Wes Anderson is alert. We’re seated across from one another in the bowels of a hotel in Downtown Manhattan, and the twee Texan is delicately balancing an espresso. He’s fresh off a plane from Paris—the self-admitted Francophile divides his time between the City of Lights and the Big Apple—and is talking a mile a minute, like an excitable kid bursting with ideas. He has reason to be jazzed. Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is his most intoxicating confection to date; a gleeful meld of his sardonic wit, pastel-infused palette, and polite brand of anarchy. Set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowska, an eastern European nation torn apart by war and oppression, the story-within-a-story-within-a-story begins in 1932, and follows the gonzo travails of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), dashing concierge of the titular hotel. He’s a dandy—a cross between Peter O’Toole and Zsa Zsa Gabor—who, in addition to being “the most liberally-perfumed” man ever, has a penchant for bedding octogenarians.
When one of his elderly squeezes, Madame D (Tilda Swinton, in heavy aging makeup), croaks, it sets off a series of crazy events involving his new lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), a priceless stolen painting called “Boy with Apple,” prison breaks, an SS-like squadron, shoot-outs, murderous henchman, and more. Or, in the words of SNL’s Stefon: “This film has everything.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the early films of Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch—movies like To Be or Not to Be and The Shop Around the Corner—as well as the works of fatalistic Austrian author Stefan Zweig. It was shot over 10 weeks in Berlin and Görlitz, Germany, and the Rushmore director rounded up his usual A-list troupe, with regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel, and others all popping up for some onscreen (and offscreen) revelry.
“It was a riot,” Fiennes said. “I remember times when there was Harvey, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Edward Norton, and it was lovely to feel the camaraderie. Wes brought some cooks in who did some great food, wine, and spirits … and you could drink as much as you wanted! We had big cast dinners, and it was nice to go back to your room after a long day, slip on some slippers, and go and eat.”
The 44-year-old filmmaker, sporting an immaculately tailored tweed suit and colorful socks, opened up about his most exquisite film yet.
Grand Budapest opens with a girl seated before a monument of an author, played by Tom Wilkinson, and flipping through his book—before an aged Zero tells his story to a younger version of the author [Jude Law], in the ‘60s. Were you flipping through a Zweig novel and suddenly got inspired to write the film?
Sort of! My friend Hugo [Guinness] and I wrote this together, and our old friend is a model for Ralph’s character. He’s not a hotel concierge and didn’t live in that time, but he’s a lot like him. He was very liberally perfumed, and even looked at drafts of the screenplay and said, “I would never say that, darling!” And we’d have to say, “We’re not making this to make you happy, we’re trying to make it funny!” But about seven years ago, I was in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, and was walking around the park and saw this statue of Zweig. I must have walked by it a million times before and never noticed it, but this time I happened to be reading his book, Beware of Pity. We actually stole the movie’s intro from Beware of Pity. It’s a format Zweig uses in a lot of his stories where someone meets somebody else and they tell him or her a story.
Zweig’s tone, absurdist and fatalistic, is a bit similar to yours. But why Zweig? If you watch the beginning of our movie and see where we are in the ‘60s, before we go back to the Ralph Fiennes part of the story, you know who’s alone, and that some of these people aren’t going to make it. But Zweig also actually lived a very glamorous lifestyle. He was a hugely popular writer, but he cultivated a lot of famous friends, traveled a lot, and lived the high life. He was interested in all sorts of art forms and collected manuscripts and original drafts of music, was friends with Freud, and I think he was sort of known at the whorehouses.
So the making of Grand Budapest really began seven years ago.
Yes. This film was pretty quick to write. Hugo and I had made a version of a section of it—about 12 minutes of it—around seven years ago, which included a hunk of dialogue and a sense of the character, and when I found out how to combine it with Zweig, make it a concierge, and other details, we wrote it in six weeks, and immediately after that, we started researching. I sent it to Steven Rales and Scott Rudin, who have been working with me for years, and they said, “OK, let’s do it… what do you need next?” So, we hired a casting director to find Tony Revolori, which took months and months.
How did you find the titular hotel and settle on its unique look?
We had the hotel of the ‘30s, and it needed an identity. We’d seen this pink hotel in Karlovy Vary—which used to be Carlsbad—in the Czech Republic, and it’s an old spa town. We went there, and when you go to these places, they’re ruined but there are lots of images of what it used to be like. Our design for the movie was the hotel when it was at its peak, and I just thought we’d make it look like a wedding cake or ice cream parlor with these pastel purple, pink, and red colors. It’s the anti-Overlook Hotel. And then in the ‘60s, it’s more like the Overlook Hotel, and then we make it communist. The look of that period comes from a hotel in Budapest called the Gellért, and during the communist period they installed panels and layers to it.
And how did you arrive at a concierge as your protagonist? I was also fascinated by The Society of the Crossed Keys, the secret legion of concierges that unite at one point in the film.
I’ve gotten to know many concierges in researching the movie. I knew one in Vienna, Michael Moser, who’s a concierge at a hotel called The Imperial. And in Prague, there’s a guy named Norm Eisen who’s the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and we had a mutual friend who introduced us, and he arranged a cocktail party for all the members of The Golden Key, a group of high-class concierges, so we sat with these 14 concierges and picked their brains.
How did you arrive at Ralph Fiennes for your lead? He’s new to your universe.
It needed to be someone English, and it needed to be someone who could handle a lot of text, and someone who could take this character and make it a real person and not just a caricature. Ralph was the only person I could think of, and I didn’t really have a second choice. I’d wanted to work with Ralph for a number of years. He’s amazing in In Bruges, as well as the film Bernard and Doris, and The Constant Gardener. And I’d seen him in a play, God of Carnage, and he was great and just so funny in it.
Did you storyboard the film?
I’ve always done little bitty storyboards for the movies, and after we did Fantastic Mr. Fox, I have somebody else redraw them better, and they do lots of panels and poses so that we can then animate them, and then we record a soundtrack which consists of me doing voices. Sometimes, music goes there as well. We make the movie as a cartoon, and some actors like to see that. Willem Dafoe loves the animatics very much. For others, they’re not as relevant.
How did you land on Görlitz as your location? There’s a big tax incentive in Germany and very good crews, so people do a lot of work in Budapest and Prague, but we traveled a lot in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the main reason we ended up in this town was because of this department store that we found. I was trying to find a real hotel but we couldn’t, but this vacant department store was built in 1910, and was a fully functioning department store five years ago. It was most recently a D’arte, a chain of department stores owned by the Netherlands. But it was a long, long process, and I went to Görlitz many times, and we did a lot of traveling.
And you rounded up most of the usual suspects as far as the cast goes. Ralph told me you had some extravagant cast dinners together, which you’d arranged.
We had great cast dinners. We had an old friend cook for us there, and he’s Italian, so mostly Italian-ish. But he didn’t work on Saturday nights, so we all went to one restaurant next door to our hotel that’s a meaty German place, and there’s a river that runs through the middle of Görlitz, and the other half of the city is the Polish half, so we’d go there to these great Polish restaurants and eat rabbit and weird birds.
By now, you—like Paul Thomas Anderson—have your own troupe of actors who you keep calling on, sort of like a maestro with an orchestra.
All of these actors are people whom I’m fans of, and have convinced them to do movies with me. So I go back to the same people because I love these actors. The advantage to having ones I already know is I have my way of working, and they’re already into it. Not every actor in the world reacts the same way when you tell them, “You won’t have a trailer. Your costume will be left in your room at night, and you’ll come to the set in your costume and be made up in the hotel.” Actors are used to staying at the Four Seasons, their Mercedes will drop them off at the set, they’ll have their nice breakfast, and sit in their trailer, all that stuff. We don’t do any of that. Our set is communal, less wasteful, and less boring to me. So when I tell a lot of actors that, they tell me, “Good. I’m sick of working that way.” Making movies now are based on old technologies and old methods, and there are ways that a lot of money gets wasted that isn’t relevant.