In the beginning of Wes Anderson's new movie "Moonrise Kingdom," Bob Balaban appears on a desolate New England island looking a bit like one of Santa's helpers. As the movie's narrator, he sets the scene for what's to come: an emotionally subtle but complex love story between two 12-year olds who make a secret pact to run away into the wilderness.
The adventure unfolds as various authorities proceed to hunt them down: the island's police chief, played by Bruce Willis; their local Khaki Scout troop leader, played by Edward Norton; and the girl's parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. The characters are joined by a social services agent played by Tilda Swinton (at her scary best) and includes an appearance by Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman.
"Moonrise Kingdom" is as much a cinematic gem about love both young and old as it is a testimony to how much actors love working with Wes Anderson. Quipped Bill Murray during a press event at Cannes for the film's premiere: "These are what you call art films. They're films where you work very, very long hours for no money. All we got was this trip to Cannes."
Of course, the cast got way more than that. "Wes makes movies according to his own particular sensibilities," Balaban said. "His is not just a talented mind; it is an organized and kind one. He makes movies like nobody else, and he's not trying to do it to be different; he's doing it because that's who he is."
Balaban knows of what he speaks. He was put on the cinematic map in "Midnight Cowboy" and went on to act in some of Hollywood's most iconic films: "Catch-22," " Jaws," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," among many others. He also produced "Gosford Park" with Robert Altman, in addition to directing and starring in TV (including "Seinfeld") and working off-Broadway. I recently spoke with Balaban about the magic of making Moonrise Kingdom and his own magical career.
What drew you to Moonrise Kingdom?
For me, the first thing is always about who's directing the movie. If you fall in love with a script and don't know the director, it's always a leap of faith. But in Wes' case, you really don't even need to read the script. Obviously, I knew I'd be dying to work with him. When I read the script, I most responded to the quality of the writing. There was something on the page that was so astute, so beautifully mapped out and figured out. I didn't see the movie visually as I read it, because Wes' visual interpretations are very amazing and complicated. So I really had no idea what he was planning. But I knew when I read it that the movie would have great power, great intelligence and a very wonderful feeling of affection for the characters.
There are a lot of emotional subtleties in both the kids' young love and the more complicated, older love between the grown-ups.
I was very surprised when I saw the finished product, because it's a movie that would seem to be a kind of cheerful adventure comedy -- which it is on one level. But I was much more affected by it because does not indulge itself in anything maudlin or romantic or overly dramatic. And yet, it has these emotional and very powerful moments in it. It's a real three-dimensional love story being told at two different levels: You have these two 12-year-olds who have an amazing pure, strong real love for each other. It's a very real thing, and I think we've all experienced at the age of 12 some form of something that grown ups may have looked at and gone, "aw, isn't that cute?" But when you're in the middle of it, it's very serious and real. It's not at all cute. And that's juxtaposed with the triangle between Bruce Willis' character and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. It's very gently depicted, but it's very painful. It's about another kind of love that has now transformed into middle-aged love. It's a real commentary, without ever making any judgments or conclusions. Having absolute pure young love in the same movie with complicated, older, difficult, unhappy love is a very, very powerful thing.
You do feel the presence of two kinds of love super-imposed on each other.
When have you ever seen a relationship like the one depicted in the Bill-Francis-Bruce sort of love triangle? It's all very understated, but when have you ever seen it? Isn't it surprising that she's been having an affair, he's been disengaged from their marriage, but they both understand it and they both love each other and they both treat each other with enormous sweetness and sadness? It's such a realistic portrayal of what can happen in a very sort of humanistic way.
You've worked on so many big, iconic films. What was it like working with this particular cast on a Wes Anderson film?
Being in a Wes movie really brings out the tempered spirit in all the actors. There's no dressing room. There's no make up particularly. There's no limousine or trailer or anything like that, so it really is a bonding experience. Nobody was shielded from anybody else with assistants. Wes had a beautiful old house that was also kind of the production base. Wes surrounds himself with fun, interesting, friendly people. As in most movies with directors who have skill and ability and talent and everything else, the whole experience is a reflection of their personality. In Wes' case, his personality is thoughtful, kind, consistent, intelligent and very knowledgeable.
Which is why so many actors want to work with Wes Anderson and do so as a labor of love.
Yes, and it doesn't happen that much. Anybody who wants to become an actor does so because it's a compulsion. You don't say to yourself: "Which of the seven professions will I now follow so I can make a living, raise my family, and be secure in my old age?" Nobody would choose being an actor, because it makes no sense in that context. You're only an actor because you love doing it.
But then you bump up against this fact: That it's a business. So you are there for the love of it all, and yet as movies get bigger and more expensive and there's more riding on these things, it's very hard to maintain that balance of what it's like as an art form. So you seek out experiences where there's a chance that the reason you went into this in the first place will get visited and get a little reinforcement. And certainly that happens in Christopher Guest movies. It's why everybody wanted to be in a Robert Altman movie. Steven Spielberg does it, too. It doesn't mean you can't have it in a big budget expensive movie, but it's a little harder.
The business has certainly changed since you were launched on "Midnight Cowboy."
I was in college and that was the first movie I was in. I was the X rating in the film for the scene where I went down on Jon Voight. Then when it won Best Picture, somehow it wasn't an X rating anymore. They didn't change anything. I think the rating became something like "nobody-under-17-admitted-and-be-very-very-careful-you-will-be-morally-damaged-if-you-see-the-movie." But at least it didn't have an X rating after it won the Academy Award.
Do you lament the changes in the movie business that have taken place since "Midnight Cowboy"?
We have to remember that entertainment as we know it has always been in a constant state of flux. Silent movies were around for 25 years until sound came in a ruined everything. When television came in, it destroyed exhibiting and distribution as nothing had ever destroyed it in the past. And now television got destroyed by the Internet.
But I think there is still a great human need to watch movies and see plays. I really do think it's a real need we have as a culture, as social animals. We're going through a period right now of intense change, because there's both a marketplace for tiny, little interesting movies that you'll only see on your iPhone, and movie theaters still dominated by these $300 million behemoths. But there's still room for everything. I think there's always hope that something great will sneak into the most unlikely of places -- and it does.
You wrote a book about your experience with working with Spielberg and Truffaut on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." What did you learn from those two cinema giants?
My book is called "Spielberg, Truffaut and Me" and it got republished about 10 years ago. I'm really glad it's there because it helped me remember my amazing learning experiences with them both. It's always amazing when you find that the person at the top of their profession -- the one with the most fame, skill, attention and everything else -- turns out to just be somebody you would've been best friends with in fifth grade if you had known them. Steven is Steven is because he maintains his humanity, as did Truffaut. And that's probably true of any great artist of any kind. They don't always have to friendly and nice about it, but essentially you're talking about people who can't help but project into their work their complex, interesting points of view of things. And that's what we crave from these people.
You've also written a series of children's books.
I had a successful series 10 years ago called "McGrowl." It was about a little boy and his adventures with his bionic dog. I have a new series coming out in the Fall called "The Creature from the Seventh Grade." I'm very excited about it because the springboard was very autobiographical. It's about the nerdiest, skinniest, shortest boy in seventh grade who turns into a mutant dinosaur. It's essentially about the perils of adolescence magnified 100 times, when you have to cope with being really different, like a dinosaur with scales.
Sounds like my teen son.
That's good. I hope other people will feel that way, too.
Given your career and the experiences you've had as an actor, is there one thing you know now that you wished you knew growing up?
Yes, and it's very, very simple: Everybody is in the same boat. People may look more polished and like they know what they're doing and have no trouble and everything's easy for them. But mostly everybody on the inside is going, "oh my God, how will I get through this?" And when you know that, it's really a relief.
Check out the slideshow below for interviews with Balaban and a few highlights from his career.