Filmmaker Wes Anderson takes his summer-camp clan on a journey through old Europa
If you can tell a lot by the clothes a person wears, then Wes Anderson’s attire speaks volumes.
You won’t find a pair of ragged jeans or tatty T-shirt in his wardrobe (at least not the one he parades in public). Rather like the films he writes and directs, the 44-year-old’s personal style is old-fashioned, colorful and elegant — and today is no different.
We meet in a Berlin hotel, the bob-haired Anderson arriving in a tweed suit, grey sweater and a yellow-and-brown checked shirt, an anachronistic outfit that makes you think of an English country gent holidaying on the Riviera.
Creating the sort of universes you feel like you want to reach out and touch — literally, in the case of his 2009 stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — Anderson is clearly happier in an analogue world, before the days of MP3s and Netflix.
“I’m one of the least digital guys,” he says, which surely accounts for why he refrains from social networking.
“I’ve never tried it,” he shrugs. “I’m not on Facebook. I don’t tweet. I’d spend too much time rewriting my tweets, I’d never press send.”
Even if Anderson might not feel so comfortable in the modern world, his fans do. Check out the YouTube parodies and tributes to his work — everything from montages splicing together all his slow-motion sequences to fan films like “Wes Anderson’s Fight Club.” Has he seen them? Yes, he replies, the one where someone painstakingly assembled all of his trademark overhead shots.
“It just made me think of how many hours of setting up these shots it took!” he groans. “When they show them together, it just seemed so draining to me!”
Still, it shows the passion others hold for Anderson’s unique world-view, one that generated cold hard cash last time out, when his 1960s-set Boy Scout yarn “Moonrise Kingdom” took an impressive $68 million across the globe. For Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola, also nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar — the third nod of Anderson’s career — it was his biggest hit in years.
And so, understandably, expectations are high for his latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” another richly evocative journey into the past. Set in the 1930s, with the rumblings of fascism growing ever louder, the film is based in the fictional eastern European republic of Zubrowka and zeroes in on the goings-on at the titular hotel, a grandiose establishment that, we soon learn, later falls into disrepair.
Our hero is the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a gigolo to many of the older ladies who pass through the doors of The Grand Budapest. Gustave becomes embroiled in a madcap caper when one of his loves passes on. One of the most accessible and consequently most delightful of Anderson’s eight films to date, it started quite simply.
“First I just wanted to make a ‘European’ story,” he says, adding that he’s spent a lot of time over the past few years living in Paris (where he set his 2007 short “Hotel Chevalier”). But then he started thinking about other influences, beginning with Austrian author Stefan Zweig, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler.
“I got kinda hooked on his work,” says Anderson, who admits he wanted to capture the spirit of Zweig’s books rather than adapt one directly.
Also packed with references to films from Hollywood’s golden age, the film is typical of Anderson, whose hermetically sealed universes are a product of his fertile imagination. Compare that with this year’s Best Picture category at the Oscars, with six out of nine films based on true stories.
While the closest he ever came was appropriating the life of deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau for his 2004 underwater adventure, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” would Anderson ever consider this realism-drenched path?
He shakes his head. “‘Biopic’ isn’t the most seductive word,” he answers.
Still, it would be wrong to think of Anderson as cut off from his own experience, with all sorts of biographical details leaking into his films. Some are merely nods, like Angelica Huston’s work as an archaeologist in 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a reflection of his own mother’s occupation, or the sibling trio aboard 2007’s train-set “The Darjeeling Limited” recollecting his own upbringing with brothers Eric and Mel.
Others are more serious, like the pamphlet glimpsed in “Moonrise Kingdom” for troubled children, a replica of one he found on his refrigerator growing up, aimed at him.
Raised in Texas, where his father ran an advertising and PR firm and his mother worked in real estate (before she turned to archaeology), Anderson was eight years old when his parents divorced; as with many kids under such emotional trauma, his behavior at school became unruly. Little wonder, he says: “I feel happier making movies than I ever did going to school.”
Still, he was creative even then. Like Max Fischer, the hero of his second film, “Rushmore,” he had literary aspirations. “It was my most pretentious phase,” he laughs. He only really found his calling later when he studied philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.
It was here that he met Owen Wilson, who would go on to co-write and star in Anderson’s 1996 debut, “Bottle Rocket,” his low-key crime film that set the tone and style for many of his films to come. Inspired by a 15-minute short, it was also the first time that Anderson had around him a surrogate clan — the cast and crew — that helped make up for his own fractured family.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is no different, with a remarkable, high-profile cast, many of whom have already hopped on the Wes Anderson express at one point. Veterans such as Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, stars of “Rushmore,” are present. Then there are those who’ve done one or two Anderson films: Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe. And finally the newbies: Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan joining what seems like an ever-growing repertory troupe.
Indeed, the only actor he can’t get to return to one of his films is Gene Hackman, who starred in “The Royal Tenenbaums” but has since retired. “I have a character that I have even written some scenes for that I think he’d be really great for, but he doesn’t really talk to me.
“So it’s not like I can email him and I’ll get back, ‘I don’t know Wes, I’ll think about it!’ I won’t hear nothing. So I don’t know if I could convince him. He also retired right in front of me. It wasn’t like he finished ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and said, ‘Point me to the next one’. He finished the movie and said, ‘I’m finished!’”
While on “Moonrise Kingdom,” shot in and around Rhode Island, Anderson rented a house that several people, including Norton and Murray, stayed in, again fostering that fake-family feel. This time, they virtually took over a whole hotel in Görlitz, Germany, where “The Grand Budapest Hotel” came to life.
“It was in the center of this town, and they had no restaurant, but they had a little breakfast kitchen. We thought we’d bring a cook that we know, and we ended up putting the make-up [room] in the lobby and the editing room right across the way.”
Curiously, the actual hotel scenes were shot in a nearby department store, one Anderson says reminds him of Bon Marché in Paris. “It was absolutely ideal,” he says. “We could get from our hotel to our department store by golf cart in three minutes. It took a lot of lawyers to get us permission to bring over golf carts.”
Did he ever crash his? He smiles a cheeky grin. “There are a lot of one-way streets in Görlitz, and it’s better if you go down the wrong way sometimes. Maybe there were a few incidents that were close, but I don’t remember anybody being injured.”
Doubtless, it’s this sort of summer (or winter) camp atmosphere Anderson creates that helps convince illustrious actors to take huge pay cuts, the only way his modestly budgeted films can afford such casts. Not that he’s worrying about that. “They all make lots of money in their lives. I may spend a couple of years on this movie, but they’ve done all these other things [in that time], so I don’t worry about them financially. I know they’re a lot richer than I am!”
The template was set by Bill Murray back on “Rushmore.” “I know the movie he made before, he was paid $9 million. That was the budget of our film. I knew we weren’t going to get $9 million to pay him, so we asked him, ‘How shall we do this?’ He said, ‘I will do it for scale.’ And that was $9,000. So he did it as a gift. That became our model for everyone else after that — he created the low wages!”
With such support, it seems Anderson’s singular world view isn’t so singular after all (each of his scripts has featured a writing partner; this time it was his old friend Hugo Guinness). He’s noodling away at his next script, but there’s nothing to tell yet.
“I wish there was,” he sighs. “That’s scary for me, saying, ‘Have I just made my last film?’ I have a few little things brewing but nothing I could say, ‘This could be a movie.’”
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