Bob Balaban serves as Wes Anderson’s narrator/storyteller in Moonrise Kingdom. In a new interview he talks about his career, the best bit being his experiences on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
AVC: There’s a part in Close Encounters where you have to convey the emotion of being one of the first humans to see an alien spaceship land. You write that people on the set referred to it as “the ———— scene,” where the dash represents someone looking up at the sky and moving their head from left to right.
BB: Steven [Spielberg] was very helpful with that, because he would talk to you, like in a silent movie. There’s a scene with Melinda Dillon where she has to see the mothership appear, and she didn’t even know it was going to be a mothership. She was just looking for her lost son and doesn’t know what’s happening. Steven literally would stand behind the camera and say, “Okay, so you see a light, now it’s kind of coming out, then you think maybe it’s an explosion, you’re not sure what, then it gets bigger…” And he talked her through the entire thing. If the right director does that in the right way, it’s just amazing. It’s like the whole history of silent movies, because directors never shut up in silent movies. They don’t get to do it that much in talking movies, but Steven was just the master. He didn’t have the acting background that so many other great directors have—Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, and a number of other directors came from theater, or they were actors, and they had a lot of acting tricks in their bag of tricks. But Steven only had himself to draw on, and the results of a lot of great performances, because he knew every performance in every movie ever made. Steven proved to me that you don’t have to be a wizard of training in order to be great; he’s just great with people, and he’s great with actors. It’s not because he studied it, necessarily. He just knew it. It’s also why I think anybody who’s great with children tends to be a pretty good director.
AVC: Speaking of great directors, your role in Close Encounters was as translator to the scientist played by François Truffaut, and the sense from your diaries is that you played a similar role offscreen.
BB: It was so much fun. You can only imagine [having] one of your favorite directors be absolutely dependent on you for eight months of shooting. I could speak fairly good French, and he really didn’t like to speak English. He would bring me scripts, I would translate them, and we would have discussions afterward. He didn’t like reading the scripts in English, so I would read them and describe to him what it was, and what was going on. It was great. Truffaut was great with kids, also. At one point—I’m sure I’ve said this in my book, and three or four thousand times already—Truffaut said for him there were literally two things that interested him in all of his movies. That was it. He said life was short—how prescient he was, because he died eight years later. But he said, “I’m never going to have enough time to make all of the movies I want. So I can only make movies about men and women and their relationships, and children and their relationships. That’s it, that’s all that interests me.” That’s everything in the world, but it also rules out a huge amount of things. It mostly rules out anything mechanical. At one point, he was asked to direct Bobby Deerfield, I think. He said, “Too much ‘vroom vroom.’” What he really meant was it wasn’t about men and women falling in love, or children.