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The Wes Anderson Effect, a catchall term for the symmetrical frames, saturated colors, and cheeky antiquity of the director’s films, has become a beloved aesthetic for many. And despite the insanely precise camerawork that goes into each and every one of Anderson’s films, the secret to creating this feeling often lies in the details; the haphazard picture frames in The Royal Tenenbaums or a giant three-tiered birdhouse in Moonrise Kingdom. These subtle cues are no cinematic coincidence. They’re actually someone’s job.
Meet Kris Moran, the women behind some of Wes Anderson's most elaborate sets.
Moran is a set decorating powerhouse. Aside from her work in the prop department on notable Anderson films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, her IMDB page lists her work in a number of other Hollywood hits, including The Cider House Rules and The Wolf of Wall Street. And if you dig a little, it'll also reveal a gratuitous credit in the movie St. Vincent: "Very Special Assistant to Bill Murray." Murray and Moran have been close friends for years. "I don't know how it gets interpreted," Moran laughs about the credit.
We sat down with Moran at her home in Brooklyn; a beautiful brownstone steps away from Fort Greene Park. And much like the films she has worked on, it's anything but ordinary. Her living room opens up to an eye-catching ‘60s-era circular sofa that is just as charming as Moran herself. Her mantlepiece is filled with odd trinkets — a coiled taxidermy snake, a kitschy rose lamp — alongside hand-drawn pictures from her son Lincoln. There's even a handful of little keepsakes she managed to snag from her sets, like a felt raccoon patch from Moonrise Kingdom and a little elephant matchbox from Darjeeling Limited.
The story behind Moran's 23-year long career isn't your typical luck of the draw story, but one that involves youthful indecisiveness, some charm, and insane amounts of hard work. She grew up in New Jersey and enrolled at a college in Pennsylvania, before realizing that Pennsylvania was 100% not the place she needed to be. After a trip to Alaska one summer, she met a group of cool graphic design kids who studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, and immediately made up her mind that she would transfer to the school's graphic design program. "They didn't even end up accepting me," Moran laughs. "I ended up working as a bike messenger and took some art classes in order to win over the teachers in the department."
She eventually graduated from the university with a degree in painting, after realizing that all of the cool kids were actually painters, not graphic artists.
Moran's set decorating career began, coincidentally enough, when she met the man who would later become her husband. While she worked on a student film, he introduced her to his professor at a party. After making chit-chat about her interest in set decoration, the professor introduced her to his babysitter's brother — a prop master who offered her a job on the movie The Good Son.
Her first order of business? Shopping for items you'd find in your everyday home. "I went to the Salvation Army and got some pillows, pots, and pans for this major motion picture, and I came back to the office the next day and they were like, ‘Oh Kris, that's cute,'" said Moran. "They gave me $600 and I only spent $40."
Eight years later she was hired for her first Wes Anderson film, the lauded cult-classic The Royal Tenenbaums. She worked as assistant prop master for the film, not to be confused with on-set dresser. As it turns out, there's a major difference between the two jobs. "Prop masters deal with the actors and the property, and props are the property of the character," Moran says. "So, it's things they own and touch in the story — very personal items, which are separate from the environment that they live in."
On-set dressers, on the other hand, are responsible for moving and placing furniture depending on the camera angle and the shot. On set, she admits that Wes often confused her for both. "He was quite young at that point, and I don't think he knew that I was a prop person," laughs Moran.
She appreciated his meticulousness and artistry right away, especially when it came down to his vision for each of his films. "He's such an artist. He saw the whole film in his head before anybody got there. He would provide us with a storyboard of every scene of the entire movie. And actually, it didn't change much from what he drew up. I still have them all," said Moran. "It's like you get a script, and you get a storyboard, and they're equally as thick."
In each book, alongside the margins, are descriptive notes for each scene, like the patterns of the wallpaper or the color of a certain room. Bold vibrant colors play a big role in nearly all of Anderson's films.
"Whenever I think of The Royal Tenenbaums, I just see that pink. I remember there was a lot of conversation about the kids' room. They had a lot of wall paintings, and the carpeting in that room was some zig-zag, green and white or something. But I think [Anderson's storyboards] got more specific than that," said Moran.
When choosing the pieces that went into each room, Moran often draws inspiration from her own lived experiences, something she refers to as her "fearless instinct." As a child of the ‘70s she noticed certain things — the color of a rotary telephone or the shagginess of a carpet. And that aesthetic comes across in her work.
Now, when she's buying things to put into a home on set, her decisions are based more on the characters than a set of typical kitchen goods.
"When I'm putting a set together, I often have to buy everything that person bought in their whole life in three weeks," said Moran. "You're trying to represent all of those layers and history, and you have to buy it all at one time. You have to figure out what they would throw away, what they would keep."
She frequents places like Ebay and local thrift stores to score items for her sets, but every now and then, she comes across a goldmine by chance. Once, while working on Moonrise Kingdom, a man reached out to Moran after he noticed she was searching for a lot of old-school camping equipment. Days later, she was on a flight to Ohio to a place called The Antiques Warehouse — a 40,000 square foot facility filled with vintage props and furniture. She found everything from a three-tiered birdhouse to exterior streetlights.
Anderson often values Moran's judgment when it comes to props. While working on Moonrise Kingdom, he trusted her decision to re-upholster a lumpy loveseat that sat in the Bishop's living room near the right side of the frame. "It was like nothing else we had for the entire set," Moran said.
She opted for a gaudy, ‘70s style striped fabric. It took a lot to convince the rest of the production design team, but eventually found its way into the film.
Moran revels in the freedom and responsibilities she's given on set. "Now I build bigger environments, but I love the edge of the frame because it brings me back to painting. Wes cares so much about the frame, and it's just so nice to work with someone who cares so much about the process," Moran admits.
Sometimes she pushes that freedom; kind of like an inside joke. And if you look closely, you'll see her odd placements and wonder just how in the hell she gets away with it.
"When I was on Moonrise Kingdom, I would take a painting, and I would hang it right next to a door frame or a light switch, which is really bad placing. The crew would be like, ‘Who hung that?," Moran laughs. "I'd talk my way around it and say something along the lines of ‘Who knows, maybe they would have hung it like that.' Then everyone would get quiet and nod like, ‘you're right."