Before Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches Australian cinemas it is already the 44-year-old director’s most successful film ever, taking US$88 million worldwide, surpassing his previous high of US$71 million for The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Possessing Anderson’s trademark old-world charm and a cast of luminaries and newcomers, most notably the lead Ralph Fiennes, the film is a deliberately European venture on the part of Anderson, who currently resides in Paris.
Set in a fictitious Eastern European country called Zubrowka, the British-German co-production, which was filmed at different locations in Germany, follows the adventures of Gustave H. and his trusted lobby boy Zero Moustafa (impressive newcomer Tony Revolori) when the hotel was in its heyday. Mostly set against the backdrop of a Europe gearing up for the Second World War, the story, related in 1968 via a memoir penned by a mysterious character, The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law in the past), follows the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for a hefty family fortune.
[Read review of The Grand Budapest Hotel]
Anderson followed his usual practice of having his actors live in close proximity and this greatly appealed to Fiennes. “I think it has a lot to do with everyone being treated as equals,” Fiennes notes. As a director himself, he marvelled at Anderson’s meticulous preparation, particularly his storyboards. “I think every single scene has a storyboard reference and on top of that the storyboards are animated and Wes has recorded the voices. I didn't get too obsessed with this because I didn't want to be carrying this animated image inside my head when I was acting, but it was certainly useful. You could understand the shape of a scene and feel where the tone of the film was intended to go.”
I spoke with Anderson at the Hotel Adlon, the most old-world of Berlin swanky hotels during the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Why do you populate your movies with such eccentric characters?
Probably they’re more normal to me than they are to you. The character Gustav H. is modelled on is a real person, a very close friend of mine. Normal isn’t the first word I would use for him. Probably normal is not the thing you usually look for when creating an interesting character anyway.
Do you see your friend as belonging more to the past than the present?
Yes, very much. He’s the sort of person if we met him when he was 15—he’s now in his 50s—I feel he would have been exactly the same. He would have been one of those people who was fully formed with all his opinions in place at a young age. He’s a very thoughtful and well-mannered person. When he was young, he already had friends who were much older. He’s lived with a woman who was 25 years older, he’s always been around an earlier generation of people and I think his perspective is more like theirs. He sells paintings.
How did the screenplay come about?
I started on the story eight years ago with Hugo Guinness and we wanted to write the story about our mutual friend. We didn’t really have a plan and were spontaneously making it up, but after 20 minutes of moving the story between France and England we couldn’t figure what should happen next. So we set it aside. Over the next few years I started reading the works of Stefan Zweig, a famous Austrian writer from the ‘20s and ‘30s who is little known in English, and we decided to combine the two things. We set it in the ‘30s and made our friend a concierge because he would make the world’s best concierge. We then toured Eastern Europe and all over Germany looking for the right hotel, but everything had changed too much, though we picked up many ideas along the way. Finally, we found the right location: a department store in Görlitz near the Polish border.
"Normal is not the thing you usually look for when creating an interesting character"
There is sentimentality in your movies. They look to the past and there are never any cell phones. Do you believe that humanity has lost some of its values, so you go to the past to re-discover them?
I’m not sure I know the answer to your question. One thing I like to do when I make a movie is to try to make a world for the movie to take place in, a setting for the characters that our team can create that you can’t just walk outside and find. A world that is far from the social networking world that we have right here in front of us. Though, Spike Jonze just made a very invented world that is the next step beyond. That appeals to me. I would like to do something set in the future. The present, just in and of itself, I guess I don’t know how to work with it yet. Who knows, I could go in any direction.
The Grand Budapest Hotel seems influenced by the Golden Age of Hollywood where Europe was recreated in places like Culver City.
Those ‘30s movies are part of the inspiration for the setting and sort of middle Europe filtered through Hollywood. We had all watched films together in Görlitz. We’d watched some Lubitsch movies, Grand Hotel, To Be or Not To Be, The Good Fairy with Margaret Sullavan, Love Me Tonight, the Rouben Mamoulian, The Mortal Storm with the great Frank Morgan, The Swedish film The Silence, which is in its own invented country with hotel scenes.
You’ve even replicated the old Hollywood aspect ratio.
Ralph’s part of the story in the ‘30s seemed suited to that. I wanted to use the square format Academy ratio that all movies were made in up to a certain point. Now that they’re finished digitally it allows us to re-create that while it would have been difficult before.
Did you grow up watching old movies?
No, I grew up with whatever was in cinemas or on TV. Star Wars was the biggest thing when I was a kid. We liked Disney movies, John Hughes movies.
You’re not that 15 year-old kid who was 50 already then?
No, I feel I was a slow person to grow up.
How much is your perfection a burden or a blessing?
I don’t have the experience of perfection when I’m making a film. What I’m usually trying to do is see what I can add in or do to try to make it what I think is better, more entertaining or more interesting somehow and I don’t particularly feel I’m trying to get everything exactly this way or that. It’s more just trying to give it as much life as I can or details that I can add into the mix.
It’s been rumoured that you were considering Johnny Depp for the concierge.
We’ve talked a couple times but this movie was always for Ralph in particular. Ralph is English, and even though he’s meant to be from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, we wrote for him to speak like an English person and the person he’s modelled on is English. I also wanted to work with Ralph and knew him a little bit over the years. I know he can recite long texts.
Why did you choose Tony Revolori to play Zero Moustafa?
We looked all over and it was as simple as I watched his audition and he seemed so interesting and charming and funny, and I just felt like he seemed like the character. The other thing is that all these people in the story speak in their natural accents, whether it’s American, Irish, French or English. So it seemed perfectly acceptable that he could be from Anaheim California and play the guy.
Harvey Keitel is incredibly fit and muscular at 74 in his role as a tattooed convict.
Yeah, he’s a strong man.
Was he reluctant to play a thug again?
No. He’s great. We first met in New York but we got to know each other in Berlin years ago. He’s one of my favourite actors.
Owen Wilson is only in the film ever so briefly as the military concierge Monsieur Chuck.
We didn’t need Owen to do that part and probably it was a bit much because it took quite a bit of time for him to come over and do it. But I just like to have actors like him and Jason Schwartzman appear in my movies if I can make it happen. The only movie of mine Owen’s not been in was Moonrise Kingdom. I like having a family of people we can bring back. I like to expand a little with each movie too. Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton were new in the last one and came back and now we have newcomers like Ralph and Jude.
Did you get everyone you wanted for the cast of Grand Budapest?
Every movie I’ve done at least half the people said no. A lot of them were the second choice. This is the one movie where I got everybody—except before we offered the part to Tilda we had talked to Angela Lansbury, who is in her 80s, about doing it. She couldn’t do it but as soon as that happened I thought I’d like to have Tilda. I wanted her in the movie somehow anyway and I think the only thing to do is make Tilda 85. So we did that.
Why did actors say no in the past? Doesn’t everyone want to work with you?
It’s nice of you to say that but it’s not true.
Is it the payment maybe?
Or is it that you’re so fastidious? Woody Allen’s very fast and actors like to work with him because of that.
Yes, yes. (Clicks fingers) He makes one after another. But the money is a big reason. Also, if somebody doesn’t like the movie, they’re certainly not going to be drawn in to do it and they might not like their part.
How did your current fascination with Europe come about?
Over the past 10 years I’ve spent lots of time in Europe, much more than in the rest of my life. I feel like my view of the world is very affected, changed by being here for so long. I feel very much like a foreigner when I’m travelling in Europe, but when I go back to America I feel like a foreigner in a way I never did before. I wanted to make a movie in Europe before doing something related to Zweig.
So you’re living between Paris and New York?
I haven’t been in New York for quite some time but I have a place in Paris and we did all our post-production on this movie in England. In the past couple of years I spent a lot of time in Germany.
What is your favourite hotel in the world?
That’s a good question. The Imperial in Vienna is an amazing place. Of all the hotels, the place I relate the most to our character and his world is that one. It’s also Zweig’s city, so it’s connected.
How did you become one of the most European directors, as people consider you to be?
The movies that inspired me to want to make movies are half-American, half-European. When I was at university I went to the school library and read all the cinema books. I discovered this whole canon of ‘60s movies, this moment when European and Japanese films became popular internationally along with the auteurs of that period. Truffaut, Goddard, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and the German New Wave influenced me to become a filmmaker as much as Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Coppola and Mike Nichols in America.
Is it true that you now want to make a film about eight short stories?
Maybe. I have too many ideas right now, none of which are good enough to be a movie. So somehow maybe I can mesh them all together. We’ll see.
Do you ever have creative doubts?
Every time I start a movie I feel like I’m reinventing myself. Then when people see it they say they could tell immediately I was doing exactly the same thing. But for me it was a whole new thing.
Watch 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
Tuesday 29 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Tony Revolori, Owen Wilson, Jude Law