For someone with a reputation for being one of the most exacting, detail-oriented and decisive directors of his generation, Wes Anderson spends a surprising amount of time second-guessing himself.
When the writer-director’s new film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” screened to a rapturous reception from critics, Anderson shared an anecdote about the the real-life roots of the film’s story, about two quirky 12-year-olds who decide to run away together as the summer of 1965 comes to an end.
In the movie, one of the children, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), finds a pamphlet titled “Coping With the Very Troubled Child” in the home she shares with her parents and three brothers. That episode, Anderson revealed in a news conference, was the only one in “Moonrise Kingdom” inspired by autobiography. (Anderson, 43, grew up in Houston, as one of three brothers.)
“I did find the pamphlet on the refrigerator,” Anderson recalled. “I wasn’t the only child in the house, but I knew which one was the very troubled child. I think if my brothers had found it, they would not have looked to themselves.”
A few days later, Anderson was suffering a case of sharer’s remorse. “I don’t even know if it was read, I just happened to discover it,” he said in an effort to refine, if not correct, the record. Anderson, a famously natty dresser, wears a flawlessly cut cream suit (a tad too small, the way he likes it), lightly checked shirt, maroon-striped tie and hotel slippers for the interview, which he conducted in a room that “Moonrise Kingdom” co-star Bill Murray had recently vacated. “You’d be surprised how many people asked me about [the pamphlet]. My dad is going to be annoyed.
“No, he’s not going to care,” Anderson said in yet another switchback. He searched for the right words, stammering slightly. “I just don’t want to have told something too personal.”
This tension — between disclosure and defensiveness, intimacy and distance, honesty and artifice — could be said to animate all of Anderson’s work, which, since his smashing debut in 1996 with “Bottle Rocket,” has become one of the few genuinely distinctive oeuvres in American filmmaking. In his subsequent films — “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and now ”Moonrise Kingdom” — Anderson has carved out a singular style involving lovingly composed production designs, carefully curated soundtracks, archly witty plots (often involving eccentric families) and characters that are inevitably described as “quirky.”
He’s also assembled a repertory company of actors that Orson Welles would envy, including the notoriously choosy Murray, as well as Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston and Owen and Luke Wilson, whom he’s known since his days with Owen when they were students at the University of Texas in Austin.
Both Murray and Schwartzman are on hand in “Moonrise Kingdom,” which also stars Anderson newcomers Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jared Gilman, who plays young Sam Shakusky, the love-struck kid who escapes from Khaki Scout camp to save Suzy from her indifferent family. (Both Hayward and Gilman are making their big-screen debuts in the film.)
Like all of Anderson’s movies, “Moonrise Kingdom” possesses the bespoke, even fetishistic attention to textures and colors and nostalgic signifiers that make him beloved by his fans and dismissed as precious by his severest critics. The only word more inevitable than “quirky” in a Wes Anderson movie review is the word “twee,” a descriptor that the director admitted he’s “not ecstatic about.”
Because he comes to the set with such a strong visual style in place for his movies, it’s somewhat surprising that Anderson is a director with whom actors clamor to work; such a tight, all-encompassing focus on visuals can often overwhelm the subtleties of performance. But Norton was just the latest to leap at the chance.
“There’s freedom in bondage,” said the actor, who plays Sam’s Khaki Scout master in the film. “What might look like a very managed environment is actually providing an actor with a lot of rich fodder to interact with. . . . None of Wes’s characters are anything less than urgently sincere about what they’re doing and their intentions. And that’s the easiest thing in the world to play, because he constructs characters who are deeply earnest and sincere in their intentions. . . . Wes draws a really well-defined path towards the main thing that you need [as an actor], which is: What does this person want, what do they care about, what are they trying to do?”
Anderson admitted that “in most of the movies I’ve done, you’d be hard-pressed to find a plot. There was an attempt at a plot, there are key events, usually it does have some kind of structure, I just don’t know if it’s exactly dramatic structure.” Instead, Anderson creates worlds — and characters who populate them — in which viewers can sink into an alternative universe where homes are cozily stuffed with idiosyncratic gewgaws and furbelows, where a mom played by McDormand can communicate with her far-ranging children by way of a megaphone and where life has the operatic richness of the Benjamin Britten opera “Noye’s Fludde,” which serves as the musical leitmotif for “Moonrise Kingdom.”
“When I try to write a script, I draw on anything I can get my hands on,” Anderson said of his inspirations, noting that he always begins with the characters’ dialogue so he can get a sense of their voices. “Usually I have some very vague idea of what the movie is supposed to be, and then I’m thinking, ‘I’ve always wanted to use this thing from something somebody else has told me, and this thing from a book I read 15 years ago.’ ” In the case of “Moonrise Kingdom,” those cues came not just from Britten (in whose “Noye’s Fludde” Anderson performed when he was young), but also from the children’s fantasy author Susan Cooper and the artist Norman Rockwell, whose idealized vision of America was on the verge of disappearing in 1965, when the story is set.
Anderson, who had been working on the “Moonrise Kingdom” script for several years until co-writer Roman Coppola finally wheedled it out of him with goading phone calls and a month of concentrated work, also watched other movies having to do with young love: Ken Loach’s “Black Jack,” Francois Truffaut’s “Small Change,” George Roy Hill’s “A Little Romance” and an obscure 1971 film called “Melody.” But Anderson’s greatest influences have always been Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the filmmakers behind such pictorially rich productions as “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus,” and whose devotion to artifice Anderson shares, at a time when spontaneity and naturalism define the vernacular of the indie world he works in.
“There’s something very exciting about what they made in front of the camera,” Anderson said of Powell and Pressburger. Noting that “Black Narcissus” took place in the Himalayas but was filmed almost entirely on a set in England, he said: “You were really transported to that place, but you [also felt] someone had made these things. And they’re very emotional, moving films.”
The same has already been said of “Moonrise Kingdom,” which was the opening-night film at Cannes. (The film subsequently opened in New York and Los Angeles last weekend, setting box office records for the best-ever opening of a live-action film.) Unbelievably, “Moonrise Kingdom” was Anderson’s first film to be invited to Cannes, a wrong that Norton, for one, was glad to see rectified. “It’s about time,” he said, adding that Anderson should have had five or six movies at Cannes by now. “It’s good that they finally got with the program and acknowledged one of my generation’s really great auteur filmmakers.”
opened Friday at area theaters.