Wes Anderson on Using Throwback Ratios, Romantic Worldviews, and European Reconnaissance to Craft The Grand Budapest Hotel
For all the ways his work speaks to today’s Generation Irony, Wes Anderson is an unmistakable romantic — a man who grew up with a great love of classics, be they in the realms of cinema, literature or art. All of those things converge in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s sweeping, nostalgic, and career-topping new film, which sees him confronting history on a global scale — in his own way, of course. The movie takes place in a number of eras, most notably 1932, when, in the fictional yet familiar land of Zubrowka, wars are brewing and lives are changing in ways evocative of Eastern Europe’s past. The story’s key thread involves hotelier Gustave H., played exquisitely by Ralph Fiennes, who, along with his “lobby boy” Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), offsets the sober, pseudo-historical backdrop with a rousing cat-and-mouse adventure.
Chatting with me and a smattering of other journalists in a resort in Berlin, where Grand Budapest opened the 64th Berlinale and won the Silver Bear, Anderson sits composed with an aptly retro sophistication. Swatting away any rumors that he’s cagey, the brilliant filmmaker suggests he could gab for ages about his craft, which is just as meticulous as it seems on screen. Riding the increasing wave of success of what is quite possibly his best film, Anderson discusses scouting key locations, the inspirational writings of Stefan Zweig, employing varying aspect ratios, and how he relates to Gustave, a man living in a time that may not truly be his own.
Filmmaker: How did you balance handling heavy historical issues in a very light, comedic manner?
Anderson: Actively, I didn’t. Do you want the long answer?
Anderson: The story started out as something thought up by me and a friend of mine, Hugo [Guinness]. He’s a painter, but he’s also very funny. He and I had this idea to do a story about our other friend, and we wrote about 15 or 18 pages of this story that was set in the present, in England and France. And it was a movie up until the point when [Gustave] steals a painting, without all the setup [that’s now in the film]. And then we didn’t know what we wanted to happen next, and we just never did anything. That was about eight years ago. Then I made a couple of other movies, and I’d been reading these Stefan Zweig books. I had never heard of them before, and I really loved them, from the first page. Beware of Pity was the first one I read. And I started thinking that I’d like to do some sort of Zweig-esque thing, and I was reading other things at the same time that were getting into equally dark moments in Europe. I just thought it might work to mix these together, and then came the idea of a hotel concierge, which was not related to the earlier thing. So anyway, we just decided to combine that stuff, and I feel like I just wanted to be totally free with it –we’re in a made-up country, we’re mixing wars together, we’re mixing up nationalities and everything. So I just felt like we’ll make our story, and whatever I’m reading or thinking about is gonna go in there, with the [historical and cultural] stuff that everybody already knows. And I thought we’d just see what that adds up to.
Filmmaker: And is it your intent to have an impact on the audience in terms of the war references and cultural elements?
Anderson: Well, it’s my intent insofar as it’s a choice to make a movie that’s in that world. And even though it isn’t an exact time and place, it is, ya know? We know what we’re referring to and drawing on — everybody knows all that. So that’s the thing, especially during the time [of conception] that I’d been thinking about everyday, just because of what I was reading, and that sort of thing. So anyway, that’s my attempt to answer that.
Filmmaker: Location always plays a big part in your movies — the submarine in The Life Aquatic, the train in The Darjeeling Limited, and now, obviously, the hotel. At what point do you often start thinking about locations?
Anderson: Well, with this one, we made the script, and then we went on this journey around eastern Europe. We went to Viernna, and Budapest, and all around Czech Republic, and we spent a lot of time traveling in Germany, and a little bit in Poland. And we were looking for where we were going to shoot the movie, but I also thought, for various reasons, especially tax incentives, that it would end up being Germany anyway. But we wanted to go all over the place. And we sort of found something everywhere. We collected all kinds of ideas, and a part of the story that wasn’t in the script. In the script, there was this hotel in the 1930s, when it was in its heyday, and then there were the 1960s, when it was in decline and on its last legs. After this trip, it became communist, and just in the architecture, we put in a lot of history or…ideology.
Filmmaker: But there’s no location pictured in your mind when you’re at the scriptwriting stage?
Anderson: No. I mean, during the scripting process, I was looking at some old photographs and things, and I had found one particular hotel that I liked, but [the end product] looks nothing like that anymore, So it was more like an inspiration than a possible location.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with your cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, a couple of times now. How has your relationship evolved, and what sort of aesthetic were you both hoping to achieve with The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Anderson: Well, I don’t know how it’s evolved, but usually, we might have some rules that we would come up with for certain movies. For this one, for instance, we had these different shapes and formats that we’re going to work with. Sometimes we’ll just try to limit how much gear we’re going to have. You know, the last movie we had little kids walking around in the woods together, and I don’t want to go out and do that with 60 people. So we made a decision about the whole movie based on that kind of situation. And, in fact, we made a choice based on how tall these people were [the cast and crew]. There are these French 16 mm cameras that you hold, and don’t put on your shoulder, and it’s just a better way to film sometimes. And that affected the whole movie. Anyway, I’m rambling.
Filmmaker: No, please ramble. Is there anything you come up with that Yeoman can’t do? Because there are some really complicated shots in this movie.
Anderson: Well, I’ll tell you one thing: Bob is a great guy, and has done great work on every movie I’ve done with him. I’ve done a lot of stuff with other directors of photography who are great, like Bruno Delbonnel and Darius Khondji, but Bob is by far the best camera operator that I’ve come across. He’s 63 or something now, but he’s still the best at that for me. The physicality of his operating is great.
Filmmaker: Did you feel, when you were making this film, that it was your most ambitious work to date? Because the scope is so big, and the script is so dense, and there’s a story within a story within a story. Were you trying to raise the bar?
Anderson: I can’t say I thought about that. I knew it was going to be a big undertaking at a certain point. Somewhere along the line, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be hard.” But I did always feel like there’s something heavy, like we discussed before, to the historical element. It was there, and I was aware of it. I’ve also never had a movie where there’s this much blood [laughs].
Filmmaker: You create a lot of imaginary worlds, whether it’s the imaginary New York of The Royal Tenenbaums, or the imaginary species of The Life Aquatic, or the imaginary world of this. What draws you to creating these things, rather than just depicting earthly elements as they are?
Anderson: Well, I guess, in a way, it’s just to make a space to work in. I mean, the real answer is just because I like to. On one hand, usually the characters I’m writing are inspired by people in real life in one way or another, and I’m doing something that relates to my own experience or my own interests in some way. Nevertheless, I feel like the dialogue, the writing, winds up being not entirely naturalistic — not by my choice, [necessarily]. Somehow, I feel like it needs to have its own world to live in. And I have a whole group of people that I’ve worked with for years, and that’s kind of what we like to do together — make a place for these characters to do their thing.
Filmmaker: Did you ever want to be an inventor when you were younger?
Anderson: I wanted to be an architect. So I guess that’s related.
Filmmaker: One shot that jumped out at me takes place in the very beginning. It’s the scene with the young girl in the cemetery, and in the top left-hand corner of the frame, there’s a window on a building that looks, strikingly, like an eye. Where is that building, and how did you come to include it in the shot?
Anderson: Well, that’s a thing in that part of the world, especially a little further in the east. There’s a German word for that type of window. They’re, like, “sleepy-eyed windows,” or something like that. And you see up to three of them on a rooftop. That’s part of the thing about traveling around a lot before shooting. You find these things. And that shot is actually a composite of different places we liked, all made into one shot. But, yeah, it’s a very striking, weird thing — it’s like fairy tale stuff when you see one of these windows, driving around in Poland or something. It’s like these houses are looking out at you.
Filmmaker: Another intriguing thing about the film, of course, is the change of aspect ratio, when you go from 1:85 to 1:33. The height change was almost like watching IMAX in a way.
Anderson: What I didn’t want to do was have the movie suddenly get smaller. So, in the beginning of the movie, he had black on all sides. We actually made the beginning little. But we never would have been able to do it a few years ago. When we made Bottle Rocket, part of the conversation that we had was, “Maybe we could do this in Academy ratio.” But with the theaters and projectionists, you couldn’t do it in those days. Now, you can do it.
Filmmaker: And why did you want to do the different aspect ratios?
Anderson: Well the first impulse was just to do it all Academy. And then there was the sort of traditional thing of, “Well are we going to do some of it black and white? What’s our way going to be in approaching the separation of these time periods?” And I thought the best would be if I could use these technoscope things I used with Darius — these technoscope anamorphic lenses that are really old and strange. If you look at a freeze frame of some these types of shots, the edges are so blurry. I think they did spaghetti westerns with these lenses. So I thought we’d use them, to make these different parts like different movies. But then I also thought that we’re used to seeing things letterboxed at this point, and that it would work anyway. And I’ve just always loved this Academy [square format] shape. It reminds me of old movies. Our movie is in color, with Ralph Fiennes, but [the look] is similar to how I see Humphrey Bogart.
Filmmaker: There’s a great line delivered near the end of the film, by F. Murray Abraham’s character, about Gustave H. being a man already out of his time, or something akin to that. Do you relate to that idea? Is that you, in a sense?
Anderson: No, not really. There are two things: The guy whom we based this on, based Gustave on, is like that. I don’t know if he feels like that, but he is like that. He’s somebody who was fully formed when he was young. By the time he was 15, he was who he is now, and he’s in his 50s. And he always was friends with people who were much older than him. There’s something about him that’s, like, 85, in a way. He knows people who you really should be older to have known. The other thing is, this theme is in Zweig. It’s a very big part of his work. His memoir is about how Europe changed, and the world changed during the course of his life. The title of the book is World of Yesterday, and there’s something about his description of life before 1914 that sticks with you. To me, I’d never read a description quite like this, of that world. And I think the end of that world is something he was still missing. I related to that.