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Anderson's childhood anxieties bear fruit in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Charles Ealy

CANNES, France Parents, take heart. Wes Anderson was apparently considered to be a "very troubled child" back in 1970s Houston.

The acclaimed director says that when he was a kid, he discovered a pamphlet titled "Coping With the Very Troubled Child" on the refrigerator at the home of his father and stepmother. And he's bringing up the incident for the first time, he says, because he's using it partly as an inspiration for "Moonrise Kingdom," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in Austin on Friday.

In the film, a 12-year-old named Suzy (Kara Hawyard) finds the same pamphlet and shares it with her new boyfriend, Sam (Jared Gilman), when the two run away from home and set up camp in a remote island cove.

Anderson, who mentioned the pamphlet's discovery during a press conference in Cannes, says he wonders whether he should continue to talk about the matter during a later interview with the American-Statesman.

"I feel like maybe I shouldn't have mentioned the pamphlet at the press conference," he says. "Maybe it's going to be upsetting (to my family). ... I've never brought it up until recently, and it wasn't directly with (my parents). It was in the public realm."

But the incident is telling, not only in "Moonrise Kingdom" but also in Anderson's artistic development.

Throughout Anderson's creative life, he has created miniature — sometimes fantastic — alternate universes, filled with characters who defy conventions. It's almost as if his acute imagination has become a survival skill.

"I felt very alienated as a kid," says Anderson — just like the characters of Suzy and Sam. "Up until fifth or sixth grade, I felt like one person, and then I suddenly felt like someone very different. Right around that age, I lost my identity or something. And I was trying to figure out how I fit into this world. It suddenly seemed to be a question of popularity."

Anderson sighs and smiles at the same time, saying that he never would have been as bold as Suzy or Sam.

"Suzy is not just unhappy in her family," he says. "She wants to leave it. ... The story comes out of her trying to break free. When these two kids go on an adventure together, she has a suitcase full of young adult science fiction novels, and she's very invested in fantasy. So I feel like the story is really acting out a fantasy, these two kids who know what they want and are determined to see it through."

Anderson says he sees Sam, who has just been rejected by his foster family, as being further down the road to independence than Suzy. "He's on his own already. He has lost his family, and he's kind of determined not to be unhappy. I think he has so much going against him, and he's very determined that he's not going to let that shut him down. They're both bold, I think. They really do decide what they want, and they just do it."

Anderson pauses, then says: "That's not how I was a kid, certainly. And I think I am sort of fantasizing. I feel if I had seen this movie when I was 12, maybe I would have been a more advanced young person. It's also very possible that this movie might be very boring to 12-year-olds. I have no idea."

Whatever the case, Anderson continues to pursue his own peculiar, wryly amusing vision of life, which started with 1996's "Bottle Rocket" and includes 1998's "Rushmore," 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums" and 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

Part of the humor comes from Anderson's approach to characterization. Nearly every character in his movies is incredibly earnest, and these characters inevitably come into conflict with a world that sees earnestness as hopelessly passé.

One of the biggest laughs in "Moonrise Kindgom," in fact, comes at a very earnest, albeit unlikely, point — when an animal that Sam knows suddenly dies.

Suzy asks Sam whether the pet was good. And Sam responds: "Who's to judge? But he didn't deserve to die."

Anderson says he realizes that some people might not know how to take the death of a pet, "but I felt like it was right," he says.

"We had a line in ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox' that related to me. We had a rat who is murdered, and Mr. Fox is (disposing of the body), and, I can't remember exactly, but he says something like: ‘He's just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.' "

In short, Anderson delves in deadpan humor. And it's no accident that he has a long-standing relationship with one of the most deadpan comics of our time — Bill Murray.

Murray, who first worked with Anderson on "Rushmore," says he doesn't have anything else to do, so that's why he's in Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom."

"I really don't get any other work but through Wes," he says. "I just sit by the phone."

The collaboration, however, has been rewarding, Murray acknowledges. "Sometimes when you work with a director you know you not only may never see them again, sometimes you hope you never see them again," Murray says. "And that goes for the director as well. They can't wait for you to leave. They drive you to the airport to make sure you leave. That happens. But with Wes I've never gotten a ride to the airport, and I like it."

Others have responded in the same way.

One of the new Anderson acolytes is Edward Norton, who plays Sam's chain-smoking scoutmaster in "Moonrise Kingdom."

"All of us ... started out reading about Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater players," Norton says. "There's a romance to that. I used to dream a lot about how fun it would be to be in a troupe like that, and I think Wes has obviously over the years put together one of the great troupes in modern cinema."

Tilda Swinton, who plays a character known only as Social Services in "Moonrise Kingdom," agrees. "It's clearly a family that Wes has made over the years, and it's a family I was so happy to join on a camping trip," she says.

And even Anderson seems happy with the way his life has turned out. "Every movie, when we start, is a little bit of a reunion," he says. "I like to think that now I have a bigger family to draw on. I hope that some of the friends I've made on this movie will be available to me in the future. That's always been a big part of it. I like to think of the movies I do as a bit like a theater company."

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931