Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola recall their collaborative process in scripting Moonrise Kingdom and explain why, for them, writing dialogue is like a musical experience.
Written by Rob Feld
(January 25, 2013)
Since his first feature, Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has forged a distinctive voice while collaborating with a string of co-writers: Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, and with Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, Roman Coppola. Anderson’s films are marked by the full-armed embrace of artifice, putting a stiffly positioned narrator out front, for example, or with deliberate tracking shots which show the constructed set. All aesthetic elements show a stylization and awareness of the storytelling going on, from the dialogue, frequently earnest and stilted, to the meticulous retro-inspired design, which tends to make his stories hard to locate in time.
Moonrise Kingdom, however, is placed firmly in 1965, on an island off the coast of New England, where two slightly disturbed and alienated 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy, fall in love, them against the world. While at scout camp, Sam, an orphan in foster care, reviled by his campmates, escapes into the wilderness with Suzy, after they meet at a church play. With a storm brewing, parents, police and scoutmasters track them as they set out to make their own way in the world.
Wes, you’ve worked with collaborators on all your films, I believe. They are all distinctly in your voice, so what does a collaboration give to you? And why was Roman the right collaborator for you on Moonrise Kingdom?
Wes Anderson: Roman and I worked together with Jason Schwartzman on the script for Darjeeling Limited. That story, the characters and world very much came from all three of our experiences. It was an especially collaborative thing, and such a good experience. I had been attempting to make this script of Moonrise Kingdom for about a year. I had a few pages and some notes, but I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t get past the first 10 pages or so. I asked Roman to read them to see if he could help me and work with me on it. He was very encouraging but also immediately asked several key questions that got the thing going again, and the two of us had a complete script in a month or five weeks.
What were those questions? And how did you see your roles break down this time in the partnership?
Photo: © 2012 Focus Features
Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom.
Wes Anderson: The most memorable thing that began this process of us writing, that for me was crucial because it really had an impact, was when you, Roman, read the beginning. It’s maybe the first 10 minutes of the movie; these two kids have met in these woods. You were very encouraging about it but you said, “How did they meet in these woods?” And you said you thought they had arranged this, and I said I didn’t know what had come before that. So you actually asked the question, more like suggested, this is a secret meeting that has been arranged previously. It was like it was already meant to be there but I didn’t know.
Roman Coppola: And there was the question, Well, what do the parents think? I recall you saying “He doesn’t have any parents.” I said, “What’s the story there?” So, in the case of our roles, I would ask questions just out of genuine curiosity that seemed to trigger a response, and then you’d start to uncover the possibilities and put it down.
Wes Anderson: Like, maybe there’s something in this we should share with the audience.
Roman Coppola: Darjeeling was very much generated out of the experiences we shared; you, Jason, and myself having adventures, trying to encourage things to happen that would be the basis of our story. Whereas this was very much in the world of imagination, and also reaching back and recalling the sensations of being that age, and some of the impressions and fantasies; even of feeling that first sensation of love as a young kid.
Roman, what did Wes say to you when he first described the movie that let you see what it should be? How did he describe the nature of this universe and its characters, and what they would and wouldn’t do?
Roman Coppola: My first memory of what Wes described was that this was the “island movie.” It involved two adolescents, a boy and a girl that had run away. For a period of time, it was a glimmer in Wes’s mind, so I was always curious as to what happened with the “island movie.” One time I asked him, and he said, “Oh, I have some ideas,” and played me the music from the opening sequence. When I heard it, that really opened a door. There was a kind of clarity to what it was, and reading those first pages he had, it was such a door opening on a world. It was very, very clear. That’s the type of collaboration you look for with people, where you have that kind of shorthand where someone can just play some music or give you a color of something, and you go, “Ah,” and have a deep understanding of what it is. That’s what Wes and I share, certainly with this story and other things we’ve worked on, this immediate understanding on an intuitive level of what it is that we’re talking about.
Wes Anderson: We know what this is.
Roman Coppola: We have to find it, but we know so many things about it; the feeling of it. Then it’s just a matter of getting into the specifics.
How did the two of you work together on this? What is your process like and did it work differently than on Darjeeling?
Wes Anderson: As I recall, maybe Roman went away for a couple of days, but then we settled in and worked together on it until we had a whole script.
Roman Coppola: Yes, and because it had been gestating in your mind, all the ingredients were sort of ready to come out in our sessions. It flowed rather quickly because we were able to basically get into that flow, where one thing leads to the next, and you almost can’t write it fast enough because you’re so clear on what’s coming and the engagement.
Wes Anderson: In the case of this one, I remember we were staying in a house together with people close to us. We were at dinner telling everybody what happened today. It’s not a normal thing that you have an audience for your story as you’re writing it.
Roman Coppola: It had a little bit of the Thousand and One Nights, like a radio play that you have the next episode, the next episode; that we had that feeling that whatever we cooked up that day we could share with our close friends, and have the story continue. So that propelled things along as well.
Wes, tell me what working in the stylized mode you do brings to your stories? How do you think it functions against your characters, settings, and the drama you spin? Why is it the best way to tell these tales?
Wes Anderson: I don’t particularly consider that I have a stylized mode that I am operating in. I just don’t think of it that way. I’m not saying, “Here’s the way I ought to tell this story.” I’m more like just telling it, and I feel like it’s more like this is my handwriting style, or the sound of my voice. I feel that when you’re making a movie there are so many different plates that you’re spinning at once, that all function together, and it’s a complicated thing. You don’t entirely control how the chemicals mix. I’m now putting multiple metaphors together at once.
Roman Coppola: Very writerly.
Wes Anderson: I feel like to not have them be the way they are would be me attempting to do somebody else’s style; to make it more like what I think is a less personal approach.
Roman Coppola: I concur. People will ask me about your style, and I don’t see any style that’s composed. As you say, your voice or your handwriting, you have no control over that. It just comes out. There’s really no thought or discussion that pertains to that, it’s just very much a matter of fact, like that’s just the way it is.
What films did you reference when constructing this narrative for lessons and inspiration, and in what ways?
Roman Coppola: I had the vibe of the Truffaut and French New Wave pictures, the way young people are portrayed in a sophisticated way. That’s just more as a feeling, not really story construction.
Wes Anderson: Definitely. There’s also a Maurice Pialat that’s Truffaut-esque called L’enfance nue, Naked Childhood. Also Melody and Black Jack. Melody is directed by Waris Hussein, and written by Alan Parker. Both of them are about romance between two 12-year-olds. Melody has a wonderful atmosphere and these great kids. Black Jack is a Ken Loach movie set in the 18th century in Yorkshire.
Roman, did you feel the emotions were treated differently than in Darjeeling?
Roman Coppola: Not particularly. It’s very practical what’s happening, where they are going, who says what, and it’s very seldom that we talk in any profound way about emotions or themes or deeper ideas. Those are just in the background. We are pretty much exclusively concerned with what’s happening, what’s going to happen, what do they say and how is that going to be interesting? So, Darjeeling and Moonrise have two different personalities, but it’s not by design, it’s just by the DNA of what that little story kernel was and what it sort of demands. It just sort of happens on its own.
Wes, my experience of Moonrise’s emotions was that you expressed them in the most overtly sentimental way since Rushmore. Do you think I’m correct in this assessment?
Wes Anderson: I can’t really see it that way. For instance, in Darjeeling, in some of these scenes these guys are saying very directly what they’re feeling. Owen’s character says to his brothers, “You don’t love me.” One replies, “I do love you.” And the other says, “I love you, too, but I’m going to mace you in the face.” I feel that’s sentimental.
There is an innocence to the confused, alienated psyches you write, very present in their dialogue. Wes, how do you talk to your actors about the lines they are to deliver? And Roman, how do you describe the voice?
Roman Coppola: Often when we’re working we talk it out, and we say the lines repeatedly. It’s an oral experience where maybe we’ll begin with a little improvisation. I’ll say something and then Wes will respond, and then we start to collect the phrases. Then Wes will often speak the lines in a sort of cadence, rhythm, and manner, so it’s a sort of musical experience where those qualities are ingrained in it before even putting it on paper.
Wes Anderson: I read an interview with David Mamet where he was saying that writing a play is really sitting in a room talking to yourself. One thing I particularly enjoyed about working on these scripts with you is that we’re both talking to ourselves, to each other, writing these things. I find that a much more inspiring way of talking to yourself, when you’re not talking to yourself alone; when we’re both talking to ourselves with an audience. Often these scenes come from a real dialogue, and that’s what it ends up being anyways.
Roman Coppola: And the lines can be blurry. We could be talking about the movie and trying to pin it down, but later at dinner we’ll say something with a curious turn of phrase, or a manner of putting words together, that will find its way in. Wes often recalls the way someone said something, just a line or a phrase that impressed you, and it sort of weaves its way into the work.