Wes Anderson interview
Can 'Moonrise Kingdom' satisfy Anderson's ardent fans and silence his critics, asks Cath Clarke
What to make of Wes Anderson? In 2000, after ‘Rushmore’, before ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, aged 30, he was being hailed as ‘the next Scorsese’ – and that was Martin Scorsese talking. It didn’t pan out like that; Anderson’s films got more expensive but fewer and fewer people were watching. And the Wes-bashing got louder: he’s all style no substance, quirkier than thou, too precious by half. The director answered his critics in 2009 with the wonderful animation ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, but a lot is still riding on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, his first live-action film in five years.
A journalist once described Anderson as having his ‘feet on the table and nose in the air’ – and there are those who say the director can be sniffily self-regarding, in his Savile Row-tailored corduroy suits. But not at all. When we meet at Claridge’s he is wearing a rather fetching brown corduroy suit, but the man inside the suit seems totally genuine – funny, intelligent and as relaxed as anyone can be while being photographed in front of a very big and very chintzy lampshade (it’s an occupational hazard, photographers trying to make him look like one of his characters).
What’s more, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is possibly his best film yet. It’s a heart-melting love story involving a pair of precocious 12-year-old misfits, Sam and Suzy – he’s an orphan in bottle-top glasses, she listens to Françoise Hardy. Played by newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, the pair meet on the fictional New England island of New Penzance in the summer of 1964 – just before the ’60s have begun to swing – and hatch a plan to run away together. It’s giddily eccentric in that Wes Anderson-ish, dark-hearted way, and incredibly sweet, with charm in spades. Remember how life-and-death serious love felt aged 12? Watch the film and it will all come flooding back.
‘More than anything this story comes from what I wished was happening to me when I was that age,’ says Anderson settling down on a plump sofa. In real life, 12-year-old Wes Anderson lived in suburban Texas, one of three boys. His parents split when he was eight, and cracked marriages reverberate through his films. What was he like as a kid? Bookish? ‘I was, but my brothers and I were outdoors all the time.’ And before long he’d got hold of a Super 8 camera and was tearing around with them recreating ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
Anderson has wanted to make a love story between young children for years: ‘This is one where the adults are not quite sure what’s going on,’ he explains. ‘A certain amount of romance is okay, but this has gone too far. Someone could get hurt.’ Suzy and Sam meet in a church hall on New Penzance where she lives and he’s camping with the Scouts. The scene (watch it, it’s on the trailer) is unmistakably, vintage Wes Anderson. Sam spots Suzy backstage at a production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’ (Noah’s Flood). He’s in Scout uniform, she’s dressed like a raven and surrounded by a gaggle of girl-birds. ‘What kind of bird are you?’ he asks. Bang. They fall into me-and-you-against-the-world love. It’s Anderson’s favourite scene, and he talks like a proud dad about his young cast: ‘When we were doing it, I just thought: “Now they’re just like actors.” ’ He’d spent eight months in schools auditioning hundreds of kids to play his leads.
Pretty much the entire world (or their little corner of it) is against Sam and Suzy. His Scout troop comes looking for them, and it all goes a bit ‘Lord of the Flies’: Suzy stabs a boy in the kidney with left-handed scissors (he deserves it); a dog gets it in the neck with an arrow. As you’d expect, everything is realised in obsessively perfect (‘you can’t go back and fix it’) detail, from Suzy’s Sunday-school shoes (sourced in a vintage shop) to the soundtrack full of Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten. This is instantly recognisable as Wes’s World, and he’s brought together his starriest cast yet: Edward Norton as an aw-shucks Scout leader, Bruce Willis as the saddest cop in town and Bill Murray – who has been in all Anderson’s films except his first, ‘Bottle Rocket’ – as Suzy’s dad. Tilda Swinton makes a delicious appearance as Social Services (that’s her name: dressed in a Salvation Army-ish uniform, she arrives to whisk Sam off to an orphanage).
Anderson starts talking about the films he watched while researching ‘Moonrise’. I haven’t asked the question, but he’s keen to acknowledge a debt to Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Small Change’. What influenced him most, however, are two lesser-known British films. The first is ‘Melody’ from 1971, a frankly crackers drama starring the kids who played Oliver and Dodger (Mark Lester and Jack Wild) in ‘Oliver!’ – essentially playing the same characters in ’70s south London. The other is Ken Loach’s ‘Black Jack’, set in 1750s Yorkshire, in which a teenage boy saves a girl from a lunatic asylum. Is Anderson a Loach fan? ‘Well, in the past I haven’t really known Ken Loach films. There’s one called “Kes”, a very beautiful movie, do you know it?’ I explain how watching ‘Kes’ is a rite of passage film for teenage film-lovers in the UK. That makes him smile. ‘ “Black Jack” should be in the same category, in my opinion,’ he says.
Anderson has a reputation for being cool under fire. If he’s nervous about opening the Cannes Film Festival, it doesn’t show. And he’s pretty relaxed talking about his failures. Take 2004’s ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ – which made back less than half its $50 million budget at the box office. The problem, Anderson says, was scale: ‘Each movie was getting more expensive. Suddenly, for the first time, I was doing a movie that cost double the one before. And we shot for 100 days. And the movie was losing money galore. It was like: we are not in control of this.’
He resolved not to lose control again. ‘When we did “The Darjeeling Limited”, it made less money. It made less money than anything really. But for better or for worse that was the film I had in mind. And it was a good experience.’ He pauses and deadpans, with a sly, mischievous grin: ‘Except it would have been a much better experience if I had gotten great reviews and made two to three times more money.’ Does he read reviews? No. ‘Hypothetically, it could be interesting. But usually the experience is not helpful.’
Anderson admits that his films are ‘polarising’. On the one hand he’s got fans who are so totally devoted that they have Wes Anderson-themed weddings (seriously). His critics dislike him with just as much passion. ‘A mind-numbing black hole that has no reason to exist’ is how one review described his debut ‘Bottle Rocket’. He was lumbered with the label ‘hipster auteur’ (which makes him pull a yuck-face) a decade ago, around the time of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’. ‘I started to feel like something weird was happening,’ he says. ‘I was trying to make an entertaining movie and some people were interpreting it as having some other goal, like posing or something…’ He trails off. Rather unfairly, his detractors hold him personally responsible for inspiring a generation of quirk-tinged films basking in romantic irony (‘Juno’, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and the rest).
Does he get irritated with diehard fans? ‘No. That I love.’ Even their disappointed blogs criticising him for making adverts? ‘Rightly so!’ Anderson exclaims with a mischievous grin – on the side of the bloggers. He quite likes an advert he made recently for Sony – ‘They should pay me for saying that. But otherwise I agree with those people. It isn’t right to be doing these commercials. But you know, I got paid more to do a couple of car commercials than I did to do two years on this film.’
There’s a terrific scene – another of Anderson’s favourites – in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ in which Suzy’s warring parents lie awake at night in their twin beds. They’re both lawyers and we’ve seen their constant bickering. She tells him she’s sorry. ‘Which injuries are you apologising for specifically?’ he asks. ‘Any that still hurt,’ she answers simply. The lesson, as in all of Anderson’s films, is clear: hold everything dear. What’s different this time is that the feelings run deeper, the emotional hurt feels very real. Does Anderson perhaps feel that he’s matured with this film? ‘When you say that I think maybe I have.’ He beams. ‘That would be good.’
‘Moonrise Kingdom’ opens on Fri May 25 2012.