Interviews: Wes Anderson & Ralph Fiennes on The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson continues to be one of the more intriguing modern filmmakers working today, both to those who love his stylish and quirky movies and to those who just don’t get them. His latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel may start some of the same debates that occur whenever he releases a new movie – once again, many are saying this is his best movie in years, even though it’s very different from his previous film Moonrise Kingdom, which proved to be one of Anderson’s biggest critical and commercial hits.

While Anderson has a lot of his usual players appearing in the film, it’s his first time working with actor Ralph Fiennes, who stars in the film as the title hotel’s manager M. Gustave, a singularly unique individual whose only care is that of the hotel’s guests and patrons. When he gets into trouble with the family of the hotel’s wealthy benefactor after she dies under mysterious circumstances, he’s put into prison and it’s up to the hotel’s lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to get him out

ComingSoon.net was invited to attend the Berlin Film Festival premiere of Anderson’s latest film back in early February and while there, we got to sit in on a couple of roundtable interviews with Anderson and his cast. Here are some of the highlights of what Anderson and the film’s star Ralph Fiennes had to say about making the movie.

Writer/Director Wes Anderson

First up, we have Anderson himself, talking about some of the differences between “Budapest” and his previous films, dealing with heavier issues but also covering similar themes as some of his other movies–not that he’ll ever admit that there are thematic connections between his films–the importance of finding the locations, working with the same actors as his previous films and lots more.

On handling heavy historical issues:

“I feel like actively, I didn’t. The story originally was inspired by my friend Hugo, with whom I’ve been friends for years. He’s a painter, and he’s also very funny. I’ve seen funny little things he’s written, too. We had this idea to do a story about our friend, and we wrote maybe 15 pages of this story that was set in the present in England and France, and it was a movie, but up until he steals the painting. We didn’t know what would happen next, and we just never did anything. That was maybe 8 years ago. Then I had been reading these Stefan Zweig books — I’d never heard of them before — I really loved them. From the first page of one of these books I read – ‘Beware of Pity’ was the first one I read and I started thinking, ‘I’d like to do something like that.’ I wanted to do a Zweigesque thing. I was reading some other things at the same time that were getting into equally dark moments in Europe, and I had an idea to mix these things together, and make him a hotel concierge, which was not related to the thing before. Anyway, we just combined that stuff, and I feel like, I never wanna censor myself. We’re in a made-up country, we’re making wars together, we’re mixing up nationalities, cultures and the like, and this kid is stateless, which is a big deal at the time, and I don’t know if he’s an Arab or a Jew, or a mixture of them. I don’t know what happens with them, because it seems to be a war that starts in 1932, which is not exactly lining up with anything, so I figured that we’d make our story and experienced based on whatever I had been interested in reading, and we’ll just see what that adds up to.”

Creating imaginary worlds and places rather than actual places in time:

“It’s a choice to make a movie that’s in that world. Even though it’s not exactly in that time and place, it is, and everybody knows what we’re referring to and drawing on, so that’s the thing I was thinking about during that time, just because what I was reading, and that sort of thing, and where I was living. In a way, it’s just about making a space to work in, but the real answer is just because I like to. Usually the characters I’m writing are inspired, in one way or another, by people in real life, and doing something that relates to my own experience and my own interest. Nevertheless, I feel like the dialogue and the writing ends up being not entirely naturalistic, not by my choice particularly. Somehow, I feel like it needs its own world to exist in. And then, I’ve worked with a whole group of people for years, and that’s what we like to do: to make that place for these characters to do their thing.” (Anderson also mentioned that he wanted to be an architect when he was younger, which makes sense.)

The importance of central locations on his work:

“With this movie, we made the script. During the script, I was looking at some old photographs and things, and I had found one particular hotel that I liked, but it was nothing like that anymore, so it was more like an inspiration than a possible location. Then we went on this journey around Eastern Europe. We went to Vienna, and Budapest, and all around the Czech Republic. We spent a lot of time traveling in Germany, and a little bit of time in Poland. We were looking for where we were gonna shoot the movie, and I felt for various reasons, especially tax incentive, we were kind of feeling like 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 ’30s that was in its heyday, and there was the ’60s when it was in decline, on its last legs. After we came back, after this trip, it became communist, and just in the architecture, we put in a bit of history and ideology and regime.”

Pulling together the “Wes Anderson Players” and getting them to Germany:

“For anybody who I can do that with, that’s what I did. I sent the script and the pitch, and I would attach some of these photo chromes. Most of them, I did directly. A few people, I didn’t. Ralph Fiennes and I had never worked together, but I knew him, and I knew how to reach him. I’m trying to think of who I didn’t reach directly. I didn’t reach Murray Abraham and Tom Wilkinson directly, but I think that, even now, I’d have to reach Tom Wilkinson through his agent. But, everybody else, I can get them directly.”

How his working relationship with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman has evolved:

“Usually, we might have some rules that we would come up with for a certain movie we’re gonna do. In this one, we had these different shapes and formats that we were gonna work with. Sometimes, we try to just limit how much gear we’re gonna have, and how we’re gonna go about something. The last movie, we had these little kids walking around in the woods together, and I don’t wanna do that with 60 people, so we made a decision about the whole movie based on that kind of situation. We even made a choice based on how tall these people were. There are these French, handheld 16 mm cameras that — you don’t put them on your shoulder, you hold them like this — and it’s just a better way to film someone like that. You’re gonna do a lot of handheld stuff with these guys, and that sort of affected the whole movie. Bob is a great guy. We’ve done a million movies, but I’ve done a lot of other stuff with directors of photography who were great, like Darius Khondji, I’ve worked with Bruno Delbonnel, and I’ve worked with some other guys. Bob is by far the best operator of everybody that I’ve come across. He’s 63 years old now, but he’s still the best at that for me, just in the physicality of operating, which he’s great with.”

How budget influences his scripts:

“I don’t think we end up saying, “We don’t have the money to do this,” because it feels like there’s no upside or no way we can make ourselves feel good about doing that. We definitely end up saying, “We’re going to do this a very weird way,” because it’s the only way we’re going to manage to accommodate it. We have this skiing sequence in the script, and the first person looking at the budget might have thought it was 3 weeks of shooting in Switzerland. I had this vague idea that we could do the sort of snow globe version of this thing, and that that might be more interesting anyway. But, if we didn’t do it in this way that we did, we would’ve been pretty much up against it. I have no idea what way we would’ve gone about it. I feel like I have a rule where I try not to just give up on something that’s in the script, based on money.”

On whether “Budapest” is his most ambitious film to date:

“I can’t say I thought about that. I think I knew it was gonna be a big undertaking at a certain point. Somewhere along the way, I started thinking this is gonna be hard. Like we were talking about before, there’s just a historical element to it. There’s something heavy that’s there that I was aware of, and I’ve never had a movie where there’s this much blood.”

On the themes of his movies, whether he has them in mind or they’re an afterthought:

“It’s a never-thought, really. I don’t really wanna think about themes. I wanna just think about the experience of the movie. I feel like as soon as I reduce it to a theme–once I write that sentence–it won’t be that great. I feel like there’s more potential for it to mean something interesting if I’m not forcing it to mean something I’ve already decided. What I’m interested in is what I wanna put in there. I’ve spent as much time as it takes to do one of these things. It’s only gonna be the ideas that myself and my collaborators can come up with together. I don’t wanna make it something that isn’t digging into things. I just don’t wanna identify them.”

On whether he relates to any of his characters:

“I think there definitely are some characters like that. In ‘Rushmore,’ it’s really like where I went to school–Owen [Wilson template='galleryview']–> and I used our own specific experiences that went into it. Most of the other ones are not like that, but they’re usually all just whatever I’m most interested in at that time. In that manner, they’re all personal, one way or another.”

Casting Tony Revolori and the parallels to casting Jason Schwartzman for “Rushmore”:

“The thing I learned when we did ‘Rushmore’ is how long it can take to find some guy we’ve never heard of. We must have spent almost a year looking. In this one, as soon as we had the script, we gave it to (producers) Scott Rudin and Steven Rales, and said, ‘If you like this, let’s hire 11 casting directors in these countries all over the world, and let’s get a guy to paint this portrait.’ I have these two guys who I’ve been working with for years, and luckily, they’re great, and the next day, we started to make that happen. It was the same thing with Jason. We looked all over the world. We looked in England to try to cast someone. We looked at someone in Bel Air. In this case, we had a casting director in Israel and Beirut and in Morocco, and we cast somebody from Anaheim, but what can you do?”

Addressing Bill Murray’s story about his first impressions of his “Rushmore” co-star Jason Schwartzman :

“I’m pretty sure Bill has shaped this story a bit over the years. I recognize parts of it, but there was a process of him feeling comfortable with Jason, and he also made that happen. Jason was acting a little wild, because he was with his hero. After his first day, he invited us to go to a restaurant to have chicken fried steak, and the three of us had this night out together. Jason didn’t drink or anything. Bill must have just said, ‘I don’t feel good about all this, and I’m going to try to make it fine,’ and then he did. He’s a guy who can do that. Another guy, Seymour Cassel, the one who did the damage later, that was late in the game. That was one of those things where, you’re going along this movie in the company of 3 people, and everybody forgets that one of us is 16. You forgot that one of us, when all this movie is said and done, has homework. You forgot that, not only was he super young, but this was his first job before, so he was reacting to that. He seemed to kind of dramatize that about him one night towards the end of the shoot.”

(Photo source: C.Smith/ WENN.com)

Ralph Fiennes – M. Gustave

Next up is the star of The Grand Budapest Hotel, an Oscar-nominated actor (for Schindler’s List and The English Patient), who may not be one you’d expect to be starring in a Wes Anderson film. And yet, Fiennes’ performance creates a really distinctive character and probably one of his most memorable roles in many years, certainly a character up there with some of Wes Anderson’s best such as any of the “Royal Tenenbaums” or Bill Murray’s Herman Blume from Rushmore. There also some interesting parallels with that movie from Gustave’s relationship with Tony Revolori’s Zero, some of which Fiennes discussed during his roundtable interview.

On how he was approached for the role:

“He sent me a script and was a bit vague about what part he wanted me to consider. ‘Tell me what part you’d like to play.’ ‘Oh well, I suppose the big one.’ I’m joking, it was a funny approach because it was slightly circular and then he said, ‘No, I’d like you to play Gustave.’ Of course I said, ‘I’d love to.’ It was on the page, it was a great part, seemed very funny. I didn’t know how he wanted it pitched because it’s a part that could be portrayed quite as Broadway or a campy way possibly. His note to me, the man is simpler and comes from you that’s what he felt it was working. We did lots and lots of takes so there’s a whole other Gustave out there.’

Knowing that you’re in good hands with a filmmaker:

“You go on a gut instinct that someone is observing you, giving you good notes. You have an instinct – it’s a good note or when it’s a sort of bullsh*tting note. I think all actors are quite quick to sort of feel, ‘This person’s really seeing what I’m doing and they see my weaknesses or they’re letting me breathe.’ Like anything to do with trust, in any relationship it emerges and just the chemistry, vibe between two people. You just know whether this is someone I like to be with whose interaction with me I believe in. There’s not one thing. It’s not great if someone gives you sort of bland praise without giving you clear direction and say, ‘This is good, let’s try it like this.’ There’s infinite ways to play a scene, infinite possibilities of how to say any line, and if you feel you’re with someone who is aware of that and at the same time is sort of guiding it – their film because they know what they want their film to be. When you feel a mixture of someone having an intelligent discussion about where to take it, at the same time they’re not indulging you and that you feel they are nurturing their film to where they want it to be, as an actor you want to feel you’re in the hands of someone who’s got the reins.”

Talking about the animatic Wes created for the movie:

“He was very open and wanted to show us the animatics. They helped a lot to a point, it was sort of satisfying to see, ‘Oh this is the movie.’ You could see what it might be but I didn’t want to look at that. I didn’t want to study them because I wanted to find it on the day, you know. I think ones own imagination, the world you’re inhabiting as an actor is a thing you need. He had prepared all this way in advance. He would sort of say, ‘If you want to see it, it’s here.’ I did see some of them and they were great to see but I didn’t want to be so wedded to them or feel it present in my head as an image while I was doing the scenes.”

Developing Gustave through doing different takes while filming:

“I think like everything, the tone of Gustave the person emerges, so towards the end it’s sort of there, but I do remember we did lots and lots of takes. He would want to see the broader version maybe, and I loved that, that was great, to feel like you’re being (told), “Go this way, go that way, try this,” until you’ve exhausted it. I don’t know how clearly I’m remembering this, but I have a memory that the first two or three weeks were us finding it, and then probably by halfway through, whatever I was doing sort of seemed to be becoming Gustave. It seems to me that Wes has chosen the sort of simpler, more–for lack of a better phrase–underplayed takes.”

Explaining Gustave’s outbursts and use of expletives:

“Lisa, my publicist says that’s me. No, one of the people I thought of, my old agent, who’s sadly passed on now, he was a gentleman, very precise, had been an actor, quite honorable, known as a gentleman, talent agent, and he would often say things like, ‘I can’t believe her, she’s such a c*nt.” He would come out with expletives, ‘I don’t give a f*ck, who cares?’ We did lots and lots of takes, so probably that frustration has come out, ‘For f*ck’s sake, Wes! What the f*ck’s going on here?’”

If his chemistry with Tony was evident while filming:

“I think sometimes you do have a sense that it’s there and then you hope it’s being caught. If the camera’s not in the right position, all this chemistry can be flying around and it’s not being filmed. Sometimes you think it’s there and then you see it and it was there, sometimes you think it’s there and you see it and you go, ‘Oh, I thought that was going to be better than that.’ Other times you think, ‘I f**ked that up. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in it, I lost it, I couldn’t do it.’ And then actually when it’s all put together, ‘Oh, chemistry.’”

How being a director himself affects his work on set:

“Certainly on this film, it’d be much more, ‘Oh I see. This is interesting, this is how Wes is doing that. Wow.’ Often times his camera man Bob Yeoman has to do very complicated and highly precise camera moves—the camera has to whip pan 90 degrees and not be seen to jiggle. It’s incredibly difficult camera operation Wes was asking for and it’s impressive to see it. I actually felt I was learning. I think because I had to face all the bad stuff with an editor, you have to sort of watch yourself if you direct, you have to face it and see stuff often you feel is embarrassing or wrong or, with a good editor, it’s shape. It’s kind of released me in some way, I think. I think, “Oh well, they’ll find it.” The actor shouldn’t edit themselves or be anxious. On the day, be free. And the actors that I admire are always the ones who are inventive and their imaginative life in free-willing. It’s a director’s job to go, “No here, don’t do that, go there.”

Working with Wes Anderson’s complicated camera moves:

“There was only one time I tried to make the prearrange camera moves work because it required me and Tony to go to these different places in the course of a scene. They’d been pre-decided and I couldn’t make them organic, I tried to. In the end I did say, ‘I’m really finding this hard. I’m trying to make it work.’ There’s a thing when just feel something works. It can be something given to you and you go, ‘Ah, this is a good idea, I can work with this.’ Sometimes it cuts right across your instinct and that’s when I might resist. Even if the director might be insistent, I think it’s very important to say, ‘Look, I’m not feeling this. I’ll try to make it work but I got to let you know.’ Absolutely blunt resistance, I’m not sure I’m that sort of person. There’s only one day to shoot a scene so under the umbrella of, ‘Let’s be transparent with each other because we want to make it as good as we can’ if it’s not working to say it.”

Anecdotes from the set:

“I get asked that question and my mind goes blank. It’s like saying, ‘What are your 10 best films?’ We worked all together all the time, actors came and went. I just remember a great atmosphere of us all being together, at night, in the evening, that’s what I’m carrying in my head. On the sets it was very cold and we’re all in a green room together and being fed coffee and sandwiches, waiting and waiting and waiting. That was a wonderful sense of camaraderie because the conditions were quite basic. There’s no studio-style special treatment for anyone and that creates a great atmosphere, everyone’s the same.”

Wes Anderson’s handling of heavy material in a light way:

“I think he comes at things in a sort of delicate, almost circular way. The end of this film, with its pastiche that fascist S.S. soldiers comes right at the time in the film is at its most kind of comic momentum. I think that’s a very clever sort of punch at the end of the film because you weren’t expecting it, and the whole tone and comic momentum feel has taken us somewhere else. I think Wes would acknowledge there’s a sort of a ‘to be or not to be’ Ernst Lubitsch reference in the background, that ridicule is also a weapon against forces of evil. Really clever, intelligent ridicule. I think it’s a very interesting area because internally something very serious happens at the end and it goes to black and white and something changes, it shifts. So the film has a sad, almost troubling quality at the end. Sad, sad story.”

Gustave’s ambiguous sexuality:

“Wes was keen not to label him overtly but clearly all these things were there. There’s a sexual ambiguity in him, lines like, ‘I go to bed with all my friends,’ or when the prisoners say to him, ‘We think you’re a real straight fella,’ and he says, ‘I’ve never been accused of that before but I appreciate the compliment.’”

(Photo Credit: WENN.com)

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in select cities on Friday, March 14.

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