What to make of Wes Anderson? In 2000, after the success of Rushmore, he was being hailed as ‘the next Scorsese’ at the age of 30 – 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 and no substance, quirkier than thou, too precious by half. While the director answered some of his critics in 2009 with the well-received animated Fantastic Mr Fox, a lot is still riding on Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s first live-action film in five years.
The director has a reputation for being cool under fire – and if he’s nervous about the opening of his film, it doesn’t show. 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. True, he is wearing a rather fetching brown corduroy suit when we meet, but the man inside the suit seems totally genuine – funny, intelligent and open. He 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. His critics dislike him with just as much passion. He was lumbered with the label ‘hipster auteur’ (which he dislikes) 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.
Moonrise Kingdom is a heart-melting love story involving a pair of precocious 12-year-old misfits, Sam and Suzy – played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – he’s an orphan in bottle-top glasses, she listens to Françoise Hardy. 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.
‘More than anything this story comes from what I wished was happening to me when I was that age,’ says Anderson. 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. 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 boy scouts. The scene is unmistakeably, vintage Anderson: Sam spots Suzy backstage at a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood). He’s in a scout uniform, she’s dressed like a raven and surrounded by a gaggle of girl-birds. ‘What kind of bird are you?’ he asks, and bang: they fall into a 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 had spent eight months in schools auditioning hundreds of kids to play his leads.
As you’d expect, everything is realised in obsessively perfect detail (‘you can’t go back and fix it,’ says Anderson), from Suzy’s Sunday-school shoes (sourced in a vintage shop) to the Hank Williams-/Britten-dominated soundtrack. This is instantly recognisable as Wes 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 of 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).
There’s another terrific scene in Moonrise Kingdom in which Suzy’s warring parents Walt and Laura (Murray and Frances McDormand) lie awake at night in their twin beds. They’re both lawyers and we’ve seen their constant bickering. Laura tells Walt that 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 smiles. ‘That would be good.’