Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Director Wes Anderson is exactly what one would imagine from seeing his retro-whimsical films. At a post-screening Q&A of his latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson fielded questions from Capone of Ain’t It Cool News and an adoring sold-out crowd with easy-breezy wit and thoughtful consideration.
You can’t help but look at him and think, “Of course that’s the guy who made ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘Moonrise Kingdom.’ Who else could get away with wearing a yellow turtleneck and a two-piece suit?” Sitting on the elegant Music Box Theatre stage in Chicago with “Budapest” producer Jeremy Dawson, frequent collaborator Roman Coppola and the film’s young star, Tony Revolori, Anderson discussed everything from suicidal writers to exactly how hard Harvey Keitel hits.
Did you intend [“The Grand Budapest Hotel”] to look like a living, breathing pop-up book?
I wrote this script with an old friend named Hugo, and we finished the whole script without any real plan. We immediately went on a little adventure around Central Europe, to Budapest and all around the Czech Republic and Poland, and we spent a lot of time in Germany. We got a lot of different ideas of what would go into the movie and how it would shape the setting, but we didn’t have an idea of a real place to do it. Then we decided maybe we’ll just use the things we discovered and we’ll make them with paintings and miniatures and all sorts of different things, so it wasn’t a preconceived anything, just all the things we discovered and evolved, and a big group of collaborators.
And so where did you end up actually filming?
A place called Gorlitz that’s in Saxony, in Germany, and half the city’s in Germany and half’s in Poland, so it’s a made-up country, and it’s 20 minutes from the Czech Republic and it’s sort of…where it would have been, maybe? And we’d go for dinner in Poland very often and the exchange rate’s very favorable to the non-Poles, and you have to want to eat a lot of rabbit and casseroles and things. We ate good ones.
You never worked with Ralph Fiennes, and you wrote [the character] for him. Did he know you wrote the part for him?
I got to know him a little bit over the years, and at one point he showed me this little video for this idea he had for “Coriolanus,” this Shakespeare adaptation. And it was interesting, very intense, and then I asked him about this one speech and would he do it like this? And he did this speech on a sofa, and it was a very powerful, scary speech. It was very disturbing and interesting, and I felt, as soon as he did it, I thought I really wanted to work with Ralph. I kind of thought, “It’s going to be hard for him to get this movie made,” but he made it, and he made another one and they’re both very good! I loved working with Ralph.
[Fiennes’ character Gustav is] a fascinating character: he’s a blend of complete sophistication, and then he breaks into swearing when he gets frustrated. Can you talk about piecing it together and where that character came from?
It came from a real person, our friend who, this is his personality and this is his way of talking. He has a number of friends who are older than him, and they’re…very deeply connected to each other. He’ll begin to talk and he’ll begin to say something very shocking and vulgar: “The first blow job I ever received…” But he did it on purpose, and I’m not sure what to make of this, and then he’ll talk about Rembrandt. There’s something we didn’t use in the movie: “I’ve never found a lock I can’t pick,” which means a person he can’t find the solution to them. The more you get to know him, you realize how deeply good a person he is, even with all these qualities and ways, and a very good, loyal friend.
(To Revolori) Having this be your first big day out in the film world and having almost all of your scenes with Ralph Fiennes – was it like a master class every day?
When you work with someone as wonderful as Ralph Fiennes, you definitely learn something, as well as all the actors; every single one of them were fantastic actors with a lot of experience. It was very much like a master class, and I picked up a lot of things subconsciously and I put it in my own process. It was great, and I never felt any pressure from Wes or the other actors to do better or be better because they let me breathe in many ways. It was very beautiful, and I had a great director with me — all of them.
Did you learn something specific from Fiennes?
He likes to make everything so natural, all the parts of the character, how he kind of finds the reality of the character.
What about Harvey Keitel?
So this is a story…I got a lot of these, we’ll be here all night. So this is a scene we’re doing, the only scene I have with Harvey, and he slapped me. That was a real slap. Harvey is an ex-Marine, and he slaps hard! And it was a surprise because I didn’t know he was going to do this! Forty-two takes later, my face is swollen. It’s huge. Luckily the camera was shooting the other angle, so no makeup was required. It was 42, and I’ve seen him twice … [laughs] so now it’s 44.
(To Anderson) In the movie, the author at the beginning talks about how he wrote a lot of the stories about characters he’s met. What’s the most interesting character you’ve met.
At the beginning of the story, the author says something like, “When people know you’re a writer, they bring their stories to you” … and I have not really found that. Usually it’s a lot of digging and scratching around. That comes from this writer, Stefan Zweig, who’s a great favorite of mine I’ve gotten to know pretty recently. [The credits say] “inspired by,” but it’s more in the vein of plagiarism. He’s in the public domain now anyway, but, somebody told me the other day, not in America! But anyway, where was I going with that? My theory is I don’t think even Zweig thinks it’s true. It can happen, but he was the kind of writer who wrote these psychological kind of stories that are like tales. He puts things in not because it’s a good setup for what he wants to do. But then again, [the main character] is based on a guy I know, and he’s inspiring me just by being my friend.
But didn’t Zweig and his wife commit suicide?
I think they drank some kind of cyanide solution or something together one day in Brazil. He had left Yemin and gone to Salzburg and then he went to Belgium, Paris, England and then to New York and then to outside of Rio de Janeiro. His whole memoir is really about the destruction of the culture that he grew up in, and the brutality of that period in history was just too much for him to live with even though he had escaped with very early. By 1942, he was at the end of his rope and that was that.
What’s your favorite Chicago baseball team?
Well, I’m just going to alienate half the room.
How often do your actors improvise?
I feel like the words are pretty much what we’ve written, and we’ve talked about it a lot and planned it out, but everything else is sort of improvised. We prepare everything very carefully, and then the actors take over and the feeling on the set is quite chaotic, one thing after another.
You’re known for 15, 20 or more takes, but you still shoot on film, which is unbelievable.
I like doing it over and over again, but the traditional thing on the movie set is you say “Cut!” and the camera stops and a lot of people rush in and start doing things to people, and finally you get everybody back out again, and we don’t like to do that, but we often keep rolling between the takes, but in Germany they find this unacceptable, just wasteful. And so our new thing was instead of saying “Cut!” I would say “Still rolling!” and everybody wouldn’t do as much stuff. It really does break the spell when you say “Cut!” This is Tony’s first time to be in a film, and it’s also Tony’s first time to … have a job. And Tony was 16 years old, off in Germany. His father, Mario, was with him, but he was with this whole group of people. Tony knew the whole movie, his lines and everybody else’s lines. This happened with Roman’s cousin, Jason Schwartzman, when we did “Rushmore” together. These very young people are in this situation, but because of their resilience and confidence, without being cocky, we forget [they’re young].
It’s a common thread in all your movies: this sense of nostalgia, like someone past their prime that used to be so fantastic and is now rundown. What draws you to stories like this?
I think there’s something interesting about failure, you know, just in the abstract. There’s emotion in it. We all sort of deal with it all the time in so many forms, and somehow I think it’s related to that, our experiences. In the case of this particular movie, there’s also this aspect of it with Zweig and the shape of his life. He was in mourning for a world that was brutally demolished. Zweig was one of the most popular writers on the planet at a certain point and he was erased from our culture for a period of time. He’s just coming back into print, in English. He saw his books burned in Germany, his native tongue. I think it marked what we’re trying to convey with the movie: his point of view, about a decline, something that vanishes.
You have all these amazing, intricate details in your films. How much does the audience not see?
You see a lot. I feel like you should be satisfied with it. I feel like what we end up doing is trying to plan the movie as carefully as we can so that everything we can do … and there isn’t much outside of the frame. It sort of ends outside the frame. There probably isn’t a lot, but I like to think it makes you imagine what’s outside the frame. There are certainly references to things. I think our goal is to make worlds of the story, the history of that region: We know what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t correlate to reality.