LOS ANGELES — When Wes Anderson tells a story set in a ramshackle, gypsy cab-populated Manhattan or a Texas prep school or a verdant island off the coast of New England, the director paints from memory, creating worlds that might not look realistic but feel emotionally honest.
His latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” has the vivid but fantastical look of a picture book about preteen romance, what he described as “a memory of a fantasy.”
“I wanted to create a setting that was unfamiliar, and someplace where the audience hasn't been before, I hope,” Anderson said in a recent Skype interview.
“There's a fantasy element or fable sort of element, which doesn't mean it needs to be artificial. What is sort of theatrical about it is the thing I like.”
“Moonrise Kingdom” follows the bittersweet romance between Sam and Suzy, two 12-year-olds who lock eyes during a performance of Benjamin Britten's church opera “Noye's Fludde” and commit to running away together. Sam (Jared Gilman) is dissatisfied with life in his foster home and cannot relate to the rough-and-tumble kids in his Scouting troop, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) listens to Francoise Hardy records and immerses herself in books, an escape from dealing with her emotionally distant parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray).
At the appointed time, Sam and Suzy run away and hide on a remote beachfront area of their cool, green New England island, sparking a search by the girl's parents, Sam's troop leader (Edward Norton) and the island's emotionally haunted policeman, Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis).
As he did with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Rushmore” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” Anderson blends realism with the look of theatrical productions. It is a style that he learned as a child in Dallas, watching highly theatrical films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger such as “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus.”
“Part of what I love about them are that they are these wonderful stories, wonderful characters,” Anderson said. “They are very moving and very vivid in all sorts of ways, but part of what I love is that they were these artisans who were creating something for us that is very related to theater. ‘Black Narcissus,' for example, is set in the Himalayas, but it was a movie that was made at Pinewood (Studios) entirely. All the mountain ranges were painted on glass.
“‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' is maybe my favorite of all their films,” he said. “It has beautiful sets, interiors and exteriors that were filmed indoors, and you can sense that, but they are extremely detailed. They are like paintings. ‘The Red Shoes' is a ballet — the whole movie is. That is where I come from.”
Anderson's style is so distinct and specific that when he turned to stop-motion animation for 2009's “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the lack of live action barely registered with audiences and critics as a major departure.
Bob Balaban, the actor and director who appears in “Moonrise Kingdom” as the story's narrator, said Anderson's distinctive visual style and the personal nature of his storytelling make him one of the best.
“I immediately started thinking of Robert Altman and (Francois) Truffaut,” Balaban said. “I think there is a great similarity especially with auteur directors. We know what that means: It means that somehow or another, when you see a movie, you feel the presence of the director in a million ways, in a visceral way. I think that in Wes' case, it's as true as it is with Robert Altman. It's not just the way they shoot. It's that their whole personality ends up being in their movies.
“It's thrilling for an audience to get that consistency when you hook onto somebody like that and you watch them movie after movie,” Balaban said. “It's not a decision that Wes makes to art direct and production design the way he does or shoot the way he does. I think Wes and these other great people can do anything in any format, but what they really can do is make you feel that any frame in the movie is infected with their whole point of view all the time.”
Bringing substance to the style required some reminiscing on the part of Anderson and his co-screenwriter, Roman Coppola. Anderson based the character of Suzy partly on a girl he had a crush on in middle school, but the emotions and actions of Sam and Suzy came from extensive conversations the two writers had about intense preteen feelings of love, alienation and social inadequacy.
“With Wes, there's a lot of conversation that's not necessarily writing or talking about characters or story. It's just talking about experiences,” Coppola said. “So for a good part of the time, we would just chat about things we had gone through at that age: falling in love for the first time. So it's really just a process of mining those experiences, and then when we would get back into the scriptwriting mode, we would draw from that and try to adapt it.”
Coppola said he based the passing of a note between Sam and Suzy on one of his own young romances. From there, Anderson and Coppola took that root emotion and built a world around it, one that combined elements of fantasy and total realism, including the faux-documentary sequences featuring Balaban.
“The thing that might sometimes make it a challenge for audiences is that I tend to kind of work a little bit on the edge of what is theatrical and what is not,” Anderson said. “There is also sort of a documentary feel in the movie. I wanted to have both at once and have a peculiar mix. I think that is what it is.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Focus Features.