Jacob: Is it true that the bigger the budget, the more control you’re potentially giving up or putting at risk?
Wes: It makes sense to me. I don’t know if it’s true. My experience is always somebody makes a budget and then the budget is whatever we’ve got anyway, and now we make a new budget. Sometimes when you’re editing a movie, you have the thing that you don’t expect—which is you make it longer and longer as you go along.
With budgets, that never happens. You make your budget and then you are forced to pare it away. Maybe when you’re producing the thing, you lose control and it expands, but you’re never in a position where you say, “We’ve actually got a bit more.” Anyway, I’ve never been in that position.
Jacob: Your new film is Moonrise Kingdom. It’s opening at the Cannes Festival. Congratulations. That’s a big honor. Tell me what the movie is about and why you made it.
Wes: I think why I made it is because it’s the first movie I made where I had a memory of a feeling that had stuck with me all my life that I’m kind of trying to recreate, which is being twelve years old (or in my case, in fifth grade—however old you are in fifth grade) and being blindsided by falling in love. I don’t know if it’s falling in love, but something like that. In my case, it was somebody who I barely ever spoke to at any time.
I remember we had Valentine’s Day at our school. You had a white lunch sack for each person with their name on it, just politely everyone getting a Valentine’s Day—except this one white sack that was overflowing with gifts and boxes and gold necklaces. That’s the one that I was also struck by.
Jacob: Was this summer camp? Did you go to summer camp? Is this a summer love kind of theme?
Wes: The story is set on an island. It’s in the ‘60s. It’s sort of different. I think it’s a moment before lots of things changed. The place where we shot it, for instance, is an island that was only accessible by ferry until the mid-‘60s when they started building a big bridge that connected it to Newport, Rhode Island, and it became a suburb. The setting is the sort of place that would have changed a lot since then anyway, but none of that comes from my own childhood or anything.
Jacob: That wasn’t a place from your childhood.
Jacob: But it’s a feeling from your childhood.
Wes: Yes. The relationship that is the center of the movie is probably like my own feelings at that time, and more like my own fantasy at that time. The girl in the story carries a suitcase that’s full of books. They go on an adventure together. Secretly this boy and girl run away together and the things she feels she should have for her survival is a suitcase full of library books and they’re fantasy books.
Somewhere along the way I started thinking the movie ought to feel like it could be in that suitcase with the rest of those books and I started feeling maybe there’s a thematic theme in the movie about the desire of 12-year-olds to have their imagination or their fantasies be real, and the way they can sometimes start to think they are and the desire to enact your fantasies at that age. I don’t know if that really makes any sense.
Jacob: One of the things I most love about your films is the way you stay emotionally in touch with the emotional lives of children—even Fantastic Mr. Fox. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the dad is my personal role model. But you made the film even more about his sons who, in the book, are undifferentiated and unimportant.
Wes: Yes. In the book, I think there’s just a pack of cubs. Part of that was also making that story into a movie. It’s a longer story than the book is and you need all the characters to have an identity. They’re going to because you’re going to see them individually and they’re going to have voices—things that aren’t in a book like that.
It was really an automatic thing for me.
Jacob: In so many of your films that I think of, you have adult-like children and childlike adults in some ways. There are so many precocious children. The Royal Tenenbaums—what happens to precocious children when they grow up? But then many of the adults in your films haven’t fully grown up in certain ways.
Wes: To me I just see them as not so different from each other, I guess. In this new movie, I think definitely the parents in the story are aware of some risks that the children are just not in tune with at all. Nevertheless, they’re dealing with fairly similar things. The innocence of the children in some respects can be an advantage.
Jacob: What was it like working with child actors? That poses its own special problems, and I don’t know that you’ve put that at the center of a film in the same way before—not children that young anyway.
Wes: Yeah, not that young. The process of finding them is the big challenge. With this movie, we started that process very early—like a year before we were going to make the movie. Maybe not quite a year, but really as soon as I had a script I hired our casting director, Doug Aibel, to start looking. We looked for months and months.
It always seems to happen the same way. At first you see a bunch of professional kids, and a lot of those are good. Then you look at a thousand others and somewhere along the way, the person just shows up. I don’t know what we’d do if they don’t.
In the case of this, it was quite a long process. Then there was this one kid who I watched this QuickTime of him auditioning for the casting director and there was an interview with him after and it was this interview with him that really got me. He was wearing Kareem Abdul Jabbar glasses with a strap.
Jacob: You didn’t put that on him? He was just doing that on his own.
Wes: No, that was him. And he was funny. I loved him. And the girl, Kara, auditioned. I watched a thousand girls read this scene and she read it and suddenly it sounded like she was making it up spontaneously. It just sounded completely authentic and natural to me and there was nobody else like that. I felt like this has got to be here; nobody else has done anything like this. That’s the big thing.
After that, we spent a lot of time rehearsing. Working with kids is usually very fun. They get so into it and they’re up for anything. Usually they’re having such an exciting experience, everybody feels that.
Jacob: They channel their drama into the film. They don’t go off and pout and sulk in their trailers.
Wes: Sometimes something like that happened. This girl, Kara, for instance, would never pout or sulk over anything. She became instantly a real professional. And Jared was twelve years old, but he was very interested in being a filmmaker. He was knowledgeable about movies. He was interested in everything. He’s fun.