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Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy

Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the film Lincoln, which focuses on the 16th president's tumultuous final months in office. Kushner read more than 20 books before writing about Lincoln, a man who had "an enormous capacity for grief that didn't deprive him of the ability to act."


Other segments from the episode on February 15, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 15, 2013: Interview with Tony Kushner; Interview with Wes Anderson.


February 15, 2013

Guests: Tony Kushner – Wes Anderson

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of TV Worth Watching, sitting in Terry Gross. On today's show, two Academy Award nominees for Best Screenplay. We'll hear later from Wes Anderson, whose script for "Moonrise Kingdom," co-written with Roman Coppola, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. We'll begin with Tony Kushner, who is nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie "Lincoln."

Tony Kushner's play about AIDS in the Reagan era, "Angels in America," was a seven-hour epic that won the Pulitzer Prize and became an HBO miniseries. He's written several other plays, as well as the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film "Munich."

Kushner spent years collaborating with Spielberg on the screenplay for "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as America's 16th president. One of Kushner's primary sources was the book "Team of Rivals" by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The movie is up for 12 Oscars, more than any other film this year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Tony Kushner spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2012.

Here's a scene from the film, in which Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is sitting alone with two telegraph operators, late at night, as he's about to compose a message to General Ulysses S. Grant. The debate about slavery and human equality is on his mind, and as Kushner wrote the scene, Lincoln reflects on Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician he studied to understand the principles of logic.


DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) Euclid's first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematic reasoning. It's true because it works, has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.


Tony Kushner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, you focus on this film on this period when Lincoln is trying to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed, near the end of his administration, of his life. It's remarkable to me that it's a fascinating story that's really about a legislative battle, and a lot of friends who have seen it have said that. It's just - and I think it's because the dialogue works so well.

You're the guy who wrote the version of Lincoln that we see on the screen, and, you know, I think I read that more words have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American. And I know that you read a lot of them.

TONY KUSHNER: Doris claims that Abraham Lincoln is the third-most-written-about person in human history.

DAVIES: After who, Jesus and...

KUSHNER: And Shakespeare - pretty good company.

DAVIES: Right, and so you had to take all of those images, and a lot of them are dark and melancholy. I mean, the Lincoln that you see at the Lincoln Memorial, that you often see in portraits, seems like a really somber man.

KUSHNER: I mean, the one that we see on screen is, you know, is at times light and playful, tells kind of folksy stories. Can you just talk a little bit about, you know, the Lincoln that you decided to give us? Did you feel you had to, in some respects, reflect people's popular images of him?

No, I mean, I thought that the important thing was to make an interpretation, and I was certainly influenced enormously by Doris' interpretation. I read Sandburg, I read Doris and just in terms of pure biographies of Lincoln, I think about 20, and a whole host of other things, as well.

And I was fascinated by how available to interpretation this man was, especially given that he didn't live all that long and didn't leave a huge amount of autobiographical stuff behind. But what he did and when he was doing what he did made him a perfect candidate for a fairly wide degree of interpretation.

Although there are no interpretations of Lincoln that say that he was a bad person or a person who at one point loved slavery and then changed his mind didn't make any sense to me in that I think are in any way credible. There are certainly various versions of Lincoln that are legitimate readings of him, and everybody has to pick their own.

I mean, it's interesting that you say that the statue in the memorial is somber. It's certainly not grinning. I find in the reading about the memorial that I've done, I've found many, many, many people who feel that there's something very warm and inviting about his sort of pensive posture and face, and not closed off. On the other hand, many people who knew him, including most of his closest friends, talk about how isolated, and lonely and strange he was.

I don't believe he was a depressed person. I think he was a man with an enormous capacity for grief that didn't deprive him of the ability to act. And he felt no need to hide the fact that he was grieving and, in fact, saw as the president of the United States a duty to talk to the country about its grief during a time when we now think as many as 800,000 men in a country of 30 million died in combat in a four-year period. Death, you know, it was everywhere.

DAVIES: You know, as somebody who has covered government and politics for a lot of years, I mean, I find it fascinating because it's both about lofty stuff like policy and principle but also about seedy stuff, you know, backroom deals and patronage and self-interest.

And that's very much here in this film here. It's about this - Lincoln's efforts to get this 13th Amendment passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. And I thought we'd listen to a clip here, and this is a scene from the film where Lincoln needs votes in the House of Representatives, however he can get them, for the 13th Amendment.

And Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, is speaking with three rogues, for lack of a better term, who are going to corner some House members, offer some things and get some votes. They're played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelsen. And we'll hear David Strathairn as Secretary Seward speaking first.


DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As William Seward) The president's never to be mentioned, nor I. You are paid for your discretion.

JOHN HAWKES: (As Robert Latham) Well, you can have that for nothing. What we need money for is bribes - to speed things up.

STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) No, nothing strictly illegal.

JAMES SPADER: (As W.N. Bilbo) It's not illegal to bribe congressmen. They starve otherwise.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Richard Schell) I have explained to Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Latham that we're offering patronage jobs to the Dems who vote yes, jobs and nothing more.

STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) That's correct.

HAWKES: (As Latham) Congressmen come cheap. A few thousand bucks will buy you all you need.

STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) The president would be unhappy to hear you did that.

HAWKES: (As Latham) Well, will he be unhappy if we lose?

STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) The money I managed to raise for this endeavor is only for your fees, your food and lodging.

NELSON: (As Schell) If that squirrel-infested attic you quartered us in is any measure, you ain't raised much.

DAVIES: How much of a deal-making politician was Abraham Lincoln?

KUSHNER: From the beginning of his career as a politician, he was very, very good at strategizing and, sort of, parsing the difference between means and ends. Really it has to be said he did that with a clarity and foresight that's at least, in terms of anything I've read, unparalleled in the history of small-d democratic leadership. The man was just a kind of miracle worker in terms of finessing almost impossible circumstances and getting a result that he felt that he needed.

It was a combination of cunning, ruthlessness. He was sometimes very hard on his friends and asked them to make terrible sacrifices. And, you know, I think absolutely marrow-deep ethical character, a great reader of human psychology, a great listener and a great observer of people, a great judge of character. And all these things combined to make him arguably, I would argue, the greatest president we've ever had.

DAVIES: And we see in the film he gets votes by offering jobs, and he gets votes by the power of his own persuasion.


DAVIES: Tell us about getting a sense of 19th-century speech. I mean, is there a lot of antiquated language and syntax here? I mean, it sounds pretty contemporary.

KUSHNER: Yeah, the syntax in the middle of the 19th century is not all that antiquated. I mean, if you read any American authors from that time, it's more ornate, but certainly syntactically, the structures of the sentences are virtually identical to ours.

My main concern was to make it playable, that it had to be language that wouldn't get in the way either of what the actors needed to do with it or the audience hearing it, that it rang true. And for that, 19th-century novels were an enormous help, also newspaper accounts and even transcripts of some conversations that are available.

And I used the Oxford English Dictionary, and I checked every single word through all 10 million pages that I wrote. I always - if any word struck me as possibly post-1865, you know, the OED is great because it's a word museum, and it'll tell you when every word, as far as we know, first appeared in the English language. So I relied on it very, very heavily.

DAVIES: Words like shindy(ph) and flibflub(ph) appear here. What's a shindy?

KUSHNER: A shindig, a party.

DAVIES: OK, and flibflub?

KUSHNER: I know that he used the word flubdub.

DAVIES: OK, flubdub.

KUSHNER: Because he sort of famously said it. You know, it may be flibdub or whatever in the film. There was some playing around with it. But since these were nonsense words, we kind of felt that they were fair game. But a flubdub was like an ornament, a decoration, and Lincoln at one point said to someone that Mary was spending too much money on flubdubs for the mansion. She was criticized for that, although I think unfairly.

DAVIES: Right, there were investigations and even threats of prosecution.

KUSHNER: Well, what she was investigated for was actually a genuinely criminal thing. She sold, apparently sold Lincoln's annual letter to Congress, which is what the State of the Union Address used to be, to a newspaper to raise money to buy stuff for the White House. And that of course was a huge transgression, and the House seriously thought of calling her up and investigating her. Lincoln stopped that.

You know, the thing that I think people don't understand about Mary or don't give her credit for is that when they came to the White House, it was an absolute shambles, as was the country. Obviously, it was falling apart in 1861.

And I think because she came from a political family and had a very keen sense of political theater, she knew that the backdrop for the Lincoln administration had to be splendid and suggest power and coherence, since the United States at that moment was anything but coherent. It was disintegrating.

And she did it. She - when you look at the engravings from the time, people were clearly just blown away at how beautiful the place was, and it became an image of federal power, and she deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing that with almost no budget.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is playwright Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis. You know, we do see Lincoln and Mary, his wife, in some pretty intense moments here. How did you decide how to portray that marriage in the film?

KUSHNER: Well, the month that we're dealing with gave us a great opportunity because Robert, their eldest son, who had been kept out of the war primarily because his parents, especially his mother, were terrified that he would be killed, insisted that he go into the Army before the war ended.

He didn't want to be one of the only men his age who wasn't a veteran, and so Lincoln got him a position on Grant's staff but over Mary's violent objections. And that conflict gave us a window into what was unquestionably a very stormy and tumultuous and difficult relationship between two very difficult people. People always think about Mary as being difficult, and she absolutely was, but Lincoln wasn't easy, either.

He was remote and complicated and rather interestingly fond of telling her things that would upset her horribly, like these dreams that he kept having. And he would leave her kind of in a state night after night, telling her that he was having these kind of scary dreams.

It's an enormously complicated relationship, and the family is a tragic family. It's really - it's marked by death. Their adored middle son, Willie, died in 1862. In a way he was a victim of the war because he died drinking water that was probably corrupted by the sewage of the troops stationed along the banks of the Potomac.

They suffered a very personal intimate loss while the country was suffering its losses, and I think that helped connect Lincoln to the grief of the country, if he needed any help. So it was a complicated and interesting aspect of his life, and I feel that it also mattered to him enormously, so we decided to make it a part of the story.

DAVIES: I also wanted to hear a bit of debate from Congress from the movie. And this is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the Pennsylvania radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He's making a point, and he is insulting a congressman from Ohio - I believe that's George Pendleton, right...


DAVIES: ...who is played by Peter McRobbie. And in this clip he's holding back from his belief that all men are truly created equal because he was advised that you have to be moderate in order to get the votes you need to get the 13th Amendment passed. And so the kind of play on words here is that he's sort of indicating that perhaps not all people are created equal. Let's listen.


TOMMY LEE JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood?


JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) You are more reptile than man, George. So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.

PETER MCROBBIE: (as George Pendleton) How dare you?

DAVIES: And some lively floor debate from the film "Lincoln," written by our guest Tony Kushner. How much is that's actual floor debate?

KUSHNER: The debates were really impassioned and full of invective and racist diatribe and some really glorious moments of oratory. Stevens' speech right there is a combination of stuff that he actually said, stuff that Ben Wade, 'Bluff' Wade, the senator - a radical senator from Massachusetts - who was in some ways his counterpart in the Senate, said, and stuff that I made up.

But I feel that it's a reasonably accurate representation of Stevens. When he got angry he could be completely terrifying, and people feared. He was an absolutely astonishing human being, a great legislator, a moral visionary and a moral giant and a real radical in every sense of the word in terms of his thinking about race and economics, really an astonishing guy, who I think has been woefully underappreciated.

DAVIES: This is a story of, you know, Lincoln seeing the need for the abolition of slavery as the war is ending as really a transcendent moment in the country's history and him getting this done through, you know, commitment to principle, powers up persuasion, and deals when he had to make them.

And you, know, it's hard not to draw a parallel to me, it seems, between the political moment of 1865 and the current one. I mean we're not at war today - at least not in a civil war - but there is a sense of urgency in our political discourse.

I mean the nation is deeply divided. I think both sides in the debate in some respects see the country as at a turning point with the, you know, the core principles of the republic being threatened. Did you think about that as you told the story?

KUSHNER: Oh absolutely. I mean I consider it a real benefit and even blessing of the assignment of making a movie about Lincoln that I was able to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens, which I have found enormously useful. I think Obama is a great president, and I feel that there is immense potential now for building, rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it.

And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.

I mean when you asked earlier if Lincoln - how long had Lincoln been a dealmaker, and I think, you know, there probably is no politician of any competence whatsoever who isn't good at that because that's, in fact, where politics is. It's not about purity. It's about compromise and strategy and making things actually happen in real time on this Earth, as opposed to a metaphysical realm.

DAVIES: And it strikes me that one of the scenes that we see at the end of this film is Lincoln, as the war is ending, talking about reconciliation, saying let these Southern soldiers return to their homes.


DAVIES: I don't want to be hounding the Confederacy's political and military leaders.

KUSHNER: I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote noble cause and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies and so on.

The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led - helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally because he told Grant to behave accordingly.

DAVIES: Well, Tony Kushner, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KUSHNER: Sure. My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Tony Kushner, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2012. Kushner is up for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Lincoln." We'll hear from another screenwriter up for an Oscar, Wes Anderson, next. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.


BRUCE WILLIS: (as Captain Sharp) All right. We know they're together. We know they're within a certain radius of this spot. I'm declaring a case with the county right now. Until help arrives, I'm deputizing the little guy, the skinny one, and the boy with the patch on his eye to come with me in the station wagon. Randy, you drop in and head upriver with the rest of your troops and split up on foot. Becky, call Jed, tell him to circle over this end of the island and fly low.

BIANCULLI: That's Bruce Willis as a lonely cop in a small town organizing a search party for a 12-year-old boy who's run away from scouting camp with a 12-year-old girl. It's a scene from "Moonrise Kingdom," which is nominated for an Academy award in the Best Original Screenplay category. It was directed by our next guest, Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roman Coppola. Anderson also made the films "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Terry spoke with Wes Anderson last year.

"Moonrise Kingdom" is about 12-year-old Sam and Suzy, who feel fated to be together the moment they meet. They make a pact to run off together. He runs away from the Khaki Scouts Camp Ivanhoe. She runs away from her home, where her parents - played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand - seem to have stopped caring about each other.

Just as Sam and Suzy want to create their own world on their New England island, Wes Anderson creates his own world in the film. The movie looks like a hand-painted storybook with real actors. The music is an integral part of the storytelling. Sam and Suzy meet at a rehearsal for a church production of Benjamin Britten's opera "Noah's Flood." The opera will figure into the story again later, and a real storm is on the way. Here's a passage from "Noah's Flood."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Noah) Forty days and 40 nights, rain shall fall for their unrights; And that I have made through my mights. Now think I to destroy. Have done, you men and women all. Hie you lest this water fall, that each beast were in his stall, and into the ship brought. The flood is nigh, well may we see; therefore tarry you nought. Tarry you not. Tarry you, tarry you not. Tarry not.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as character) : (Singing) Sir, here are lion Kopards in, horses, mares, pawn; and swine; Goats, calves, sheep, and kine, here sitten tho may see.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as character) (Singing) Kyrie, kyrie eleison. Kyrie, kyrie eleison. Kyrie, kyrie, kyrie eleison.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Wes Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, I've read that the first germ of the idea for "Moonrise Kingdom" was in the recording of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," which translates to "Noah's Flood." What's the connection between this music and the concept of "Moonrise Kingdom"?

WES ANDERSON: Well, I don't know Benjamin Britten's work that well, but I have always had a particular affection for it, because this play, "Noye's Fludde," or however you say it, he wrote to be performed by mostly amateur church groups, with a couple of professionals thrown into the mix. And it's meant to be performed in churches, rather than auditoriums or opera houses or anything else. So anyway, I was in a production of it, along with my older brother, when I was 10 or 11 years old.

GROSS: Yes. And it's introducing - in your movie, it's like this music is introducing the children to the repertoire of classical music, but it's also, like, a metaphor for introducing children to adult life, to the larger world, which is kind of what your movie's about.

You know, the movie - there's two 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy who meet and bond in the dressing room while preparing for a performance of "Noah's Flood." And like a lot of lovers in movies, they seem to know that they're fated to meet. But it's not Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It's, like, two 12-year-olds. How did you get the idea of two 12-year-olds falling in love in this fated-to-meet kind of way?

ANDERSON: Well, I remember - you know, someone asked me in the past week, in Cannes - I don't - I can't even remember who it was that asked me this, a reporter. I wish I had noted him, because he asked me something that made me kind of realize what I had wanted to do. He asked if the movie was a memory of a fantasy.

At first I wasn't quite sure what that meant. Then I realized that that is sort of exactly what the movie is. It's - I remember the emotion of feeling like I was falling in love at that age, 12 years old, and how powerful it was and sudden, and kind of inexplicable. And yet in this - you know, I - nothing happened in my case.

But the - so the fantasy - so I think it's a fantasy that I would have had at that age, would have envisioned. And these two characters, they are hit by the same sort of thunderbolt but they're determined to act on it and see it through.

GROSS: Who did you fall in love with?

ANDERSON: I don't know if I want to even say the name, because it's a, you know, a real person who very likely won't be listening to this, but maybe would be. You know, a girl two rows over and three seats up who was in my class for years, and I never really had much of a conversation with her.

GROSS: You know, in a lot of romantic movies you know who's going to fall in love 'cause it's the most beautiful actress and the most handsome actor. And because they both look the best, they're the ones who are going to fall in love. But in this case it's like a 12-year-old girl is like taller than the boy is, she looks older than he does, and that so often the way it is when you're that age. I mean I remember when I was that age, so many of the girls I knew had, like, you know, boyfriends who were, like, shorter than they were, you know. And that never happened to me 'cause I'm so short it would be hard to be shorter than I am. But, so you were comfortable with that 'cause that's how it often is at that age, right?

ANDERSON: Well, yeah. Well, in fact, we had, in the script we had described her being slightly taller than he is. And we had written her character to be a bit more grown-up than the boy. But she was - first, she is, she was taller than him, now he's actually gone past her. But she was those things. So the way we had written it is reflected in her, but the specifics of it really ended up being her version of that. The way they were as actors when they had to kind of become professionals, you know, leave their middle schools and, you know, become like adults, and she was very ready for that and he was into it but with a great childlike enthusiasm, whereas she sort of became a professional actress right in front of our eyes in within a, you know, within the first days of the movie.

GROSS: After the to 12-year-olds fall in love they decide to - they make a pact to run away together. And for him that means running away from Khaki Scout Camp, which is the movie's version of Boy Scout camp. And for her and means running away from home, from her parents and siblings. So he takes with him his scouting gear and they're going to be running away basically into the woods on an island. And she takes with her a yellow suitcase, a basket with her kitten in it, a portable battery-operated record player, her favorite record, binoculars, lucky scissors, a toothbrush, storybooks, a kind of unrealistic set of things to run away into the woods with.


GROSS: How did you pack for her?

ANDERSON: Yes. Interesting. Yes. At one point they actually take an inventory in front of us so you can see all the ingredients. Yeah. You know, in fact, I remember that we were, we, Roman and I were working and we sort of said I think she's got a suitcase. Let's figure out what's in it. And we decided what is in it is - the thing we thought about her character is that she is a big reader and we were seeing a certain kind of 12-year-old girl we felt we had known. And so we decided to fill it with library books, which end up being stolen, you know, she's stolen library books. But we then made the books. You know, I sort of wrote a little paragraph of text that from each book because she reads them and then we had different artists draw the covers and we sort of invented this little series of books that she's caring around. And over the course of that I sort of started thinking that the movie ought to feel like it could be in that suitcase and could be one of these young adult fantasy books.

It's not, the magic in them, you know, the movie doesn't have actual magic the way the books do, but the atmosphere of it we started feeling like ought to be like that and it kind of, you know, sort of set the tone for the whole thing, I think.

GROSS: So the boy is in Scouts camp, and it's that part of the movie is almost like a kid cavalry movie. It seems to me it was almost it was like a John Wayne cavalry movie but it was all like children and Scout camp, instead of like men in the cavalry. It might look something like that.


ANDERSON: Yes. Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: Were you thinking of those movies?

ANDERSON: Yeah. In fact I looked, there's one "Fort Apache." There's a scene where one of the little Scouts scolds the rest of the troop and then tries to rally them around the underdog who needs their help. We're not the first to play that scene. We just happen to have a particularly young, you know, soldier who's playing it.

GROSS: But why did you want to draw on that for the film?

ANDERSON: I had this idea that maybe we would be doing a sort of Norman Rockwell version of America. That we would, that at least the surfaces might be sort of like that and that's part of why I thought Edward Norton, you know, Edward Norton is someone who I kind of corresponded with over the years and wanted to work with, and I thought he might be a kind of great scoutmaster. He looks like he has been painted by Norman Rockwell. Yeah, there's something that, something about that that felt interesting to me.

GROSS: It's funny you should mention Norman Rockwell in the sense that there are scenes that look explicitly two dimensional. I mean I think filmmakers are always trying to get their movies to look like 3-D even if they're not actually high-tech 3-D movies. But there's times when you seemed to really be going for a storybook illustrated two dimensional look. Flat.

ANDERSON: Yes. Flat. Yes. Well, you know, in this movie I was deliberately wanting to make it feel like a sort of fable and something in the visuals I did, you know, I did want to have a sort of storybook feeling. But I also think - I have always wanted to work in the theater but I've never actually done it, not since I was in fifth grade. But I've had many plays in my films. In this new one there's a theatrical presentation in the middle of the movie. Maybe theater is a part of my movie work and that is part of what I think you're describing, is something to do with that, wherever it comes from.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He directed and co-wrote the film "Moonrise Kingdom," which is up for an Oscar for best original screenplay.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with filmmaker Wes Anderson. His movie "Moonrise Kingdom," which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

GROSS: So watching "Moonrise Kingdom," I kept thinking you must've learned so much doing "Fantastic Mister Fox," which is stop motion animation, because there are so many things in "Moonrise Kingdom" that are life-size but look like miniatures, like the kind of thing you have to do for the stop-motion animation in "Mr. Fox." And there is that kind of storybook look to it. And even, like the houses that are actual full-scale and you couldn't have made out of cardboard, they're painted as if they were maybe made out of cardboard.



GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about creating like an adult-size storybook look?

ANDERSON: Yes. Yes. You know, I loved doing "Fantastic Mr. Fox." And it was a very long process and it sort of just took over my whole life for a few years. And when you're making an animated film, you have to - you have no choice but to build everything. If you want a pencil in the scene or a cup of coffee, or if you want a tree or grass, you have to make it and somebody's going to choose how it's made. And so you have the opportunity to design everything, you know, including the clouds.

So after spending all this time doing "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and enjoying it very much, when I started this movie I planned it and sort of executed the planning process for many of the scenes in the same way we had on the animated movie, which I had not done before, and I also built more sets. You know, we, the house where the girl in the story lives, we went to a house in Cumberland Island in Georgia and we went to a house in the Thousand Islands on the border between New York and Canada, and we went to various houses around New England. But we ended up ultimately, the way I had planned the thing and wanted to shoot it, the only way to really do the same the way I envisioned it was to build it. You couldn't shoot it that way otherwise. So we took details from all of these places and, in fact, we even got paintings and furniture and things from these places we had found over the course of this process and we made the place in a Linens N' Things outside of Newport, Rhode Island, and that's something I just would not have done. There's not much that takes place in the house, but it's some key scenes especially the beginning, and it was all constructed to the shots.

GROSS: In that opening scene there's a tracking shot of every room in the house, so in order to do that that house has to not have a wall so that you can...

ANDERSON: Exactly. Yes.

GROSS: ...can see from outside into the house. So I could see how I guess you would have to have built it since houses have walls.

ANDERSON: Either you build it, or you buy the place and chop it in half.

GROSS: So you said something about a Linens N' Things?

ANDERSON: Yes. Our sound stage was a Linens N' Things, an abandoned Linens N' Things, a former Linens N' Things. The Petco next door was still operational, but the Linens N' Things was us.

GROSS: The film opens with this beautiful tracking shot showing, you know, all the rooms in the house and all the people in the rooms. So you get an overview of the family and the house and the look of the movie. You love those tracking shots and you are so good at choreographing them.

There are some shots in the movie that are so perfectly synchronized, where things are moving in and out of the frame at exactly the right time. First, I'd like to know why you love that kind of shot so much, that kind of shot that you've become famous for.

ANDERSON: Well, I have always been drawn to long takes in films. You know, I like the experience of seeing the actors play the scene through, and maybe that's like the theater a bit - not having cuts. There's something - it gives a tension, and for me, a kind of excitement.

I don't know if this - I don't know if this could be considered a positive thing or not, but I like having a cast do something difficult in a shot. I enjoy it when there's a challenging blocking and, you know, actors that I've worked with, like Jason Schwartzman, for instance, who's worked with me for a long time, or Bill Murray, these guys are - they've done lots of shots like that with me and it's fun.

Gene Hackman, when we did "The Royal Tenenbaums," he was happiest when he was doing a hard shot, because he's such a good actor, he can do anything. And he sort of likes a chance to, you know, stretch his legs and say we've got to do this all in one, and there's a lot that has to happen exactly right.

GROSS: I love the casting in "Moonrise Kingdom." And one of the really interesting choices you made is to cast Bruce Willis, who usually plays this kind of, you know, tough guy, superhero, I can do anything, I can blow up anything, I'm invincible, I can shoot anybody, nobody is going to shoot me kind of guy.


GROSS: And in this, he's just this melancholy, small-town sheriff who is, you know, trying to be responsible, is kind of helpless about a lot of things. It's really casting against type. It's a really nice performance. Why did you think of him?

ANDERSON: Well, I thought of him because I, you know, I mean, we had this policeman who is so kind of lonely and insecure, and yet when I was thinking about, well, who could play this, I was kind of picturing - I wanted somebody where, as you got to know his personality and could see how sort of what a sad character he was, you would still get that thing that you sort of get with real police.

Which is you can tell when somebody's a cop. I mean, I don't know if I can always tell if somebody's a cop. But there is something that is kind of often projected from an actual policeman, from what they do every day. And Bruce Willis has this sort of cop authority that even if he's playing something that's so against what he normally plays, you still would never question whether Bruce Willis is the police.

I mean, he's been the police so many times and has done it very believably. So I sort of thought - I don't normally really think about somebody's persona in other movies in relation to what I want to do. Usually, I mean, I've watched their performance to see what I - you know, I've loved all these actors' work in movies. But in this case, I did feel like we were sort of using a bit of Bruce's whole, you know, movie persona against this role.

GROSS: Did you have to talk him into it, or was he onboard immediately?

ANDERSON: He was very - that's a nice thing and that's a kind of rare thing with actors. I've always felt one of the best ways to get an actor to not be interested in your movie is to offer them the role. That usually - the first thing that you get when you offer somebody a part is for them to start second-guessing it. Better if their agent says, you know, you should read this. I mean, if we could get you in on this thing.

But in the case of Bruce, he read it and instantly, I mean, he immediately got back to me, you know, within a couple of days and said yes, and told me right off the bat how he saw the character and what he wanted to do, and it is what he did.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He directed and co-wrote the film "Moonrise Kingdom," which is up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with filmmaker Wes Anderson. His movie, "Moonrise Kingdom" which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

GROSS: So you have a very strong visual tone in the movie. And you have a color scheme too, and most of the colors in the movie they are very autumnal. It's reds and yellows and oranges, dark greens, browns. And, you know, you have this storybook kind of look.

And you needed the actors, I think, to fit with the look of the film and there's something very storybook about their acting. It's not quite realistic acting. It's like a notch different than that. How did you describe the type of performance you wanted from the actors?

ANDERSON: Well, my thing about the acting is I usually just want them to be as authentic and natural as possible, but I'm almost always giving them a scene that is nothing like how they would have said it. You know, usually what's written is a bit odd. It's not my intention that it be odd. But the thing that, what interests me as a writer is usually a sentence that's got a surprise in the way it's put together.

GROSS: So let me play a short scene here and we'll hear how some of the dialogue sounds. So...

ANDERSON: We'll see if I'm right. OK.

GROSS: Yes. I don't know is this is an example of what you're talking about, but we're limited to what's on the clip reel, so.



GROSS: On the clip reel this might be the best illustration. So this is a scene with Jason Schwartzman and he's the - well, he's the cousin of the Ed Norton character? He is the cousin of the scoutmaster?

ANDERSON: He is the cousin of another - of one of the scouts. What is that scout called? He's played by a kid named Gabriel Rush and he is called Skotak. He is the cousin of Skotak. Jason's character is Cousin Ben.

GROSS: Right. OK. So the kids want to - the two 12-year-olds, they want to get married. And they asked him to marry them and he explains that he can't do it legally, and he also wants their money.

ANDERSON: Yes. A small fee.

GROSS: In exchange for the ceremony. So he's got his own ulterior motive for going through with this. But this is him explaining to the two 12-year-olds why they can't legally get married, but why he can perform a ceremony anyways.


JASON SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) I can't offer you a legally binding union. It won't hold up in the state, the county or, frankly, any court in the world, due to your age, lack of a license and failure to get parental consent. But the ritual does carry a very important moral weight within yourselves. You can't enter into this lightly. Look into my eyes. Do you love each other?

KARA HAYWARD: (as Suzy) Yes, we do.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) But think about what I'm saying. Are you sure you're ready for this?

HAYWARD: (as Suzy) Yes we are.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) You're not listening to me. Let me rephrase it.

HAYWARD: (as Suzy) We're in a hurry.

SCHWARZTMAN: (as Cousin Ben) Are you chewing - spit out the gum, sister. In fact, everybody. I don't like the snappy attitude. This is the most important decision you've made in your lives. Now go over by that trampoline and talk it through before you give me another quick answer.

GROSS: I love that.


GROSS: First, of all when he says look into my eyes, he's wearing these really dark sunglasses so.

ANDERSON: That's true.

GROSS: They couldn't possibly look into his eyes. Now, the other great thing about that scene is that in some ways it sums up the movie. Because here's two 12-year-olds feeling these really adult feelings of, you know, they're feeling the children's version of adult feelings. They're feeling this great and meaningful love for each other. At the same time they really are 12 years old. Who were you when you were 12?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, I don't really remember that well. In a way my way of remembering what I was like then is by how other people acted towards me, things I remember about how people acted towards me. I know I had - there's a thing in the movie where the girl finds this pamphlet on top of the refrigerator in her house.

And the pamphlet says Coping with the Very Troubled Child. And she gathers that that's her. Well, I found that pamphlet, in fact, at about that same age and when I saw it - and it was literally on top of the refrigerator - and if either of my brothers had found that pamphlet they both would've known it was me. They were never going to make a mistake and think it was themselves. I knew it was me. They would've known it was me.

And the other thing I remember from that age is my fourth grade teacher - maybe this is a little younger, but I must've been some kind of troublemaker, because she made this arrangement with me that each week that I did not get in a certain amount of trouble she was giving me some points.

And when I added up enough points, she let me put on a play in our school because she knew I'd written this one little short play that we had done in our class. And she let me kind of become a little theater person at that age. And I did many of these five-minute plays over, you know, over that year. And I feel like in a way what I do now is vaguely, you know, continuing something from then that she kind of got me going on.

GROSS: That such a brilliant idea, to have the art, to have the theater be the reward, the gift, you know.

ANDERSON: Yes. I remember on my folder she would put little stars and things. And then every now and then it said: Time for a new play, with exclamation points after and it was always like I was so excited when I would see that on the folder.

GROSS: Wes Anderson, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for making the movie.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Terry. It's such a pleasure to be back with you again.

BIANCULLI: Wes Anderson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He and co-writer Roman Coppola are up for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their collaboration on "Moonrise Kingdom."

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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