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Interview: Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel director obliged us by sharing his fascination with making movie storybooks.

R. Kurt Osenlund

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Interview: Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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.

In Berlin, I asked you if you identified with the way in which F. Murray Abraham’s Zero, in the end of the film, describes Gustave as—and I’m paraphrasing—a man born out of his time. And you said you didn’t necessarily identify with that personally. But what about the children in your films? I often feel that if you took all the children of your films, they could maybe be part of the same deadpan Wes Anderson family.

Ha. I don’t know. As much as I feel like they could go together in something, I deal with them so separately. This kid, in this movie, Tony Revolori—we looked all over the world to find this guy, and when we found him, I just felt very strongly that, “There he is. This is it.” He’s somebody who could be in a Buster Keaton film or something. He has very large eyes, and he’s very attentive. You know, in many of the scenes in this movie he’s not even saying anything. He often has nothing to say, but he’s always tuned in and listening. He’s an inexperienced actor, and that’s an instinct that’s not always necessarily automatic. It’s what trained actors do: stay in the moment, whatever’s happening. He did it automatically and we had a great time with him.

You keep mentioning older movies, and you noted the fast speech. I know things stay pretty close to the script on your set, and this movie in particular requires so much verbal dexterity on the part of the actors, particularly Ralph. Could you give me an example of an exchange or interplay between you and Ralph as you work through these scenes, and the specificity of this rapid dialogue?

The only thing that might be of note is me saying, “Faster!” and Ralph saying, “I’m afraid that this will just be gibberish if I go faster.” And then me saying, “No, I think it can be faster. I think you can go faster.” “I’ll try!” he’ll say. That was a common thing. But, you know, Ralph has such strong diction that he can do it as fast as he can and you can still understand him. But I don’t think I’m…I mean, I guess there’s a little nudge here and a little nudge there, but mostly, [the actors] just do it a certain number of times. Ralph is somebody who can do a scene many times and get better and better. And not everyone’s like that.

Another thing we discussed before was hotel research, and how you looked into hotels and talked with employees of hotels. In addition, since you clearly spend a lot of time in hotels yourself, I was hoping you could elaborate a little on these experiences, and how they shaped the way The Grand Budapest Hotel came together.

I don’t know that they shaped the writing of the movie, because the hotel experience that we’re kind of presenting is one from the past. I feel like, in part from books and movies, from spending a lot of time in Europe, and especially from looking at old pictures of hotels, you see how different they were. They were used in a different way, and you see how much we’ve changed. Even though it’s not the most critical thing in the story, and there’s only so much of the movie that’s in the hotel, I do think that the way the lobby of the hotel is set up, for instance, is lots of chairs in sections, and people used to just spend the day in the front hall of the hotel. They would go for walks and then they’d come and sit there. It wasn’t like a place where you’d wait to meet somebody and then go do something—it was a place to live. We went to this city, Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic, where they have a big film festival that’s quite well known and very well attended. When you go to this place, you do see this old way of life in this spa town, and it’s got mineral waters, and you go to this colonnade in the middle of town, and they have different temperatures and mineralities of water. People drink the different waters that are meant to have different effects, and there are these walks and views around the place. It’s modernized, and it’s different now, but there’s still a lot of the old stuff among the new things, and you can see what this way of life, which was very common for people on these retreats, was like.

As an avid appreciator of meticulousness, and symmetry, and impeccable composition, I’d be remiss in not asking something about that. I’m just going to use the example of Zero and Gustav in their first train car attack. You have two slams, two bloody noses, two looks of distress. Are you able to articulate why you’re so invested in this kind of meticulousness or symmetry?

I don’t know exactly. I’m afraid it’s partly my way of being clear, and of communicating. One thing I’ve learned over the years is how important it is when you’re making a scene to just have total clarity—how sometimes, visually, you can not know where to look and not know what’s important. So I probably am overly clear in a lot of cases. And I often do things where we may not have a lot of cuts, for instance, and in a case like that you really need to get the necessary things in the shot at the right time and place. But it’s also probably just a bit of a personality type. The extreme type would be a form of autism, that wants this type of order, and I think that I have that with the visuals—a particular need for that kind of order. But when it comes to the actors and how they’re going to play it, the much more important thing on the set is the energy and them just sort of bringing it to life. The set is usually kind of chaotic.

Just looking ahead, I remember feeling so gratified when Fantastic Mr. Fox came out, because, at last, Wes Anderson doing an animated film—it just felt like such a natural progression. Is there something else, a different medium or aesthetic that you are looking to experiment with, or thinking about for the future?

Well, no. What I’m thinking about is just movies, but I do have an idea for a movie. The idea I have for the next movie is…well, I don’t want to describe it right now. But I will say I think I have a kind of formal approach to the next movie that’s related to [The Grand Budapest Hotel], but is a more extreme kind of way of organizing a movie. That’s just a hint at something. I wouldn’t say it’s an avant-garde kind of idea, but it’s a little out there. You’ll see. If it works. If it happens.

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