Wes Anderson’s most notable collaborators is none other than Bill Murray, who first appeared in Anderson’s second movie Rushmore and then has literally appeared in every movie Anderson has made since then. It was mentioned to us in advance that Murray might be doing interviews, but Murray is notoriously press-shy and doesn’t do a lot of press for any of his movies, so imagine our surprise when a publicist walked in to tell us that not only would we be getting Bill Murray FIRST, but that we’d also be getting him for roughly 25 minutes.
If you’re of a certain age, then you might know Murray from his days as one of the early players on “Saturday Night Live,” joining the show during its second season. It’s the movies where Murray’s career fully thrived, starring in some of the most memorable comedies of the ’80s from Caddyshack to Stripes and then Ghostbusters, which to this date still finds Murray new fans probably on a weekly if not daily basis. Appearing in Anderson’s second film in 1998 really changed how people saw Murray as an actor, getting him a Golden Globe nomination that began a series of strong dramatic roles in films like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (for which he got his first and only Oscar nomination), Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Get Low and Hyde Park on Hudson.
Murray has a pretty small part in The Grand Budapest Hotel, one we won’t reveal because it’s such a delightful moment when he finally shows up that we don’t want to ruin it, but for the most part, the movie follows Ralph Fiennes’ Mssr. Gustave, the manager of the movie’s title hotel and his lobby boy Zero, played by Tony Revolori, as they get involved with a dispute over the ownership of the hotel and a valuable painting when its benefactor passes away. Besides Murray, the number of returning “Wes Anderson Players” is impressive, everyone from Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum from The Life Aquatic to Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban from Moonrise Kingdom and lots more.
Murray is endlessly fascinating and although most of the following interview is about working with Anderson and The Grand Budapest Hotel, we did get in a few questions about how his process as an actor has changed since the ’80s and asked a question about his “Saturday Night Live” roots and what he thinks of the show now.
ComingSoon.net: This really is a wonderful movie.
Bill Murray: Oh, thanks. I didn’t have much to do with it. I just showed up and did what I was told. But it’s good, isn’t it? There’s no doubt about it. I mean, it’s pretty impressive and that’s quite a vision, to be able to see all that and achieve it effectively. I mean, the bobsled run, I didn’t see that one coming. I saw them building it and I was like, “What’s the bobsled run about?” “Oh yeah, well, the bobsled’s going to go down there and they’ll be on it.” “Oh okay.” But, you didn’t expect it to look like that and be that jazzy. It’s pretty cool.
CS: You only have a few scenes in the movie, but did you spent a lot more time on set being that it was Wes movie? Also, do you shoot a lot of extra stuff that we never see?
Murray: You mean does he shoot a lot that gets cut out? Well, I guess there’s some of that. There’s some of that. You know, when you put it in the third dimension, sometimes you wake up and you see things that you weren’t expecting when you put it on paper. He’s got a pretty good vision of what he’s doing. There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot that we shot that was wrong, because I mean, if you read the script, it’s pretty spare, you know? It’s pretty clean. The storytelling–he spends a lot of time and he’s obviously very specific about how he wants things to look and sound. So there’s not a lot of overage. He’s got a lot of tricky camera moves, so you shoot a lot of goofy takes, where the camera isn’t absolutely perfect, so you do it again. So that’s the only time – that’s the overage. That’s the extra time, is he takes a lot of time to get it perfect.
CS: What’s it like off set, since you spent a lot of time maybe not making the movie, part of this big group of people?
Murray: Well, Willem said it was like the actor’s retirement home. We had this small hotel in Gorlitz. It’s on the border of Poland and Germany. It’s a town that’s been Polish, German, Polish, German, Prussian, German, Polish, you know, over the last couple of hundred years. We went over to Poland one night and we walked over to Poland, and it was closed. It was closed. (laughter) It was all us. We were the only people in the hotel in the old part of Gorlitz, which is really beautiful – they shoot a lot of movies there because it’s intact. It’s a part of Germany that wasn’t affected by the war. There’s these beautiful clock towers that are 500 and 600 years old and it’s really impressive. So people shoot movies there because it’s intact. It was never damaged and we had this old, small hotel there and all of us in there. You’d pad down in the morning and you’d have breakfast. It was our restaurant. It was our hotel. Then, you’d sort of walk across the lobby, “Hi, good morning. Good morning.” You know, and the other side of the lobby was the makeup and the hair place. So you’d say, “Excuse me, hold on a second. I’m going to go get another croissant.” You know, and you’d march back over there all the time like in your slippers and a robe like a bunch of old men dying in a hotel. So, it was fun.
We were on a little old town square with a church at the end of it, and there was like a bar across the way. It was about 40 steps, but it was all snow the whole time we were there. If you were awake and you’re in the wrong time zone, you’re jetlagged, you just kind of wake up and walk over there and there’d be someone from the movie over there drinking at any hour of the day. There would be someone drinking like, “Oh, Hi.” You’d just roll in there and talk and listen to music. There was always something to do. There were only a handful of places that we went to, but they were all really interesting. The restaurant had great food and it had like, nine separate rooms in it that you could just go hide in. It was like a hide and go seek town, the whole thing. It was nice.
CS: How long were you there?
Murray: I was only there a couple of weeks, but we laughed about it yesterday, like “Why do people work with Wes?” I say, “Well, it’s long hours and little pay,” and that’s sort of true, but you get this great experience of going to these places. Then he was like, “No, wait a second. You worked in India,” and it’s true, on “The Darjeeling Limited,” I was supposed to have three days of work, which I got done in a day and a half, then I was supposed to work one other day and I did, and it was 45 minutes, but I got to go to India twice and spend a month in India just hanging around for these couple of days of work. So you get a great experience. You get to see and do things.
CS: Wes writes very specific dialogue. When you’re on the set, are there a lot of changes, or is it done pretty much exactly as written?
Murray: Well, it’s pretty much done as written. You know, like I say, he’s very specific about it, but once again, it’s that third dimension thing, where when you put it on its feet, there’s something required that’s not there, you know, that wasn’t there. You go, “Oh, I gotta get from there to here.” So, and at its most cuts, in movies are all audio cuts, so you have to sort of figure out how to orally end something. So, you change it a little bit, but not so terribly much. But he loves when you find something good. All of these people are all pretty slick, pretty good at finding those things.
CS: Is there something that you added?
Murray: In this movie? Oh, I don’t know, maybe. The speeches are tongue twisters. Try to speak some of those lines sometime, especially in the cold, because we were shooting outdoors, like in the cabs and all those escape scenes where you’re in the car talking? Those were shot out in Torrence at night and it was freezing cold. Then you’d think, “Okay, how cold can it be?” Well, zero. Let’s just say it’s zero, okay? So it’s zero, but it’s not zero, really. It was about minus 10 or 15. So let’s say it’s what they call minus 15 over here, which is somewhere between 8 and 10 degrees. And you’re doing this scene for hours because the camera’s not right, the light is not right, so it’s okay the first hour or so. You’re speaking kind of normally. Then after an hour or so you’re starting to get a little heavier. The third hour, you’re just trying to get words out. All the time you’re trying not to breathe too much, because you don’t want to blow smoke everywhere because your breath is making all this smoke, so you’re trying to really kind of control your voice, so you’re sort of (mumbles) That’s what that was like.
CS: Having said that you think this is his best film, were there some specific scenes that struck you or made you feel that way?
Murray: Well, when you think of the film as this character film and then all of a sudden a gunfight breaks out inside this bakery with pink walls and everything. Then, there’s the guy shooting barettas at each other. It’s just kind of funny that a gunfight breaks out, and he actually does a pretty decent job. It seems like a pretty decent gunfight, the way it’s staged, all the eye contact and the visuals and stuff. Even the explosions in the walls looked good–it’s what it really looks like when you put a bullet into a wall. So he did a nice job with that kind of stuff. I mean, just the design elements of the crazy army, whatever that army represents, you know? Those uniforms were so hilarious. You see two people having an intimate scene talking together and then you’d cut out the window and there’d be Ed Norton and these crazy guys in these ridiculous outfits just standing there. The attention to the detail and knowing what the picture’s going to be like going from this side to that side, and the music. I mean, even the crazy Russian dancer guy at the end of the movie, you know, he just wouldn’t quit. He still had more in him. He still had more he wanted to get out. The balalaika orchestra, they had like, 80 guys. It was not one guy, not two guys, not four guys, 40. They had 40 guys blasting balalaikas at each other in these recording sessions, and it sounds crazy. Doesn’t that music sound wild? I mean, and not to hire two guys and double it 40 times, 40 actual guys. You get this – you feel the real madness of the playing. It’s great.
CS: Do you sort of intuitively know what he wants at this point? What goes into your collaboration with Wes and how does he impart his vision onto you?
Murray: Well, I think when people first work with him, he really wants it in a certain way, and he’s heard it in his head a certain way. He’ll say to someone, “Great, fine. Now, say it like this,” which most actors don’t like it like that. For myself, I have a problem with obedience probably (laughter), but I’ve learned, “Okay I sort of know now the pitch of it. How you say the lines, you don’t have to say them exactly like he does, but you’ve got to have the sort of clarity in your head so you’re not dragging it down.” It’s got to be able to stay up there. It’s got to bounce up there, so there’s more room for your interpretation than people think at first. Usually, people want to gravel it up a little bit, but it’s not that way. It’s got to really bounce. It’s got to pop along because the script’s really moving. People are talking fast. Most people, when they talk fast, they get flat. They don’t have a lot of movement up high in the higher, when it gets going quickly.
CS: How do you “bounce”?
Murray: Well, it’s like someone who plays an instrument, say a guitar. Like a young player can play it, and if he wants to play like a high note or a fast rhythm, it has a certain desperate quality to it, but when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo, but there’s space in between it. Do you know what I mean? There’s actually space in between it and you can see that there’s actually a process where he’s quick enough, his interior state is so quick that he can find time that other people can’t find. He can find moments, beats in between it, and just a different tempo. It seems like a tempo, but there’s actually a difference between this string and that string, where a young player would say, (Makes instrument sounds). But a real player could go, (Makes instrument sounds). You can see that there’s a little difference. It’s like that with that real fast pace, where if you’re really quiet, your whole body’s really quiet, the whole body makes more sound and there’ll be echo. Sound will be resonance, and because your head is quiet, your chest is like a guitar box. It vibrates a certain way. So, if you’re really loose and warm, the sound comes at you differently. There’s a little bit more resonance here, so you’re able to shade words and have a little different sense of meaning to it.
CS: “Rushmore” was your first film with Wes and that was his second film. You’ve worked together so much since then, but back then, did you trust him as a director?
Murray: Well, on that job, there was a lot of pressure to meet this guy. The agents were like pushing this guy and sending me copies of his first movie. I have lots and lots of copies of “Bottle Rocket.” Then, they sent me the script and they said, “Well, do you want to meet this guy?” I said, “No.” They were very like, “Why not?” I said, “Well, I don’t need to meet this guy because whoever wrote this script knows exactly what he wants to do, so there’s nothing to talk about. It’s all right there.” It was so precise, what he wanted, that I knew he knew exactly what he wanted to do and I didn’t have any doubt that he was going to be able to do it.
CS: So when you were on the set of “Rushmore,” what was that like?
Murray: Well, that was Jason and me really, you know? This is kind of a funny story: The night before we did our first night shooting, we sort of ran through the scenes, Wes and Jason and I, and for some reason, I don’t know what it was, Jason was just terrible. He was just terrible. I was “Really. Oh my God, this kid’s no good.” We were in a hotel in Houston, and they were having a bourbon tasting night and I just went in and drank. I drank myself to sleep. But then, we went to work and it was all over. It was just one strange night, where Jason was just terrible, and I thought it was going to be the longest movie of my life, because I thought, “Oh, this kid can’t do anything.”
CS: Have you guys talked about that first day of shooting since then?
Murray: Yeah, well, I mean, it’s still kind of a thing. I was like, Jesus, do you have any idea? Do you have any idea how much I drank that night? But then, he was great. Jason’s amazing in the movie. Jason has continued to be amazing. Jason is really an amazing actor. He’s really great. I mean, we did this movie with Roman Coppola and Jason was amazing, just amazing. Besides being a wonderful guy, he’s just as extraordinarily charmed actor. He just has great, great energy, positive energy. He’s just a well – he’s got so much stuff to give.
CS: Many people are feeling that this is Wes’ best film since “Rushmore,” so do you have any thoughts on how you personally would rank Wes’ movies over the years?
Murray: I think they’ve all gotten better. They’ve all gotten better. I mean, if you have a favorite, or you could say a script was better, I think the filmmaking just continues to get better. The combination of the way he shoots, what he’s been shooting. Like “The Darjeeling Limited” had some amazing camera (work), some amazing visual things, and you had to sort of give yourself up to that story, you know, and maybe that wasn’t your story. But, you had to give yourself up to those kinds of stories. This one here, you don’t really have to give yourself up to the story. The story has got you by the throat from the get go. From the beginning, it just pulls you in and grabs you by the throat, and that’s the function of the original writer, of course, and trying to get it that way. But that sort of – there was a man, the way you’re pulled into the story, you don’t have time to, and you don’t have an option to accept it or reject it. It’s got you. You know, it’s just a clever way of writing. It’s a clever way of dragging you in, yeah?
CS: What clicked for me was the feeling of lament for things lost, for a certain way of civilized living, behavior.
Murray: Absolutely. You know, the grand illusion, there’s so much lament for that time of decency, a code where, you know, we don’t have to treat each other like this. We don’t need to be like this. These words are not about people like us. We know more. We should know more. Don’t you feel that in this one, too, we shouldn’t be like this?
CS: On Reddit, you recently said that after making “Broken Flowers” with Jim Jarmusch, you weren’t sure if you could act again afterwards, because you weren’t going to be able to top yourself. What convinced you to come back to acting?
Murray: Well, I thought some other career path would open for me. (laughter) I really did. I really thought I can’t do any better than that. It was a perfectly-written film. I acted as well as I’ve acted. It was edited perfectly. I thought it was just a beautiful film and I can’t do any better than that. I can’t do any better. I thought, “Okay, maybe this is time to stop and figure out something else to do.” I retired again and I thought something would show up, like, organic gardening, something, you know? It didn’t happen. Nothing happened. It was, I don’t know, six months or nine months, a year or something like that. I went, “Hrm.”
CS: I’m curious about your process as an actor and how it’s possibly changed over the time that you’ve been working. Is there something that you do now that you didn’t do? Have you streamlined the way you get ready?
Murray: I wake up later. I think the thing that’s different is the scripts are better. When I started, the scripts just weren’t as good, and you’d have to go to work and you’d have to have a huge burst of energy to go, “Sheesh, how am I going to? I can’t do this. This stuff’s no good.” So then, you’d have to create something. You’d have to improvise something or create something or try to work with the ware and try to figure out, how do you make this visually and orally acceptable, entertaining? So you’d have to go to work and, you know, synch up your belt and make something. Nowadays, the scripts are just so much better, that you don’t have to feel that way. You feel like the script’s coming to you, you can just relax. You don’t have to drive the boat. It’s always about relaxing, even when you’re doing the early stuff, trying to create, you had to be really loose to be able to see something that was something you could use. Now, I mean, all these props that he has, all the sets, they’re all so perfect. You know, you just have to sort of relax and be a part of the chemical process sort of, you know? It’s almost like just the developing of a photograph, the way it is that if you’re in the midst of it, you’re all a part of it, all this picture that he’s made is part of it. You get to just be the flower – you’re almost not a still life, exactly, but you’re like the little flower that’s in the picture, the thing that’s in there. You have to just sort of be a resonate voice, speak the lines, you know, tell the truth.
CS: I want to ask an off-the-wall question not about the movie. Do you keep up with “Saturday Night Live” at all? Do you ever throw it on to watch or do you keep in touch with Lorne? Obviously it’s changed a lot since your days.
Murray: Well, when I need tickets for friends, I call Lorne. But I have been watching it more than I used to because now it’s really easy to record it. You know, it used to be like, “Hey, do you ever watch the show?” I was like, “I did that show. I like my Saturday nights. I don’t want to go work.” But now it’s really easy to record them all and you can watch them all and fast forward through the commercials, which is really a bonus. I think this group right now is very fast. This is the fastest group, because usually when a bunch of people leave, there’s a dip and there’s a learning curve. This is the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone get it. These new people are really good and he’s got some new writers that are obviously really good because there’s not a big drop off. But that previous group with Kristen Wiig, that group was really, really good. I mean, they’ve had talented people all the time through the whole thing, but those guys were “actor actors” and it was different. There’s a difference because they have people that are standup comedians or a certain kind of performer, but those were all actors, trained improvisational actors, and they make the material work better, because it’s hard to write great material in the course of one week. The original group I think was maybe the best at it because we really had the most time before we got that job. We were all pretty good improvisers, but that group was right there. The material isn’t quite finished at 11:30 like if they only had one more day to (work on) it. The actor types can sort of keep writing even through they’re performing of it on air and solve things in the moment because in front of a live audience, you can solve things because you can feel it, you know? You can go like, “Ah, here it is. Bam.” So you can fix it. That’s what that group could do. That was a really good group to watch.
CS: A lot of that group from SNL are now going into dramatic acting, which is something that you’ve done, such as Will Forte doing “Nebraska” or “The Skeleton Twins” with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. What is it about comedians that they often are also the best dramatic actors?
Murray: That’s the thing that actors know, is that to play funny, you have to be able to play straight. So if you can play straight in comedy, you can play straight in drama. It’s the same process. It’s not any different. There are some people that are funny that can’t necessarily play straight, that do a certain kind of range of comedy, but if you’re really good at it, you can really play straight. You have to be able to play straight. Bill Hader – I mean, I really like him. I think he’s probably the most impressive player I think ever played on the show, how much he put into each of his things. It’s dazzling, the things he did over the few years he was there.
CS: Before you go, I’m curious if you’ve thought about what you’re going to do this year. I imagine you’re being offered a lot of great scripts.
Murray: I’m not thinking about anything. I mean, I’m going to do something in June. I’m going to work on this film my friend Mitch Glazer wrote called “Rock the Kasbah.” I’ll do that. I’ll go and make the movie in Morocco in June and July. So that’s all I’ve got in my head. But, you have to like, give all that – you can’t think about it. You can’t think about what you’re going to do. It just gets in the way. You have to be just available for life, otherwise you’re not bringing anything to the party. So I don’t lie awake thinking about what I’m going to do workwise. There’s just too much going on.
The Grand Budapest Hotel will open in select cities on Friday, March 7. Look for more of our interviews from Berlin before then.
(Photo Credit: Clemens Niehaus/Future Image/WENN.com)