Wes Anderson is the kind of filmmaker whose style you can spot before the opening title sequences, a sign of a truly great filmmaker. He puts the time in, develops ideas from start to finish and ends up creating worlds of wonderment that not only the audience awes over, but his cast and crew as well. Anderson’s imagination has risen to the occasion once again in his latest contribution to cinema.
Easily seen as a creature of habit, when Anderson finds the guy he wants, he hangs on to him. For screenwriter Roman Coppola, who co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited alongside Anderson more than five years ago, their collaborative writing process is not contrived or an exact science. It just sort of happens.
“Even before we worked together on Darjeeling,” said Coppola, “he (Anderson) had a notion of a movie set on an island with some kids. And I remember it was kind of known as ‘the island movie.’”
“The Island Movie” later became arguably Anderson’s most highly received and critically acclaimed film thus far in his career, Moonrise Kingdom, now in theaters. But Moonrise was not the kind of project that involved one solid, agreed upon idea from the get-go. It was a process not only creatively but also conceptually.
Anderson knew first and foremost it was a love story between two 12-year-olds confined to a small island off the shore of New England. But as far as Coppola knew, that was all he had.
“He had given me a few pages,” Coppola continued, “but after a while, there were no more pages that were coming. When we got together, I was asking questions like, ‘This kid you mentioned was out rolling in a canoe escaping the scouts, but what do his parents think?’” In turn, Anderson and Coppola, together, were able to create the characters and story in full.
The kid in the canoe eventually became Sam, an orphaned khaki scout who escapes from his troop to rendezvous with his love, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Much like Sam (Jared Gilman), Suzy is struggling to find childhood happiness, mostly due to her negligent parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Sam, an orphan, and Suzy, a “troubled child,” find one another at a school production of a bizarre interpretation of Noah’s Arc, and after a strictly pen-pal relationship, finally plot their runaway.
With Sam’s khaki scout troop, troop leader Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Suzy’s parents and even Social Services (Tilda Swinton) on their tail, the two lovers find a way to escape to their very own place of bliss. Not exactly your conventional love story, particularly for 12-year-olds. At that age, such passion rarely exists at all, ultimately contributing to the ironic humor of Moonrise, but Sam and Suzy’s adventure is nostalgic in that it recalls the memory of first love for adults.
“It was a memory of fantasy,” said Anderson. “I remember the feeling of love, though.”
For Anderson, he may not have been in love at 12 years old, but it was a still a time he loved.
“One thing I remember from that age is I had a teacher,” said Anderson. “Every week she’d let me put on a play with our class, and that was kind of the thing I loved. She knew it was the one thing I loved, and she sort of used it as a reward for me.”
And, as Coppola said, “It’s not really hard to recall those things (childhood memories) when we’re writing, but how they can be sprinkled in and related to these characters.”
After casual meetings where Coppola and Anderson talked about their own personal stories, characters began to surface and take on life even before the story did.
“When working with Wes,” Coppola added, “there’s a lot of conversation that’s not necessarily writing or talking about the characters of the story, but just talking about experiences. For a good part of the time, we’d just chat about what we had done during that age, and specifically those feelings of falling in love for the first time…it was more about trying to pull those recollections up from memory.”
Once they finalized the last bit of the script, Anderson decided that the next move would be much like the process he used for his last film, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
“We used storyboards,” said Anderson. “We did the type of thing you do in animation.”
Anderson, admittedly not much of a drawer, would sketch out his thoughts, then the images were created by the storyboard artist, scanned and cut together to form a visual strategy scene by scene.
“Then we set the storyboard to the dialogue and music and then everything sort of builds around that,” continued Anderson.
Even after the ideas were solidly executed, there was still the challenge of actually making it all come together the way he had imagined.
“We had many of these scenes carefully planned out, and we had to because there’s no way to shoot some of these shots. The set had to be built to fit the shot,” Anderson explained.
Even though Anderson tends to work with a crew of actors that have now become a list of usual suspects (i.e., Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen and Luke Wilson, Anjelica Huston, among others), it does beg the question if the chicken or the egg comes first.
“It’s really a mixture. That’s really been pretty true with the other work we did together,” Coppola said about the creating the characters for specific actors. “But sometimes it’s, ‘Oh! That’s going to be the Bill guy. And that’s going to be the Jason guy.’”
No surprise there, since both Schwartzman and Murray have each worked with Anderson for at least four films each. For the rest?
“In other cases, it’s a bit more open,” continued Coppola. “And that’s kind of a fun process [for us]. After the writing ends, and you’re just kind of hanging out having dinner or whatever and it’s like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if Bruce Willis would play that….’ There is sort of a game for casting.”
Perhaps it’s hard to imagine Willis as the lonely, balding and forlorn police officer engaging in an extramarital love affair with Suzy’s haggard mother (McDormand), but he actually nails it, only further demonstrating Anderson’s aptitude for casting beyond the predictable.
“In this movie, very early on, I had Bruce and Fran McDormand in mind,” said Anderson. “Edward Norton is someone I had always hoped to work with for a very long time. I admired him in many films.”
But Anderson is attempting to steer away from choosing actors before the character.
“I’ve been trying to make the characters and delay putting faces to them as long as possible,” he said.
Even so, both methods have seemed to work. But in the case of Moonrise’s main characters, Anderson didn’t have a choice.
Contrary to the past, the two lead characters pretty much had to be no-names. The casting pool for 12-year-olds is pretty shallow, and even so, Anderson wanted first-timers from the get-go to play Suzy and Sam.
“It started for me when my dance teacher told me about an open call that was going on near where I lived,” said Hayward. “So I figured it may be something I try just for fun, so I went, and about a week later they called me and asked if I’d like to meet Wes Anderson.”
Anderson carries a strong reputation and respect in the film industry, but for Hayward and Gilman, it was their first feature film. And, aside from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson doesn’t exactly create movies for the PG crowd, so it wouldn’t be that shocking if the name didn’t ring a bell for the two newbies.
“I had seen The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox,” said Hayward even before Moonrise Kingdom came around. “When I learned that I was going to be working with the man who made these films, it was an absolutely amazing feeling.”
Gilman was also no stranger to the name.
“I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox when it was in theaters,” said Gilman, “and I had heard of his other movies that I wanted to see, but when I heard about the auditions and callbacks, that really helped me get excited because I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s fantastic!”
And the experience for them was nothing less.
Set in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom takes place in a time pre-email, and back when writing letters was really the only option 12-year-olds had to communicate over distance. So Anderson gave Gilman and Hayward a homework assignment.
“One of the things Wes had us do before filming was to write letters to try and get us into character,” said Gilman. “He had us email the letters that you saw in the movie.” But email just wasn’t authentic enough for Anderson. “About halfway through, Wes decided that it would actually be better if we wrote them snail mail instead. It not only helped us get to know each other, but really helped us get into the ’60s vibe.”
Anderson’s close attention to detail exists not only in his characters, but more recognizably in the beautiful worlds he creates in his films: the sets, the costumes, the staging and the art design. There’s no exact science as to how he builds these striking visuals since one doesn’t necessarily come before the other.
“I think it all kind of happens together,” said Anderson when discussing the process. “There are many scenes in the movie that don’t really have dialogue, so it’s really just the images that tell the story anyway. But I think the details of the world it (Moonrise Kingdom) takes place in, that’s something that more develops as the movie goes along. My production designer plays a big role in that, as well as the costume designer.”
One setting in particular is Suzy’s house. It has sort of a whimsical feeling about it, and even though it’s in very few scenes, Anderson thought the location was pivotal to the story. “I want to create a setting that is unfamiliar and a place that the audience has not been before,” said Anderson.
But he was never able to settle on one house among the handful he visited.
“There’s not that much of the movie that takes place in that location,” continued Anderson. “But I thought this is our story, and I wanted it to have a storybook feeling. What we ended up trying was we visited many different possible locations for this house—coast of Georgia, coast of Cornwall—but we ended up building a set that combines details and furniture and paintings from all these different places.”
The sets he ended up building for Moonrise are just as impressive to the cast as the final product is to the audience. And the actors deeply respect Anderson’s ability as a director and visionary.
“I think there’s a similarity between some great directors, especially auteur directors,” said Bob Balaban, who plays the narrator in the film. “Somehow or another, when you see a movie, you feel the presence of the director in a million ways and a very visceral way. And I think in Wes’s case, it’s as true…it’s not just the way they (auteur directors) shoot; it’s that their whole personality ends up being in the movie.”
As a feature-film rookie, Hayward was beyond impressed each day of filming.
“He creates such a vibrant world for his characters,” said Hayward. “Just such an amazing background. And then the characters! He just places them so perfectly and who they are. And there’s always a reason for everything that happens in this film, and I just love to see stories that come alive like that.”
Hayward has set the bar pretty high for her future by kicking off her career with a Wes Anderson movie. Even now she appreciates it more than ever.
“It would be an honor and a blessing to be part of another project that was absolutely as beautiful and fabulous as this one was,” said Hayward.
And that it was. Through each film, Anderson gets better and better, never monotonous and increasingly fantastic. Moonrise Kingdom is perfectly written, combining both comedy and underlying sorrow, excellently casted and, of course, visually unforgettable.
“Wes has a gift,” said Balaban. “And I don’t think you can manufacture it.”
Moonrise Kingdom is now playing at The Landmark and ArcLight Hollywood.
For more information, visit the film’s official website.