Wes Anderson’s latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, which opened in many more cities last week, has earned the director some of the best reviews of his career and has been tearing up the specialty box office. The film was his first live-action feature since making the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox and the influence of that experience is evident in the film’s meticulously detailed production design and its arch theatricality. Here, Anderson takes Co.Create through the process of putting together the pieces that comprise his masterful seventh feature.
"When you write a script it’s about making this other thing — you know, you’re trying to make a movie," Anderson says, seemingly stating the obvious. "But for me, when I make a script, I’m also kind of obsessively working on a script that’s a thing for somebody to read. There are certain aspects of the movie that are only in the script — mainly, the writing of the descriptions, which I’ve spent all this time on." He even inserts photographs into his scripts, ideas for visual reference. "But mostly it’s who is saying what and how do we make this something to read," he explains. "[In writing the script], I want to make more than something you visualize, I want to make something you can sit there and read; you can experience the story."
Then, of course, comes casting which, he says, leads right back to the script: "That is always about how we bring this scene to life for these people, to pretend it is really happening," says Anderson, who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Roman Coppola.
The script serves another purpose as well. "I like to have a record of something I wrote out there," says Anderson. Which is why he publishes his scripts. "I’m sure a lot of the people who buy it never read it because you read a few pages and say, 'Yes, yes, oh yes, I remember all this stuff,' and then you can kind of move on. But I just like to at least be able to say, 'Well, it was published and it existed.'" So the Moonrise Kingdom script was recently put out as an e-book by Faber & Faber, though he was surprised that this version wasn’t made with more multimedia elements. "The limitations for what we were allowed to do with pictures and things was quite strict. They’re just as strict as it ever is with any publishing but I was trying to say, Can we have pictures go across a couple of pages because this is just like a pdf, but they said no." And he’s not exactly celebrating the e-book’s brisk sales. "I asked the guys at Faber, 'How many have we sold?' and they said, 'We’ve already sold 100.'" Anderson pauses. "Oh, so, 100. In three months. Wow, that’s great. We’re doing great."
As Anderson described in Fast Company’s Most Creative People issue, he and his team used Google Earth for Moonrise's initial location scout. "We had to figure out where we were shooting this movie — in Canada or Michigan or New England…? We started out with 'Where is this girl [Suzy’s] house, and where is the naked wildlife we want?' So [after Googling], we traveled around a bit, to Cumberland Island in Georgia, to the Thousand Islands on the New York/Ontario border…we checked out all these locations." A house in the Thousand Islands became the model for Suzy’s house, for which they ended up building the interior in Rhode Island, near where they had found a real exterior to use. "It was that house"—the exterior — "combined with a 25-percent tax rebate incentive [from the state of Rhode Island] that brought us there. And then we met this location scout there [Colin Walsh] who was great, and who became a real part of our production, and we started finding things. You know, one thing after another there, but we also found things that we were mixing into that from all sorts of different places. We built the whole [interior of the house] in a former Linens 'n Things store. It was close to town and it was this big, empty space, so that became our soundstage."
But every place they visited, whether online or in person, Anderson says, was an influence on the final design. For instance, there’s a house on Comfort Island, which is part of the Thousand Islands, which production designer Adam Stockhausen, set decorator Kris Moran and co-producer Molly Cooper visited and photographed in detail. "Then we actually borrowed and rented paintings and furniture and things from that house," explains the director. "And at the opening of the movie, there is a playroom in the top of the house, where they play their records, and that is a re-creation of a room in a house in Georgia. We took pictures while we were there and Adam built it based on that visit."
The experience of making his previous film, the stop-motion animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, greatly influenced the creation of Moonrise. "The thing you have no choice but to do when you’re doing an animated movie is to draw everything first," explains Anderson. "It’s not only all storyboarded. It is very carefully storyboarded and then sort of edited into a moving storyboard. It is still images but you actually edit the movie before you shoot it, and that is such a helpful thing to do." On Moonrise, for the first time on a live-action film, he did much the same. "We drew them first then we cut them together and we recorded a soundtrack to go with it. We did the whole thing like that with a number of parts to the film."
Take for instance (spoiler alert!) the storm sequence towards the end of the film. "The storm arrives and there’s a lot of simultaneous action," says Anderson. "There’s a lot of running around and it’s the kind of thing where you’ve got to make sure the audience is grasping [what’s happening] and understanding the spaces. And in some parts of the movie, we were filming in places [that don’t] really quite exist and we’re having to figure out how are we faking this so that you get an impression of something that makes sense.
"For action scenes like that, that almost feel like they’re somewhere between live-action and animation anyway, [the moving storyboard is] crucial. In the movie’s opening sequence [the audience sees] things that we were going to build in steps. So animating that is helpful because we know what we need to build precisely. It’s a way to figure out what goes where and how it all fits together and how we’re going to construct it as well as how we’re going to shoot it."
Of course, there’s still a big difference between making an animated movie and a live-action one. "On an animated movie you actually have the option of saying, 'I’d like to build a different sky for this.' [In live-action], you don’t usually get to design your trees. There’s a more fluid aspect to everything when you’re doing an animated movie."
The experience of having directed six full-length features already also greatly informed the process on Moonrise: "There’s a scene where they’re supposed to get on this sailboat and what I really pictured was kind of an animation image where they say goodbye and they raise the sail and the sail immediately fills with wind and they drive away like [on] a go-cart, more or less. But to do that, which is a very simple matter in an animated film, when it comes to live-action, it involves building a small island off-camera with a giant link and an underwater cable that pulls and six guys cranking this thing to jerk this. But now that I’ve done six or seven movies, I’ve had the experience of things not going right so many times, in so many different ways. I have learned to say, 'If we want a sailboat to go flying out of the frame the way we’re talking about, we need to see that happen several times before we get there on the day we’re supposed to shoot it because it’s not going to work. So let’s see repeated successful tests before we count on it.'"
"The music comes into it in different places in the process," says Anderson, who had some music in mind before he wrote a word. He also came upon more of it during the script writing, but some of the elements were not decided until the movie was being edited.
Many years ago, Anderson was struck by the notion of setting a scene to British composer Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood). In Moonrise, Sam and Suzy first meet at a rehearsal for a community production of that opera. "Noah’s Flood became a bit of a motif," he says, "and it grew, it just became something is kind of…wet throughout the whole story. One idea connects to the other and you start to stitch it together. I thought, 'Let’s keep doing Britten.' So I started listening to more and more Britten and we ended up with several other pieces. It goes from the sort of chance inspiration of 'I have this piece of music that is making me think of this scene and connect to this other thing I’ve got in mind’ to 'Let’s do some research and see is there more here to work with.'"
Anderson decided to open the movie with dialogue and music from Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein for his Young People’s Concert series. It’s an apt framing device as it lays out the various components of an orchestration and demonstrates the layering that occurs, much like that which comprises Anderson’s detailed and meticulously crafted film.
"I don’t know that there’s a single scene in the movie that doesn’t have music," says Anderson, whose music supervisor Randall Poster manages everything from the clearances to working with Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox), who scored the film. "Every time a cue ends, something else begins in this movie and once you establish that, you sort of need something everywhere — and that’s like an animated movie. There isn’t silence, there is music always."
There’s another layer of sound that’s unique to many of Anderson’s films: the drumming, always provided by composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. "Drumming is a way to kind of have music without having music, sort of just give it a beat and give it some atmosphere," says Anderson. "Scouting has a kind of military feeling and I think it was really just as simple as trying to find a sound to capture that."
And, finally, there’s Hank Williams music, which accompanies Bruce Willis’ character, Captain Sharp. "That’s something that we really didn’t even plan on at all. Once we edited the first scene that Bruce was in, we sort of had this thought to put that in there and that sort of evolved."
"Those two kids," Anderson says of Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward, who are utterly convincing as Sam and Suzy, two pre-teens in love who run away in the woods, in 1965, "had never acted in anything before. They had been in school plays and stuff, but that’s it." So Anderson decided that he would shoot their scenes with the smallest crew possible. "Let’s see if we can have nobody there," he says, so as not to intimidate them. "Which is kind of complicated when you’re going to have 30 feet of track and a dolly and the weather is going to change and you’re going to bring out lights and all the things that happen in a movie."
And yet he managed to do a sort of pre-shoot, in which Anderson put together what he describes as a "documentary-size group" to "keep it very intimate." He decided to use a special camera for this. "There is a part of this montage where they’re traveling through the wilderness across this island together. For that we shot with these little film cameras that are made by Icon that are about the size of — depending on what size foot you have — they’re smaller than a shoe box. You hold them in one hand, and they are so small they’re not meant to go on your shoulder; you’re meant to hold them below your eye like a video camera. We got five of them. They’re quite difficult to load, and it takes time, and they’re not very fast. We went out into the woods with these two kids, with Apollo our soundman and Bob [Yeoman] our director of photography and the assistant cameraman, and that was it."
His intention with all of it was to try to make it seem as if it were really happening. "Actually they get into the swing of it pretty fast, kids do. But for people like that it is probably more inspiring to pretend this is really happening than it is for them to say, 'I need a little space where I can go by myself to prepare for the scene,' if you see what I mean," he explains. "Usually kids are pretty quick to say, 'Oh, here’s how it happens.' They develop a whole routine that I don’t even know about, like, This is where you guys go to school everyday. Sometimes you sort of stumble into where they’re working, and you have no idea that for a week they’ve been working in some tent somewhere that you’ve been walking past."
In the last two months, as Focus Features was preparing for the release of Moonrise Kingdom and Anderson was doing pre-release interviews, he was hard at work on his next screenplay. Now that it’s done, he’s deep in research and some initial casting. "I’m kind of figuring out how I’m going to go about making it," Anderson says of the movie, whose title he won’t yet reveal, but which he says will be shot in Europe.
"We’re doing some research for some music that’s related to this story," Anderson says, clarifying, "that I think is related to this story anyway, and I just got a little hard drive today of that. We’re doing different research all at once. With Randy [Poster, his music supervisor] and Adam Stockhausen [his production designer] both at the moment, in those two departments." They hope to start shooting by the end of the year. [Stockhausen was a protégé of Mark Friedberg, another production designer with whom Anderson has worked, on Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; Stockhausen and Anderson have also worked together on smaller projects, including the recent Hyundai Azera commercials.]