There are two kinds of Wes Anderson movies: The ones you love and the ones you don’t. After seven feature films (including The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), the mere mention of his name splits movie buffs into two camps: people who savor his style — a whimsical, storybook surface harboring deep wells of emotion — and people who find him arch and artificial.
Moonrise Kingdom, which opens Friday, may be the most Andersonesque picture of his career, but it is also the most accessible. The cast is large and filled with stars (Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel). The setting is fictitious — the adventurous-sounding New Penzance Island — but grounded enough in reality that we always have our bearings. The story — 12-year-olds Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love and run away from home — is slight on plot but heavy on incident, humor and heart.
And the central themes — the way we remember childhood, the logic kids use to understand the world, the sweet, dolorous and exhilarating rush of first love — are dealt with lightly and gently, never spelled out or force-fed.
Anderson’s refusal to hold moviegoers’ hands, to tell them where to look or what to feel, is part of what makes his movies so invigorating. You take away from Moonrise Kingdom whatever you want to, but no two people will respond to the film the same way. The open nature of his work, combined with the specificity of his craft — every frame is precisely composed and gorgeous — is part of what makes his pictures so divisive.
“The first thing I do when I finish a first draft of a script is I show it to a group of my friends and colleagues,” Anderson says. “They’ve been the same people since the beginning of my career. And what usually happens is that I’ll get completely different reactions.
“Sometimes I can really use the feedback, like when everyone points to the same thing and says it isn’t working. But generally, the opinions are all over the place. When you go to a movie, your opinion of it is based on the connection you make with the movie. When someone says ‘Oh, you just don’t get it,’ they’re the ones who don’t get it. Everyone’s reaction is right. And the subject matter of a movie is going to play a huge role in how you respond.”
Anderson is comfortable and eloquent talking about his films. He’s not reticent and mysterious, like David Lynch, and he’s happy to describe his creative process and style, which is often dismissed as overly fussy and precious, perhaps because the director labors over every detail.
“When I’m working on a movie, I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m thinking about what we’re trying to make, but I don’t think about why I’m making certain choices.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in the theater. I acted in plays when I was in elementary school. But I’ve never had anything to do with the theater as a grown-up. …
“What I’ve realized lately is that there’s a big part of my movies that is all about the theater, and that the audience is there to watch a piece of art that is being made for them. I think that’s why I’ve often put scenes of characters performing in plays into my movies. There’s definitely a theatrical quality to them.”
Roman Coppola, a frequent Anderson collaborator (he co-wrote the screenplays for Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Limited), says the director tends to work on instinct and impulse instead of careful calculation and intellectual thought. The combination of his peculiar, specific style and the freedom of his narratives is what keeps his movies from feeling suffocating.
“There were times when we were working on Darjeeling and we’d get stuck on something,” Coppola says. “I would start getting a little heady and ask things like, ‘What’s the theme of this movie? What are we trying to say?’ And Wes couldn’t have been less interested in those questions.
“In most movies, you can easily discern the ideas behind them. But Wes works more intuitively, out of his interest in the characters and their lives and the details of their worlds. The themes of his movies are built into their DNA, but they are not imposed or sought.”
Moonrise Kingdom isn’t as much about a quirky narrative as it is about imparting a mood — the way we see the world as children, when it’s filled with adventure, wonder and possibility. But the film also offers the deep pleasure of watching a large ensemble cast play in Anderson’s dollhouse universe. They bring life and personality to his impeccably realized recreations of the world, where even the tiniest details — the covers of books and record albums — contribute to his vision.
“Wes loves actors, and he loves to demonstrate things,” says Jason Schwartzman, an Anderson stock player who has a small role in Moonrise Kingdom. “He builds into his scripts the experience he’s hoping to have on the set. On Rushmore, there was a scene where I had to drive a go-kart, and he said ‘Here, let me show you,’ and he climbed it and started driving it around. I remember thinking ‘Not only does he want to make this movie, but he also wanted to drive that go-kart!’
“…Sometimes he’ll write a part for a specific actor so he can work with them and become friends,” Schwartzman says. “He wants the set to be this kind of super-fun, supportive, insane environment. That’s why there are no trailers on his movies. Trailers are these boxes for actors to go into between takes and sit by themselves. Wes wants everyone to hang out and get to know each other. And as he keeps making movies and builds a catalogue of work, more actors are drawn to him.”
Moonrise Kingdom features a memorable turn by Tilda Swinton as a woman named Social Services who threatens to swoop in and separate the runaway kids. Swinton has only a few minutes of screen time, but you remember everything about her — her impeccably tailored dark-blue dress, her orderly manner, her bureaucratic logic. The deep impression her character makes is less a result of her function in the plot and more a testament to Anderson’s excitement over the opportunity to work with her.
“I had never met Tilda before,” Anderson says. “But she is so striking and such a powerhouse actor — have you ever seen this movie she’s in Julia? It’s a staggering performance.
“In Moonrise Kingdom, her performance feels larger than life, but it’s also really natural, like a documentary. I was so excited when I saw her doing it on the set. She turned that character into something I couldn’t have predicted. That’s the key to all my movies, probably. Even I don’t know what it’s really going to be until we’ve finished shooting it.”