"I tried to be a boy scout, but it didn't click."
That's Wes Anderson talking about the genesis of his new movie, "Moonrise Kingdom," opening here on Friday. That's also Wes Anderson talking about his distance from the rest of the world. In seven feature films over the course of 16 years, the 43-year-old writer-director has created a singular body of work that divides moviegoers into camps labeled Love Him and Hate Him and that sketch out a mournful sense of post-Salinger alienation in whimsically precise strokes. "Rushmore" (1998) made his name, "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) brought him a mass audience (sort of — with $52 million in grosses, it remains his biggest commercial success), while "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004) and "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007) brought concerns that precision whimsy can only go so far. The 2009 stop-motion family film "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" was a lovely film that didn't resolve the issue of whether Anderson could speak to an audience beyond committed Wes-ophiles. The entire entry on Anderson in critic David Thomson's 2004 edition of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" reads: "Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day."
With "Moonrise Kingdom," that day has arguably come. Set in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, the film has all the hallmarks of the filmmaker's hermetically sealed style. The colors are nostalgic, the camera movements linear and exact. Each frame could be framed for keeping, and the music of Benjamin Britten (specifically, the composer's 1946 "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra") provides a lush, protective counterpoint. Yet the fussiness of Anderson's dollhouse vision finds a new resonance in the story of two 12-year-olds — a bookish Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a disaffected summer vacationer named Suzy (Kara Hayward) — who fall in love and run away. How do you run away on an island? Exactly.
The adults are a mixture of Anderson regulars and new recruits. Edward Norton is the boyishly concerned scoutmaster, while Suzy's hapless parents are played by Frances McDormand and old hand Bill Murray. Tilda Swinton appears as a social services bureaucrat named Social Services. And who would think that Bruce Willis would fit into the filmmaker's tiny, neurotic world? Yet here he is with spectacles and a comb-over as the island's unhappy police chief. "Moonrise Kingdom" has more plot than is usual for an Anderson film, but also more silliness, sadness, hope — it's as if all the director's usual concerns had been tethered to a strong story line and the stronger affection between Sam and Suzy.
And it's a hit, at least in Cannes, where "Moonrise Kingdom" opened the legendary film festival on May 16. (The film opens in the Boston area on June 1.) This was Anderson's first time at Cannes, and, speaking by phone a week later while on vacation in Italy, he's still reeling from the experience, even if he has no actual sense of how the movie went over. "For me to know how it was received," he says, "I have to go onto the Internet. But the screening I went to, it felt like a great reaction. Who knows what anybody really thinks."
What Anderson even thinks of his own movie wasn't entirely clear until a question from a festival journalist connected some dots for him: "He asked me if the movie was a memory of a fantasy. And at first I wasn't even quite sure what that meant, but then I thought, actually, that's exactly what it is. The feeling of thinking you're falling in love in fifth grade is something I remember very, very clearly — the whole experience of that — and the events of the story are kind of like something I would have made up at that time but did not actually experience. If that makes any sense."
The other inspiration for "Moonrise Kingdom" came from Anderson's annual visits with friends on Naushon Island in the Elizabeth Islands off Cape Cod. "There are no cars, you've got to take a ferry there, and there are only about 20 houses," he says. (More like 35, actually, but who's counting?) "It's a place that is institutionally protected from any change, and when you go there, it feels like stepping back at least 40 years into the past." The movie effortlessly captures that vanished world of summer cabins and endless days, of gimp and Parcheesi on rainy afternoons, but Anderson found it easier to re-create in Rhode Island than on Naushon. The film crew set up base camp in Newport and shot primarily around the village of Jamestown on Conanicut Island, jumping over to Camp Yawgoog in Rockville for the scout headquarters sequences. "We were all over Rhode Island," acknowledges Anderson, "which is not saying much."
The filmmaker grew up in Houston and felt particularly out of step after his mother and father divorced when he was 8 (in case you hadn't noticed, parental issues run through every one of his films). It wasn't until he met actor-writer Owen Wilson at the University of Texas at Austin that he found a like mind and creative partner and began to collect a coterie of colleagues; their 1994 short, "Bottle Rocket," became the 1996 feature of that name and launched both men's careers. For all Anderson's lonely-boy airs and obsessive-compulsive methods, he thrives off working with others. The "Moonrise Kingdom" script was stalled after months of noodling and unnecessary Britten research until co-writer Roman Coppola stepped in; the latter, a Friend of Wes, son of Francis, and professional second unit director, was getting tired of waiting for the next installment of the story.
"Weeks and weeks and weeks went by, and there was nothing," says Coppola in a phone interview from Cannes. "I slowly asked certain questions that seemed to trigger stuff, and because it had been gestating for so long in his mind, he had a lot of answers for me. With Wes, there's often a lot of discussion, usually with a good meal, about things that have happened in your life that made an impression that might relate to what we're trying to do. So we actually worked very quickly once we got together and after four weeks or so, we had a whole 95-page script."
The "Moonrise" shoot was a similar case of a makeshift family rising up around a filmmaker Coppola describes as "well, 'control freak' sounds pejorative, but he's a very precise person." Norton showed up on location early for rehearsals and ended up moving into the house Anderson was sharing with editor Andrew Weisblum and cinematographer Robert Yeoman. "Then when Bill Murray arrived," Anderson says, "he came over for dinner and was poking around the place and said, 'What's happening with this room up here? I'm just going to move in there.' And then we had Jason Schwartzman come and stay, and my brother Eric, so we ended up with this whole gang of people."
Willis kept a comparative distance, but even the star of all those "Die Hard" movies came ready to play in Anderson's sandbox. "He had a sense of what he thought the character ought to be from the script," the director says, "and I did virtually nothing to coach him. His take was that the guy is sad, lonely, insecure, and he just showed up with it. Physically, [the character] is modeled on McGeorge Bundy, and I sent Bruce a picture, and he said, yep, this is good. Once he was done up like McGeorge Bundy, I think it affected his confidence … in a negative way."
Ask why a small-town police chief might be modeled after the JFK administration's national security adviser and Vietnam War architect, and you'll get a long, shaggy anecdote about a homeless man Anderson met while reading "The Best and the Brightest" who called the director 'McGeorge' and who turned out to be a disgraced political science professor from a nearby community college. It's the kind of character that might show up in an Anderson movie some day and it's why people who don't quite get what this filmmaker is about fall back on the empty word "quirky." Anderson himself has come to a weary peace with the word. "I've had that since we did 'Bottle Rocket,' " he says. "If your range of movies is popular American movies, then my movies are probably going to seem kind of weird. If your range of movies is all kinds of movies, they're probably not so quirky. If the word has any meaning to anybody, I assume I must fall into that category, because I've never been called anything else. But it wouldn't be my first choice if I was allowed to designate what I'm considered."
And if you were? Anderson pauses. " 'Hauntingly memorable?' " He quickly backtracks, struggles for words. "Um … If I was allowed to choose it straight up, I think it would probably be something so wildly flattering that I wouldn't want to be quoted as saying it about myself."
Fine; let others say it: "Moonrise Kingdom" is hauntingly memorable. It's also very much a Wes Anderson movie, rigorously controlled yet emotionally fluid and honestly touching within that control. And it's not like he's capable of acting otherwise. Says his friend Roman Coppola, "Some directors choose their area of interest: They don't care so much about the costumes, or the camerawork can be a little more loose. And Wes is a person for whom every area is under his supervision. That's why his films are so distinctive. It's a need for order and structure and symmetry that's part of who he is. He's a very meticulous person who likes that in his life — and yet he invites in the chaos."
For his part, Anderson says, "When I'm doing a movie, I want to create a place that the audience has not been before, if possible. My way of trying to make it better is to add texture. It's the way I have naturally evolved, what I've always been drawn to, based on all my inspirations and different filmmakers and painters — whoever I've stolen all these things from, it adds up to this. So I've always been inclined to say I want to do it in my own handwriting."
With "Moonrise Kingdom," the handwriting is on the screen.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.