Believe what you will, but Wes Anderson never sets out to make a Wes Anderson Movie. “Each time I start one of these things, I feel like I’m doing a completely different thing,” he told New York Times writer David Carr, during a TimesTalks panel discussion with his Grand Budapest Hotel star Ralph Fiennes. “We go to a different country. We have a whole different kind of story. I feel like everything I’m doing is different from what I’ve done before.”
Certainly, though, even fans of Anderson’s best work — from Rushmore to last year’s Moonrise Kingdom — will concede that the Texas-bred writer/director has a distinct visual aesthetic and storytelling sensibility. But he argued that The Grand Budapest Hotel, his new caper that stars Fiennes as the fastidious concierge of a central-European hotel in the 1930s, is something new. “It’s been rare for me over the years to have a movie that has a… um, plot,” he said to laughs from the audience. “Things happen.”
True, there is love and death and fascists and lost fortunes and a ski chase, all performed by some of Anderson’s ever-growing company of beloved players: Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson. “I think it’s the kind of movie where you can get recognizable people, known people, in smaller parts, and it’s good for it,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t feel like cameos.”
Fiennes is the bold-named newcomer, and in contrast to his many renowned dramatic roles, his Gustave H, a man who aims to please in every way, shape, and form, is a hoot. As Carr described the ironic casting, “He played like the scariest Nazi ever [in Schindler’s List]; in this movie he’s being chased by silly Nazis.” But Anderson had seen something uniquely funny in Fiennes’ terrifying mob boss in In Bruges, and Fiennes’ performance in Balaban’s HBO movie, Bernard & Doris, in which he played a soft-spoken gay butler, helped seal the deal in Anderson’s mind. “There’s a certain purity to [Gustave],” said Fiennes. “There’s this great speech in which he speaks to [the lobby boy] Zero about anticipating people’s needs before their needs are needed, and it’s a wonderful little sort of monologue about sort of the principles of service.”
Anderson was typically meticulous in crafting the look and themes of the film. He was inspired by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose psychological stories in the 1930s were haunted by the loss of life and reason that two world wars would inflict. “There’s a memoir, The World of Yesterday, which he wrote at the end of his life that is really about the world that began to be destroyed in 1914,” said Anderson. “His fiction and this memoir are really the reason why I felt I would like to do a European story.”
Anderson also spent weeks devising the look of Zubrowka, the imagined central European country of the film, by digging deep into a Library of Congress webpage that featured colorized photochrome photos of Austria-Hungarian landmarks at the turn of the 20th century. As soon as you see just one image, you see where the Grand Budapest came from.
Carr described the film, which won the Grand Jury prize at this month’s Berlin Film Festival, as “a silent movie that talked.” And like Moonrise Kingdom, there’s almost a sense that The Grand Budapest is a literary experience. “Even the way some of the characters talk — F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law — I think I was trying to write it like it sounds like a book,” admits Anderson. “In some way, it’s more book than movie.”
It sounds and looks like Anderson at his most pure. With Anderson seated next to Fiennes, a James Bond player, Carr couldn’t help but ask if the director ever considered putting his tools to work on a bigger, more commercial studio movie. “They go to Sam Mendes; they didn’t go to me,” said Anderson. “I had this [Bond movie] I wanted to do called Mission: Deferred. This was a few years ago. James Bond. The cold war is over, and there’s no gig … and the gadgetry is like he has a great coffee machine. … So I never got the call.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel hits theaters on March 7.