Few filmmakers have a more distinctive take on the world than Wes Anderson. Many of his contemporaries — David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, Spike Jonze, et al. — are extraordinary filmmakers, but it’s only with Anderson that you can look at a single frame — any frame — and instantly know that it’s his. And the same is true of his latest, “Moonrise Kingdom,” which marks his return to live-action filmmaking for the first time in five years.
The film was very well received when it opened the Cannes Film Festival last week (including our A-grade review), and we caught up with Anderson at the fest to talk about the new film, which stars Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Mild spoilers may be ahead, just to warn you, but as the film goes on release this Friday, May 25th, you don’t have long to wait.
Let’s start off the with the music which seems integral here. What does Benjamin Britten’s music evoke for you? How did you find that program conducted by Bernstein?
I’m not sure when I did find that “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.” I feel like my older brother had it when we were kids, I know we had “Peter and the Wolf” and I feel like we had a “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra” as well. We were in a production of “Noah’s Flood,” when I was ten and he was eleven. That Leonard Bernstein version of that with the kid talking really evokes that period for me, and I like that Britten and also Leonard Bernstein were so interested in sharing classical music with children and making a point of it.
Are you an opera buff at all?
Not really, I’m certainly not knowledgeable but I like to go. It’s always a kind of amazing experience to go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but in Paris [where Anderson now lives], it’s the Palais Garnier. It’s an amazing place to go see or listen to something.
This use of music in “Moonrise Kingdom” is refreshing. Was its use of music a means of showing that even the film’s most seemingly unruly characters provide harmony to the group in some way? Do you think that’s always true of characters that self-identify as outsiders?
Well that could be. I like that it’s like the characters are instruments in an orchestra.
Do you consider your role as a director to be more similar to a conductor or a composer?
I think you probably shift into conducting when you finish the script. You’re doing a little composing on your way too. It depends on which part of the metaphor we’re doing, because there’s a degree to which the script can be the score, and then the production of the movie is the performance, but there’s probably another way in which the score is being made all the way through the editing, and the performance is really just you flipping a switch. So there’s composing in all of these different stages of a movie but I think the feeling of it is more like conducting when you’re shooting it.
In the past you’ve said you try not to repeat yourself, but it seems like you’re acknowledging the benefits of your past work with this film. Do you think about crystalizing past themes?
No, it’s not something I think about. I really think about just the world of this movie, and what this one is going to be. That’s what I’m always focused on.
What was the process of writing with Roman Coppola?
Well what happened was I’d been working on the script for about a year, and I only got so far. I had fifteen pages, I had all of these notes and ideas and things, but I couldn’t make it into a story. So then I asked Roman to come help me [Coppola had also co-written “The Darjeeling Limited” with Anderson and Jason Schwartzman], and in a month we made the whole script. So he really helped me figure it out, and figure out how to make it into something chronological. I wanted Roman to be involved with production, but he was working on his own film [the upcoming “A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III“]. But he was crucial to me for the script.
There’s some rough, maybe intentionally crude effects or CGI at one point of the action sequences near the end where a cabin explodes. Tell me about that.
Well, I don’t think it is computer generated, it’s composited though. Maybe it’s something that didn’t get as good as it ought to be to your eyes. There’s are all kind of different effects things. So that’s probably just a bad effect I would say. My thought was that it would be funny if Ed Norton was jumping with Harvey Keitel on his back, something you never could actually do while the tent explodes behind him. Maybe it’s undermined by not looking authentic enough…
Kara Hayward’s young Suzy character reads a lot of these fantasy books with interesting looking book covers. Given that the film is set in 1965, what kind of science-fiction would you say she’s reading?
I was kind of thinking of Madeleine L’Engle, like [the 1960s pre-YA science fantasy novel] “Wrinkle in Time” that sort of thing, young adult. But did you ever read the Susan Cooper books [known for her children’s fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising“]? Well, those were the ones that I was very interested in when I was a kid and I kind of had those in mind too.
This is the third time in your films that a dog has died, is that a thing?
[Laughs] I know we killed one in ‘Royal Tenenbaums.’
Yeah, and in ‘Life Aquatic’?
I know he whacks him, Jeff Goldblum swats at him and the dog certainly has lost a leg by that time, so it’s not like the dog had an easy time of it. but he survives with his life. He also leaves him alive but he gets sort of taken by those the pirates. Will there be a fourth? I’ve written…I have a new script and there’s a dog…there’s at least one dog in the story but there’s no physical harm threatened to it.
I’m really curious about the look of “Moonrise Kingdom,” because it’s sort of earthy but it’s also very refined. What equipment were you using?
Well, the equipment we were using, we used these French 16mm handheld cameras called Aatons. I wanted to be able to go off in the woods with these kids and have a very very small group, and be able to work very freely and quickly and unencumbered, and have them feel like they were really on an adventure together. So we found these cameras that are called A-minimas that Aaton makes. You don’t even put them on your shoulder, you hold them like this in one hand and you look through the lens through the top of the camera. And we got five of them because they’re very difficult to load, it takes time to load, so we had to load them all, and go out and swap them out like a fashion photographer. When someone hands them another camera they start shooting again. So that was kind of a crucial thing for us. There’s certain sequences, like in the center of the movie, where the two kids are dancing on the beach together. That’s only three people on the crew, and a remote spot and it’s using these little cameras. If you hand hold a camera, a normal 35 millimeter movie camera you’re just practically overwhelming a child. But with these you could hold them down at their level, so they were actually ideal for us.
The fiction island in the movie, the Island of New Penzance. A reference to Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “The Pirates of Penzance”?
A little bit, yeah. I was in “Pirates Of Penzance” about the same age as the characters in the film, and my brother and I were also in Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood” and I subsequently became aware of the actual place in England that is Penzance and it’s a sort of summer, seaside destination. So I feel like making our own is making our own New York in ‘Tenenbaums’ or something. But there certainly is a connection to that.
I was just thinking of signifiers and conflating different icons which you do in this movie to some degree. In ‘Royal Tenenbaums’ there’s one where I think there was a Lou Reed and Beatles reference very close to each other but I’m struggling to think of the specific cues.
I know in ‘Tenenbaums,’ we have one where she puts on a record, we finish the song and then we go the next record song on the record because the scene went on too long. When we were in the editing room we were like I guess we’ll have to move onto the next song. We’re like that’s going to cost us about $120,000 dollars because it’s a Rolling Stones song, so to let the record keep playing means you have to buy the other song. But that’s probably not related to what you’re asking about.
I mean the layering of references like the Britten, with the Gilbert and Sullivan, they’re not even from the same period, butt hey all come together in that one specific pot-pourri moment.
Well yeah, the whole crux of doing a movie is mixing things together like that.
“Moonrise Kingdom” opens up in limited release this weekend, on Friday May 25th.- Interview by Simon Abrams.