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Wes Anderson has always made the setting of one of his films a character in itself, whether it's a boarding school, family brownstone, boat, train, fox den, or pup tent, and the Grand Budapest is perhaps his most vibrant locale yet. ''I've always enjoyed hotel movies,'' says the director. ''It's a big place where lots of different things are happening all at once, a giant system of humanity.''
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For starters, Wally Wolodarsky, Fisher Stevens, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Waris Ahluwalia play the color-coded concierges of rival hotels, but they're all connected by their membership in a secret society.
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Edward Norton, last seen doling out orders to young scouts in Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, doles them out to officers of the law in Budapest following the film's big jailbreak. ''A good prison escape is always fun,'' says Anderson, who freely lists his cinematic inspirations. ''[Jacques Becker's] Le Trou is just one of the best, and I just know that I'm stealing something or other from [Jean Renoir's] Grand Illusion.''
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Although the film's vibrant palette turns mainly grey during the prison scenes, the characters remain as colorful as ever. Harvey Keitel plays an imposing prisoner — replete with a shaved head and amateur tattoos — whom Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) meets during his stint.
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The hotel set was constructed in a defunct department store in Görlitz, Germany, but the cast — including Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman and first-timer Jude Law — bunked at a real hotel down the street. ''It's great to go downstairs for coffee and run into Jeff Goldblum,'' says Schwartzman. ''There's always a real welcoming family feeling on Wes's sets. It's never like, 'Oh, you're a newbie.'''
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Jeff Goldblum last teamed with Anderson in 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and now he's back as the executor of the estate of the murdered Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who left a priceless Renaissance painting ''Boy with Apple'' to Fiennes' concierge and charmer of the geriatric set.
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Ralph Fiennes, who plays the charismatic and flamboyant Gustave H., says he has long been a fan of Anderson's films, although this is his first time starring in one. When the director sent him the screenplay for Budapest, Fiennes was hooked from page one. ''When I first read the script, I immediately entered an unusual world,'' he says, ''rich with colorful characters but underpinned by some serious themes.''
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Tilda Swinton underwent hours in the makeup chair to play an 84-year-old dowager. ''We're not usually working with a vast, Bruckheimer-type budget on my films, so often we're trying a work-around,'' says Anderson. ''But for the old-age makeup I just said, 'Let's just get the most expensive people we can.''
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The Budapest's lobby boy (Tony Revolori) falls for Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a young pastry chef responsible for the hotel's signature dainty: the Courtisane au Chocolat. ''Making them wasn't easy,'' says Ronan. ''Forget the action scenes in Hanna — these little pastries were the hardest thing I've had to do in a movie.''