That Special Sixties Summer
How the filmmakers conveyed MOONRISE KINGDOM’s special nostalgia
From hand-picked wall murals to Texas-sourced trailer homes, Wes Anderson and his design team carefully considered every object to capture the just right sensibility of the early sixties.
Another factor bringing MOONRISE KINGDOM’s cast and crew closer together was the collective make-believe effort; whether they were alive in 1965 or not, each member of the unit had to work together to help the actors slip into their characters and the world they inhabit.
Producer Jeremy Dawson notes, “This story is Wes’ take on 1965. From my perspective, his previous movies always existed in a time that you couldn’t quite place, mixing past and present.
“Wes has always storyboarded in pre-production; something that we had done on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which we also applied here, was to edit the storyboards together with voices and music, pre-testing some of the sequences.”
“Our starting point was visual research,” says costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone. “That came primarily from photography.”
Art director Gerald Sullivan concurs, saying that “the biggest thing for us in the art department was researching the architecture of the time, and of the area; meaning, both interiors and exteriors. So, we looked at houses on islands, lighthouses, shingled houses – all in constant collaboration with Wes, who had collected reams of research photos for us to make use of in our designs.” So many photos accrued that a private production website had to be set up in order for departmental staffs and crew members to have access to them all.
Set decorator Kris Moran, who had first worked alongside Anderson as “on-set prop” on The Royal Tenenbaums, notes, “Wes cares about every detail so much. We scoured antique shops and borrowed things from crew members and people we met. If Wes had been out walking and seen something on someone’s porch that he liked, we chased it down. When I was dressing a set, it was often with something that wasn’t necessarily iconic of the time, but tertiary and interesting so that it could get more at the characters’ history.
“This movie has a bit of a different aesthetic than Wes’ other movies; it’s a little more rough around the edges, and a little more lived-in.”
Yet there often proved to be little in the way of vintage props, set dressing, or wardrobe that could be found on the scale needed for the production.
One exception was the trailer home for Captain Sharp, Bruce Willis’ character; the desired 1952 Spartanette was found through a dealer in Texas. But for Robert Yeoman’s camera to be able to move around inside, Moran says, “We actually had to cut it apart and then rebuild it. The interior was intact, but we reconfigured it so there could be a 360-degree field of vision inside. We then re-dressed it in full.”
Moran recalls her team looking for tents needed to colonize the fictional Khaki Scouts of North America’s Troop 55 at their camp under the command of Scout Master Ward, played by Edward Norton. After they scoured the country to locate a stash of old stock tents, they found that even Army/Navy stores were coming up short. Only a couple of vintage tents had been found – and these mostly weren’t the right color or shape or size; Anderson had specified the Khaki Scouts tents’ piping (bright yellow) and interior lining (plaid, including a plaid wall for Ward’s own tent).
Efforts to refashion the existing tents didn’t take. Moran recounts, “We realized that every tent would have to be custom-made. That way we wouldn’t have to hide or cheat anything, and we could control the color and shape.”
A New Hampshire company, Tentsmiths, specializes in fabricating historical reenactment tents. Although geared towards replicating tents from pre-1950, Tentsmiths staff rose to the challenge of moving their aesthetic forward to 1965.
Moran says, “We sent someone up there to rally them, and to convey an understanding of the visuals we were trying to achieve. Everyone at Tentsmiths really got into it, and the tents they made for us looked fantastic!”
As production designer, Stockhausen would oversee the entire look of MOONRISE KINGDOM and would have to coordinate with every department. His research was therefore multifaceted.
He comments, “I researched everything from general lifestyle to very specific objects. For example, I wondered, ‘In what exact year did switches develop on night lights?’ so that we wouldn’t make a mistake.”
Dawson says, “Adam did an amazing job, especially with his research into the origins of scouting and camping.”
Stockhausen’s crew proved inventive and resourceful, making camp signs out of sticks and logs tied together. As with the tents, the story’s requisite canoes were built to design specifics; many mornings at the local Holiday Inn Express, crew members would test out the newly built and painted canoes in the hotel pool. Since these were made out of plywood, buoyancy was not always achieved; ultimately, for many of the scenes involving canoeing, off-camera ballast of weighted keels had to be rigged underneath, helping to maintain the actors’ immersion in the moment rather than risk their immersion in the drink.
Rhode Island’s existing pool of craftsmen joined the group effort. Citing their contributions, Moran enthuses, “A local artist, James Langston, carved little raccoons on the front of the canoes, and he also made some totem poles for us. Chris Wiley made corn finials [e.g., sculpted ornaments] for Scout Master Ward’s tent. Another artist made all the stick furniture inside that tent – all matching out of chicory, an entire suite! We even had a chainsaw artist make some of the totems on top of the signage for the Khaki Scouts’ camp.”
For the Bishop family home, the hope was to find a house that could immediately assume the role. The house chosen to portray the Bishop home exterior was Conanicut Light, in Jamestown, RI – a former lighthouse. For the interior, four candidates had such strong qualities that the production sought to re-create elements of each. The decision was made to build the house interiors on a soundstage in a vacant retail space at a local strip mall in Middletown, RI. On the soundstage, all the best elements – whether architecture or furnishings – of the favored locations were re-created.
Dawson notes, “At each of these homes, we picked up inspirations and reference points. There were things that we just loved and wanted to see up on-screen. Adam would run those through his brain. When he went back to Wes, a hybrid was created – one that comes fully alive in the opening sequence of the film.”
“All of them were unique houses,” marvels Stockhausen. “Together, our favorite pieces of them inform and convey the eclectic and individual family that lives within.”
The four houses that went into the DNA of the Bishop home interior were Comfort Island, in Alexandria Bay on the St. Lawrence River, at the border between New York and Canada; Stafford House, on Cumberland Island in Georgia; the Cottage at Ten Chimneys, in Wisconsin; and Clingstone in Narragansett Bay, which is visible from the shore of Newport, RI.
“The wall murals, with the trees, are replicas of the walls at Comfort Island,” reveals Moran. “The interior shingles are a defining feature of Clingstone. The kitchen set is part of Alexandria Bay. On-screen, it all coheres as the Bishop family home.”
“There is definitely that certain New England feel to it,” states Sullivan. “Some of that architecture you just wouldn’t see anywhere else. The sets and the environment were meant to bolster the characters – and the actors.”
As with the Spartanette trailer in its original state, the camera movements that Anderson and Yeoman envisioned for the opening sequence necessitated something of a dissection of the home’s interior.
Stockhausen notes, “It all developed once Wes decided to go with his idea of moving through the house in a very specific manner – from room to room without cuts – for the opening sequence. It was broken down shot by shot for us with storyboards.
“We sat down and started to figure it out from a design point of view, and also from a budget point of view. It was like a puzzle; is this piece of research right for that shot? We took a deep breath, and we went for it. It was a lot of fun.”
Working on a soundstage allowed the filmmakers to slightly bend the rules of architecture and physics so that they weren’t constrained by congruent placement of windows, doors, and rooms.
Sullivan remarks, “Wes was a constant collaborator, a total partner all the way who was always receptive to input. He would augment things a day, or an even an hour, before shooting.”
Unique features that were built in to the Bishop house, such as the bead board, contribute to an eclectic interior with a hint of age. Books pervade the home, reflecting the parents’ vocations as lawyers; some are vintage books, while others were crafted by the crew. A good portion of the furniture and artwork was rented from Comfort Island, including works by painter Alson Skinner Clark. With the home being a former lighthouse, a nautical theme also flows through the Bishops’ interior.
Although the time of the story is 1965, the house itself is not meant to be from any particular time period but rather an amalgamation of period details through the mid-1960s.
Moran notes, “We made room for stuff in their lives from the 1940s and 1950s; there are random objects that they might have found, reflecting a strong love of the arts.”
“It’s a beautiful set, with all its handmade work,” Bill Murray says admiringly. “It’s one of the nicest ones I’ve worked in. The crew spent a lot of time making it feel authentic – how a house gets decorated by the first person who lives there, and then later you’re sort of stuck with it – so we could feel authentic when we were acting.
“There was cool stuff around, a lot they didn’t keep track of – if you wanted something you could walk right out of there with it.”
Moran laughs, “Bill thinks we weren’t keeping track of the record albums, but I know exactly which ones he took.”