Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.
A tale of first love had been knocking around in Wes Anderson’s brain for nearly a decade. But before it became the quirky, cherubic Moonrise Kingdom—which earned Oscar talk after being granted the coveted opening-night slot at the Cannes Film Festival and has gone on to become a crossover boxoffice hit—Anderson struggled with getting the story down on paper. For the better part of a year, all he had was a hodgepodge of ideas: a 12-year-old boy and girl in 1965, a New England island, the feel of François Truffaut’s 1976 film Small Change, and a record playing Leonard Bernstein’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”—but no script.
“When we would chat, I would ask Wes how that island film was coming,” says Roman Coppola, who cowrote The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson and Jason Schwartzman. “A chunk of time would pass, and we’d meet up again, and again I’d ask. It was clear the world, the feeling, the vibe of it was there, but the details were vague. Often when you’re working on a creative thing you have a sense that it exists, but you’re trying to find its form.”
So Coppola stepped in, holing himself up in a hotel room in Italy to tease out the script with Anderson. They each harkened back to memories of puppy love: for Anderson it was vivid recollections of being 11 and wanting something bigger to happen in his young life; for Coppola it was Annie Winkelstein who passed him a note that said, “I think you’re cute, call me.” After a month of talking it through, scene by scene, Anderson says the movie “revealed itself”—a tale of a disgruntled boy scout and a brooding schoolgirl who spark a pen-pal romance and run away together.
Quick to support the completed script were what’s become known as Anderson’s usual suspects. Early aboard was billionaire Steven Rales of Indian Paintbrush, who produced the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox and Darjeeling Limited; and the ubiquitous Scott Rudin, who’s produced every Wes Anderson film since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums—both of whom Anderson calls his “key advisers” for their input into everything from the script to casting and, pertinently with Rudin, the marketing of the film. Also on board was Anderson’s right-hand man and producer on the ground, Jeremy Dawson, who produced Anderson’s prior two films and was visual effects supervisor on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
Via Indian Paintbrush, Focus Features signed on to distribute before filming even began. Despite what seems like a relatively breezy path enjoyed only by elite filmmakers of both critical and boxoffice successes, Dawson still describes the process as “a weird miracle.”
The cast fell into place with Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and, from Anderson’s posse, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. But, says Anderson, “the biggest thing with this movie, once there was a script was, who are these actors for these two kids? Because if we can’t find them, we don’t have a movie. So we set aside a lot of time to search.”
Dispatching casting directors worldwide, Anderson reviewed potentials on Quicktime, watching what he calls dozens of “postage-stamp auditions” every day. He landed on two first-timers: from New Jersey, Jared Gilman as Sam, and from the Boston area, Kara Hayward as Suzy. “For Jared, what immediately made me laugh was the way he looked and his voice,” Anderson describes. “His audition was good, but the interview between him and our casting director was charming and winning, and I liked him immediately. With Kara, on the other hand, it was as simple as having seen 900 different girls read the same scene, a scene I began long before and soon despised. (Kara) seemed to make up the words spontaneously, right there on the spot. No one else had read like this for me, and I thought she had to be it.”
The next challenge was determining where to shoot, which meant finding a suitable island. “We called it Google scouting,” says production designer Adam Stockhausen, describing how the team searched the Internet, emailing each other photos of islands around the world. When a bright-red lighthouse in Rhode Island encapsulated Anderson’s vision of the fictitious island of New Penzance, the location was set.
While Anderson’s films have their broody and fantastical hallmarks, so does his filmmaking style, and immersion is his goal. Cast and crew descended onto Rhode Island for the entire shoot, and local and/or authentic relics were sourced almost exclusively—from antique landscape paintings to osprey nests to a ping-pong table that was spotted in the historic Clingstone mansion that sits atop the rocks of Narragansett Bay.
No detail was too small, down to the decoration on Sam’s Khaki Scout tent. “We knew we wanted symbols on Sam’s tent, and we wanted it to have a handmade feeling that was very personal, very unique,” says Stockhausen about what he calls his favorite element in the movie. “We stumbled on a notebook of 19th-century
ink drawings, that, I think, were Cherokee, of beautiful figurines of animals, and we re-created them.”
Another Anderson filmmaking trait is to shun the ordinary and create a unique environment. For the Rhode Island production office, they set up in a decommissioned 1960s elementary school that not only had the necessary space but fit with the vibe of the film and served as rehearsal space for Jared, Kara, and the Khaki Scouts.
“It’s where kids that age would have been,” Dawson says. “We don’t like to have, oh, this is a place where people come to make movies. No, this is a place where you get your head into this movie. We try and reinvent a lot of the rules of filmmaking, and sometimes that’s to add more efficiency or to save movie, but sometimes it’s just literally to do things differently so that it’s memorable for everyone who works on it. Also, Wes feels it filters into the film—maybe it’s not fully tangible, but the actors, for instance, they’re in a different mindset if you create a nice, communal atmosphere. It’s more like a theater troupe.”
To this point, actors didn’t have trailers, everyone ate meals together—and effort was made to always have great food—and many of the cast and crew lived together in a large rented house that also contained the editing room. To prep the young leads, Anderson had Hayward and Gilman get into character by writing to each other as Sam and Suzy—not by email, but on stationery, with ink, the way starry-eyed kids would have in 1965.
Once filming was complete, editing was moved to New York: a rented apartment that had been the home of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.
Also, in a nontraditional move, the team embarked on numerous featurettes, including a short with Jason Schwartzman and a partially-animated story hour with Bob Balaban.
“Focus was great in helping us with all these extra materials we wanted to do and saying, ‘Let’s do them!’ ” Dawson explains. “Wes works harder than anybody I know. Because a film is so intense and focused, we, and especially Wes, always want them to be an adventure to make as well as to watch. For artists in general, it’s nice to work with a director who cares about everything, every piece. That helps us get good people into our world.”