When Suzy (Kara Hayward), the 12-year-old heroine of Wes Anderson’s marvelous new film Moonrise Kingdom, runs away from home to spend a week camping with her pen pal and potential beau Sam (Jared Gillman), she brings along a battery-powered record player, her kitten, and a big suitcase filled with books (as seen in our exclusive clip below). Their import does not feel accidental (as, indeed, nothing seems accidental in a Wes Anderson film), and although the books are made-up, they echo a specific kind of young adult literature of the 1960s and 1970s, the kind of books E.L. Konigsburg or Virginia Hamilton would write, books where children were the protagonists, but the themes were contemplative and mature. And Moonrise Kingdom is that way too.
“One series that particularly made an impression on me, do you know the Susan Cooper books, The Dark is Rising series?” Anderson asked me, in a recent telephone interview. “The first one is called Over Sea, Under Stone, and then The Dark is Rising, and a whole series, they were great books and they made a huge impression on me. So those in particular I thought of often. Also A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle, those were some of the ones that I drew on.”
As a conversationalist, Anderson is not quite what you’d expect from the precise, controlled aesthetic of his films — his speech is filled with starts and stops, backtracks and sidebars, footnotes and references. His films seem equal parts quotation and confession, and he admits both played a part in the idea that became Moonrise Kingdom. “One place it came from is this Truffaut movie, Small Change, a great movie,” he says, the pleasure of the film vibrating in his voice. “That was the first thought: with that movie, it’s in a world of children, but it’s not really a children’s movie. And that was many years ago, when I started thinking I would like to do a story that had some of those qualities, if I could.” It seems a kind of natural progression for the filmmaker; his last film, the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, was ostensibly a children’s movie, although it was for adults too, and now Moonrise Kingdom is ostensibly about children, but it is as much — if not more — about adults as well.
Anderson had more on his mind, though. “I kind of had the idea of trying to see if I could recreate that feeling of being a fifth grader and falling in love,” he says, “and how powerful that is, and how sort of unexpected, and I remember feeling like my life was something out of a novel, just based on that emotion.” Indeed, Anderson captures the thrill of that flush of first love (or first crush, at the very least) with an honesty and intensity I’ve seldom seen on screen. But there’s another element at play in the film as well, one that spans across his entire body of work: the tricky dynamics of fathers and sons. His previous films have shown us fathers absent (The Life Aquatic), estranged (The Royal Tenenbaums), and flawed (The Darjeeling Limited, Mr. Fox); in both Rushmore and Moonrise, a young male protagonist seeks out a surrogate father who is revealed to be more complex and troubled than he seems.
“It’s not something I really think about in relation to my own life or experience so much,” Anderson says. “One thing I do know, I’ve had a number of friends who are my father’s age, and I still do, in particular directors who I’ve gotten to know. And somehow, that’s always been kind of important to me, or at least it’s something I wanted, at least with these particular people, it’s something I’ve been drawn to. I think there is some connection in that with the kind of relationships that are in my movies.”
Bill Murray, who has appeared in every Anderson film since Rushmore, often ends up playing those father roles, so I asked Anderson about their collaboration — whether he writes roles for his regulars, like Murray and Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, or whether those casting decisions occur later in the process. “Bill I thought of — for instance, when we did The Life Aquatic, that was really written for Bill,” he admits. “Whereas this new movie, I tried not to connect to it to an actor until as late as I could. But it sort of happens automatically — as I’m working on a script, I’m kind of thinking, well how are we gonna make this into a movie? It’s only so long before I’m going to be in the position of having to sort this all out. One of the first thoughts I had was, it might be nice to have Bill and Fran McDormand together, I thought that might be an interesting chemistry.” (It is.)
McDormand is not the only cast member new to the Anderson company this time around; Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are also in the film, in roles (of a police officer and bright-eyed young Scoutmaster, respectively) that seem to both drawn on their established personas and complicate them. Anderson says that’s not something he usually does in casting, but it felt right here. “Bruce was one of the few times where I thought of, what is his movie persona, and how does that relate — because I’m casting Bruce Willis as a policeman, which is not exactly against type. But I did have this thought that Bruce would bring such authenticity to him, you would always believe him as a cop, but this one is a very sad, insecure, lonely policeman, which is not something we particularly associate with him.”
We talked a bit about his process for devising the design elements of his films (“Usually, there’s a certain amount of that that’s in the script, that I try to put in there. I don’t want to weigh down the script with too many detailed descriptions, so sometimes I’ve kept notes on the side”), but I was struck by how even those discussions always wound back to the story and the characters, something that the frequent (and sometimes critical) examinations of his distinctive aesthetic tend to leave out. “I usually have a kind of atmosphere in mind,” he told me, and that sounds right — he’s not making dollhouses, as some have charged, but creating a world where these unique characters can live and breathe and interact. The look may be specific, but the emotions are universal: of getting lost in a good book, of feeling alone in a big and scary world, of wondering what’s out there for you, and of looking someone right in the eye and wanting to know all of their secrets.
Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is out now in limited release. It opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow.