Director Wes Anderson ups the ante in Moonrise Kingdom
With his camera gliding from one cabin to the next, the cutaway submarine in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou provided Wes Anderson with one of the most celebrated sequences in his career. He does it again in his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, which begins with another lateral, wall-breaching creep through a life-size dollhouse—this one sitting in the film’s imaginary island community of New Penzance.
It might be a signature move for Anderson, but Jerry Lewis—yes, that Jerry Lewis—did it first. For his 1961 film The Ladies Man, he cross-sectioned an elaborate four-storey set to get exactly the same effect. Because Anderson is in Lewis-worshipping Paris when the Georgia Straight reaches him, it seems like an appropriate place to start.
“Yes, I have seen it,” Anderson says of The Ladies Man. “I saw it after we did The Life Aquatic, because we have a ship that’s chopped in half the same way. In fact, [American filmmaker-author] Peter Bogdanovich is the one who brought that to my attention, that this experiment had been conducted previously.”
After some more chatter about another Lewis film, The Bellboy, Anderson offers: “I have always liked Jerry Lewis, but I’m not an expert on him, as you can gather,” and he mentions that he intends to reread, apropos of our chat, Bogdanovich’s 1997 book, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors.
And this is much what it’s like to speak with Anderson. He’s forthcoming, polite, curious; he’ll eagerly discuss unfairly reviled American comedians of yesteryear; and he’s strangely formal (“this experiment had been conducted previously”), like the neatly pressed Scoutmaster Ward played by Edward Norton in his newest film.
He also frequently revises his thoughts as he speaks, which might come as no surprise if you’re acquainted with the levels of perfectionism implied by Anderson’s boutique cinema—with Moonrise Kingdom (which opens on Friday [June 1] ) being possibly his most exquisitely decorated feature yet. It is, therefore, a little jarring to hear the filmmaker claim that he avoids overthinking his work.
“I thought it oughta be in kind of a Norman Rockwell New England, at the end of what we at least look back on as a more innocent time, before all the conflict and upheaval of the counterculture,” he states when asked about the film’s mid-’60s setting. “When these kids are 18 years old, they’re going to be in a completely different kind of America. That was kind of the thing I thought of afterwards. The decision to set it in that time was, really, a totally spontaneous one. And, really, when I was writing the role of the narrator, I just had him say: ‘The year is 1965,’ and I thought, ‘That might be right.’ So I sorta stuck with it.”
In other words, as Neil Young once said of the creative process: “The more you think, the more you stink.”
“Funny,” Anderson says with a soft chuckle. “That’s sorta most of it. Usually I would rather not pin too many things down. I sorta don’t wanna understand it too much or analyze it too much because I feel like it will simplify it. So I try to let it be a bit unconscious. There’s so much that has to be done analytically to make the story work—and to, hopefully, keep an audience engaged—that the spaces where you can let it be more abstract I want to try to preserve.”
In the case of Moonrise Kingdom—the tale of an unpopular orphaned boy scout and a “troubled” girl who run away together—Anderson does concede that “in this case, this is one of the few times where I actually did have the thought, ‘I hope people will recognize this sensation,’ and usually I don’t have that.” What he’s talking about is the memory of first love, which the film attempts to render as “a realistic depiction of something magical”.
“I do have a very strong memory of this sort of sensation, and that was the whole reason to start writing it in the first place,” he says. In Andersonian terms, “this sensation” unfolds inside the universe of the “Khaki Scouts”: with Bruce Willis as a sad-eyed cop; Tilda Swinton hovering as a baleful threat named, literally, “Social Services”; Bob Balaban narrating from beneath a bright woollen cap; and Bill Murray hauling up with yet another broken, emasculated father figure, this one in a heroic pair of plaid pants.
The result is like Anderson on overdrive. Fans will rejoice when they hear preadolescent Suzy (Kara Hayward) tell her mother (Frances McDormand), “I hate you,” (possibly the tenderest scene in the film) while the level of overall detail is mind-blowing. Anderson is delighted when I tell him that I thought the storybooks Suzy carries around with her were real (and not whipped up by a slew of Anderson’s impressive artist friends).
“That’s good!” he declares. “That, I would say, definitely was one of my goals. That is an example of me having an effect I was hoping to accomplish. I was hoping, especially, very young people would want to buy them.” It turns out, in fact, that Anderson has put together an animated short based on the counterfeit books. “We’re finishing it today,” he says. “Literally, today. And, hopefully, we’ll figure out some reasonable place for this to be disseminated.”
There you go—perhaps the real point of Moonrise Kingdom is to encourage kids to read.
“Genuinely, my first suggestion was, ‘Can we do this through the New York Public Library?’ ” Anderson says. And then, with the whiff of disappointment you’d expect from the man whose brand of enchanted fogeyism has become its own cultural force, he adds: “The first response to that was, ‘How about Entertainment Weekly?’ So. That’s definitely a different venue. We’ll see.”
Watch the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom.