The World According to Wes
Director Wes Anderson talks to Jacob Weisberg as his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, comes to theaters.
Jacob: I’m finding all these trails of cookie crumbs leading to Francois Truffaut. You famously did that great American Express commercial which was based on Day for Night in the way you were working with children. Is Truffaut important to you? Is he especially relevant to this film?
Wes: I think he probably is. Did you ever see Small Change?
Jacob: Yes, of course.
Wes: It’s a wonderful movie and sort of unique in the way it just goes into the world—an ensemble of different children’s lives. It’s really from their point of view. The adults are completely on the periphery and it’s very unique.
That, to me, is one of the movies that made me think. This was many years ago, but I remember when I saw that (or maybe the second time I had seen it) thinking, I think I would enjoy doing something like that.
Jacob: You’re known for working with is an ensemble cast of people who are personally very close to you—Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. This time you have some other famous actors who haven’t been in your films before—Bruce Willis and Ed Norton. Does that change the dynamic on the set? How is it working with newcomers in Wes world?
Wes: Somebody like Edward Norton, he and I had spoken about working together some years ago. We talked about it every now and then for a long time and this was just our chance to do something together. Edward became one of the producers. He lived in a house with me and our editor, Andy, and our director of photography, Bob. Bill Murray moved into the house, too. Edward joined into this completely.
I had never worked with Frances McDormand before, but I had known her for a long time, so I already felt very comfortable with her. Tilda Swinton, I had communicated with by e-mail years ago and I had been hoping to do something with her. I didn’t know Tilda, but I felt immediately like she was a part of our family.
Bruce Willis, I met him briefly, but I didn’t really get to know him until we were working together. He was so completely agreeable and into it. His ideas about the character sounded perfect to me. We don’t have trailers. People aren’t really off the set; they’re together. He embraced that like everybody else did and it was a very positive experience.
Jacob: Of course Bill Murray is in the film and he’s such a touchstone in your work. When he was in Rushmore, it was the first film I think he had been in for many years. What’s your relationship with him like?
Wes: He’s one of my favorite actors. That’s the beginning. That’s how we know each other was from me pursuing him to do Rushmore, which somehow we managed to get him for that. He’s more or less the ideal person to have with you. He’s the best person in the world to have on your side in any circumstances I think, but a movie set in particular.
There are not that many people you can turn to to calm an angry mob. He can do that. If you needed him to do that for you, he could do that. He can just get people together. He’s somebody if you said, “There are 50,000 people out there and we need somebody to speak to them,” he could probably come up with a few words and handle it pretty swiftly.
Jacob: I’ve seen you say before that you actually react when you get a bad review. You’re not somebody with an incredibly thick skin. You’re a sensitive artist and you respond to negativity. How do you deal with that when you have a film coming out? Hopefully everyone will love it, but probably at least someone will try to differentiate themselves by being very critical.
Wes: I’ve never had a movie that got great reviews. I’ve had movies that got different levels of good and bad reviews, but you can more or less count on plenty of bad reviews. At this point I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the fact that there’s not a great value to getting too deep into that.
I actually don’t feel affected by that sort of thing anymore. When you ask the question, “Why do you think people react?” or why would I polarize people like that, the fact that it’s a mystery to me means it’s about the people who have that reaction as much as it has anything to do with me, so what’s the point of putting too much thought in it?
Anything to do with how you react to a movie or an artist is so completely subjective and people’s reactions, if they’re honest, then they’re valid. But they also have everything to do with the person who’s interacting with whatever it is.
Jacob: Wes, we do a section on Conversations with Slate where we solicit questions from our Slate readers on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got some of them here. I’ll just run through them and you can give a pretty short answer if you want. Some of these may sound a little random, but these are what Slate readers want to know about you.
Levi Agee asks, “If you could go back and reshoot Bottle Rocket, knowing what you know now, would you change anything?” He says, “By the way, it’s my favorite film in the world.” I guess that begs the answer “no.”
Wes: Well, thank you, Levi. I kind of feel like I had my chance. I have some parts of some movies in particular where I think, now, here’s how I’d do it. I’m not drawn to the idea of reissuing a fixed-up version. You could change it and in ten years say, “You know, I like the original more, actually.” Anyway, it’s too late. The movie is already out there and it is its own thing. Now the idea of introducing various versions isn’t particularly appealing to me.
Jacob: This is from Matt Kuhen: “How much influence has J.D. Salinger had on your life work or outlook?”
Wes: Quite a bit I think. I think particularly the first three movies or so, but probably other ones, too. I think a significant one.
Jacob: This is the next reader question. “What are some films, or directors, or authors, or books that have had a significant influence on your directorial and visual style?”
Wes: Interesting. I can’t think of any books that would affect my visual style, but maybe there are some. I remember when we were doing Bottle Rocket, there was a book of Hockney’s body of work up to that point. That had quite an effect on Bottle Rocket somehow. I don’t know if you call it a book, but the book was the way I was experiencing those pictures.
With each movie I have a different set of… usually I have in mind some inspirations. The new script that I’m working on now—I don’t even want to list the ones—but I have a number of authors in particular who are the real inspiration for that one.
The movie that we made in India, Darjeeling Limited; the filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir’s film, The River; Louis Malle’s documentaries about India—I feel like each movie I have a little list of inspirations like that.
Jacob: So for Moonrise Kingdom, what’s on your bulletin board?
Wes: With Moonrise Kingdom the films that are the key ones for me—along with the Truffaut movie, Small Change—there are some movies I looked at while I was writing it. There’s a Ken Loach film called Black Jack and one that was written by Alan Parker and directed by Waris Hussein called Melody—neither of which I had ever heard of. I saw these movies because it was the subject matter that I was writing about.
Jacob: Those are films from the '60s?
Wes: I think Black Jack is ‘78 and Melody is maybe ‘70. There’s a Maurice Pialat film called L’Enfance Nue that relates to it. I think The 400 Blows, also.
In particular, related to this character—this girl—but also the feeling of the film or a memory of a feeling, like I was referring to before. Do you know Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising? Do you know those books?
Wes: I think they were probably published in the ‘60s. The first one is called Over Sea, Under Stone. Then there’s The Dark is Rising. The Grey King was one of them. I haven’t looked in these books in so long, but they were young adult fantasy books. This particular series made a huge impression on me. It’s not really related to the story of the movie, but the feeling of it is very much I think connected to those books.
Jacob: So many people who have commented on the way you use music in films. In the new one, you have this Françoise Hardy song that’s in the trailer. How did you come upon that or how did that end up figuring in the film?
Wes: That was before I had a script. I had an idea of using that Francoise Hardy song. I had an image of this scene that this music would be part of it. The foundation of the soundtrack for the movie is Benjamin Britten and different kinds of works that he made for an audience of children. Also Leonard Bernstein interpreting those, and also some other composers.
Jacob: A big thing of that era was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.
Wes: And his concerts. That all figures in. Leonard Bernstein’s voice is in the movie. There are also all these pieces that he conducted, but also produced I guess.