“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” For all its idiosyncrasies, screwball-like speed, exquisite attention to detail, style and craft and some hilariously vulgar humor, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s eighth feature-length film, might be one of his most soulful in some time. That aforementioned quote might be the heart and soul of the movie too; a beautiful and melancholy adage about a refined character who refused to behave without elegance despite the barbaric age that society was devolving into.
In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a charming murder mystery and crime caper set against the backdrop of a troubled Eastern Europe about to head into an era of fascism, Ralph Fiennes stars as Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel who enchants his guests with a renowned hospitality that makes the mountain chalet the destination of the wealthy and affluent in Europe. A new lobby boy (Tony Revolori), the mysterious death of an aged guest (Tilda Swinton) and the disappearance of a priceless painting (Boy With Apple) set off a chain of events that make for a madcap adventure. But of course, it all comes with a price and ends up much more poignant than you’d expect.
The film is also one of Wes Anderson’s most ambitious works. Multi-layered, it rolls a few genres into one, is set in three different time periods, told in flashbacks, features animation, stop-motion photography and also includes some of the most dynamic action sequences of the filmmaker’s career (even if they are shot in some of the most peculiar and unexpected ways). We recently sat down with Wes Anderson to talk about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but also — like the movie that is nostalgic for the past — look back at earlier moments in the director’s career (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” ‘The Life Aquatic’ and more) and hopefully give a wider context to where the filmmaker is at now. The full interview is below. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens in limited release this weekend.
You already mentioned in Berlin that you and co-story writer Hugo Guinness conceived of this story eight years ago, but let it sit. If you would have written the screenplay back then, would it have been very different?
No, I think it was this movie. I think we just didn’t know — we did write what we had at the time. So it wasn’t typed up into a script but there were many scenes, and scenes that are in this movie. But they weren’t in the context of central Europe, 1932. They were set in present day.
Well, that’s pretty different, no? Did the period and setting come later when you read Stefan Zweig?
It came about when I read Zweig, yes, and I started thinking I’d like to — reading that and other things from that period of history. But I think part of why [Hugo and I] couldn’t finish, why we didn’t really expand or get so far in our original [concept] is because we didn’t have enough of an idea of how this could be a movie. So it was missing ingredients.
What is the “thing” in Zweig that helped you unlock the story? That made you know it was a movie?
I think it wasn’t just one thing, it was a combination of things. It was the form of some of his fiction — which often is somebody’s recollection, somebody meets somebody and they tell them a story and that’s our thing. Zweig’s description of the pre-1914 Vienna in Europe; this portrait that he paints in his memoir and even just his voice and presence as a writer. The feeling you get about him. That became part of our thing too. In a way we represent him with both Tom Wilkinson, and Jude Law, and kind of a bit Ralph Fiennes also even. So he kind of went in there in a lot of ways.
There’s that terrific line about the character in the end: “His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
Yeah, I think that kind of comes from Zweig in a way. It’s not a quote from Zweig, but it’s what he seems to say in his life.
The title of one of Zweig’s books, “The World Of Yesterday,” that could have been a working title for this film.
I think you’re right.
This is a first script that you wrote on your own [Guinness only has a co-story credit] How is that different?
Well, it wasn’t really different. I probably should have just given Hugo the shared screenplay credit. Usually what happens in a lot of movies is I’m working with somebody. I do a lot myself and then I do a lot of the writing myself and then they help, they help me some more and then I go off on my own. So in a way it was just sort of like this time I thought, “Well, I think I’ve done enough of this on my own.” Hugo has a million lines in there so it’s not entirely fair though.
Is there a difference between a Wes Anderson movie that’s written with Owen Wilson or one with Noah Baumbach or Roman Coppola? How do they vary?
I think Noah says, “I’m working with Wes with the idea of doing his thing” and it’s different from his own films, you know? His films are written by him alone, he’s also done two that are written with Greta [Gerwig] and he collaborated with Jennifer Jason Leigh, his ex-wife. Those guys voices are in all of these movies that they worked on with me. So there’s a basic difference, which is just that personality. But how it exactly expresses itself I don’t know. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
At the time you said ‘The Life Aquatic’ was your most difficult film to make because you shot on water, had this gigantic crew, etc. But ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a big, ambitious undertaking too. Was it more difficult?
No, it wasn’t. Because we are much better organized this time. I also have had the experience of doing X-number of more movies and seeing all the kinds of ways movies can go wrong and especially making a choice to not put myself in those same positions.
I don’t want to be going over budget and over schedule. I don’t want to be spending more money that I think isn’t really right for the kind of story I’m telling. You know, I want to make the movie a more reasonable kind of undertaking. I want to be extremely frugal, which with a movie means to me: I want to do every single thing that’s in the screenplay but I want to find a way to do it that is the most efficient and I want to force ourselves to find economical versions of doing these things because as long as those solutions end up being things that I feel like I like, more than if we just had the money.
So it’s trying to find a way where it feels like there’s no compromise and yet there’s no feeling of waste. Sometimes movies you know – it’s no fun for the movie to drag on and luxury, there’s certain kinds of luxuries that are fun on a movie and there’s certain kinds of luxuries that to me are no fun. Like trailers and things like that. Having six cameras going and two second units. A second unit, and a third unit and all that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that you know, I don’t want to have a big fleet of trucks out there and all that stuff.
Director James Gray told me that you wrote a part for him or tried to get him into ‘Life Aquatic.’
Yes, that’s right. He was meant to be. The person we have is such a great actor, it’s played by Noah Taylor but before it was Noah, and in fact before we had James in mind we had [screenwriter/producer/Anderson friend] Wally Wolodarsky who has been in lots of my movies. And the character is called Vladimir Wolodarsky. But James was just one of the people who passed on it but the thing is the person we ended up with happens to be a spectacular actor. Who I had not even thought I could approach with this small part but he said yes, I think partly because he was happy to go live in Rome at that period of time. But it’s great. That’s the kind of luxury we do like: having somebody just tremendously and talented in a part like that.
There was an interview the other day that mentioned your idea for a Bond film. Were you approached about that?
No, no. That was in a Q&A the other day we were just talking about, “would I do a thing like that?” Essentially I was saying I have not been asked but I did have an idea for a Bond thing but it’s one that just in and of itself prevents anyone from wanting it to happen.
You should make your own version of a British spy film, that would be great. Did I read eons ago – circa “Bottle Rocket” – that you and Owen Wilson had a Western movie idea?
Yes, yes. I forgot about that! We did have a Western. We never wrote it, we had a bunch of things and at some point we should get back to that. We had a very peculiar kind of a Western.
Will you and Owen write together again? I believe after ‘Darjeeling’ you guys had said you had another idea you wanted to do.
I think we will. It’s just one of the things: we lead very international lives. Owen jet sets all the time. He goes all over the world, he moves freely, rapidly all over the place and I tend to get someplace far away and stay there for a long, long time. I move slowly but I do spend a lot of time abroad so it’s not like how it used to be where we’re living in the same house together or even living in the same city together in any consistent way.
So it’s just been a longtime since we could really settle down and do something together. It would probably be me and him just pressing pause on everything he’s got going on for a good stretch but I think we could do it. I do have a set writing time, but I’m not as active a person in the world as he is. So it probably will happen when he feels …there will be some moment when we say, “Okay we can do this.”
The Hugo kernel that became ‘Grand Budapest Hotel,’ that was sitting around for eight years. Do you have lots of other little ideas lying around that could be movies?
Well, not really and I would have said there’s nothing at all, but then you remind me of this Western. And there’s probably another fragment or two of something out there. But there’s not much. One thing is, we’ve made a lot of [these fragments] into movies already. A lot of the ones that were sort of waiting there in some form have happened already. And now I’ve done seven eight movies and so I do have some ideas for the next thing I want to do which is very complicated. I’m not even sure if it even is a movie. But hopefully it is.
Has it got stage elements to it? Because I always feel like that’s where you’re headed in a way.
Well it could have that, but in a way it’s a little bit vaguely avant garde kind of concept, and I’m just not sure if it’s going to quite gel.
Are you writing that with anyone in particular?
Roman Coppola and I are working on an aspect of it together. I’m trying to think of a good tease. I think the thing is well, it’s a thing where, “many things happen” at once. That could be my tease [chuckles].
Do you ever think back on your old characters sometimes? Obviously your work doesn’t lend itself to sequels, but do you think of where these characters are in your mind, like Dignan from “Bottle Rocket”?
Well, you know Dignan is funny because he’s named after a real person, Stephen Dignan, and I just got an email from Stephen that was, “Why wasn’t I invited to the premiere [of ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’] last night?” I was like, “Because you live in Mississippi. He said, ‘Well I didn’t know if you remembered that I was in Mississippi and then I would have thought I would have been invited.’ I was like, “I know where you live, I’ve seen pictures of your house, I know where you live and I know you’re not a New Yorker.’ ” But he felt like he had not been invited. That’s Dignan himself. The character in the movie and real life.
But most of these characters, whatever journey we get them on in the movie we’re lucky enough just to get them to the end of it and have this story. Sometimes I have some character material that’s not in the movie, a certain amount of stuff that you know is maybe something more. You think, “well that’s a pretty good bit and almost could have gone in there,” or it’s better than some of the things that are in the movie, but didn’t serve a purpose there.
But mostly I just feel like this is what we got and then we’ve moved onto the next movie. Although I always did have some sense of thinking a bit about how the character in “Rushmore” that Jason Schwartzman plays, he’s called Max, fared in life. I have thought about him off and on, along the way. I did think Max would live this life I mean I’ve had some thoughts about that.
That would be interesting to revisit that character, but I guess sequels are not what you do.
I guess not, but I do feel like in some way I always related Jason Schwartzman to Jean-Pierre Léaud in the [Antoine Doinel] Francois Truffaut movies. You know he did his series of films, those are not the kind of things where you’d necessarily think anyone’s going to do a sequel, but he continues the stories.
Right, it’s more continuation than “sequel.” I wanted to ask you about music. I saw a cut of “The Royal Tenenbaums” back in L.A. and when the actual Beatles began and ended the film.
You saw it in the illegal phase. [laughs]
I’d always heard that you had enlisted Elliott Smith to do The Beatles covers once you couldn’t get the proper rights, but I could never confirm it. Is that true?
Yes. Elliot Smith had done – we had gone through a long process of trying to get permission for these Beatles songs and in those days they weren’t doing it. That changed but at that time we were trying to break the thing and get it to happen. The problem was we had some pretty good ins. We’d used some John Lennon music in “Rushmore” and Yoko Ono I always had a feeling that she’s been supportive of me, even though I don’t know her. It might be presumptuous of me to say that, but I would like to say Yoko has been supportive.
Paul McCartney had seen [‘Tenenbaums’] and he said yes, but George Harrison was sick and dying. You had to get everybody to sign off and George was just not possible, no one was going to say, “Oh before you die could you please watch this movie and tell us whether we can use the music for it?” So then we got Elliot Smith. Then I thought I’d like to see if Elliot Smith could do this. He did a version but he wasn’t in a great mental or physical space at the time and it just was not a successful recording session. It was kind of a mess.
So he was doing those Beatles covers? [The movie originally began with The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and ended with The Anthology version of “I’m Looking Through You”]
He just did “Hey Jude.” He did “Hey Jude” but he wasn’t happy with it and it didn’t really work. He wasn’t comfortable with the whole situation it seems. Then at the last minute I got asked by Mark Mothersabaugh, “Can we do this?” Mark and [music supervisor] George Drakoulias and I, we just went in and very quickly we did the whole thing and we had good revisions and Mark just made it happen. And then it was fine.
But you know we even tried to have some Beatles songs in another one later. At one point in “The Darjeeling Limited” we had some Beatles songs and that didn’t really work out either. It was another weird moment with the Apple people but then along the way in the process of that I had this concept of this cycle of Kinks song and it was better. We ended The Beatles process in the middle because I said, “You know what? We’ve got it.”
It’s hard to imagine that movie without its Kinks now. Are you going to use the Beatles at some point?
I don’t know. I don’t have any thought about it.
Your longtime music supervisor Randall Poster was telling me about “the vault.” [their code for songs that they sit on for years until they find the right movie for them]
Oh, things we’ve got and saved up. We had one, one that came out in a nice way was we had this song, “Let Her Dance” for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and sort of late in the game we thought, “Maybe here’s our chance to use this song.” We’d had it sitting around for many years and we thought, “It’s going to end the movie, we’re going to do a dance scene to it.” We’ve had a few like that along the way where we’ve had sort of who knows how we’re going to use it and when and then it sort of reveals itself.
You wrote a script for Ron Howard’s company a long time ago [“The Rosenthaler Suite” a remake of the French film “My Best Friend”]. Would you ever revisit that?
It was for Ron Howard’s company producing actually, Image Entertainment. I think the studio didn’t like what I did, it probably wasn’t that good anyway but I did have a part of that script that I still like. I still think there’s a thing that I did…[trails off, perhaps not wanting to reveal]
There’s a caper element that reminds me of the caper element in ‘Grand Budapest Hotel.’
Yeah, that’s right. There were a couple of characters that I thought I might use in another way if they let me. I’m sure that it’s all owned by Universal.
Maybe they’ll let you do that. They should.
For more ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ context and thoughts from Anderson, also check out this interview with the filmmaker from Berlin a few weeks ago. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens in limited release this Friday, March 7. The film goes wider on March 14.