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Director Wes Anderson revisits the concept of family in latest offering 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Bonding, kinship and catharsis are recurring themes for director Wes Anderson, asJames Mottram explains

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 8:21am

When Wes Anderson was growing up in Texas, he came across a pamphlet on the refrigerator in his family's kitchen. It was titled
Coping With the Very Troubled Child. Anderson knew it was meant for him. "It was not a great feeling," he recalls of the shock. "I wasn't the only child in the house, but I knew which one was the very troubled child. And I think if my brothers [Eric and Mel] had found it they would not have looked to themselves."

Years later, the scars may not be visible, but the writer-director behind
Rushmore and
The Royal Tenenbaums evidently still carries those memories. In what might be a tiny act of catharsis, the incident has found its way into his new film,
Moonrise Kingdom, a 1965-set comedic drama that plays out in a small, isolated Rhode Island community. "Practically everything, in my experience of making a movie," Anderson says, "comes from somewhere in life, from some person who inspired something or some little memory."

His body of work is flush with autobiographical details. His mother was an archaeologist, just like Anjelica Huston's matriarch in
The Royal Tenenbaums, while his boyhood fascination with Jacques Cousteau inspired
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. But the pattern always circles back to family - and
Moonrise Kingdom is no exception. From the rag-tag friends in his 1996 debut
Bottle Rocket to the furry clan in the animated
Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson's all about our need for family, surrogate or otherwise, even when they find you troublesome.

In the absence of his own family,
Moonrise's orphan hero - 12-year-old Boy Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) - goes searching for first love. The erudite Sam convinces local girl Suzy (Kara Hayward) to run away with him. They get as far as the woods, but nevertheless cause consternation for her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) and Sam's scout master (Edward Norton).

Anderson credits his young characters with taste, intelligence and maturity. "I kind of feel they're equal [to their elders]," he says. "The children in this story are the ones that know what they want, more than the adults. They're maybe a little more efficient in getting what they're after."

Dressed in a brown corduroy suit, and carrying a folded-up newspaper in his pocket, the 43-year-old Anderson doesn't exactly look in touch with his inner child. But he promises that it was his memories "of feeling like you've fallen in love at that age" that inspired what he labels "a pretty sad comedy". So is it a wistful lament for those pre-pubescent days of innocence? He says not. "It's not like I feel like I was happier as a child. I feel happier making movies than I ever did going to school."

If Anderson's films are thematic explorations of family, his productions are practical attempts to replicate that support network a family gives. Frequently drawing from the same pool of actors (this is his sixth film of seven with Murray), he also likes to team up with writers - this time bringing in Roman Coppola (the son of Francis Ford and the co-writer) and Jason Schwartzman, of 2007 India-set travelogue
The Darjeeling Limited).

On set, Anderson refuses to let actors have trailers to retire to in between scenes, as a way to foster camaraderie. "It's all about actors and the crew being a family," says Schwartzman, another returnee who plays one of the older scouts. With actors responsible for maintaining their own costumes, hair and make-up the director also encouraged as many as possible to bed down in the house he rented for the production.

"It's like being in a theatre group," says Norton, who maintained an e-mail relationship for years with Anderson before finally getting to work with him. "We would all come home. Everybody took a shower and then Bill [Murray] would put on his Chicago Cubs bathrobe and Wes would wear his little English ascot and come down and have dinner. It was great."

Anderson cites Ingmar Bergman, the Coen brothers and Pedro Almodóvar as "good role models" for him. "They have their own stock companies, and they consistently make their own films, and I admire that." Maybe this creation of his own stock company is why Anderson doesn't have a family of his own - though he does have a girlfriend, writer Juman Malouf, to whom he dedicates the script of
Moonrise Kingdom. "I've wanted to have children before, but not yet," he stutters when asked why he has yet to start his own clan.

He evidently has a good relationship with his siblings - in particular with the younger Eric, who has frequently acted in his films (and plays another scoutmaster in
Moonrise Kingdom), as well as creating the artwork for several of his brother's DVDs. If there's a childhood bond, it arguably came from when he and his brothers all had to face their parents' divorce - a cataclysmic event for Anderson, who was just eight at the time.

Again, he stored it up for later - the scene at the beginning of
The Royal Tenenbaums, when Gene Hackman talks to his children about divorce, recalling a conversation the Anderson kids had with their advertising executive father. The separation hit Anderson hard, with his behaviour worsening at school over the next few years. Only when he began making mini Super 8mm movies in his backyard did he find a more creative outlet for his emotions, something he carried over into his time at the University of Texas, when he met actor Owen Wilson and the two began writing
Bottle Rocket.

If there's something uptight-sounding about Anderson, a man who seems as enamoured with rules and regulations as
Moonrise's Boy Scouts, he denies he's like this. "When you make a movie, there're always laminated itineraries. You have a schedule and you're going to try to make that schedule. You plan out as much as you can plan out. But in my life, I don't like to have an itinerary at all."

It's difficult to believe. You suspect his next film, set in Europe and called
The Grand Budapest Hotel, will revel in the clockwork-like efficiency of the hotelier trade. But then maybe he will surprise us.

Featuring another Anderson newcomer, Johnny Depp, alongside Norton, Murray, Wilson, and
The Life Aquatic's Willem Dafoe, the plot has been described as "not family friendly". Maybe Anderson is finally planning to leave his perennial theme behind.

thereview@scmp.com

Moonrise Kingdom
opens on Thursday

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