Moonrise Kingdom amounted to Wes Anderson at his best. It was a relate-able story of first love, injected with Anderson’s playful wit, his sense of the absurd, and his singular visual style. The result was a $66 million worldwide gross and one of the year’s big specialty film hits. Since making his debut on Bottle Rocket, Anderson has honed a highly original voice that has sometimes hit the crossover bulls eye (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) and sometimes is confined to a smaller core audience (The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). On a train ride in Germany where he was prepping his next film The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson talked about how he learned to be confident in and satisfied with his unique voice.
DEADLINE: Moonrise Kingdom was one of your most appealing films, and it crossed well beyond your usual core audience. When you place your stories in these quirky visual worlds, how important is it to provide issues or emotions that are universal?
ANDERSON: My experience of how these stories are laid up is different for each movie. I hope people will be moved by, gripped by, or entertained by these films, but it’s a crap shoot. I don’t even know if I’ve succeeded until, literally, when the movie goes beyond New York and L.A., and screens are added and the film really starts to reach people. It’s what I aspire to in every movie, to have it mean something to people. But I will say that some of these movies have definitely not moved lots of people.
DEADLINE: Which of your movies did you expect would relate to a wider audience and didn’t?
ANDERSON: Well Darjeeling Limited, for instance, I thought was a more accessible kind of movie. I thought it would speak to people who have brothers and sisters, and people who’ve lost parents. What we ended up with was something that was much more esoteric.
DEADLINE: Was there a film in your career, or maybe even a filmmaker who influenced you, that made you bold enough to trust that you would not be painting pictures too “out there” for an audience to embrace?
ANDERSON: It’s not really something that I think about that much. The filmmaker who made it possible for me to make movies at all is Jim Brooks and Polly Platt. They gave me and Owen Wilson the chance to believe at all, and they built up our confidence and taught us a lot when we made Bottle Rocket. But Jim’s always been a much more commercial filmmaker than I could ever be. His voice speaks to a big audience and I can’t say that’s a thing I’ve ever been the most focused on. I feel quite lucky to have been able to make the movies that I’ve made. Quite an odd type of movie, and yet I’ve been able to keep the business going.
DEADLINE: Even though it’s a different voice than his, you mean Brooks taught you to be true to the voice inside you?
ANDERSON: That’s what Jim always said to us. He’d read this script that was not a very well done script, it was like a 275 page light comedy. And he looked right at it and said “these guys have something they ought to pursue and develop. And I want to help them do that.” In fact, he and Polly kind of want to make sure we did that. Nothing will ever be as important to us as that was.
DEADLINE: I recall writing about how Bottle Rocket came together, this tiny film that Sony and Brooks flipped for. They bought it, put millions of dollars into it, and you were going to be the next big thing. Then it grossed a couple hundred thousand dollars. At the end of that whole whirlwind, where did that leave you as a filmmaker trying to be confident in his voice?
ANDERSON: Well, I entered it with totally utter blind confidence. And from the moment we first screened that movie, my confidence was deeply shaken.
ANDERSON: Because the first screening we had was just absolutely atrocious. And every screening we had after that, until about 10 years after the movie happened, was awful. We had very bad numbers, and hundreds of walk-outs. We lost half an audience at the first screening. But I did come out of the experience with reason to be happy. It was like film school for me, and we had these amazing professors. And some people in the business liked the movie, like Joe Roth, who ended up green lighting the next movie we did, Rushmore. People like Mike De Luca and Scott Rudin, took notice of this flop. So even though the movie was a disaster from the point of view of the box office, it actually put us into the movie business anyway.
DEADLINE: What should Hollywood perhaps do differently to perhaps nurture young voices that are not straight down the middle, who you don’t hire to make the 6th installment of a franchise, but have the potential to develop a distinctive voice? How much harder is that now than when you made your debut with Bottle Rocket, which has become a cult favorite?
ANDERSON: Well, that movie was probably just a complete fluke. We had every reason in the world where it would have been impossible for us to get that movie done then, and it’s probably physically impossible to get it done now. I don’t think there is any conceivable business motive for how to make the movie. One big part of the business model that was flawed was, that movie cost 7 million dollars, and it probably should have been made for around 750,000 dollars. Then, it could have probably made more money if it had been approached differently. At the same time it wasn’t like we showed it to all the film festivals and they all said let’s put this into the system. We got turned down by all of the film festivals! We didn’t have any place to show it. I don’t really know what anyone could have done differently with that one. Except just wait.
DEADLINE: If you were advising a young Wes Anderson, what survival advice would you give in what seems to be becoming just an increasingly harder place to be doing what you do?
ANDERSON: All I know is just to make the best movie and then move on onto the next one. Whatever happens. move on to the next one, and try to make sure that one happens, whatever way it has to happen. I will say I don’t think the answer is to hold out for X amount of money…my usual attitude is kind of “let’s see what way can one get this film done. And let’s find a way to do it within those parameters.
DEADLINE: Hyde Park on Hudson director Roger Michell told me that he financed pre-production out of his pocket not knowing if Bill Murray would star in the movie but knowing that he would not make the movie if Bill said no. He sweated it out before Murray committed. Sony was ready to spend a fortune green lighting a Ghostbusters sequel, if Murray committed. I’m not sure he ever responded or read the script. Can you explain why you have such a high consistency rate of getting Bill to star in your movies?
ANDERSON: Well I don’t know if I can. But when we made Rushmore, I didn’t want to send him the script because I understood that it was futile, that he would not respond at all and that it would be impossible to get him. And then finally Owen and I decided to give it a shot and Donald De Line at Disney said, let’s try. It was just good luck. Bill had an agent at that time, which he hasn’t had in years. People who knew us said something to him. He never watched Bottle Rocket, he just read the Rushmore script. And he just suddenly appeared and that was it. I love the guy, so I came to him as a huge fan. I am indebted to him so much. I feel it’s just been a stroke of luck for me to have him in these movies because I do feel like he’s perfectly suited to them. Bill, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, these guys are kind of my bread and butter.
DEADLINE: Why does Bill avoid that usual Hollywood star game? Most actors don’t play hard to get. And what is your process in getting him aboard your movies now?
ANDERSON: Well now, I have the luxury of being friends with him and being able to just send the scripts to him directly. But I think also, I can’t speak for him but I feel like he sort of made a choice to kind of to support me. I feel a bit like he’s family, so that’s how I kind of approach it. I think he’s just decided that he’s locked in. You can’t choose your crosses. Things like this just kind of happen.
DEADLINE: You do repeat business with several actors. Do you write movies specifically for them? Are you discussing the scripts with Murray, or just show him when you’re done?
ANDERSON: It’s different on different ones. On The Life Aquatic, I had been talking with him about the role for a long time. And we knew this one was coming. Moonrise Kingdom, Roman and I, we made the script kind of suddenly. We did have Bill and Frances McDormand in mind for their roles, from the beginning, but Bill didn’t really know anything about it until I sent it to him. He was extremely encouraging. I remember that he kept saying, “This one counts. This one counts.”
DEADLINE: Star Wars was among the films that influenced you early on. What would the world get if Wes Anderson signed on to direct one of these new Star Wars films Disney will make?
ANDERSON: Well I have a feeling I would probably ultimately get replaced on the film because I don’t’ know if I have all the right action chops. But at least I know the characters from the old films.
DEADLINE: You are not doing a good job of selling yourself as a maker of blockbusters.
ANDERSON: I think you are reading it exactly right. I don’t think I would do a terrible job at a Han Solo backstory. I could do that pretty well. But maybe that would be better as a short.
DEADLINE: The theme of Moonrise Kingdom is young love, and the parents who seem to get in the way. That was ground plowed by John Hughes, but his parents were always insensitive buffoons. The adults in your movie had those qualities, but they all had redemptive moments. When you and Roman Coppola were writing this, what was your priority in how you painted the characters surrounding these kids?
ANDERSON: We were thinking of then as people who are being influenced by these kids. The kids were protected by their lack of bad experiences. They’ve surely had some bad experiences but not enough to become cynical because they haven’t had the same past as these adults have had. The adults have let go of some dreams along the way, and maybe they’re alarmed by what they’re experiencing with these kids because it triggers some sleeping brain cells and emotions and things. That’s sort of the thread we were following as we worked on the script.
DEADLINE: Moonrise Kingdom was a big specialty film hit and effective counter-programming against the summer blockbusters. How much does that help the next film, when you’ve exceeded expectations like this, as opposed to say The Life Aquatic, an expensive film that didn’t do that well?
ANDERSON: After Life Aquatic, my next one was Darjeeling Limited and we had a couple of studios that were eager to do it. We had the support we wanted. I think after we made Fantastic Mr. Fox and that movie didn’t do very well, we had to make Moonrise Kingdom for less money than I feel like we would have under other circumstances. We probably would’ve had a little more, not a lot more and we still would have made the same movie anyways but it was a bit more of a grind than it might have been. You go out to all these different foreign markets and territories and they come back with the numbers and if those numbers aren’t agreeable, then you’re stuck. Luckily I have Steven Rales, and he and his company have been very vested in my movies for a number of years. And I have Scott Rudin who I’ve been working with for 16 years. Those are two class producers to have in your corner. Plus now I have producer Jeremy Dawson. That’s a pretty strong producing partnership that I didn’t always have and that helped me a lot.
DEADLINE: Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed to have all the elements for an animated hit – star voices like George Clooney and Meryl Streep, Murray and Schwartzman, a beloved book by an iconic children’s author, smart script and fun visuals. Why didn’t it fare better?
ANDERSON: Probably because of that.
ANDERSON: Smart movie is probably not the recipe for laughs. I know I’m being a little glib, because Pixar makes smart movies that are hits. Ours first of all is stop motion. A furry stop motion is probably not the state-of-the-art that the biggest audience is looking for. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it is a bit retro. Tom Rothman made the movie at Fox, and his observation as we went along was that it was extremely talky, wordy, dialogue-driven animated movie for sophisticated audiences. So I knew all along and it didn’t come as a shock to me that it didn’t make $75 million dollars.
DEADLINE: Rothman’s job was to fill a slate for a mainstream audience. Are you changeable when it comes to adapting your film to succeed at the box office at an executive’s persuasion, or are you like a Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, who say, “here’s the movie I’m making, take it or leave it?”
ANDERSON: I think probably Tom would say I was clearly in the second camp because ultimately I didn’t make a mainstream movie. From my point of view, I felt like I got some good input from Tom; we had a screening in Paramus, New Jersey, and he had some observations. I got something from that, and made incremental changes from his advice and I think that he thinks that improved the movie but I did not make the changes that might have made it genuinely broader more commercially. So, what choice do I have? I’d rather make the movie I want to make than make the hit that he thought we might be able to make.
DEADLINE: Bruce Willis was a pleasant surprise as Moonrise Kingdom’s lonely police officer. Did you have him in mind as you were writing?
ANDERSON: I had Jimmy Stewart in mind but when I was done, he was at the top of the list. And I usually don’t have actors in mind – every now and then I do and often I’ll want to write something for somebody who I already know. I did have a thought that it would be a kind of iconic policeman who we are then revealing has a real sadness and is kind of shy and very-reserved.
DEADLINE: What’s the benefit of working with the same actors over and over?
ANDERSON: Most of the actors that I’ve worked with repeatedly are people who I started out as a fan of. Some, like Jason Schwartzman for instance, I searched for a long long time before I found a kid I thought was perfect for Rushmore. I loved him as an actor from the moment I met him, when he was a drummer, and not an actor. These are my favorites and anytime I have a chance to work with them again, I look forward to it. But I work with a lot of the same people over and over again in other departments too. These movies become like fun reunions.
DEADLINE: Tell me about the genesis of Grand Budapest Hotel and what made Ralph Fiennes right to play the hotel concierge that everything revolves around?
ANDERSON: It’s a combination of a couple of different ideas: one was this character I had in mind of this concierge. I was also inspired by the work of the writer Stephen Fry. I’d also been reading a lot about the Second World War; there’s a connection to the Holocaust in the movie and just a bit of European history on the first half of the 20th century and the regimes. Ralph is somebody who I’ve known just from seeing him around over the years but I’ve been a huge fan since the beginning. And the last few movies I’ve seen him in, I had a very strong impulse that I want to make something with this guy – I feel like we could have a very good connection and might do something special together. He’s a powerhouse actor.
DEADLINE: Years ago, you were called the next Martin Scorsese, by Scorsese himself. What did that mean to you and have you lived up to that heady prediction?
ANDERSON: At this point we’re so completely different. He’s one of my heroes and he always will be and I can’t really think of myself in any relation to him. It wasn’t like he was saying, “Let it be known for all the ages that I give my stamp of approval to this person.” It was an Esquire magazine article. But I was a young person when he said that, so to me it was pretty exciting.