Wes Anderson might be the most popular living filmmaker whose work remains an acquired taste. It almost feels safe to say that every movie fan, from the semi-serious to the devout, at least admires him, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d make time for his latest. His deadpan dramedies have a buoyant appeal that’s widely accessible, and yet his sensibilities are so specific that one can still feel out of the loop while laughing at the action.
I’m in awe of Anderson as a master of the form, not to mention as someone distinctly adept at harnessing humane, bittersweet melancholy. To watch Moonrise Kingdom is to think about every other film of 2012 whose creators couldn’t be bothered to make every frame absurdly perfect, or to illustrate a blooming love as if they’d lived it yesterday. Still, I’ve never considered myself a Wes Anderson fan. His twee predilections have tended to keep me at arm’s length, even if it’s clear as day that all the parts are working beautifully. And then, this year, along comes The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Again, it seems that everyone, even those with a casual interest in his oeuvre, have a favorite Anderson flick. This new one is mine. Its ambition is at once so palpable and effortless, and its humor is finally tinged with enough pathos to even warrant a tissue. Telling a story within a story within a story within a framing device, the film centers around the titular institution, which brings together a great mob of thrilling characters through different eras in time. One narrative involves Zero (F. Murray Abraham) telling his life story to a writer (Jude Law), and another depicts that story being told, with newcomer Tony Revolori playing Zero in youth, and Ralph Fiennes playing Zero’s hotelier mentor Gustave, a character that inspires Fiennes to give the greatest performance ever in an Anderson movie. Set in the fictional land of Zubrowka, which one might imagine is nestled in some chilly, idyllic corner of Germany, The Grand Budapest Hotel sees Anderson reaching out into the world like never before, and it seems appropriate that he and I first met across the globe, where his new film opened the 64th Berlinale (it also won the Silver Bear).
Catching up with Anderson again in SoHo, I delighted, without any reservations or lingering hang ups about feeling distanced from his films, in picking his loaded brain about this new triumph, which is partly inspired by the work of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The director obliged by sharing his fascination with making movie storybooks, spilling details of telling Fiennes to go “faster” on set, and even getting to the heart of why his work is so gorgeously meticulous.
One of the reasons this is my personal favorite of your films is it feels the most about our world, historically and socio-politically, while still being part of the unique world of your imagination. I wanted to know if you had ambitions to do this type of project before you were inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig.
All the movies that I’ve had in mind to do, I’ve done them. I don’t have any movies that I’ve set aside, or that didn’t really come together. I don’t think. So, this was just the next one in the sequence of things I’ve done, and it’s because this was the stuff I was interested in at the time I did the script. I was just thinking about, you know, Europe.
And that happened in tandem with getting familiar with Zweig’s work?
Well, yeah, I think that was part of it. I was reading Zweig, and I was reading a few other things that were sort of about this time and place, and living there. So that was kind of happening together, but sometimes I think maybe I’m reading this stuff because I’m feeling that, maybe, that’s what my work is going to be [involving], and maybe I’m steering myself toward it without quite knowing why.
The movie was particular fun to watch in Berlin, because you got to see how a German, or, perhaps, a Hungarian viewer would react to the just-north-of-reality names of places and characters in and around Zubrowka. How have the reactions differed for you internationally and nationally, and how does that relate to what you might have expected the film’s reception to be like?
You know, I don’t really think about that. The only thing I think about [in terms of] “How is this going to go over?” is like, “Is this one going to be a big disaster or, hopefully, will we get away with it?” I just hope for the best, but I don’t really have any expectation beyond that. And I could never really begin to guess which one is going to go over better than another one. And in Berlin, we were the opening of the festival. The opening night of a film festival, in my experience, is usually not a tremendously fun screening, even though it can be a fun experience all in all. We had a great time. Dieter [Kosslick], who runs the festival, is a great guy, and there was a second, very lively screening that night that was happening the same time as the opening. But the opening event itself is usually a lot of people who are going to be there for whatever movie [they’re involved with]. They haven’t chosen to be there for your movie; they’re there for the opening of the film festival. They may give money to the festival, or they may have some political connection to it, and it’s just not usually the most fun room to sit in. And that’s my only time to see it in Europe. The last movie I made [Moonrise Kingdom], I saw it in Cannes and I never saw it before or since with an audience, ever. So my sense of how an audience saw it is derived from when someone comes up to me and says something. I don’t really have that much information about how these movies play, lately. Just because I haven’t been screening them.
I was in that adjoining room, with the lively screening you mentioned, and the film got a really good reception, particularly, it seemed, from European viewers who picked up on certain jokes.
It did? Interesting.
The nesting-doll structure of the film is something that works so smoothly that it’s almost imperceptible. You even have the girl reading the book at the start, so there’s even a fourth layer. Why shape the narrative that way?
Well, that comes from Zweig in particular. It’s a sort of old-fashioned storytelling device to say that this person is going to tell the story to this one, and we’re gonna go back and see that story. But Zweig does it in a very…he does it over and over again throughout his short fiction. He does this all the time and I think it has the effect of setting the stage and sort of drawing the listener in before getting into the real story. It sort of sets a mood, and I just kind of liked it as a literary thing. He does it in this book Beware of Pity. It’s just an introduction by the author, and then it’s got a part of the story where the author is a younger man and he meets somebody and something happens, and this person he meets, we go back in time again, and it’s very effective in this book.
Was there a consideration of the sort of fable quality that might create? And how it might let the film become more open to interpretation, seeing as the storyteller-to-storyteller levels have a sort of whisper-down-the-lane potential?
Yes. Yeah, I think so. Usually, I might not really have quite said it to myself in a clear way like that, and I’m just sort of going with it, but in this case, I think it was particularly meant to be like a book. And I think that in the Jude Law/F. Murray Abraham section of the story, they sort of talk like a book. They don’t really talk naturally. They say things like, “I have to admit I did myself inquire about you.” Something like that. And, you know, that’s just not really a natural phrasing. But it does probably register as something very written, and so I guess that was the idea—to give the feeling of a story. And the way they talk in the 1930s part of the story is not so much like that. They talk much faster, and I would relate it more to an old movie kind of feeling.