Berlin: Unless you’re in the genres of fantasy or sci-fi, one can argue no one makes grounded, but idiosyncratic fairy tale-like worlds quite like Wes Anderson. The director’s latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is set in the imaginary country of Zubrowka, an alpine Eastern European nation, and centers on a spa town whose main highlight is the legendary concierge, M. Gustave H, who works at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Starring Ralph Fiennes as Gustave (in what will be remembered as one of his great performances), and newcomer Tony Revolori as the lobby boy Zero Moustafa, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” might be Anderson’s most ambitious and layered film to date (read our review here). It’s, on the surface, a comedic caper and a murder mystery (inspired by the likes of Agatha Christie, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder), but it’s also a romanticized look at golden age of culture that no longer exists (it’s also nostalgic for Hollywood films of yore—here’s six trailers from six films that Anderson’s already cited as an influence).
And reflecting on history and WWII (via the writings of famed 1920s author Stefan Zweig), the movie also has darkness around its edges as its nostalgia and melancholy tinge for a bygone era is interrupted by the encroaching fascism of the time. It’s also just a great, very funny adventure, and a wonderful tale of pupils and mentors becoming true blue friends. Co-starring the amazing cast of Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric and more, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” also—if that wasn’t enough—spans three time periods throughout history and is bookended by a literary flashback device (much of that explained in our original trailer deconstruction piece) Today, we (and a few other journalists) had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Wes Anderson in Berlin about his latest creation, its various inspirations, its process, its themes and much much more. Here’s the highlights from that 35-minute conversation.
The genesis of the story.
This story was inspired by my friend [co-story author] Hugo Guinness. Hugo’s been a friend for years and he’s a painter, but he’s very funny, and written many things. We had this idea to do a story about our friend and we wrote 15, maybe 18 pages of this story that was set in the present and in England and France. And it was a movie up until he steals the painting, without the [literary] Jude Law-[starring] set up. And then we didn’t know what would happen next and we just never did anything with it. And that was eight years ago.
The literary influence that covers the movie.
And then I made a couple of other movies and I started reading these Stefan Zweig books I’d never heard of before and I really loved them [ed. who Zweig is and more explained during the ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ press conference]. And I started thinking I’d like to do something like a Zweig-esque thing and then I was reading some other things at the same time that were getting into equally dark times in Europe and I just thought to mix these [ideas] together. Then I had the idea to make him a hotel concierge which was not related to anything before it.
Anyway, we combined all that stuff and I thought, “I don’t want to censor myself, I want to be totally free with it, we’re in a made up country, we’re mixing wars together.” And we’re mixing up nationalities and cultures, and this kid [Zero Moustafa], a stateless person. Stateless is a big word in that time and place and he’s from—I don’t know if he’s an Arab or a Jew or some mixture of them. And I don’t know what happens, there’s a war starting in 1932 and that’s not exactly lining up with [history], so I just felt like we’ll make our own experience however we want. Everything I’m interested will go in there, everybody already knows all this [real history], and we’ll just see how it all adds up.
Anderson knew the audience would understand historical allusions and thematic references.
Well, it’s a choice to make a movie that is in that world. And even though it isn’t an exact time and place, it is. We know what we’re referring to and drawing on. Everybody knows all that. Especially during that [era]—that’s what I was thinking about because of what I was reading about and where I was living.
Having set films on a train and a boat, how important is location and when does he begin to think about it?
Well, with this one we made the script and then we went on this journey around Eastern Europe and we went to Vienna, Budapest, all around the Czech Republic, and spent a lot of time traveling in Germany and Poland and we were looking for where we wanted to shoot the movie, but for various reasons, especially tax incentives we were feeling like we would end up shooting in Germany. We found something in every country.
Anderson worked with director of photography Robert Yeoman on every one of his films that far (except “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). What kind of aesthetic did Anderson want to achieve?
Usually we might have some rules that we come up with for a certain movie that we’re going to try and adhere to. And ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ we had these three different [aspect ratios] that we were going to work with. Sometimes we just try and limit how much gear we’re going to have and how we’re going to go about that. On “Moonrise Kingdom” we had these little kids walking around in the woods together and I don’t want to do that with 60 people. So we made a decision based on the whole movie and that situation. We made a choice based on how tall they were. There are these cameras that you can hand hold—these 16mm cameras that you don’t put on your shoulder, you hold them [underhanded]—and its just a better way to shoot someone who is small, if you’re going to do a lot of handheld shots like we did. So that affected all of [“Moonrise Kingdom”.]
Anderson’s shots are very complicated, full of dollies and whip pans and complex moves. Is there anything Yeoman can’t do?
Bob is a great guy, we’ve done every movie I’ve shot together, but I’ve done a lot of work with other directors of photography who are great like Darius Khondji [who shot Anderson’s recent Prada commercial starring Jason Schwartzman], I’ve worked with [“Inside Llewyn Davis” DP] Bruno Delbonnel and some other guys, but Bob is by far, the best camera operator of anybody that I’ve come across. He’s 63 or something now, but he’s still the best at that, the physicality of operating.
The script is so dense—was Anderson aiming for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to be his most ambitious work to date?
I can’t say I thought about that. Somewhere along the way I knew this was going to be a big undertaking. There’s just a historical element to it, something heavy that I was aware of. And I’ve never had a movie before where there’s this much blood.
There’s the imaginary New York of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the invented marine life species in “The Life Aquatic,” and now the imagined country within “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—what draws Anderson to creating imaginary worlds?
In a way it’s just to create a space to work in. The real answer is also because I just like to. On one hand, usually the characters I’m writing are inspired by people in real life one way or the other and I’m doing something that relates to my own experience, my own interest, but nevertheless, the dialogue and the writing ends up being not entirely naturalistic—not by my choice particularly. And somehow I feel like it needs its own world to exist in. And then I have a whole group of people who I have worked together for years and that’s kind of what we like to do together: make the place for these characters to do their things. I wanted to be an architect [when I was younger], so there’s some of that.
Aspect ratios, and the unintentional influence of IMAX.
1:33 is what I always thought the [square aspect ratio was], but the German camera guys were very precise about it and they were like, “You have to stop saying that.” I was always told the Academy ratio was 1:33, but it’s apparently a tiny bit wider.
And you know I was thinking about IMAX [which has a similar “tall” not wide format], because depending on where you sit the movie’s [pointing to your line of sight] up there, but it’s also down there which is pretty amazing.
But we never could have done this years ago. Even when we did “Bottle Rocket” years ago, part of the conversation that we had was maybe we can [shoot it in] this Academy ratio, but theaters, but the projectionists… you couldn’t do it in those days. Nowadays, you just say you’re going to do it and you do it.
Anderson may add a helpful tip to the beginning of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” when it hits home video.
You know the beginning of “The Last Waltz”? It has that title card that says, “Play this movie loud”? We made [our own] little title card that says, “Projectionists, please set to 1:85… ” and we did it with different colors. I’m trying to sell this [idea] to everyone. This is not just for the projectionists, this is a thing to put in front of the movie. But it was a real last minute thing that we haven’t added to the movie, but we should do it. We should probably get it in there. Now, we were thinking about using [this title card] for home video cause [the aspect ratios] could be confusing. People could start messing around with [their settings] and mess up the whole movie.
On the inspiration for changing ratios.
First, we were going to do it all Academy [ratio]. And then [we had the discussion], “How do we do it? Are we gonna do some of it in black and white? What’s our way of separating this time period from that time period?” And the thing I did with Darius [Khondji, the Prada commercial], we used these Technoscope anamorphic lenses, they’re really old and strange, and if you look at a freeze frame, the edges are so blurry, you couldn’t identify people. I think they did spaghetti westerns with these lenses, so I thought maybe we could use these lenses again, and make these different parts like they’re different movies.
But I will say, when you sign a contract to do a movie, it says “you are obligated to turn this in [in this format]” and when a team of lawyers sees this little rewrite here, it stirs up a lot of trouble. The legal fees just to agree that we were gonna go ahead and do this, they mounted.
The nostalgia of the movie fits the nostalgia of the various film formats.
I’ve always loved that Academy shape. It does remind me of old movies, even though ours is a color movie, and it’s Ralph Fiennes, it’s just the fact that you have these shots where we’re framed [like this]. That’s how I see Humphrey Bogart.
Themes, are they constructed or are they an afterthought?
It’s a neverthought (laughter). I don’t really wanna think about themes, I wanna think about the experience of the movie. As soon as I reduce it to a theme, once I write that sentence it won’t be that great. There’s more potential for it to mean something interesting if I’m not forcing it to mean something I’ve already decided.
But the themes—a man out of time, a golden age that no longer exists, sustaining the illusion of greatness in dark times—are myriad. Is Anderson not conscious of them in the writing?
I think what I’m interested in is what I wanna put in there. If I’m gonna spend however much time it takes to do one of these, it’s only gonna be the ideas that I can come up with and my collaborators can come up with, I don’t wanna make something that isn’t digging into things, I just don’t wanna ID them.
Does Anderson romanticize the past?
The Library of Congress has this photofilm library, which is this collection of these black-and-white photographs that this Swiss company and this St. Louis company, they did this joint venture, taking cityscape and landscape photographs, all over the world, colorized them, printed them, and mass produced them. Very rarely did they have people in them, [and] if they did, they were crowds, and they were taken between 1895 and 1910, and there are thousands of them. They’re all over the world, but our interest was the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Prussia, and other parts of Europe, and it’s like having Google Earth of the turn of the century. When we made “Rushmore,” many years ago, I was thinking of places in my school where I’d gone. When I made this, it was sort of through this collection that we own, that theoretically is ours. And often, we went to these exact places. And you can’t go to too many of these [places] without feeling a little bit of sadness, because there’s so many more people, and the world isn’t like this anymore. If you have any nostalgic bone in your body, a process like that … But I will say, that’s not my experience of life in general. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Europe in the last ten years, and I like the adventure, I like walking down a street I’ve never been to before, and seeing the layers of history.
When cast in his movies, does he just email everyone and say “I’ve got a part for you”?
Yeah, that’s it. Anyone who I can do that with, that’s what I did. I sent the script, my pitch, and some of these photochrome pictures I’d attach. A few people I didn’t know. Ralph Fiennes and I hadn’t worked together before, but I knew how to reach him. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Wilkinson I didn’t know. Tom even now, I think I’d have to reach him through his agent.
How much of M. Gustave H is in Wes Anderson?
There’s two things. One, the guy who we based it on, I don’t know if he feels like that, but he is like that. By the time he was fifteen years old, he was the person he is now; he’s in his fifties now. He was fully formed young, and has always been friends with people thirty years older, and there’s something about him that’s like someone who was 85. He knows people who you really oughta be older to have known. The other thing is, it’s in Zweig, that’s a big precedent. His memoir is about how Europe changed, how the world changed during the course of his whole life, and the title of the book is “The World Of Yesterday,” and there’s something about his description of life before 1914 that is in a way the thing that sticks with you the most—I’d never read a description quite like this, of this world. The end of that world, he writes this book and then he kills himself. It’s the thing he’s still missing.
What has been learned over the years from casting.
The thing I learned from “Rushmore” was how long it would take to find someone we’d never heard of, and with that one, it must have taken a year. So as soon as we had a [‘Grand Budapest Hotel’] script, I gave it to Scott Rudin and [producer] Steven M. Rales, and said, “Let’s hire eleven casting directors in these countries all over the world, and let’s get a guy to paint this portrait, this painting of ‘Boy With Apple.’ ” And luckily, I have these two guys who I’ve been working with for some years now, and they’ve just been great, so we started the next day. But it went the same way as with Jason, we looked all over the world, we looked in England, but we found someone who lived in Bel Air. We had casting directors in Israel and Beirut and Morocco, and we had a casting director in Anaheim.
Tony Revolori and his brother Mario were the last two actors who had to vie for the part. Tony got the role, but how close did Mario come?
I saw Mario’s audition first, and I thought [it was] interesting. And then I saw the next one, which was Tony, and knew that Mario was never going to get the part. But I feel like Mario was connected to this movie anyway, because in the months before the movie, I would have Tony do the whole movie to me on a video, and then I would do a video responding, and we went back and forth doing the whole movie. And Mario was the person who he did the scenes with, and filmed him.
On working within a budget.
We don’t say, “We don’t have the money to do this,” because there’s no upside, there’s no way we can make ourselves feel good about that. But we definitely do the thing of saying we’re going to do this in a very weird way, because it’s the only way we’re going to accommodate … we have this skiing sequence in our movie, and in the script, when we budgeted it, it was three weeks in Switzerland or whatever. And I had the vague idea we could do the snowglobe version of this scene, but if we didn’t do it the way we did, we would have been pretty well up against it. So I have a rule not to give up on something based on money.
How he made the third-act ski sequence.
It’s kind of complicated. For instance, the bobsled run, we built the bobsled run, which is about the size of this room, and we used a combination of stop-motion and live-action miniature techniques, plus a lot of digital manipulation. It’s using the most old-fashioned movie techniques, with a lot of digital stuff to fuse them together and modify the speed. It’s a very long and ongoing process. It’s not that I don’t want to reveal the magic trick, but I find that when I reveal the magic trick, there’s something slightly humiliating about it. But Willem is mostly a stop-motion puppet this tall. Maybe that’s obvious, but I’m still reluctant to say it out loud.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens on March 7th.