There’s no stopping Wes Anderson. After experiencing a minor career setback with the mildly received comedy “The Darjeeling Limited,” the filmmaker made a swift recovery with his glorious first stab at animation, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (recently released onto the Criterion Collection), and followed that up with one of his biggest commercial hits to date, the beloved coming-of-age pic “Moonrise Kingdom.”
He’s back in theaters this Friday with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” his most ambitious live-action feature to date. If the ecstatic word of mouth following its Berlinale world premiere last month is anything to go by, it stands to be his biggest film yet. Starring a ridiculously esteemed ensemble that includes Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and Bill Murray, “Budapest” centers on Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes in fine comedic form), the legendary concierge of the film’s title.
Indiewire sat down with Anderson in New York to discuss his latest feature, how he worked with his cast, and his real-life friend who inspired Fiennes’ character.
At the outset of the film, Tom Wilkinson’s character says something along the lines of, “People think that writers are consistently inventing, but by observing characters, by observing people, the characters come to you.”
He says something like that… you’re paraphrasing, and so was I. I was misquoting Stefan Zweig — Tom Wilkinson is doing a version of the introduction to this book “Beware of Pity,” which is the first Zweig book that I read. And people have asked me, “Do you feel that way?”
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask you. [laughs]
And my answer is, not particularly. I’m not sure I believe that Stefan Zweig really thought that way. I have no basis for this — my only thing is, he is the kind of writer who, his stories are very psychological, but they’re not necessarily stories from someone who is desperately trying to express, to reveal his demons. He’s not some pained, tortured artist. He does turn out to be, and his last book, his memoir, is very much about something he needs to share with the world, but his stories are tales, they’re very entertaining and he was hugely popular.
My little theory would be, he put in this introduction because he thought it would set a mood. He probably did it to make the story sound better, to give a thematic concept that he appears to demonstrate. It’s a thing he does consistently through his work, some method of saying “Gather ’round, I have a good one for you here.” So I wonder — were people bringing Zwieg stories left and right? I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t.
If he had written the other part and thought, “Maybe I’ll do a little intro part, where I say…” whatever it is, another layer of setting it up. Because this thing about a character telling another character his story is very common throughout his short fiction, and it’s in his big novel too.
It’s a beautiful way to start your movie.
Oh good, good. We lifted straight from him, but Tom Wilkinson did good with it.
You developed the story for “Budapest” with Hugo Guinness, who’s a visual artist. I wanted to know how his sensibilities as a visual artist played into the conceptualization of the story, if at all.
Well, it’s a couple of things. Hugo and I first started talking about this many years ago, and we have a friend who we were basing it on, so we thought, “Let’s make a character based on our friend.” But I think, for instance, this boy, this painting “Boy with Apple” [it plays a huge role in the film], it’s a very Hugo sort of idea for a painting. And beyond that, I think that Hugo is likely to say something like, “Well, of course he should have a handkerchief with a black edge something or other.”
He’ll have details of things that I may well have never heard of, because he has a completely different background from me, but I can’t really think of those things in the story. He’s a wonderful visual artist but he’s also very funny. He has a particularly unique way with words and sense of humor and everything, and that’s what’s in the thing, more than his sense of anything visual — it’s his sense of humor.
Does your friend know that he inspired the film?
Oh yeah, he was always part of the process.
Mind me asking who this friend is?
I don’t mind you asking, but you’ve never heard of him. He’s English, and he’s in his mid-50s, and he talks like this character. He’s sort of an international traveler, but he’s not a hotel concierge or anything.
Has he seen the film?
Yes. He’s seen it many times, and he’s always been very supportive, and he would say, “Oh I would never say that darling, you cannot, you CANNOT have him say that, I would not say it.” And at a certain point we had to say, “It’s not meant to make you happy, we’re just trying to make it funny and, this is not a portrait of you.” But yeah, he likes it anyway.
Have you worked that way before? Have you based an entire concept of a film off of somebody you’ve met or somebody you know well?
Well this one is more particularly one guy. It’s been awhile since I’ve had that, where there’s been one main character. It’s a big ensemble but still Ralph’s character is the main thing. And as always they’re a mixture of people, but this one a little more so.
Like all your films, “Budapest” is outfitted with a remarkable ensemble that works so well together. The characters in all of your films seem to come from the same world, one that’s wholly your own. How do you work with your cast to get them on your wavelength?
I don’t know! Because I don’t really feel I do much. I know the Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Jason Schwartzman part of the story is much more gently paced, and quiet, and slowly unfolding, and then it gets much quicker when Ralph enters, the ’30s part, but I hadn’t really thought about that — we just starting doing.
I really noticed it in the editing. I thought, “Wow this is a different, it really sort of changes speed, we change gears,” but I don’t remember saying, “You guys go more slowly, you guys go fast.” I do know that I would always say, “Go faster faster faster!” For some of the other stuff, just because they had to go so fast, Ralph would say, “I don’t understand what I’m saying anymore, are you sure?”
Mostly, on the set, we figured out all the stuff and we’ve built whatever we’re gonna build and planned it out. But really, they just start doing it and I’m always surprised by what happens. The actors take over.
The thing we’ve arrived at over the years is that we get on the set and do a lot of takes very, very fast, and even if the scene is slow, we’ll do it and then we’ll immediately do it again and again and sometimes we don’t cut, and we don’t let anybody come in or fix their hair or adjust anything, we just keep going. And with some of these scenes that are very fast, we might do 30 takes, and a half hour later we’ve just done 30 takes and it’s gone in some direction or other, and who knows what they’ve discovered along the way. So that’s what happens, and I think it’s more them relating to each other than it is me getting in the middle of it, although I’m sure I do all sorts of annoying things along the way.
Despite what I said earlier, the characters in “Budapest” are each so distinct from one another. I could sit through a movie about, say, Tilda’s character, or her goth sisters who are barely in the film. Do you go to your actors with background details on who they’re playing, a character sketchbook…?
No, though some people want to talk about things. Like Ralph at one point said, “And where is he from, and what is he?” And I said, “I don’t really know — what do you think he is, what was he like when he was little?” Then Ralph just spontaneously did for me his character at age eight, at age 14, at 24, 34: “I suppose he would been this,” and he did like this street urchin version, and “this guy’s becoming a little more savvy streetwise, and that he’s becoming this sophisticate, but starting out as sort of this cockney street child.” That was what Ralph did and I said it was “pretty good.”
It made me want to somehow want to put that in the movie. But I don’t know how we’d do it. How do we have Monsieur Gustave doing an imitation of what he was like as a child? It wouldn’t be that good if we showed, if we cast an eight-year-old cockney boy to do this part, and then just showed it. What was fun was seeing Ralph do it.
But I don’t usually. I had hoped to do the thing you just said, which is, I had hoped to make a little short about Tilda, and Adrien Brody and those three sisters, the people who live at or around that house. A five-minute teaser sort of thing. But we never got around to it. It costs x amount of money to do, we’d probably have to go to Germany and everything, and it would just be complicated.
Well please do, I’d love to see it. Maybe as a DVD extra or something.
Ha, I think it’s too late.
You’re obviously a man who’s fascinated by the fantastical nature of hotels, given “Budapest” and your short starring Natalie Portman, “Hotel Chevalier.” Can you speak to that?
I’m actually not particularly into hotels. When you work on movies you often end up spending long periods of time in hotels. One thing I hate is going past a front desk, through the long lobby, down, over to the elevator, wait for the elevator, go up 11 flights, come out of the elevator, go down three corridors, find your room, and then forget which section am I in. The worse thing in the world is to come out of your room, go through this thing, and say, “I forgot my scarf,” and go back up there and go through that again and go in and out of this place, like six times a day for four months.
I was interested in hotels because of our character. I did do this other one that we made in Paris, as you mentioned, and that was a hotel I knew, I had stayed in years before. But really, whenever I’m making a movie, I tend to be most interested in what the characters are interested in, and suddenly that’s my hobby, is learning about that thing or studying that thing.
When we were doing “The Darjeeling Limited” in India, I always had to think of real estate and New Delhi. I was thinking we can buy this house — if we pool our money we can buy this place, the real estate market in New Delhi is going to be going up and we’re bound to be back here at least twice a year for the rest of our lives. We love India! I haven’t been back to India since we wrapped that movie. I would’ve put all of my money into New Delhi real estate. I do love India, but I’ve been working on something else, so I haven’t even been there. So really my interest in hotels, it’s a long-winded way of saying, it comes from Mr. Gustave.