The Director Gives Us a Guided Tour of The Grand Budapest Hotel
by Brad Balfour
On the surface, the narrative driving Wes Anderson’s eighth film is pretty simple. During the fictional glory days of The Grand Budapest Hotel (starting back in 1932), its exacting Concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) fiercely maintains its high standards and demands exceptional services from all his staff. In turn, he offers personal extras to his older, fabulously rich female patrons – including Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton), whom he spends the night with prior to her departure.
A month later she dies and leaves him an incredibly valuable painting. Her family, particularly son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), are enraged that he’s been bequeathed the artwork. Gustav so fears for the painting that he steals it in the dead of night. Through a series of convolutions, he is imprisoned, not so much for the theft, but for her murder. With the help of his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), he escapes in order to prove his innocence, all the while dodging assassin J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) efforts to kill him.
Further complications ensue as he’s exonerated and avenged. All this takes place as the impending World War gets underway and further tragic events ensue.
This action is bracketed by prologues and epilogues set both in the present and in two sequences set in 1985 and 1968. Therein lie the intricacies that the 45 year old director injects in this simple adventure story, which makes this film obviously the unique work of Wes Anderson.
Besides the plot overlays, stunning visuals and particularly arch performances, what makes this film truly unique is Anderson’s elaborate conceptual latticework. No wonder it received nine Oscar nominations and other award wins.
This veteran director can’t help himself. As the great grandson of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, fantastical ideas based on the life of an outsider have always been in his blood. Ever since the Texas native began making films, he’s made quirky movies that have divided audiences between those who can relate and those who can’t figure out what the hell he is doing.
Growing up in Houston, he discovered film-making in high school. However, it was at Austin’s University of Texas where he was a philosophy major that he really immersed himself in cinema with buddy Owen Wilson. His initial release Bottle Rocket – a crime caper gone quirky – achieved cult status, but little else. Then came Rushmore, a film that confirmed Anderson’s love for the odd man out, embodied here by an obsessive high student played perfectly by Jason Schwartzman.
Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums — a 2001 dramedy about formerly successful child prodigies and its ostracized patriarch who suddenly returns home — became Anderson’s biggest success until 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. With a domestic box office of $50 million plus, the film was nominated for an Oscar and was ranked the 159th greatest film made by Empire Magazine.
Anderson’s 2004 feature, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – about a Jacques Cousteau-esque documentarian played by an Anderson regular Bill Murray – is a classic example of Anderson’s style, but the critical reaction was less favorable than previously and its box office didn’t match that of Tenenbaums.
He next created The Darjeeling Limited — about three estranged brothers traveling together on a train in India after their father’s death — which reflected the dramatic tone of The Royal Tenenbaums, but faced similar criticisms to The Life Aquatic. Anderson has acknowledged that he went there to film the 2007 movie, partly in tribute to Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose “films have also inspired all my other movies in different ways.” (He dedicated the movie to Ray). Starring Anderson staples Schwartzman and Wilson (who co-wrote the script with Wes and Roman Coppola) in addition to Adrien Brody, the film was as much a unique travelogue as well as an odd narrative. Then came the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox – adapted from Roald Dahl’s book – which was nominated for the 2009’s Best Animated Feature Oscar.
Following Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s critical huzzahs, Anderson made Moonrise Kingdom about two lovestruck kids, was perhaps his best received film until now – the opener for 2012’s Cannes Film Festival. Emblematic of Anderson’s style, this remarkable film was financially successful and earned him an Academy Award screenplay nomination.
Initially released in Spring 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel was loaded with Anderson stalwarts including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman as well as key cast members such as Fiennes, Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, among many others. Surprising for a film that appeared so early in the year, Anderson’s “literary geek chic” – which has won him both praise and derision – has brought this film to the top of many best-of lists and award nominations or wins.
The following Q&A is edited from a small roundtable interview Anderson conducted shortly before the films’ release.
At some point you have to go from “I have this idea” to “I have to get to there” in realizing the idea. How long does this process take, from the universe you imagine in your head to putting it on paper and beyond?
With this one, the script was first. I had some parts of it a long time ago. My friend Hugo wrote the script with me. We had a section of the movie years and years ago, but we didn’t really know what to do with it. Then I figured out the setting. What we had written wasn’t even in the past or anything like that. [Then] we figured out what to do with this character. [After that], we made the script pretty quickly. But the process of figuring out how to make the movie was very long. It was a lot of research and wandering, and gathering ideas. I think that’s really the answer: [it] comes very slowly and gradually. That’s how the thing was put together.
What feeling does this particular project evoke, compared to say, Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?
Overall, there’s usually some personal thing with the movie – something that I’ve experienced – that’s making me want to do this. In this case, it’s because I’ve been living in New York for the last 10 years or so, mostly, and it’s still new to me. I live as a foreigner most of my life these days. I’m interested in what I’m seeing every day. The history of this region became particularly compelling to me over that time, along with people I met, Europeans, and that one person in particular who is the model for Ralph’s character. Along with this historical backdrop for this story, and it having a bit of a plot and so on, there’s a set of personal experiences that make me want to make the thing in the first place.
You had a friend who inspired the role of master concierge Monsieur Gustave H. that Ralph Fiennes plays?
Well, he’s not a hotel person. He’s not a concierge. But he wears the perfume, quotes poetry spontaneously, and sometimes you don’t know he’s doing it. Then, suddenly, “Oh, I see, we’re quoting.” He recites, and he talks like this character. Ralph knows him too. The character in the movie is more Ralph than this guy. Ralph took over and it evolved into what it is. But there’s still this inspiration in him.
What was his reaction?
A lot of, [quoting] “I would never say that… Wouldn’t happen darling, just wouldn’t do it!” But then a lot of [quoting again] “Good, very good.”
Is he self-aware?
He’s a good friend of mine and my friend Hugo [Guinness], who wrote this thing with me. He sat with us while we were writing the thing. He would just sit and encourage or discourage us. He had a lot of thoughts about the casting; he was very happy with Ralph. I think he’s quite pleased with this movie. He’s seen all the movies I’ve done over the years, and he and Hugo both are people who will say, “No… not your best.” This one, he likes it. He relates to it.
One thing your actors have consistently said about making this film is the sense of camaraderie you generate in the ensemble and in the experience of making the film.
For this movie we all lived in a hotel together. It was a very close-knit. I think that makes a difference. It’s more fun, but also I feel like everybody does better. Everybody gets more into it. People who haven’t done movies with me before, after a couple days say, “Hmmm… [I’ve] never done anything like this before.” But the main thing is that it’s more fun, I guess.
Did you always envision Ralph as Gustave? We’re not used to seeing him so funny…
I had wanted to work with him, just in the abstract, because he’s such a great and powerful actor. I had seen him in a couple of funny things, like In Bruges – he’s very funny in it – and I’d seen him in a play that he was very funny in too. I also knew him a little bit. I’d gotten to know him a little over the years, and just thought he would be the guy. I didn’t have any question about it. I will say, people were kind of like, “Are you sure? Is that right for this?” I think we put people in a category because of what’s familiar about them. I feel most actors, if they make the character feel real, then they can probably take it anywhere you want. [That’s what makes] a great actor. I don’t really see a clear line between comic and dramatic… I sort of see them as the same. It’s just you shift it a little this way or a little this way.
Is that also true for you with the real and animated? There are some things that one would assume would be shot realistically that are not, and vice versa. What determines where that curve happens?
It’s that somewhere along the way. There are certain things that I think maybe if we use an old-fashioned technique, let’s say, for a way to express some part of it. It might let us design something from scratch that we otherwise would be trying to adapt – for instance, the whole exterior of the hotel. Well, the whole mountain where this hotel is, or whatever it is, is a painting. That was really because I didn’t find what I wanted. I found ideas for what I wanted, but I didn’t find the real thing. So then I thought, “Well, let’s just make a miniature,” because we know how to do miniatures, because I’ve done them on the animated movie.
There was this painter, Caspar David Friedrich, whose work I didn’t really know before, but got interested in during this movie. I thought, “Well, maybe we could make a Caspar David Friedrich painting of this thing, and it would be a way to express exactly what I would like it to be.” The question is, why do I think it’s okay to do that, when probably almost any filmmaker would say, “I don’t think that we can get away with this.” I’m not sure why I feel that I am going to get away with it. We have this ski chase at the end of the movie. I want you to think it’s scary or whatever. I want it to be like a real chase. These characters are in danger and you’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them and all that stuff. At the same time, the methods we’ve used to do it, you can see what the tricks are. I think on some level, I just do it because I like to see that stuff. I’m trusting that enough people will feel the same way. But I don’t know if that’s a very safe bet or not.
The whole style validates the movie. Without the style, it might not be as interesting a story, but once the style is there, it informs the whole thing.
Well, that would be good if people feel that way.
The theme of ruined grandeur seems to appear a lot in your work – and particularly with this film. Do you feel you have a fascination with this idea?
[I don’t know if that’s the case but…] I had this experience of trying to figure out how were we going to make this movie, and in particular, looking at lots of old photographs on the United States Library of Congress website. They have this thing called the Photocrom collection. It’s an amazing, huge archive of images from around before and after the turn of the century. They’re black and white pictures that were colorized, printed and distributed. You can travel all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia. All over the world. In fact, it’s like Google Earth of that time. I looked at lots of these pictures, and then went to the places. Sometimes it’s very sad to do that, but interesting. A part of it is that there’s just so much more there now, and it’s not necessarily all beautiful things that we’ve done.
It was noticeable that every single house was the hotel. Even the diagram of the outside of the hotel, the prison, all looked exactly the same. Beyond the practicality of reusing set pieces, was that just for play, or for some symbolism like, “We’re in this world…?”
Well, it was something that just happened. One thing is there was a sort of architectural motif that just happened with places that we found, which I liked. This house has this open thing with a stained glass ceiling, and the hotel lobby is an open atrium with a big stained glass ceiling, and the prison is an open atrium with a glass roof. It was nice. So we did some similar kind of staging in those, and something kind of connecting these things to each other.
You have quite a fascination with symmetry. Why is that?
I guess that’s probably some form of autism or something like that on some level. It’s a personality type or something like that [for sure]. Ralph has a similar thing. This was something he used in the character. His character is very precise and fastidious, and he would organize all these things. We share a bit of… a desire to make order. Probably anybody who makes a movie, they’re doing that in one way or another. They’re arranging a thing here for you to look at. I think I have a particular kind of visual thing that I like to get, that probably kind of jumps out at people. The thing is, as much as I try to get these things designed and prepared, we figure it all out in advance and have it all ready, but when the actors come in, to me it feels like chaos. They take over. We usually do lots and lots of takes very, very quickly, and we work very fast. It’s not like a meticulous, orderly experience of shooting. It’s instead a very wild, frenetic experience, which I like. But there’s no question that what’s happening in advance is rather particular.
There seems to be a continuity of themes throughout your films, but there’s this evolution as well. Do you see that in what you have done?
I don’t like to think about themes or interpretations or meaning. Usually I have some kind of feeling that I want to get across, or that I want to somehow share in one way or another. Mainly, I want to make some kind of experience that the audience is going through – and each person has their own way of interpreting that experience. I don’t want to define it too much because that will limit it.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 25 2015.
Photo ©2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.