The 'handwriting' of Wes Anderson

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2012 - 3:08 PM

The director talks about his one-of-a-kind style and his penchant for organizing film shoots like sleep-away camps.

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Edward Norton and Wes Anderson arrive for the screening of "Moonrise Kingdom at Cannes.

Photo: Abd Rabbo Ammar,

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After seven distinctive features, director Wes Anderson's films could run without credits and still be instantly recognizable. With their fastidious set design, dysfunctional upper-class characters, sly dialogue and sentimental Euro-pop soundtracks, "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeeling Limited" and now "Moonrise Kingdom" exist in a universe all their own.

The offbeat auteur has amassed a legion of fans -- and major stars -- who adore his blend of wacky humor and poignancy. It's a stylized, fantastic world, and not for all tastes. For viewers who don't find Anderson's off-kilter world view accessible, "there are plenty of other varieties to choose from," the 43-year-old Texas-born filmmaker said by phone from London last week.

"Moonrise" is set on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, a sleepy summer retreat so remote it lacks paved roads. The young hero, Sam, is a scout whose Camp Ivanhoe features a cartoonish treehouse perched high on a towering, branchless trunk. His paramour, smart but troubled Suzy, lives in a converted lighthouse.

"Each time I start a new movie, I want to create a little universe for these characters to live in, for the story to unfold in, a place the audience has not been before," Anderson said. "But I always do it in my own handwriting. I know that makes my movies connect to one another in a way that isn't necessarily an advantage for all audiences. But the only way I could change that is deliberately change my handwriting, and I don't want to do that."

"Moonrise" features Bruce Willis in a break from his recent run of macho roles, playing a sad-sack rural sheriff. While Anderson didn't write the part with the superstar in mind, the casting choice came to feel inevitable.

"I thought, this character is so lonely and sad and insecure. And yet he's the police force. I thought Bruce would bring an authenticity" to a climactic scene where he steps up as a physically courageous hero. "There's no way you're not going to believe him as the police," Anderson said. "He's done it so many times."

Anderson's films are often inspired by events from his own life. "Rushmore" recalled his prep school days. "Bottle Rocket" sprang from a break-in he organized against an inconsiderate landlord. In "Moonrise," his moody young heroine discovers that her parents have been consulting a pamphlet titled "Coping With the Very Troubled Child." As a child, Anderson discovered a similar parents' guidebook.

Turning often to the theme of dysfunctional families, he uses a stock company of actors and creative partners as his surrogate clan. On "Moonrise," he said, "I shared a house with my editor and director of photographer, Edward Norton and Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. I like for the group to be really in it together. There's a tradition where actors disappear from the set and go into these little private rooms. I can't stand it. I want it to be like we're a theater company together."

The film is set in 1965, and Anderson "wanted it to feel like old snapshots." Cutting against the push to digital filmmaking, he shot with "old-fashioned" 16-millimeter film stock and vintage handheld cameras similar to retro home movie equipment.

"It's a French model that's so small you hold it underhand and look down the viewfinder on top of it. It was actually perfect for shooting 12-year-olds, because it's down on their level."

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