US director gives hotel caper his five-star treatment

US director Wes Anderson's quirky vision is beautifully rendered in his hotel caper, writes Stephen Applebaum

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am

Wes Anderson's meticulously designed films heighten and twist reality, creating worlds that look like ours, but different. When I meet the 44-year-old Texan at the 64th Berlin Film Festival, the day after his dazzling The Grand Budapest Hotel opens the event, the tall and wiry auteur looks as if he has just stepped out of one of his own creations.

The illusion is reinforced by the retro brown suit Anderson is wearing, which looks suspiciously like the one worn by Tom Wilkinson in the film. "It seemed so warm and comfortable that I got one, too," the filmmaker says, smiling.

I don't know if I've had a movie before where so many characters die and kill each other
wes anderson

Anderson's life and work likewise seem cut from the same cloth. He broke into the mainstream in 2001 with his third feature film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which he set in a version of New York informed by impressions of the city he'd gathered from books, movies and issues of The New Yorker magazine while growing up. Later, he took to the railways of India, with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and lived 2007's The Darjeeling Limited before shooting a frame.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - his Lubitsch-like eighth film - is set in a fictional eastern European country, Zubrowka, in the early 1930s, but nonetheless reflects Anderson's reality. "The way I decide this is the thing I'm going to do is because that is where all my thoughts are going, and what I'm reading and what I'm interested in is funnelling in that direction. It's always a response to what's happening in my life."

Having spent much time in Europe over the past 15 years, he wanted to make a movie set there. The problem was coming up with a screenplay. Close to a decade ago, Anderson and co-screenwriter friend Hugo Guinness wrote about 20 minutes' worth of story, set in present-day England and France, featuring a character inspired by a mutual friend. But they couldn't figure out what happened next.

Years later, Anderson stumbled across the 1939 novel Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig in a Paris book shop. Around the same time, he strolled through the French capital's Jardin du Luxembourg "and there", he recalls, "was a bronze of Zweig, which I never noticed until I read this book. Suddenly he was looking at me, right there in the park."

Perhaps it was destiny. In any event, he "got kind of hooked" on the Viennese author's work so he and Guinness decided to relocate the story about their friend to the 1930s, and try to make it their take on a Zweig book. "And somewhere in the midst of that," says Anderson, "we had the idea to make him a hotel concierge [Gustave H, played by Ralph Fiennes] because the real person would actually be the greatest hotel concierge, if he were one. But he isn't."

There is, arguably, also a hint of Anderson in Gustave who, in a world that's being overrun by fascism and philistinism, tries to cling to the refined tastes and mores of a bygone era, even as he finds himself embroiled in a madcap adventure involving murder, a stolen painting and looming war.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is simultaneously Anderson's darkest ("I don't know if I've had a movie before where so many characters die and kill each other") and most comic film. And also his most beautiful. Every tiny detail of every frame seems to have been lovingly pored over, forming a visual, oral and aural feast for the senses.

Anderson is aware his approach can sometimes threaten to overwhelm viewers by throwing too much information at them in one go. But while he took his editor's advice and re-cut the opening of The Royal Tenenbaums to make it less confusing, today he says: "You have a choice. You can say, 'I will only put in what somebody can get or I'm happy to overload it a bit.' I'm happy to overload it a bit … It's probably rude to do that to an audience. But I gathered all this stuff and I wanted to have it in there. Maybe it will provoke a few repeat viewings, if we're lucky."

The cast alone makes The Grand Budapest Hotel worth the cinema ticket. Over the years, Anderson, whose parents divorced when he was eight, has accumulated a family of actors that appear repeatedly in his films. Bill Murray is the main stalwart: cast as an eccentric businessman in Anderson's second feature, Rushmore, he has returned for almost every movie since. He has a small part in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but you get the feeling that Murray - who accepted US$9,000 for Rushmore at a time when he had just earned US$9 million for a picture, says Anderson - would do anything for the filmmaker.

"I think he's really kind of a genius," says Anderson. "He's the actor who I particularly feel that way about. His process is mysterious and magical to me. And then I also really love him. He's a person I have much affection for so I kind of always want to have him in my films."

The Grand Budapest Hotel cast members talk about the director with warmth and affection - but not every relationship has been smooth. Anderson once told me that when he worked with Gene Hackman on The Royal Tenenbaums, "neither of us adapted to the other particularly. He's an unbelievably great actor, but he is full of conflict on the set and tension. I want friendship among people, and I'm not sure he does his best work in that situation."

In any case, Anderson has other worries. He is at the point between films where creative doubts start to creep in. His detractors accuse him of continually remaking the same movie, but for him every new project is a re-invention. The question is always, can he do it again?

"I have some ideas but I don't know if these things will mix together in a way to make a story, or where it's going to lead. But I will say that after every movie I have the same doubt. Am I going to be able to do another one? Am I going to be able to think up something else? Is that the end?"

Judging by the eye-popping, funny, moving The Grand Budapest Hotel, that day is a long way off.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens on Thursday