Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom, His Directorial Style, and His Love for Music and Childhood Fantasies.

Interviews with people who shape our culture.
May 25 2012 10:45 AM

The World According to Wes

Director Wes Anderson talks to Jacob Weisberg as his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, comes to theaters.

US director Wes Anderson speaks during the press conference of 'Moonrise Kingdom' at the 65th Cannes film festival on May 16, 2012 in Cannes.
Wes Anderson at Cannes on May 16.

Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

It’s an open question who’s more obsessive: Wes Anderson or his most ardent fans. The director’s meticulously crafted, off-kilter features have won over legions of filmgoers who now get to go to town on a new Anderson movie.

Moonrise Kingdom, a 1960s period piece about a couple of 12-year-olds who run away, opens in the U.S. this week. The film features Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman alongside Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand.

In the run-up to its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Anderson sat down with Slate’s Jacob Weisberg for a lengthy interview about everything from how he cast the child actors, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, at the center of Moonrise Kingdom to why he loves working with Bill Murray. Anderson also explains why he is drawn to stop-motion animation and why he might choose rabbit for his last meal.

You can listen to the entire interview in this player and read a complete transcript below.

Welcome to "Conversations with Slate." In this episode, Slate group editor in chief, Jacob Weisberg, talks with Wes Anderson, director of the new movie Moonrise Kingdom.

Jacob Weisberg:  Wes, thanks for joining me on “Conversations With Slate.”

Wes Anderson:  Thanks, Jacob. Thank you for having me.

Jacob:  We’re here in your lovely office in Paris. You’re a Texan who’s gone completely French, haven’t you?

Wes:  I’m never mistaken for French by anybody around here. I don’t speak it. I’m trying, but so far, I don’t think I pass.

Jacob:  You’re pretty much the opposite of George W. Bush in every way at this point. You don’t have a Texas accent either.

Wes:  No, not really. My parents are not from Texas. It never quite rubbed off on me. My mother gets a Texan accent in certain circumstances, but it’s not their default.

Jacob:  To be a little more serious about it, you’re an American artist who’s been living here. Obviously this is a great tradition of expatriate Americans living here. Why are you here working and living in Paris?

Wes:  Really, I live in New York. I’m here for certain stretches. I love to come here. I’m sure I ended up here for the traditional expatriate reasons that you’re suggesting—just being interested in the literary and movie history of Paris. I love living here because I feel like it’s an adventure for me to be here, even though it’s still very exotic for me.

Paris is a place where, for me, just walking down a street that I’ve never been down before is like going to a movie or something. Just wandering the city is entertainment.

Jacob:  It’s interesting in terms of your relationship with Hollywood, though, because you make a kind of personal film that’s an artist film—the term “auteur” might be used here—but that’s really gotten squeezed out of the American movie production system in a lot of ways. They’re not as big as big budget films, but they’re not as small as the kind of independent films that get made.

Is it easier in some ways to do that from abroad?

Wes:  I don’t know. The new movie I have, we made in America. I’ve made movies in different places. We did an animated movie in England. That’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. I did one that we shot in Italy and one we made in India. They’re all American-based productions.

StudioCanal here in France is a part of this new production, but the main partner that we had from the beginning is Focus, which is part of Universal. It’s a boutique thing, but it’s a movie studio as far as any of that goes.

I don’t really feel too disconnected from that. That’s the way my movies have always been done. I don’t know what is in store for the movie business any better than anybody else does, but it does seem like my kind of movies are a little trickier than it used to be—or maybe a lot trickier.

Still, the filmmakers that I already know I’m interested in who have been making movies in this sort of range are still working. I don’t know what it’s like for somebody new coming into this right now. It may be much harder. That’s just me speculating; I’m not sure.

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.

Wes:  No.

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.

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?

Jacob:  No.

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.

Jacob:  You don’t do background music the way a lot of more conventional films do. The music is often kind of a character in your films to the extent that sometimes, as in The Life Aquatic, you stop and watch someone perform a song.

Wes:  Yes. I’m definitely very interested in music. I don’t usually think I have something particularly unusual that I’m going to do, but I guess I do often put it a little more up front than other movies do, but there are plenty of movies that do that, too. In this one, Benjamin Britten is a huge part of the whole concept of the movie for me.

Jacob:  Back to Facebook here. Anthony Tescano says, “What would you choose for your last meal?” which is a good question for a Texan in Paris.

Wes:  Do you know Hearth Restaurant in the East Village?

Jacob:  I’ve heard of it; I haven’t eaten there.

Wes:  On a night when Marco Canora is there, that would be a pretty good one, I think.

Jacob:  That’s pretty good. What does one eat there?

Wes:  Well, hopefully somewhere along the way he’s going to say, “I made you something special here,” so you should be surprised by that. They have sort of like a stew made with rabbit. That’s a pretty good one.

Jacob:  So your last meal, you would choose to have it chosen by someone who really knew how to cook.

Wes:  I think so, yeah. That restaurant is near where we live.

Jacob:  After Fantastic Mr. Fox, are there any other screenplays you’d like to direct from books?

Wes:  Can I do one other last meal, actually?

Jacob:  You can do as many as you want. You have breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Wes:  Coming back to Europe, do you know The River Café?

Jacob:  Yeah.

Wes:  The River Café, if I could have two last meals. Depending on which part of the world I’m in, I think it would be one of those.

Jacob:  You don’t look like a guy who eats two meals, period.

Wes:  No, I do. I eat regularly.

Jacob:  The next question from Facebook is, “Are there any other books you would want to make movies out of?” I think that’s your only adapted screen play—Fantastic Mr. Fox—so far?

Wes:  Yes. I don’t have anything else in mind that’s adapted from a book. Often a book or a number of books are such an inspiration that I’m kind of doing the book rather than adapting it.

Jacob:  You mentioned that you’re already thinking about your next project. Can you tell us anything about what it is and how far along you are?

Wes:  I made a script for it, but I don’t want to say too much about it—or anything I guess—until a little further along.

Jacob:  Can you stay what stage you’re at? You know what you’re going to do next?

Wes:  Yeah, I know what I’m going to do next. I made a script. It’s a movie I’d like to do in Europe. It’s a European setting.

Jacob:  That’s all we’re going to find out today.

Wes:  Maybe so.

Jacob:  So you’re going to still be spending time in Paris for some time to come.

Wes:  I don’t know where the movie will really happen, but if it all comes together, it’s somewhere on this continent.

Jacob:  You’ve made a bunch of TV commercials and I have to say they’ve been kind of great. How do you think about doing commercials? Some directors hold their nose and do them to make money to finance their other projects. You seem to do them more as little mini Wes Anderson movies. Is that true?

Wes:  It depends. It’s separate. I’ve rarely had a commercial where it’s something I wrote or dreamed up. Usually it’s something I’m hired to do and it’s a very short period of time. If I have time to do one, it can be fun to do them. Sometimes if the people are up for trying something that I’m interested in, it can be a great experience.

A couple of them I did were really more like little shorts that somebody let me do for them. The American Express one you mentioned was something where they really gave me a chance to make something that I had an idea for and I was just free to do what I wanted.

Jacob:  But that’s like two minutes long. That didn’t actually show on television, right?

Wes:  I think it did. It showed on television maybe a year after we did it. I did a Sony telephone commercial very recently that’s stop-motion animated. That was something me and my gang made up from scratch, essentially, and that was very fun to do. I also got to use a lot of people who had worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Also, this kid who’s in the new movie more or less made up this commercial. We edited something together from an interview with him where he describes how this phone works. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this Sony commercial, but he made up something kind of great and then we animated to that. That was a very good experience, too.

Jacob:  But the brief—if Sony or another company comes to you, do they say, “Please make us a commercial?” or do they say, “Here’s our idea. Can you execute this?”

Wes:  It’s usually a whole range of things. In that case, it was an advertising agency that came to me and said, “Here’s what we want to do,” and I said, “Can I do it this way?” They checked with Sony and Sony said yes and that was it.

But it varies. Sometimes it’s a much more simple matter.

Jacob:  Will you go back to the stop-motion animation technique as a filmmaker? Could you see making another whole film that way?

Wes:  I would like to. I don’t know what the prospects are for that. Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s not like we broke the bank on that one. Or am I misusing that term? Broke the bank means you failed?

Jacob:  Broke the bank would mean you spent a lot of money on it I think.

Wes:  Well, we didn’t break the bank. The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, he won big. We didn’t do that.

Jacob: You mean the studio didn’t make out like a bandit on the film.

Wes:  No one did. I don’t know. There could be a lot of reasons why. One is I think stop-motion is not the most broadly commercial sort of format anymore—or if it ever was.

Jacob:  And also Fantastic Mr. Fox—while it happens to be my favorite children’s book, is not such a famous children’s book in America.

Wes:  You’re right. But probably if DreamWorks adapted it as a CG thing, it would probably make it huge and people would go see it—and they wouldn’t have done it in stop-motion I think.

Jacob:  Why were you drawn to that technique? It certainly afforded opportunity for your sense of style and the meticulousness of those scenes. When I was watching it, I kind of wanted to have the pause button so I could just look at that frame and all the things you put into it.  Why did stop-motion appeal to you as a way to make a film?

Wes:  I was always interested in stop-motion. I just like the kind of handmade feeling. It actually is handmade. I also always liked stop-motion that has a lot of texture in it. I think when it’s texture, you sense that you’re looking at miniatures and there’s something sort of magical about that to me.

Really, I always loved that book as a kid and somehow the two things together seemed like a perfect fit. That was really the beginning of it.

Jacob:  Were you a Wallace & Gromit fan? Those are done in stop motion, aren’t they? But with clay.

Wes:  I think I more got to know those after I started doing Mr. Fox because I was interested in that medium—especially the Creature Comforts that are also Aardman. They animated two interviews and those are my favorite of those. But the Wallace & Gromit also are great.

Jacob: I wanted to ask you also about Owen Wilson who, obviously, you’ve been close to personally in your whole career. We ran a piece in Slate once that argued, interestingly, that your films really changed when he stopped being your co-writer, which he was until Life Aquatic. On all the films until Life Aquatic—is that right?

Wes:  Yes, that’s right.

Jacob:  Do you think there was anything to that?

Wes:  I don’t think so, no. Owen has been involved in lots of my movies since then in different ways.

Jacob:  There’s almost always a co-writer credited under films –  Noah Baumbach. I’m not sure about the new one, actually. Did you write it with anyone?

Wes:  Yeah. The new one, I worked with Roman Coppola.

Jacob:  How do you collaborate with another writer?

Wes:  It depends on the situation. In the case of this new movie, I had been working on this script for a year and I wasn’t really getting it done and I asked Roman to come help me. A month after we started working together, we had a first draft of the thing—which was basically the movie. In the case of that, he just sort of helped me get it all straightened out and made into a story.

Jacob:  Had you written a draft? Did you pass the draft back and forth or are you sitting together in a café saying, “This, no this, no this”?

Wes:  In the case of this one, I had written the first 15 pages or something. He asked all the right questions about what was there and suggested what’s already happening here in a way I didn’t quite understand it. Then we spent the next weeks together just going scene by scene and making the script.

When Noah Baumbach and I worked together, we more started at the beginning and launched the things together. But I’ve had different kinds of ways of working. I think I’ve only worked with friends.

Jacob:  People ask this often, but where do your ideas come from? Do you feel that you have a bank with your next ten ideas in some stage of formation or do you actually have a process by which you come up with an idea for a film?

Wes:  I don’t know if I have any answer to that. Each one, at some point, I say, “I think this might be it,” and somewhere along the way when I’m not noticing, it becomes definitely the thing I’m going to work on. I don’t usually have an instant when I kind of stumble onto it, I guess.

Jacob:  Wes, Conversations with Slate likes it here in Paris. I really want to thank you for joining us for an interview.

Wes:  Thanks, Jacob. Thank you very much.

Jacob:  We’re all looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom.

Wes:  Great. Thanks for having me.