop leader Ward (Edward Norton) as well as the town’s taciturn, straight-arrow police chief (Bruce Willis). There are bolts of lightning, battles with bows and arrows and a giant storm in Moonrise Kingdom, but also tender and sometimes rueful moments with the adults, who realize during the hunt that their children inhabit worlds more imaginative than their own.

To interview Anderson in London, we asked Faber & Faber’s film editor Walter Donahue, who has published the screenplays for The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. —Scott Macaulay


As the editor of the Film List at Faber and Faber, I first met Wes Anderson due to the auspices of Kevin Macdonald, who returned from Los Angeles with the screenplay of Rushmore in his hand, saying that Faber should publish it.

Over the course of the following 15 years, I have met Wes on a number of occasions and have found his comments on cinema illuminating.

After seeing Moonrise Kingdom we sat down to a dinner of ox-cheek pie and honeycomb ice-cream to discuss the film.

Donahue: It’s hard to put my finger on it but it seems that something must have happened when you made Fantastic Mr. Fox because quite early on in Moonrise Kingdom, I felt that the imaginative freedom you had in the animated film blossomed here.

Anderson: Just in terms of the process of doing movies, when we made Mr. Fox, as you always do when you make an animated movie, we began with storyboards. Then you set the voices to them, and you set the music to them, and, basically, you make the whole movie before you shoot it. And we did quite a bit of that with this new, non-animated movie. We had a lot of the same people working on it. So we would say: With this sequence, just so we don’t mess it up, let’s make an animated version of the whole thing. And we did a lot of the movie that way. In fact, we ended up going to the locations, and we used ourselves as stand-ins for the actors, and said, “Let’s pre-shoot this scene and pre-edit it.” Of course, it’s nothing like the movie because it’s not the right people, and there were rarely any props or costumes or anything, but we were able to work out what we needed for the scene. So we were the most prepared on a day-to-day basis that I’ve ever been.

This film was the most under-budgeted of all the movies I’ve done. I mean, we knew it was all we had — it was the most stretched one for the money — but we were OK because everybody was clear: we’re not going to make it if we don’t figure it out 1000 percent, and then everybody’s got to stick to the program. In the end, it worked out fine. So we did use a lot of what we learned from the animated one.

The other thing is that we built more sets. With Fantastic Mr. Fox we built everything because you have no choice. You have to build the room, and you have to build the desk, and you have to build the paper clip if you want one, and I liked that. In that case, you might as well design your own paper clip. So in Moonrise, with the opening sequence in the house, there was no way we could shoot it the way I wanted if it wasn’t built exactly to suit the shots. But I wouldn’t have even thought to do that before I did an animated movie.

Donahue: I remember that American Express commercial you did — it was one long travelling shot.

Anderson: I’m aware of when I started thinking of doing shots in that way. During Rushmore we had a scene that took place on a baseball diamond, and we got there, with the crowds and everything, and it had rained the night before and the field was all mud. Only this little strip of grass on the side was dry. I had had something worked out with a Steadicam and all kinds of stuff, and all that went out the window. So what’re we going to do, what’re we going to do? Maybe we’ll do it all on the little dry bit on the side. So we built this track and shot the scene, and I liked the way it turned out.

Donahue: I remember all that fuss about the camera movement in Taxi Driver — De Niro is on the phone and the camera moves away from him to look down the corridor. People said that the camera isn’t supposed to act so independently.

Anderson: Of course, the camera can leave the characters. Woody Allen does that all the time. He said in a documentary that Gordon Willis said to him that nobody has to be in the shot. You can leave them and then come back.

Donahue: There’s a shot in Moonrise Kingdom when the two kids, Sam and Suzy, are on the beach — it begins with Sam painting and then the camera moves away from him to where Suzy is posing for him on a rock, and then as the camera moves past her toward the sea, Sam comes in from the bottom of the frame. It makes the film 3D, in a way. It’s not a flat surface. It’s a surface that has dimensions to it.

Anderson: I like that. It’s 3D, but no glasses.

Donahue: On the other hand, people might object that the camera is calling attention to itself.

Anderson: Right. I remember reading something Mike Nichols said about show-offy things with the camera. He was talking about Citizen Kane – the most show-offy movie of all time. He said movies want that, movies like it when you try something strange or do something adventurous. Even the very most reserved opposite extreme, like Bresson, he makes something out of the form of it — he makes it aloof with the camera. I think movies tend to respond to a little extra juice. Of course, you have to get it right, but the movie will absorb it, if you see what I mean. It brings an excitement. With Brian De Palma, for example, all the flourishes and bravura — that’s the music we came to listen to.

Donahue: What’s strange is that when you see a film from the ’70s now and notice how Altman used to do those shots that zoomed into scenes — when you see those films, you immediately know they’re from the ’70s.

Anderson: But there’s no one like Altman. There’s no one who dollies and zooms, no one who’s saying: Let’s look over here, we’re going to listen to these guys for a moment, then we’re going to come over here, and then we’ll cut to another one while it’s moving. The camera is like himself thinking, I’m interested in what these actors might do with our scene this time. I used to hate the zooms. In Bottle Rocket there’s not one zoom. We didn’t even change lenses on the whole movie.

Donahue: But your eye doesn’t zoom. I can look at you, then look across the room at the jacket hanging on the peg on the far wall, but I’m not aware of my eye zooming.

Anderson: The eye doesn’t zoom, but your brain does. Your brain will look across the room and see what’s hanging from the peg and focus on it. I remember Tarantino saying: a zoom is analytical. You’re not moving toward it — it’s not movement, it’s study.

Donahue: You’ve spent the day being interviewed about the film — was it OK?

Anderson: Yes, it was fine. With some questions, I don’t know what to say. All you really have to work with is the ideas you come up with. Maybe some people have an endless supply of variations, and they’re just picking and choosing from all their millions of ideas. Bergman never ran out. He never had a gap. Even when he had to leave Sweden for tax reasons, he went and made five films in Germany. But my experience is when I get the idea for a film, the idea of, this will do, this will fill the space, I feel good, we’ve got another thing; I’m lucky enough to come up with one way of doing it. Why’d I do it that way? Because I was lucky enough to think it up. With the help of my collaborators, by the way.

Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom
Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom

Donahue: You’re not thinking in terms of, how will my audience respond?

Anderson: It’s not even close to that. All I’m really thinking is: Can we make this work, can we add something to this to make it better? And it never gets to: who is this working for? Who is this not working for? Or who is going to like this more? It’s never close to contemplating that. Usually it’s: Can we convince ourselves that this is good?

Donahue: It’ll never meet your expectations anyway, so you make it work as best you can. Nicolas Roeg talks about the situation filmmakers often find themselves in: you turn up at a location to shoot a scene — say, a farewell between two lovers on a beach — and it’s raining and the first assistant immediately says, “Let’s go back to the studio and do the weather-cover scenes.” Nic’s impulse has always been to let the circumstances dictate what the scene is like — that even if you imagined the scene in bright sunlight, the rain might bring something unexpected, the woman’s tears might mirror the rain falling around her.

Anderson: Rain, for instance, is one of those things that if you can actually do a scene in the real rain, you’ve just bought something very expensive. Adding rain, bringing in the rain machine, never has the depth of real rain or the kind of light you get with real rain. It’s kind of magical. It’s the same with snow — the whole world is changed.

Donahue: The scene with Sam and Suzy in the rain does have that magical sense that you mention. There’s a mist that comes off the rain that adds to the effect. It gives a sense of magic to their journey.

Anderson: Yes, the camera’s getting drenched, people are scared we’re all going to get struck by lightening, and the wardrobe department tells us these aren’t the wet-weather costumes. We had a different set of outfits for that.

Donahue: When the film was over, most people left while the end credits were rolling, but me and a few others sat there — and suddenly, the boy’s voice comes out in the manner of the Benjamin Britten Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra record — which the boys listen to in the opening sequence of the film — and describes how Alexandre Desplat’s score was built up. Like the end credits of Super 8 when you finally see the film the kids have been making — it was such a delightful surprise. And the dots add just the right note, so to speak…

Anderson: That’s the sound of wood blocks. The dots are an example of a request for something that might have been met with blank stares. We were going through the credits, and I thought maybe I’d like to have some dots at that point. I can understand someone going: “What’re we doing? You want some dots!

Donahue: And they’re the right color.

Anderson: Yes, they are.

Donahue: It seems to me to be your best film. It feels like, whatever you want to say, the technique to say it is at your fingertips. What you want to say and how you want to say. It has a magical feel to it. In fact, when I left the screening room and walked out onto the street, I passed the poster for the stage version of The Wizard of Oz, with the four characters walking up the yellow brick road. There‘s something about the story of Moonrise Kingdom that is very true to the way you are when you’re a kid — not a little kid, but what you’re like when you get to the age where you’re at the cusp between being a kid and being an adult.

But the film isn’t just about the kids at this stage of transition — it’s about their parents as well. The scene between the mother and daughter where the daughter is in the tub, and the scene with the mother and father in the bed — those scenes give the film its sense of maturity.

Anderson: Those are two of my favorite scenes. Both with Fran. You have this person talking and staring up at the ceiling, and then this other person talking and staring up at the ceiling. Bill and Fran really brought it to life.

And anything I hoped that the scene might have, it had — and it had all the things I didn’t even hope it might have.

Donahue: Such a feeling of resignation comes off them — and love. The lines that really rang out were: “We’re all they’ve got,” and, “It’s not enough.” Those lines could have come across with anger, but they didn’t. You can tell that these two people have been together for so long.

Nic Roeg talks about how, when sound came in with The Jazz Singer, it was just at the time that Abel Gance was doing these incredible things visually with Napoleon. And as soon as Al Jolson’s voice rang out, the image was elbowed into a corner and sound dominated storytelling. Since then filmmakers have grappled with whether films should be image-led or dialogue-led, but there’s no reason why images and words can’t work together, and the scene with Bill and Fran in bed is a very good example how words and image can collaborate to produce an emotional effect. To begin with, you have close-ups of the two characters talking, which draws you into what they’re saying, and then you cut to the overhead shot and the audience realises that they’re in separate beds — the image adds a subtext to their chat about legal matters. The image says everything about being in your 50s and still being together.

Throughout the film you manage to make words and image work in tandem.

Anderson: They’re both powerhouse actors. They’re people who you’ve seen do their thing so many times, and you know they’ve got a lot to work with. But, for me, sometimes it makes me a bit timid. In this scene, we had the camera up above them and it’s quiet and dark, and I’m kinda crouched somewhere by the side of the bed, every so often saying something to them, but not having a conversation, just talking to someone in a bed. I’d murmur something and maybe not get much of a reaction, and then I’d say, “But it’s already good, by the way. It’s going great.” And Bill says, “Oh, I’m happy to do this all day.” And Fran says, “Yup, so am I.”

Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom
Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom

Donahue: Actors love those situations where there are not too many words, but what words there are are weighted with meaning.

Anderson: Fran says: “We’re all they’ve got” — and we had three different set-ups; we had cameras above them and sideways. And we did about 40 takes at each angle. There were only 15 lines in the scene, so we had 40 versions of the lines and almost all of them were different — more or less every single one of them was something else. You have two actors who are going to do something different every single line or they’re bored. Tilda Swinton also — she could always do it another way.

Donahue: A real powerhouse.

Anderson: And Bruce Willis is his own powerhouse in a different context. He owns the screen.

Donahue: He must have been pleased to be in a situation where he didn’t have to prove anything.

Anderson: He and I talked about the character a little before shooting, and Bruce laid it out for me very simply: he’s lonely, he’s quiet, and he’s not very smart. And he came in and did that very beautifully.

Donahue: And because Willis achieved that in his performance, you feel, at the end, that his character deserves to be given the boy to look after — it’s better for both of them.

Anderson: Yes. Bruce has that thing a bit like how Hitchcock used to cast guys for what they are in the movies, for how we know them already. And I haven’t really had actors like that before. I have a policeman character here, I think: well, Bruce sure knows how to play that one. You sure believe the guy can carry a badge. At the same time, the character is not particularly like what he ever usually does.

Edward Norton I’ve been hoping to work with for many years. I saw him in Burn This in New York, and I was bowled over by that one. I loved him in Everyone Says I Love You and all his speeches in [The People vs.] Larry Flynt. And recently he is pretty spectacular in Stone. Plus many, many others. Our part was a breeze for him, but he also ended up being practically one of the producers of the movie. He lived in a house with me and Bob Yeoman and Andy [Weisblum], our editor, and Bill Murray, and he did the thing you hope for: he helped me.

Donahue: I grew up spending the summers on the Jersey shore and I remember the end of summer — it’s almost over, we’re all set to go back to school again, just one more week. And that’s when the hurricanes hit — exactly like the last scenes in the film. There was debris everywhere — cabin cruisers thrown up and shattered onto the jetty, the sides of the cottages collapsed and washed away. In a way, the film was a screen through which I was looking back on my past, which is why I had such an emotional response to the film. Film has a way of capturing reality in a way that fiction can’t. But what’s interesting is that in Moonrise Kingdom it became more real because of the bold color scheme.

Anderson: You mean the “not-real.”

Donahue: Yes, nostalgia isn’t the past, it’s the imagining of the past.

Anderson: The nostalgia movie to end all nostalgia movies is Amarcord. As much as Fellini’s conjuring up what he experienced, it’s so unlike what the reality must have been. It looks like a play; the ocean liner seems to be made out of plywood. And that opening with the things moving in the air — puffballs — it’s the most wonderful, bittersweet, nostalgic movie ever about what it was like as the fascists kicked in.

Donahue: I would have thought that the real challenge of the film is seeing the world through the eyes of the two characters who are only 12 years old — they’re not kids, but they’re not adults either.

Anderson: The whole reason for me for doing the film in the first place is the romance between the two 12-year-old characters. That’s what the movie is. Have you seen Melody or Black Jack?

Donahue: No.

Anderson: Those two films were may be my biggest inspirations. Melody (1971) was one of Alan Parker’s first scripts. It was directed by Waris Hussein. Melody is contemporary, whereas Black Jack (1979), directed by Ken Loach, is set in the 18th century in Yorkshire. Another inspiration was L’Enfance Nue (1968), which was Maurice Pialat’s first feature film. It had the same kind of character as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but it was made 10 years later. It’s a great movie and one that very much inspired me.

Donahue: And is it the same as Melody — about two young kids?

Anderson: Melody is a romance about two kids who are very deeply in love, even though they’re just too young, as far as everyone else is concerned. The grown-ups, I mean. But in L’Enfance Nue, he’s on his own. It’s a harder film than Melody, but you really feel connected to this poor guy.

Donahue: Do the films allow the kids’ relationship to succeed, or does society try to separate them?

Anderson: In Melody, they struggle against their parents who are just puzzled. What’s going on here? In Black Jack, they’re struggling against dying, and the girl is being committed to an insane asylum. So it’s a little more direct.

Donahue: Last night I watched Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited to familiarize myself with your world again, and in both films a character asks Jason Schwartzman, “When are you coming home?” In the last few years you’ve been in France, in India and in the Britain of Roald Dahl.

Anderson: When people asked me what I was going to do next, I’d say: “I’m going to make a movie in America.” I hadn’t made a movie in America for years.

Donahue: Moonrise Kingdom does seem to be a culmination of all that you’ve been doing in the past few years, and although Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, I think with this film you truly have come home again.

Anderson: That’s true, but it’s also worth mentioning that we’re having this conversation in Leicester Square!

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