Wes Anderson, Creating A Singular 'Kingdom'

Originally published on February 19, 2013 10:38 am

This interview was originally broadcast on May 29, 2012.

Director Wes Anderson has many credits to his name — The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Bottle Rocket and Fantastic Mr. Fox among them — but Moonrise Kingdom was his first film to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton, the quirky independent picture tells the story of a 12-year-old girl and boy who fall in love and then make a pact to run off into the woods together.

Anderson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the movie, set on a remote (and fictional) island off the coast of New England, is what he calls "a memory of a fantasy."

"I remember the emotion of feeling like I was falling in love at that age, and how powerful it was and sudden and inexplicable," he says. "And nothing happened in my case, but I think it's a fantasy I would have had at that age — would have envisioned. ... These two characters are hit by a thunderbolt and determined to act on it."

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, who play the preteens Suzy and Sam, were cast after an extensive search, says Anderson.

"My experience with casting children is that ... the whole movie is going to rest on their shoulders, so you have to set aside time and wait for the perfect people to appear," he says. "After we saw [Kara and Jared], we shut down the search, and they're the ones who are in the movie. And they define the characters more than the script does, I think."

In the script, Sam and Suzy are separated by distance — Suzy is at home in her beach house, and Sam is away at scout camp — so they must traverse the woods to eventually find each other.

Anderson himself was a scout for a short time as a child. He drew on those experiences while crafting the plot of Moonrise Kingdom, which stars Willis as a sheriff, Frances McDormand and Murray as absent-minded parents, and Norton as a hapless scoutmaster in charge of finding his missing camper.

"Edward Norton was someone who I corresponded with over the years, and he was somebody who I thought of as a scoutmaster," says Anderson. "He looks like he has been painted by Norman Rockwell."

Anderson says he drew on Rockwell, as well as his other films, while designing how Moonrise Kingdom would look.

"I have a way of filming things and staging them and designing sets," he says. "There were times when I thought I should change my approach, but in fact, this is what I like to do. It's sort of like my handwriting as a movie director. And somewhere along the way, I think I've made the decision: I'm going to write in my own handwriting. That's just sort of my way."

Interview Highlights

On theater

"I have always wanted to work in the theater. I've always felt the glamour of being backstage and that excitement, but I've never actually done it — not since I was in 5th grade, really. But I've had many plays in my films. I feel like maybe theater is a part of my movie work."

On Suzy's house in the movie

"We took details from all of these [houses] that we had visited, and then we made the place in a Linens 'N' Things outside of Newport, R.I. There's not much that takes place in the house, but there are key scenes in the beginning, and it was all constructed to the shots."

On what he tells his actors

"I usually just want them to be as authentic and natural as possible, but I'm oftentimes giving them a scene that is nothing like they would have said it. Usually what's written is a bit odd. It's not my intention that it be odd. But what interests me as a writer is a sentence that's got a surprise in the way it's put together. And so usually I think they're doing something that doesn't feel perfectly natural to them, and then it's combined with the visuals and the movements that I'm drawn to. ... When I see the first dailies on any movie, I usually feel that I had no idea how this combination of ingredients was going to mix together, what it was going to produce."

On casting Bruce Willis as a sheriff

"We had this policeman who is lonely and insecure, and yet, when I was thinking about who could play this, I wanted somebody where, as you got to know his personality and see what a sad character he was, you would get that thing that you sort of get with real police. You can tell when somebody's a cop. There is something that's often projected from an actual policeman, and Bruce Willis has this cop authority, where even if he's playing something away from what he normally plays, you would never question whether Bruce Willis is the police."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.


BRUCE WILLIS: (as Captain Sharp) All right. We know they're together. We know they're within a certain radius of this spot. I'm declaring a case with the county right now. Until help arrives, I'm deputizing the little guy, the skinny one, and the boy with the patch on his eye to come with me in the station wagon. Randy, you drop in and head upriver with the rest of your troops and split up on foot. Becky, call Jed, tell him to circle over this end of the island and fly low.

BIANCULLI: That's Bruce Willis as a lonely cop in a small town organizing a search party for a 12-year-old boy who's run away from scouting camp with a 12-year-old girl. It's a scene from "Moonrise Kingdom," which is nominated for an Academy award in the Best Original Screenplay category. It was directed by our next guest, Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roman Coppola. Anderson also made the films "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Terry spoke with Wes Anderson last year.

"Moonrise Kingdom" is about 12-year-old Sam and Suzy, who feel fated to be together the moment they meet. They make a pact to run off together. He runs away from the Khaki Scouts Camp Ivanhoe. She runs away from her home, where her parents - played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand - seem to have stopped caring about each other.

Just as Sam and Suzy want to create their own world on their New England island, Wes Anderson creates his own world in the film. The movie looks like a hand-painted storybook with real actors. The music is an integral part of the storytelling. Sam and Suzy meet at a rehearsal for a church production of Benjamin Britten's opera "Noah's Flood." The opera will figure into the story again later, and a real storm is on the way. Here's a passage from "Noah's Flood."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Noah) Forty days and 40 nights, rain shall fall for their unrights; And that I have made through my mights. Now think I to destroy. Have done, you men and women all. Hie you lest this water fall, that each beast were in his stall, and into the ship brought. The flood is nigh, well may we see; therefore tarry you nought. Tarry you not. Tarry you, tarry you not. Tarry not.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as character) : (Singing) Sir, here are lion Kopards in, horses, mares, pawn; and swine; Goats, calves, sheep, and kine, here sitten tho may see.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as character) (Singing) Kyrie, kyrie eleison. Kyrie, kyrie eleison. Kyrie, kyrie, kyrie eleison.


Wes Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, I've read that the first germ of the idea for "Moonrise Kingdom" was in the recording of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," which translates to "Noah's Flood." What's the connection between this music and the concept of "Moonrise Kingdom"?

WES ANDERSON: Well, I don't know Benjamin Britten's work that well, but I have always had a particular affection for it, because this play, "Noye's Fludde," or however you say it, he wrote to be performed by mostly amateur church groups, with a couple of professionals thrown into the mix. And it's meant to be performed in churches, rather than auditoriums or opera houses or anything else. So anyway, I was in a production of it, along with my older brother, when I was 10 or 11 years old.

GROSS: Yes. And it's introducing - in your movie, it's like this music is introducing the children to the repertoire of classical music, but it's also, like, a metaphor for introducing children to adult life, to the larger world, which is kind of what your movie's about.

You know, the movie - there's two 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy who meet and bond in the dressing room while preparing for a performance of "Noah's Flood." And like a lot of lovers in movies, they seem to know that they're fated to meet. But it's not Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It's, like, two 12-year-olds. How did you get the idea of two 12-year-olds falling in love in this fated-to-meet kind of way?

ANDERSON: Well, I remember - you know, someone asked me in the past week, in Cannes - I don't - I can't even remember who it was that asked me this, a reporter. I wish I had noted him, because he asked me something that made me kind of realize what I had wanted to do. He asked if the movie was a memory of a fantasy.

At first I wasn't quite sure what that meant. Then I realized that that is sort of exactly what the movie is. It's - I remember the emotion of feeling like I was falling in love at that age, 12 years old, and how powerful it was and sudden, and kind of inexplicable. And yet in this - you know, I - nothing happened in my case.

But the - so the fantasy - so I think it's a fantasy that I would have had at that age, would have envisioned. And these two characters, they are hit by the same sort of thunderbolt but they're determined to act on it and see it through.

GROSS: Who did you fall in love with?

ANDERSON: I don't know if I want to even say the name, because it's a, you know, a real person who very likely won't be listening to this, but maybe would be. You know, a girl two rows over and three seats up who was in my class for years, and I never really had much of a conversation with her.

GROSS: You know, in a lot of romantic movies you know who's going to fall in love 'cause it's the most beautiful actress and the most handsome actor. And because they both look the best, they're the ones who are going to fall in love. But in this case it's like a 12-year-old girl is like taller than the boy is, she looks older than he does, and that so often the way it is when you're that age. I mean I remember when I was that age, so many of the girls I knew had, like, you know, boyfriends who were, like, shorter than they were, you know. And that never happened to me 'cause I'm so short it would be hard to be shorter than I am. But, so you were comfortable with that 'cause that's how it often is at that age, right?

ANDERSON: Well, yeah. Well, in fact, we had, in the script we had described her being slightly taller than he is. And we had written her character to be a bit more grown-up than the boy. But she was - first, she is, she was taller than him, now he's actually gone past her. But she was those things. So the way we had written it is reflected in her, but the specifics of it really ended up being her version of that. The way they were as actors when they had to kind of become professionals, you know, leave their middle schools and, you know, become like adults, and she was very ready for that and he was into it but with a great childlike enthusiasm, whereas she sort of became a professional actress right in front of our eyes in within a, you know, within the first days of the movie.

GROSS: After the to 12-year-olds fall in love they decide to - they make a pact to run away together. And for him that means running away from Khaki Scout Camp, which is the movie's version of Boy Scout camp. And for her and means running away from home, from her parents and siblings. So he takes with him his scouting gear and they're going to be running away basically into the woods on an island. And she takes with her a yellow suitcase, a basket with her kitten in it, a portable battery-operated record player, her favorite record, binoculars, lucky scissors, a toothbrush, storybooks, a kind of unrealistic set of things to run away into the woods with.


GROSS: How did you pack for her?

ANDERSON: Yes. Interesting. Yes. At one point they actually take an inventory in front of us so you can see all the ingredients. Yeah. You know, in fact, I remember that we were, we, Roman and I were working and we sort of said I think she's got a suitcase. Let's figure out what's in it. And we decided what is in it is - the thing we thought about her character is that she is a big reader and we were seeing a certain kind of 12-year-old girl we felt we had known. And so we decided to fill it with library books, which end up being stolen, you know, she's stolen library books. But we then made the books. You know, I sort of wrote a little paragraph of text that from each book because she reads them and then we had different artists draw the covers and we sort of invented this little series of books that she's caring around. And over the course of that I sort of started thinking that the movie ought to feel like it could be in that suitcase and could be one of these young adult fantasy books.

It's not, the magic in them, you know, the movie doesn't have actual magic the way the books do, but the atmosphere of it we started feeling like ought to be like that and it kind of, you know, sort of set the tone for the whole thing, I think.

GROSS: So the boy is in Scouts camp, and it's that part of the movie is almost like a kid cavalry movie. It seems to me it was almost it was like a John Wayne cavalry movie but it was all like children and Scout camp, instead of like men in the cavalry. It might look something like that.


ANDERSON: Yes. Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: Were you thinking of those movies?

ANDERSON: Yeah. In fact I looked, there's one "Fort Apache." There's a scene where one of the little Scouts scolds the rest of the troop and then tries to rally them around the underdog who needs their help. We're not the first to play that scene. We just happen to have a particularly young, you know, soldier who's playing it.

GROSS: But why did you want to draw on that for the film?

ANDERSON: I had this idea that maybe we would be doing a sort of Norman Rockwell version of America. That we would, that at least the surfaces might be sort of like that and that's part of why I thought Edward Norton, you know, Edward Norton is someone who I kind of corresponded with over the years and wanted to work with, and I thought he might be a kind of great scoutmaster. He looks like he has been painted by Norman Rockwell. Yeah, there's something that, something about that that felt interesting to me.

GROSS: It's funny you should mention Norman Rockwell in the sense that there are scenes that look explicitly two dimensional. I mean I think filmmakers are always trying to get their movies to look like 3-D even if they're not actually high-tech 3-D movies. But there's times when you seemed to really be going for a storybook illustrated two dimensional look. Flat.

ANDERSON: Yes. Flat. Yes. Well, you know, in this movie I was deliberately wanting to make it feel like a sort of fable and something in the visuals I did, you know, I did want to have a sort of storybook feeling. But I also think - I have always wanted to work in the theater but I've never actually done it, not since I was in fifth grade. But I've had many plays in my films. In this new one there's a theatrical presentation in the middle of the movie. Maybe theater is a part of my movie work and that is part of what I think you're describing, is something to do with that, wherever it comes from.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He directed and co-wrote the film "Moonrise Kingdom," which is up for an Oscar for best original screenplay.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with filmmaker Wes Anderson. His movie "Moonrise Kingdom," which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

GROSS: So watching "Moonrise Kingdom," I kept thinking you must've learned so much doing "Fantastic Mister Fox," which is stop motion animation, because there are so many things in "Moonrise Kingdom" that are life-size but look like miniatures, like the kind of thing you have to do for the stop-motion animation in "Mr. Fox." And there is that kind of storybook look to it. And even, like the houses that are actual full-scale and you couldn't have made out of cardboard, they're painted as if they were maybe made out of cardboard.



GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about creating like an adult-size storybook look?

ANDERSON: Yes. Yes. You know, I loved doing "Fantastic Mr. Fox." And it was a very long process and it sort of just took over my whole life for a few years. And when you're making an animated film, you have to - you have no choice but to build everything. If you want a pencil in the scene or a cup of coffee, or if you want a tree or grass, you have to make it and somebody's going to choose how it's made. And so you have the opportunity to design everything, you know, including the clouds.

So after spending all this time doing "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and enjoying it very much, when I started this movie I planned it and sort of executed the planning process for many of the scenes in the same way we had on the animated movie, which I had not done before, and I also built more sets. You know, we, the house where the girl in the story lives, we went to a house in Cumberland Island in Georgia and we went to a house in the Thousand Islands on the border between New York and Canada, and we went to various houses around New England. But we ended up ultimately, the way I had planned the thing and wanted to shoot it, the only way to really do the same the way I envisioned it was to build it. You couldn't shoot it that way otherwise. So we took details from all of these places and, in fact, we even got paintings and furniture and things from these places we had found over the course of this process and we made the place in a Linens N' Things outside of Newport, Rhode Island, and that's something I just would not have done. There's not much that takes place in the house, but it's some key scenes especially the beginning, and it was all constructed to the shots.

GROSS: In that opening scene there's a tracking shot of every room in the house, so in order to do that that house has to not have a wall so that you can...

ANDERSON: Exactly. Yes.

GROSS: ...can see from outside into the house. So I could see how I guess you would have to have built it since houses have walls.

ANDERSON: Either you build it, or you buy the place and chop it in half.

GROSS: So you said something about a Linens N' Things?

ANDERSON: Yes. Our sound stage was a Linens N' Things, an abandoned Linens N' Things, a former Linens N' Things. The Petco next door was still operational, but the Linens N' Things was us.

GROSS: The film opens with this beautiful tracking shot showing, you know, all the rooms in the house and all the people in the rooms. So you get an overview of the family and the house and the look of the movie. You love those tracking shots and you are so good at choreographing them.

There are some shots in the movie that are so perfectly synchronized, where things are moving in and out of the frame at exactly the right time. First, I'd like to know why you love that kind of shot so much, that kind of shot that you've become famous for.

ANDERSON: Well, I have always been drawn to long takes in films. You know, I like the experience of seeing the actors play the scene through, and maybe that's like the theater a bit - not having cuts. There's something - it gives a tension, and for me, a kind of excitement.

I don't know if this - I don't know if this could be considered a positive thing or not, but I like having a cast do something difficult in a shot. I enjoy it when there's a challenging blocking and, you know, actors that I've worked with, like Jason Schwartzman, for instance, who's worked with me for a long time, or Bill Murray, these guys are - they've done lots of shots like that with me and it's fun.

Gene Hackman, when we did "The Royal Tenenbaums," he was happiest when he was doing a hard shot, because he's such a good actor, he can do anything. And he sort of likes a chance to, you know, stretch his legs and say we've got to do this all in one, and there's a lot that has to happen exactly right.

GROSS: I love the casting in "Moonrise Kingdom." And one of the really interesting choices you made is to cast Bruce Willis, who usually plays this kind of, you know, tough guy, superhero, I can do anything, I can blow up anything, I'm invincible, I can shoot anybody, nobody is going to shoot me kind of guy.


GROSS: And in this, he's just this melancholy, small-town sheriff who is, you know, trying to be responsible, is kind of helpless about a lot of things. It's really casting against type. It's a really nice performance. Why did you think of him?

ANDERSON: Well, I thought of him because I, you know, I mean, we had this policeman who is so kind of lonely and insecure, and yet when I was thinking about, well, who could play this, I was kind of picturing - I wanted somebody where, as you got to know his personality and could see how sort of what a sad character he was, you would still get that thing that you sort of get with real police.

Which is you can tell when somebody's a cop. I mean, I don't know if I can always tell if somebody's a cop. But there is something that is kind of often projected from an actual policeman, from what they do every day. And Bruce Willis has this sort of cop authority that even if he's playing something that's so against what he normally plays, you still would never question whether Bruce Willis is the police.

I mean, he's been the police so many times and has done it very believably. So I sort of thought - I don't normally really think about somebody's persona in other movies in relation to what I want to do. Usually, I mean, I've watched their performance to see what I - you know, I've loved all these actors' work in movies. But in this case, I did feel like we were sort of using a bit of Bruce's whole, you know, movie persona against this role.

GROSS: Did you have to talk him into it, or was he onboard immediately?

ANDERSON: He was very - that's a nice thing and that's a kind of rare thing with actors. I've always felt one of the best ways to get an actor to not be interested in your movie is to offer them the role. That usually - the first thing that you get when you offer somebody a part is for them to start second-guessing it. Better if their agent says, you know, you should read this. I mean, if we could get you in on this thing.

But in the case of Bruce, he read it and instantly, I mean, he immediately got back to me, you know, within a couple of days and said yes, and told me right off the bat how he saw the character and what he wanted to do, and it is what he did.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He directed and co-wrote the film "Moonrise Kingdom," which is up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with filmmaker Wes Anderson. His movie, "Moonrise Kingdom" which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

GROSS: So you have a very strong visual tone in the movie. And you have a color scheme too, and most of the colors in the movie they are very autumnal. It's reds and yellows and oranges, dark greens, browns. And, you know, you have this storybook kind of look.

And you needed the actors, I think, to fit with the look of the film and there's something very storybook about their acting. It's not quite realistic acting. It's like a notch different than that. How did you describe the type of performance you wanted from the actors?

ANDERSON: Well, my thing about the acting is I usually just want them to be as authentic and natural as possible, but I'm almost always giving them a scene that is nothing like how they would have said it. You know, usually what's written is a bit odd. It's not my intention that it be odd. But the thing that, what interests me as a writer is usually a sentence that's got a surprise in the way it's put together.

GROSS: So let me play a short scene here and we'll hear how some of the dialogue sounds. So...

ANDERSON: We'll see if I'm right. OK.

GROSS: Yes. I don't know is this is an example of what you're talking about, but we're limited to what's on the clip reel, so.



GROSS: On the clip reel this might be the best illustration. So this is a scene with Jason Schwartzman and he's the - well, he's the cousin of the Ed Norton character? He is the cousin of the scoutmaster?

ANDERSON: He is the cousin of another - of one of the scouts. What is that scout called? He's played by a kid named Gabriel Rush and he is called Skotak. He is the cousin of Skotak. Jason's character is Cousin Ben.

GROSS: Right. OK. So the kids want to - the two 12-year-olds, they want to get married. And they asked him to marry them and he explains that he can't do it legally, and he also wants their money.

ANDERSON: Yes. A small fee.

GROSS: In exchange for the ceremony. So he's got his own ulterior motive for going through with this. But this is him explaining to the two 12-year-olds why they can't legally get married, but why he can perform a ceremony anyways.


JASON SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) I can't offer you a legally binding union. It won't hold up in the state, the county or, frankly, any court in the world, due to your age, lack of a license and failure to get parental consent. But the ritual does carry a very important moral weight within yourselves. You can't enter into this lightly. Look into my eyes. Do you love each other?

KARA HAYWARD: (as Suzy) Yes, we do.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) But think about what I'm saying. Are you sure you're ready for this?

HAYWARD: (as Suzy) Yes we are.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) You're not listening to me. Let me rephrase it.

HAYWARD: (as Suzy) We're in a hurry.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) Are you chewing - spit out the gum, sister. In fact, everybody. I don't like the snappy attitude. This is the most important decision you've made in your lives. Now go over by that trampoline and talk it through before you give me another quick answer.

GROSS: I love that.


GROSS: First, of all when he says look into my eyes, he's wearing these really dark sunglasses so.

ANDERSON: That's true.

GROSS: They couldn't possibly look into his eyes. Now, the other great thing about that scene is that in some ways it sums up the movie. Because here's two 12-year-olds feeling these really adult feelings of, you know, they're feeling the children's version of adult feelings. They're feeling this great and meaningful love for each other. At the same time they really are 12 years old. Who were you when you were 12?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, I don't really remember that well. In a way my way of remembering what I was like then is by how other people acted towards me, things I remember about how people acted towards me. I know I had - there's a thing in the movie where the girl finds this pamphlet on top of the refrigerator in her house.

And the pamphlet says Coping with the Very Troubled Child. And she gathers that that's her. Well, I found that pamphlet, in fact, at about that same age and when I saw it - and it was literally on top of the refrigerator - and if either of my brothers had found that pamphlet they both would've known it was me. They were never going to make a mistake and think it was themselves. I knew it was me. They would've known it was me.

And the other thing I remember from that age is my fourth grade teacher - maybe this is a little younger, but I must've been some kind of troublemaker, because she made this arrangement with me that each week that I did not get in a certain amount of trouble she was giving me some points.

And when I added up enough points, she let me put on a play in our school because she knew I'd written this one little short play that we had done in our class. And she let me kind of become a little theater person at that age. And I did many of these five-minute plays over, you know, over that year. And I feel like in a way what I do now is vaguely, you know, continuing something from then that she kind of got me going on.

GROSS: That such a brilliant idea, to have the art, to have the theater be the reward, the gift, you know.

ANDERSON: Yes. I remember on my folder she would put little stars and things. And then every now and then it said: Time for a new play, with exclamation points after and it was always like I was so excited when I would see that on the folder.

GROSS: Wes Anderson, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for making the movie.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Terry. It's such a pleasure to be back with you again.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He and co-writer Roman Coppola are up for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their collaboration on "Moonrise Kingdom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.