Wes Anderson is one of the most original voices working in American cinema today. Simply saying the words “a Wes Anderson movie,” can conjure up picturesque images of staggering beauty and vibrant colors that complement a clean, stylish self-sustaining world. Yet, despite being born and raised in Texas, his movies have always had more than a hint of the continental about them. Always elegant, sophisticated, and hilariously dry in their wit, each of Anderson’s movies have veered to a certain kind of funny that’s as iconic now as their visual delectability.
With his newest film, Anderson goes boldly in that complete direction with a project he has teased for some time as being “Euro.” Indeed, set in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the seemingly lighthearted story of a concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who has been wrongfully accused of murder, and his loyal bellboy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who stays with him until the end. A kooky fugitive caper, the movie indulges in many flourishes, such as Bill Murray leading a secret society of European concierges known as the Society of Crossed Keys. But even more surprising is how much it then embraces classic Hollywood, from the comedy banter of Ernst Lubitsch to the aforementioned fact that it is caper. It’s even largely shot in the classic Hollywood aspect ratio standard of 1.33:1.
In promotion of the picture, Wes Anderson was kind enough to sit down with us last week in New York to discuss The Grand Budapest Hotel. We speak of everything from his influences on the movie to whether he would ever work in 3D. And most fascinatingly, at least for myself, is what he had to say about the strikingly unique (and contrastive) elements that created this very different kind of Wes Anderson movie.
Where do you begin when making a movie? Sidney Lumet says, “You have to read it and figure what the movie is going to say, and then you figure out how to say it.” Does that relate to you? You’re such a design-conscious, visual person, it seems to be paramount for your vision.
Wes Anderson: Well, I think it’s a different thing, because Sidney Lumet was an actual director: somebody who takes a material and directs it, and somebody you can hand something, and he’d say, “Okay, I could figure out how to do this.” What I do is I have my own thing that I’m making up from scratch, and it’s sort of all built up together. It’s being written and [I’m] also sort of figuring out how to make it all at once. I don’t know I [if I could] do it with the diversity there is in his body of work. If I were faced with some of these tasks, I think I wouldn’t even know how to begin. But I will say, in terms of design, the thing I feel is paramount is the characters—and invariably that’s the thing I want to latch onto; that’s the thing I want to build from—and then what is the story going to be with them. The world that it takes place in is usually a process that kind of comes out of that, and follows just behind it.
Do you think this movie would work in 3D and what are your feelings about that process?
I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in 3D. Would it be a lot harder to make or more expensive? I don’t know. What do you have to do to have 3D? You just got to have two lenses, right? So, I figure we could do it. My favorite 3D movie that I’ve seen is—
Dial M For Murder?
Yeah! That’s the simplest [set-up]. It’s in a room. A real room.
Not a big Hollywood room.
Exactly, it feels like it’s in a real London apartment. Most of what 3D [now] is doing is putting lamps in the foreground and that sort of thing. And it’s a very interesting experience. We have one scene where there’s something that’s suddenly a more aggressive use of the 3D, but most of it is a very graphic kind of treatment of it. So, I’m interested in it, but the thing I like most is these pictures by Jacques Henri Lartigue, this French photographer. He took a lot of pictures with a stereo camera, and they’re really fascinating to look at, these still images in 3D. You find yourself looking at them much longer. In a way, I kind of think if I was doing a 3D movie, I’d almost want it to be like stills. And that’s probably the least commercial description of 3D ever conceived of. [Laughs]
This movie is kind of a salute to this character [M. Gustav]. You are saying that this is a great man.
He’s the kind of character where if we met him, we would say the first time “it was interesting.” The second time, “I’m not so sure about him. He’s a conman; what’s he after?” And I think in the course of time, you would eventually say, “No, he’s a good guy.” There are some conflicts in here, and there are some moments where his vanity or some of his weaknesses show up more. But we would feel, ultimately, that this is somebody who is a very loyal, true person. And in our story, I think he becomes a sort of heroic character. I think that’s how Ralph approached it too. And in the end, whatever we feel about him is whatever Ralph did. It comes from him.
You mentioned Dial M for Murder earlier, and there’s a lot of ‘30s cinema references in this, but the one thing I got off the chase sequences in [this movie], particularly in the museum, was this sort of Hitchcockian approach with the way it builds to its conclusion. I wanted to know if that was intentional and why you went with a slightly different tone for this film.
Well that museum I think is really taken straight from a Hitchcock movie, a later one: Torn Curtain. But it’s like you could say something is influenced by something, but somebody could say, “Hmm, that’s more like plagiarism.” [Laughs] And I think this one falls more into that category. [Laughs] But we go a few different directions with it too. But it kind of closely follows what Hitchcock did, because I love this sequence in Torn Curtain. Torn Curtain is not a great movie.
But then suddenly, there’s this sequence, and you think, “Ah, here’s Hitchcock. Now he’s doing his thing!” And then that part is over.
But this whole movie, especially in the third act, I feel it was more driving toward the elements of a thriller. It’s still a very Wes Anderson movie, but I even felt near the end that it was like [1950s Hitchcock movies].
One thing is that, traditionally, the movies that I do have no plot, really. And this one actually does! I don’t mean to brag, but I think it actually does have a bit of a plot. [Laughs] So, I think that makes a difference. The other thing is we have a couple of different timeframes or more, and the tones, or at least the rhythms, are a little different in the different parts. The ‘60s part of the story is more quiet and slower, and just the speed of the dialogue is different. When we get to the ‘30s, it sort of starts moving a bit quicker.
Do you see that as a form of an unreliable narrator? Because it’s a story within a story within a story?
Yeah, a little bit. In the ‘60s part of the story, I feel like we made them talk like a book, and in the ‘30s part, they talk like a movie. [Laughs] But these scenes are not things I’ve usually decided; it’s just sort of how it evolves, and what starts happening when all these collaborators get together.
One of the best sequences of the movie is the secret Society of Crossed Keys. How did you come up with that concept and the casting for it?
First, there’s a real guild called The Golden Key that is the concierges of Europe. It’s actually a real organization, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with our thing, I guess. But the concept of it comes from that. And you see concierges wear these crossed keys on their lapels, it’s like the symbol of concierges. So, we had that in mind.
I almost felt like I wanted to see a spin-off short film just about those characters.
I think the real inspiration for it is that scene in 101 Dalmatians where the dogs bark from one to the next. I think it’s probably the biggest inspiration for it. Casting it, I had this thought that I would like to have little sort of surprises, because they’re only going to be in it for a second. And I thought maybe people who have been in other movies and worked with me before—but one of them is Fisher Stevens, who’s an old friend, who I never had in a movie before, but he’s been in lots of movies. I guess it was that we put friends in it. One of them is my friend Wally Wolodarsky, who’s a writer and a director too, and he’s been in lots of little parts in movies that I’ve done, and we had Waris Ahluwalia, who’s been an old friend who’s been in lots of these movies, and then we had Bob Balaban too, who had a big part in [Moonrise Kingdom]. Then at the head of the thing is Bill Murray, who has a little bigger part.
Could you talk about working in the 1.33 ratio? Is it something you would encourage to young filmmakers?
I just think it’s something we couldn’t really do before. Now that everything’s digital, you just sort of can do what you want. For years, I wanted to do a movie, probably like a lot filmmakers wanted to do a movie, in the “Academy Ratio,” which is more or less a square, which is what every movie was up until a certain time in the ‘50s. But it was not possible—I mean, you could project it in a museum or in a revival house, but you couldn’t release a movie in multiplexes and things, because they have to adjust the projection to a degree—they don’t even have the equipment—so, you’d be faced with this tremendous cost and logistics, and it just didn’t happen. But now that it’s digital, somebody can just push a button, and the thing goes the way you told them to. So, it’s really pretty simple. We shot each aspect ratio like we were making a movie that way, and then I made a couple of choices about how to present it. Like the cards at the beginning are at 1.85, a very normal ratio, and the movie itself is 1.85. But then the first scenes are in a smaller version of 1.85 that has black around all sides, and then it goes into something like cinemascope and there’s black on the tops and bottoms, and only when we go into the ‘30s does it go into the full height of the frame. My thought being that we could feel it get bigger vertically, not just smaller sideways. But we loved shooting in the Academy Ratio. It was sort of like TV shows up until probably after 2000, or probably until five or six years ago, were done that way. But other than that, movies haven’t been done that way in years, and it’s a great shape.
Which actors from the golden age of cinema do you imagine having fun in your films?
One actor that I really love and that I haven’t known for very long is Joan Blondell. This is one who I really didn’t know anything about. I must have seen her in some James Cagney movie or other at some point, but in the last months, I’ve seen her in 10 different movies or something, because I’ve been watching these pre-code movies, and she’s a great, great actor. Also, during that time, there are so many movies that are for women. That’s who the stars of these movies are. Even in the ensemble movies, like Three on a Match, there’s three main characters who are all women. I guess other ones I love from that same time period are Barbara Stanwyck, and Jimmy Cagney is a great one, and Joan Crawford. Stanwyck and Crawford are two of the biggest stars of that period doing some of their best work.
Why do you think there is very little originality or imagination in American cinema these days?
I don’t know. I’ll tell you that—not to overemphasize these [pre-code 1930s movies], but it’s just what I’ve been watching lately, so I’m inclined to talk about them—these movies are the first talking movies. They’re the first years of talking movies, and I’ve always got this impression that people have often described them as being stage-bound and because of how they were recorded, movies sort of slowed down. That some energy went out. Well, I don’t see that in these movies. I see that a little later. These movies are often made like a silent movie, and maybe the sound’s not so good a lot of time, but there’s tremendous energy. You feel instead that these are people who have their own ideas, and there isn’t somebody who’s going to tell them “don’t do this, don’t do this,” because they’re making up the whole thing right there. I think there’s the sense that they’re not going to make boring movies. They’re going to make fast, 71-minute long movies where a lot happens.
This is your darkest movie. There is more violence than usual. Do you feel like this is a maturity for you? Are you looking back at a “playground” in 1930s Europe that is about to be swallowed up?
…I think it’s the fact that the movie is a comedy but is set in a time when we know what the history is that we’re talking about, we know what happens to Europe and the people of Europe during this time, what they do and what is done to them, and it’s a comedy. How is this balanced? And I think, without really intending to, I think that the way I was balancing it was the dark cloud over civilization at that time is being expressed by people getting dismembered and brutalized, and blood. I’ve certainly never been inclined to have people get chopped up in movies before, and I feel like that’s because that’s what this world was coming to.
Could you talk a little about a nostalgia in this movie? This one was particularly nostalgic for a certain era that was already lost by its own time period.
I don’t know if I’m a particularly nostalgic person in my own life, but I think certainly this character is nostalgic. And Stefan Zweig was nostalgic, and his nostalgia was in the form of depression, a growing depression over the course of his life. A sense of great loss, and it’s a loss of a whole culture that he saw. So, I think our story comes partly out of that, out of his sense of loss.
Stefan Zweig killed himself because of depression over fascism. Did that somewhat influence the [tone] of this movie?
Yes it did. I think it did, yeah. And it’s another one of those things where I was sort of thinking of it later. I was saying, “Well, why did I do this? Well, I think I did it because of this.” I don’t really like to define these things in the beginning, and it sort of helps me to have conversations like this, and I can say, “Yeah, I understand the movie better now.” [Laughs]
Thank you for talking to me today.