You’d think that of all the people involved in the making of a film, the writer would be the one with all the answers, the one who’s already gleaned all the insight he’s going to get from the story. But, in general, you’d be wrong. One reason writers are often so interesting to interview once their films are released is that they’ve seen the process play out from the beginning, they’ve seen how the whole thing has changed, and they’re still open to discovering new aspects of the work. Roman Coppola is no exception, as he makes the rounds to promote Moonrise Kingdom, the film he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson.
He’s been asked about the notion of family, which is so central both to Moonrise and to The Darjeeling Limited, the last film he co-wrote with Anderson. “It’s an interesting question,” he muses, “because when I work with Wes, it’s very pragmatic, very practical. It’s like, okay, we’ve got a kid, and he’s just escaped. He cut a hole in his tent. What did he take with him? And it’s very rare that we talk about overarching themes or concepts. I think maybe it’s a good thing that in the process of working you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I love my family, so let’s have a family feeling about this.’ But it’s interesting because in this process of discussing the movie, you start to think more about it, and you start to take more of an objective view.”
“For Darjeeling, we created a family of brothers—me, Jason, and Wes,” he continues. “The premise was always three brothers that come together to have this experience and try to get close again. So, Jason, Wes and I went on all of these adventures. We rode a train through India. We said yes to kooky experiences and stuff. We did kind of, in a way, live as a family. And, those experiences really informed what we were doing. We kept notes, and we improvised, and all that kind of stuff. So in a way, when you ask about that notion of family, and also with Jason of course actually being my cousin, we’ve had tons of experiences together. Like, ‘Oh remember that time?’”
Coppola is famously (and touchingly) close with his famous family, one of the most storied in the history of American cinema. But in Moonrise Kingdom the exploration of family isn’t as rosy as in The Darjeeling Limited. The main male character is an orphan whose foster family rejects him, and who’s even an outcast in his second surrogate family, his Khaki Scout troop. The main female character feels completely disengaged from her family, which is hardly a model of intimacy and openness in the first place. Where the brothers in The Darjeeling Limited are seeking to return to a family closeness, the kids in Moonrise Kingdom are seeking to create a new family structure to escape the lack of warmth in their own families.
Coppola reckons that the alienation in Moonrise springs more from Anderson’s past than his own. “Wes had that exact experience in his life,” he says, “where he found a book on top of the refrigerator that said ‘Coping with a Very Troubled Child.’ That was actually something from his own life. I think the tension of those parents and the feeling of sort of being an outcast or whatever, and I think if you ask Wes, ‘Do you relate to that?’ he probably would say yes. In my life personally, with my sister and my parents and stuff, I don’t really relate much of that experience to Moonrise Kingdom. But, there are little details. Like, my mom does happen to have a megaphone. She doesn’t use it in the way it’s portrayed in the movie; she uses it to announce the Easter egg hunt and our Easter party. But, there are little clues and little things that find their way into the movie in curious ways. With Wes, though, for example, he lives in Europe away from his family. I think maybe these are things that come from his own feelings, you know?”
Coppola has brought a warmth, even a sweetness, back to Anderson’s work that leavens the often cold, sterile tendencies he began to display in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. The seeds for the collaboration, though, were sown much earlier: “We met after I saw Bottle Rocket, the short version. It was shown to me by L.M. Kit Carson. He was an inspiration to me and my first film, and obviously someone that recognized Wes’s talent. So, when I saw Bottle Rocket, I totally connected with it and thought it was very clever and funny. We’d known each other a bit here and there, and I’d worked with Bob Yeomen, who of course he always works with. Also, Sofia [Roman’s sister] is actually the person who recommended Jason for Rushmore. So, we’d been friendly. But it wasn’t until we were thrown in together on The Life Aquatic, where when we’re working on the film set, you’re really in the trenches, as it were. It wasn’t until then that we really got to know one another deeply.”
Coppola approached Anderson as he was preparing for The Life Aquatic. “I actually was friendly with Wes and I said, ‘I’d love to do any second unit you’d like me to do.’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t really do second unit, but you’re welcome to visit.’ So, I happened to be in Rome, and I went to visit him. They were doing a shot where they’re shooting a helicopter with kind of a sky backdrop. And on the helicopter, the engine blows up or something and it’s supposed to drop out of the sky. So, they had the shot with the crane filming the helicopter, and as soon as the explosion went off, they dropped the camera down. They did a couple of takes, and I tapped Wes on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re dropping the camera down, but the helicopter appears to be going up, not down you know, because it’s the opposite.’”
It proved to be the kind of slap-your-head moment that led to a deepening friendship. “We just complement each other,” Coppola says. “I think we fill in some good gaps for one another. But, to get to your point, Wes definitely has a sense of mirth, and this kind of humor, and a little bit of this wit and this sense of play. And, I have that too, and I think we sort of recognize that in one another. we just developed a really close connection, we just sort of delight in similar things. So, it’s a nice friendship and a nice working relationship that’s unfolded.”
Coppola’s next project, though, will be on his own. “The film is called A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III,” he shares, “but it’s actually inspired by a real designer named Charles White III. He’s kind of a hero of mine, but somewhat little-known because he worked in an area of graphic design in the 1970s that people generally don’t know about. The movie stars Charlie Sheen as this designer who goes through a very unpleasant breakup. His girlfriend dumps him, and he just goes into a tailspin. Basically, she had her claws really deep into his brain, and he’s processing it. So, it’s a character study of a guy who has a very rich imagination, who is reaching out to all of the people around him: Jason Schwartzman, who’s his best friend and a stand-up comic; Bill Murray, who’s his accountant; and Patricia Arquette, who’s his sister. He’s just sort of trying to process what it means to go through this. And we come to understand who he is, and who they were as a couple through all these memories. The movie is told in a somewhat fractured timeline. And there are a lot of fantasy sequences that help us to kind of understand the way he sees life. It’s just kind of a very playful character study about a very dynamic, imaginative guy.”
And there it is again, that reaching out for family connection. It’s there in The Darjeeling Limited and in Moonrise Kingdom, and it sounds like it’s there in A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III as well. Whoever said that growing up in a happy family can’t produce a great artist?