Almost every actor craves a role in one of Wes Anderson’s movies but working for the Texan auteur is no picnic according to the cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel who spilled the secrets of Hollywood’s most uncompromising “general” to The Daily Beast.
Whimsical and playful by the time they reach the big screen, Anderson’s projects are created in a surprisingly autocratic style. The actors who star in his latest, possibly greatest, film revealed the truth about working for the filmmaker at the Berlin film festival in Germany. Admiration and affection are never in doubt but the cast said it’s the tenacious approach that makes Anderson unique. “He’s so specific in what he sees and what he wants that you better give it to him,” said Willem Dafoe. “He’s tough.”
Giving Anderson what he wants isn’t easy, though. “He does a lot of takes,” said Jeff Goldblum. Every prop, every actor’s mark must be precise. There is no improvising, no tinkering with the script and very little room for actors to suggest improvements. Saoirse Ronan, who plays Agatha the female lead, said she had never seen anything like it. “There was one shot… It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “It took 35 takes or something. We just did it over, and over, and over, and over again.”
Like much of his earlier work, The Grand Budapest Hotel is visually stunning with each shot framed like a perfectly conceived photograph. Set in the snowy mountains of a fictional European country in the build up to the Second World War, the stunning landscape shots are matched by the bright intensity of the scenes filmed inside the exquisite hotel. The level of precision required an extraordinary attention to detail and a willingness on the part of the director to drive the cast and crew crazy if that meant getting each prop and actor exactly where he wanted them. Dafoe, who plays a memorable leather-clad hitman, tried to explain the precision by picking up an imaginary object. “If this is supposed to be here, he can’t bear to see it here,” he said, moving the faux prop a few inches. “It runs deep.”
Ralph Fiennes, who made his Wes Anderson debut as the central character in The Grand Budapest Hotel, said the unbending focus on recreating each scene exactly as it was planned is heightened because Anderson is both writer and director. “It’s different if he’s just the writer because the director might want to develop the role or depart from what the writer’s written sometimes,” he said. “Usually writers are incredibly controlling about their text, which you have to accept. Wes was too. He would notice if, by mistake, I’d changed a line or something.”
Fiennes is brilliant as the fastidious, but adventurous and bawdy, concierge Gustav H. It’s quite a departure for an actor whose roles in The English Patient and Schindler’s List saw him nominated by the Academy. When it came to directing Fiennes in the comic scenes, Anderson left nothing to chance. “Wes is someone I think who hears it very distinctly, he hears the rhythms, he hears the delivery, he hears the comic timing of it,” he said. “We seemed to find a place where there was this quite speedy rhythm like when I say to Zero [Gustav H’s excellent lobby boy], ‘Have you ever been questioned by the authorities?’ He says: ‘Yes on one occasion, I was arrested and tortured by the rebel militia…”—‘Right, well you know the drill then, zip it!’ Boom. And all that’s very fast and I was saying, ‘Wes, it’s too fast, it’s too fast they’re not gonna…’ and he said, ‘No, no, it’s not.’ And of course he’s right.”
Goldblum, who returned to the Anderson fold to play the goodly lawyer Kovacs in Grand Budapest, said “That’s what you sign up for!”
“I’ve gone to other movies and the director will go, ‘Oh maybe you are wearing this,’ and I’ll go ‘That’s a good idea but how about this? What if I have a hat or a thing?’ With him you don’t do that. You go: ‘What do I get to do in this?’ And he goes: ‘Here’s the thing, here’s the thing, here’s the thing.’ And you go, ok,” Goldblum said. “So, that’s what you sign-up for too. And his ideas are so good. And his taste is so good that you go: ‘Oh, yes please.’”
In the decade since Goldblum made The Life Aquatic with Anderson, he said he has become even more demanding, increasing the number of takes for each scene but also creating ever more impressive movies. “He’s always going further, you know,” Goldblum said. “I kind of love them all, but I see them developing. It’s very enjoyable for me to see how it develops. This one struck me, as soon as I saw it, I was like Sch-WOW! That’s a knock out. I think it worked strikingly well… I think he’s getting better.”
Goldblum and Dafoe, both Anderson veterans, were clearly surprised and thrilled that they had each managed to make a small creative addition to the film. Goldblum, who confessed to being something of an eye-wear collector, picked out the frames he wears in the movie from a vintage glasses collector in L.A. Dafoe’s addition to his costume, which is surely destined to feature at thousands of parties next Halloween, was more pronounced. “Wes told me they had a drawing, very specific, that the costume was designed. He did say, ‘I want you to cut your hair, like short.’ I said ‘OK.’ The other thing was, he said, ‘I want you to have pointy teeth.’ And I thought, privately, I thought, it’s like a vampire, I hate it, it’s dead for me, it’s something that we’ve seen. So I started to play around with the idea of inverting them, and putting them upside down, so you had bulldog teeth,” he said.
It was the kind of collaboration often seen in filmmaking, but the obvious glee on the faces of these two experienced actors demonstrated just how unusual it was for Anderson to accept an improvement to the idiosyncratic world he had conjured up inside his head. “That’s very rare,” said Dafoe. “He realizes these things very precisely.”
Anderson cuts an exotic figure himself, with his tailored suits, long hair and love of unusual neckwear. “He’s so stylish!” said Ronan. “Jeff actually has a book on Wes and there’s a photo of them from years ago when he was doing Bottle Rocket, and he’s wearing like t-shirts, and I think he has jeans on, and his hair’s a bit shorter and I thought who is this man? I took a photo of him recently in London and he had a biscuit brown colored cord suit on and he had his newspaper tucked in the suit and I thought—he’s so classy. He doesn’t even realize. He’s like a character himself.”
Anderson’s grip on the production doesn’t end on set. There were no trailers, and the cast, which included Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson and Jude Law, all stayed in a small hotel they took over in the East German town of Görlitz. “We had dinner every night together, like formal dinner, you know, apéritif at 7.30, and we’ll eat at 8,” Goldblum said.
So was it all sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? “Görlitz, baby! There was no sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. Or maybe there was? I was missing,” said Dafoe, laughing. “Well… some sex. But no drugs, people were working too hard.”
There was a piano in the hotel and Goldblum would play jazz in the evenings. By way of homework, Anderson had provided a small library of films including the Greta Garbo classic The Grand Hotel and Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. “He never formally screened them,” Dafoe explained. “He just said these movies are available. There was only one copy of each so it was like Ed Norton is hanging on to To Be Or Not To Be too long. I’m going to break into his room and get it.”
“It was an education,” said Goldblum. “Wes could teach a course.” But he didn’t get on quite so well with the suggested reading material. “Umm…I read some of it,” he said, of the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, whom Anderson cites as an inspiration for the movie. Fiennes, on the other hand, found Zweig’s work extremely helpful in honing his character and evoking the tumultuous era in which the film is set. “Reading Stefan Zweig, he talks about the beginning of the First World War,” he said. “People stop trains; people coming on board; the day war broke out in August 1914. Wes has used that. And then he sort of collapsed it into a rise of fascism, and SS pastiche groups. But I think Gustav represents this idea of another era where things were better. Maybe they weren’t better but Gustav represents that thing in us where we want it to be somehow dream-like perfection.”
For Fiennes, this was a first encounter with the ensemble of regular Anderson cast members but it was easy to join the club. “It’s funny—I get asked this question as if I was this outsider person, I never felt like that. I guess the world of our little hotel was quite unusual, in this late night meal that we all tended to have together. There seems to be an idea, that I walked into a room, and there were all these Wes Anderson veterans like this,” he said, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest. “No, no the opposite was true… It was great. It is like a family. He creates a family atmosphere.”
If Anderson, at 44, is not quite the father-figure to this ever-growing cast of Hollywood heavyweights, he certainly wears the trousers. Dafoe described him as one of the last all-powerful filmmakers. “I think it’s fair to say that directors don’t have much power in Hollywood,” he said. “But Wes is the head of a Wes Anderson movie, that’s pretty rare. And now, the studios don’t have power, the financers have the power, the public relations people have the power, not necessarily the writers or the actors.
“But I think, Wes is by anyone’s definition, an auteur and there aren’t that many. Hollywood doesn’t really… that’s not their game anymore.”
Dafoe said most of the projects that landed on his desk included a script, a list of the actors attached and the name of a director. “I often don’t know who these directors are, because they come from different traditions and sometimes they are very capable, but they aren’t authors, you know, they are just hired to do the job, to create the product.”
To have survived in modern Hollywood and to demand the unwavering loyalty of a host of actors who are delighted to accommodate his every demand, Anderson had to display a steely determination. “He’s sweet, but he’s tough in his tenacity,” said Dafoe. “On some level a director has to be a good general. And he’s a beautiful general. The troops love him and he’s clear about what he has to do.”