Wes Anderson on His Life, Career and Biggest Success Yet, 'Moonrise Kingdom' (Q&A)

Wes Anderson - Director - Moonrise Kingdom - P 2012

Earlier this month, I connected by telephone with one of today's great auteurs, the writer-director Wes Anderson, who was in Germany working on his next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson had agreed to chat with me for a half-hour about his life, career and most recently released film, Moonrise Kingdom, which was one of my personal favorites of 2012.

For the writer-director of Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), this $16 million production -- a typically funny but also unusually tender story that stars newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, as well as bigger names including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman -- has proved to be a landmark accomplishment.

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The film opened the Cannes Film Festival on May 16, receiving a five-minute standing ovation; was released by Focus Features into select U.S. art house theaters on May 25, raking in $130,000 per theater, the highest such figure for a live-action film until The Master surpassed it; and wound up as Anderson's most critically acclaimed film (receiving favorable reviews from an astounding 94 percent of critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com) and second-most commercially successful (grossing $66.3 worldwide, trailing that of Tenenbaums by less than $5 million).

Although Moonrise Kingdom was released more than half a year ago, voters have remembered it this awards season. It won best feature at the Gotham Awards; is been nominated for the best feature Indie Spirit Award and best picture Critics' Choice Award, Satellite and Golden Globe awards (in the musical or comedy category); and now is widely regarded as a serious threat to score a best picture Oscar nomination, an honor never conferred upon an Anderson film.

There are plenty of people who don't like Anderson's quirky films, but those who do tend to really like them, which bodes well for its prospects under the new preferential voting system that the Academy implemented a year ago, which requires that a film appear in the top slot on only 5 percent of submitted ballots in order to secure a best picture Oscar nomination.

Anyway, without further ado, here is Anderson on Anderson ...

The Hollywood Reporter: Did you go to the movies a lot as a kid? And if you did, were any films or filmmakers particular favorites?

Wes Anderson: Yeah, I did go a lot. As a kid, I loved the Pink Panther movies, and I loved Star Wars and Indiana Jones and [Steven] Spielberg, in general. And then also there was a revival theater in Houston, where I’m from, and that’s where I saw the Pink Panther movies and also [Alfred] Hitchcock, and I loved some of those. You know, Hitchcock and Spielberg were kind of the first two filmmakers where I was really aware, “There is a guy who was behind of all of this who we’re not seeing.”

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THR: When did you first experiment with filmmaking, even just messing around?

Anderson: My father got me a Super 8 camera -- a Yashika Super 8 -- when I was, maybe, 8. I want to say it was my eighth birthday. And so I started making little one-reel shorts, which are like three minutes long, with my brothers and my friends. And I think the first one was a library book that was probably not a very good story called The Skateboard Four; I think that was the first one I did.

THR: When you went off to college, was it already clear to you that filmmaking was what you wanted to pursue for the long haul, or is that where it sort of emerged as that?

Anderson: That’s where. I don’t know why I wasn’t more clear about it, because I’d spent so much time kind of tinkering with movie stuff. I’d also joined this cable-access channel in Houston so I could use the equipment there and had made some little video shorts there. But I thought I wanted to be a writer, and it wasn’t really until I was in college that it sort of clicked with me that what I really wanted to do was be using cameras.

THR: I gather that the first in the series of dots that led to you making your first feature happened at the University of Texas. How did you and Owen Wilson first cross paths? And what was the root of the idea for Bottle Rocket, initially as a short?

Anderson: Well, Owen and I had a mutual friend who had gone to my school in Houston and had subsequently gone to military school with Owen in New Mexico, and we knew about each other through him. We met without him introducing us, because we were in a class together -- a playwriting class -- and we never spoke during the class, but, at the end of it, we, sort of, realized that we were the people who our friend knew. Somehow, it sort of occurred to us; Owen just walked up to me in the hall one day and started talking to me as if we knew each other. In fact, what he talked to me about was he asked me which creative writing class he ought to take -- he was asking about which professor -- and I told him the one I thought. We were both writing short stories, and we started showing them to each other and getting help from each other with them. Owen was actually sharing an apartment with the mutual friend, who had moved to Austin, sort of, along the way, after we’d been in this class together. They’d gotten the apartment that we shared together, and we started working on Bottle Rocket as a feature script. You know, we wanted to write a movie script, and that was the script we came up with. We started trying to film it as a feature with some money from our fathers -- we each borrowed $2,000 -- and we sort of ran out of money, and it became a short.

THR: So I guess you were happy enough with it to submit it to Sundance. Did you ever imagine that it would provoke the sort of response and opportunities that it did?

Anderson: Well, I don’t even think it was a question of whether we were happy with it or not. It was all we had, and I don’t think it would ever have occurred to us to say whether this was any good or not, really. It was more like everything was depending on it. In fact, we didn’t even really submit it to Sundance ourselves. We showed it to a guy who Owen’s father knew named Kit Carson, who became a sort of mentor to us -- the first of a few. He had been going to Sundance since it began, and he submitted it to Sundance on our behalf. And, in fact, at Sundance nothing really happened, you know? We were shown in the middle of a long program of shorts, and nothing really occurred at Sundance with it. But they also had us in this workshop there, a writing workshop, and we had a good time there, and it was encouraging. And then, separately, Kit had sent the script to a woman named Barbara Boyle and her partner Michael Taylor, and they had given the script to Polly Platt, and Polly had said, “I want to be a part of this.” Then showed it to Jim Brooks, and he said the same thing. You know, there was no buzz around the thing; there was no one else anywhere in the world who wanted to give us another $500 to make the movie. It just happened because of Polly and Jim.

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THR: Wow. And so that’s how the feature version came about?

Anderson: Yeah. It’s entirely because of them that we made that movie at all. There was no backup option.

THR: My memory from that time is a little hazy, but what I’ve read indicates that even the feature version wasn’t widely seen, but it was seen by important enough folks that it led to the next level of opportunities, including, I gather, Rushmore. Is that a correct reading of what happened?

Anderson: Yeah. You know, it was the skinniest release, the narrowest release possible. I mean, maybe they put it on 40 screens. It made, like, $450,000 or something. So it was not seen. But one person who saw it was Joe Roth, and he wanted to do the next one. And also, not so long after the movie was done, we had this other script, so we sort of had a project ready to go. And that one, we have several, you know -- Mike De Luca initially wanted to do it, and we also did it with New Line, and Scott Rudin was interested. And that kind of got out, and there were a few ways that it almost happened. You know, we almost were gonna do it with Jersey Films, which was very supportive about it. But we ended up with Joe Roth because it was so tiny in the Disney context; we had more budget and just complete freedom, and that was sort of what I was interested in.

THR: The one after that, The Royal Tenenbaums, took things to a different level, in terms of box-office reception and your best original screenplay Oscar nomination and people being aware of you on just a totally different scale, right? Was that the one that really put you on a larger map?

Anderson: Yeah, I guess so. But I kind of think, you know, each movie just sort of does its own thing. You know, definitely that movie was on a larger map, but I think I’ve been on a different map for, more or less, each experience, and often it’s not as large.

THR: One thing that I’ve noticed through all of your movies, right through Moonrise Kingdom, and I believe your next film as well, is that you’ve collaborated over and over again with a lot of the same people -- people like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. You almost have a stock company. How did that initially start? And why do you like operating in that way?

Anderson: Yes. Well, I don’t think I ever particularly had a preconceived thought of that, but, you know, when we made Bottle Rocket, the cast was just my friends, Owen and Luke [Wilson] and our friend Bob [Musgrave] and their brother Andrew [Wilson]. You know, the way I started making movies was with the people I knew. With Rushmore we didn’t really have that option as much because of the ages of the people and all kinds of things, so we went looking. But, you know, I’ve always liked having --  I’ve not just worked with the same actors. You know, my director of photography, Bob Yeoman, has done every live-action movie I’ve ever made, and I like having some continuity. I sort of have some unusual methods of working that have developed -- you know, that we sort of stumbled into -- over the years that I like, and we all are kind of in sync with them, and, you know, I like having a reunion of a lot of cast members on each film. It’s also nice to bring in some new voices. But there’s something kind of more free about having friends on a movie together.

THR: Isn’t your music supervisor another one of those longtime behind-the-scenes collaborators?

Anderson: Yes, Randy Poster.

THR: Because you have made music such an integral part of your movies and in a more memorable way than a lot of other filmmakers, I’m just curious how you two first met and why you work so well together? Do you share similar tastes? Or can he just tap into the sorts of things that you’re looking for?

Anderson: Well, you know, Randy and I are old friends now, and we don’t just talk about music together; I show him the scripts. You know, when I have a few pages I get his advice and he gets involved. You know, his specialty is the music, but he’s sort of involved in the whole production as a kind of adviser, as a consigliore. You know, we’re just very interested in a lot of the same things, and he’s always out there listening. So what often happens is I have something I’ve heard and I want to do some research into it, and he’ll gather lots and lots of music that relates to something -- a theme or an instrument or a composer. And we just sort of discuss things back-and-forth like that. And, you know, working with a composer like Alexandre Desplat on Moonrise Kingdom, Randy helps to organize everything and make sure we have everything we need when we actually end up in a room together working on the score.

THR: This may be an overly broad generalization, but it seems to me like all of your films have a sort of winking humor. Is that reflective of your own personality? Like, if somebody was to spend a day or a week with you, do you think they’d pick up that same sort of thing in you? And might you ever do a straight drama?

Anderson: Well, it’s an interesting question. Often, I make the scene -- when I’m working on the script, or at any point, I may be kind of thinking of it as a heavy scene, but I usually think about the kind of tone of these movies. I usually feel like if I have any idea for something that I think is funny, I feel like I can weave it into it. It’s not so much that I’m looking to. I think also it’s maybe just the dialogue that I write tends to be not entirely realistic, maybe -- I don’t know -- through whatever combination of influences I’ve mixed together without knowing it. I always feel like there’s room to make it sort of a surprise, and somehow the balance of what’s funny and what’s serious. You know, there’s always a mixture. It’s another one of those things where it’s not something I’m that kind of conscious of from the outside; it’s sort of just part of what happens.

THR: I don’t know if you go back and watch your films, or if you enjoy doing that, but if you were, do you think you would see a common thread, even just thematically, uniting them together? I ask because I think that, as an independent observer, I can distinguish a Wes Anderson movie from others pretty easily. Is that something that you’ve deliberately cultivated?

Anderson: I think it’s the same as what I just was saying. I know a lot of the things I do because my collaborators say: “Oh, no, no, no. We don’t do it like that. We do it like this” -- kind of making fun of me because I have certain ways of shooting things, for instance, that I’m just very kind of particular about. You know, I have my own rules, and they’re not rules that I made in order to achieve a certain effect; they’re sort of genetic. But I think that whatever those things are, whatever those decisions are, that combination of decision that’s -- you know, movies are so complicated; there’s so many things that go into them when you make this sort of tapestry, that it’s a lot to manage. The end result, to me, I do feel like I’ve sort of pointed in that direction, because I’m trying unconsciously to get the right tone for the writing. There’s a particular kind of writing that’s evolved over the years for me, and the way that the story is told -- I mean, the way that the movie is “directed,” if that’s the word for it -- is sort of trying to get the right tone to go with that writing. Anyway, the mixture of all of those things is probably something people can usually, if they know my other movies, can spot a mile away.

THR: That’s very interesting. And I suppose your other sort of trademark, in a way, is the very distinct look -- the production design -- of your films. Every single thing in the frame seems perfectly in place, and nothing seems to be there accidentally. I suppose you could say the same thing about the films of Hitchcock or Spielberg or others who influenced you. I wonder if you can talk about that, and also about the idea of planning versus spontaneity in your films, generally. You know, if an actor goes off-script but does something interesting, or if something goes by in the background that wasn’t planned, do you retain it, or do you keep going until you get it precisely the way that you envisioned it initially?

Anderson: Well, I mean, it’s pretty mapped out because the stuff isn’t gonna be there if you didn’t arrange it in advance, you know? You can’t just put together a set on the day that you’re shooting it. But I think, for me, I feel it’s less a process of trying to control a thing and more a process of trying to add things and sculpt things. And there’s a certain amount of stuff that we do, even in post, that’s part of the production design. So it’s really, to me, more a process of me trying to get all of the ideas that I want to get into it into the mix, and to try to make the world of the story as entertaining and as vivid or engaging as it can be. That’s sort of what it is. But I do a kind of particular plan for how we’re gonna shoot things, and that sort of thing. But, from the actors, I look for -- you know, most of the stuff in these movies is what’s in the script. But I feel like they improvise everything they do anyway. All their behavior is theirs, and I want the actions to happen. But, you know, somebody like Robert Altman? His method of working was almost designed to capture accidents. My method is not designed for that; it’s designed to tell the story in this way. I still hope for the accidents, and I hope there’s room for surprises on the set.

THR: Are you a very visual person in your own life? Maybe this is reading too much into things, but one thing that I’ve observed is that you have a very specific and unique approach to fashion, just in terms of your own clothing and look that you’ve had over the years. Do you find that you pay super-close attention to detail and appearances in all aspects of your life?

Anderson: Yeah, maybe so. I think probably every director who loves doing it is just fixated on all kinds of different details, but they have different ones. When it comes to the look of the sets and the costumes, I’m probably more fixated on that stuff than a lot of directors are. A lot of directors might focus on that stuff for reasons having to do with the effects they want to make, the effects they know they want these things to have on the audience and what, specifically, they have to do with the characters. And I often have my own references that I’m adding on to those more important decisions, and that might be part of it. I have a sort of feeling that I want from my movies that isn’t really about just that particular movie; it’s about my movies in general. But I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It’s this horrible thing I’m kind of referring to, and it just really has to do with how real and how not real these stories are and what world they exist in.

THR: To what degree would you say your movies are about yourself? I recently interviewed Richard Linklater, who said that if you look closely enough at his movies you will see some aspect of his life in every one of them, from his original stuff to even something that he elected to remake, like The Bad News Bears. Taking Moonrise Kingdom, for example, what degree of that is inspired by your own feelings or experiences?

Anderson: Well, when you’re writing a story from scratch, that’s a big part of what you’ve got to work with: your own life and the parts of your friends’ and people close to you’s lives. That’s what you’ve got to tap into, along with all the things that are also part of your life -- the things you’ve read and seen in movies, and all that stuff. So, for me, Moonrise Kingdom, for instance: There are parts of it where memories are the beginning, the basis of the whole thing. But I also think there are things like all this Benjamin Britten music; the Britten music is not just my memory of learning about this music when I was a kid, but it’s also music I got interested in over the years -- more like my own kind of little study -- and sharing that is a personal thing to me, too. So, yeah, I see kind of both ends: You use things that are from your own little autobiography and also all the things that you’ve picked up and absorbed, that you would share with your friends, you can share with a larger group of people.

THR: For you, how important is the way your movie is received by critics and/or the public? On the one hand, I gather that The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited were received less enthusiastically than your films that came before and after them. On the other, Moonrise Kingdom has been received more enthusiastically, perhaps, than any of your films yet, critically and commercially. Do you get hurt or excited about such things, or are you able to keep your feelings about a film separate from the way that others feel about it?

Anderson: Well, I think my conscious -- I’m very aware of trying to manage my expectations and reactions, because with every one of these movies, you really don’t know until it happens, you know? Life Aquatic was one where it kind of just imploded the day it came out. I think it was, like, Christmas Day, and we knew just suddenly that it wasn’t going over the way we’d hoped. But Darjeeling? We had shown it in festivals and things, and it had had a limited release, and it was getting pretty good reviews. Almost every movie I’ve ever done has -- Moonrise and Mr. Fox had better reviews, but almost every movie I’ve done has had mixed reviews. But Darjeeling, I really didn’t know until it went wider that -- at least to my expectation -- it sort of tanked at that point. I’ve learned over the years that if you make yourself vulnerable to that, you’ve got absolutely no control over it. Some of that is what people think of the movie in any context and some of it is how it coincided with what people wanted right in that moment. You know, you can choose to say: “I don’t accept that my movie has been judged validly. I will let it exist as its own thing. Time will tell.” And you can build up a little armor about it. I think you have to because it takes a long time to make one of these movies, and all these people have put their hearts into it. So if you’re really responsive to when it’s well received, you make yourself more vulnerable to when it’s horribly received. You know, whatever path in between that you can just keep going straight down. That’s the safe place.

THR: Some people take years off between projects, but you seem to work at a pretty steady pace. On the basis of how many people checked out and enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom, I imagine that more people than ever are looking forward to your next one, which I believe is called Grand Budapest Hotel but about which little else seems to be out there. Can you tease it a little?

Anderson: Well, yes, it’s Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a Euro movie. It’s a period picture. I can tell you the cast -- maybe you already know the cast, but I can tell you properly who it is: We have Ralph Fiennes, and we have Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, we have F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law, and we’ve got Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Mathieu Amalric. And I think Owen is gonna have a little part, too. Oh, Saoirse Ronan has quite a big part. I’m thinking if I’ve forgotten anybody. Yeah, we have a good group.