Learn how production design made 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' a lead 'character'
Among all working directors, few can rival Wes Anderson's reputation for set design. From the eccentric home of "The Royal Tenenbaums" to the maritime world of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" to the subtle 1960s environment of "Moonrise Kingdom," he works with his production designers to create memorable color palettes and designs that are of the utmost importance in telling the story.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" probably tops all of his films to date in this regard. It’s fair to say that Adam Stockhausen created a "title character" through his design of the eponymous lodge. HitFix recently spoke to the production designer, fresh off his first Oscar nomination for "12 Years a Slave" and currently in Germany filming Steven Spielberg’s latest, about his role in creating that character.
Stockhausen’s journey to Anderson is very much aligned with his journey to cinema, totally unexpected but finding him making the most of opportunities as they arose. Having began his career in New York theaters as an electrician and prop maker, Stockhausen eventually found himself presented with film opportunities, and for a time continued to work half-and-half in both theater and film. Being in New York gave him this unique opportunity and eventually led to meeting the great production designer Mark Friedberg ("Far From Heaven," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," "Noah").
"We really hit it off," Stockhausen says of Friedberg, who introduced him to Anderson. "I was the art director for 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ and 'The Darjeeling Limited.’ I worked with him on a series of commercials and then Mark was busy when Wes was shooting 'Moonrise Kingdom.’"
Friedberg being otherwise occupied gave Stockhausen the chance to lead the charge on "Moonrise" under Anderson’s watchful eye. The rest, as they say, is history.
And what is it like working with Anderson on a day-to-day basis?
"He has a tremendous attention to detail," Stockhausen says. "Not just art direction/set decoration, but detail all through the project. He’s very intense and has a rigorous designing of shots and developing the 'shape' of the film through storyboarding. [From my perspective] you go back and forth with that, learn what’s a set location and gradually, those storyboards get animated, and you can see the actual shape of the film…On a day-to-day level, it’s a lot of back-and-forth and questions like 'we know we need a bar...what’s it going to look like?’ After you resolve that, then you move onto the next of the 1,000 things."
After getting that general "shape" of the film and more and more of those details, it became necessary to start breaking it down into its actual component parts, with many different, pivotal sets even in one scene. "In the introduction to the hotel, it begins with miniatures moving against painted background and gradually moves into locations, and then miniatures and then other locations," Stockhausen offers as an example. "It’s complicated sequencing but on paper you could call it all 'Scene 1.’"
Even by the standards of Anderson films, the sets of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" were particularly important due to the hotel being a character in and of itself. Finding that character while still maintaining a believable Eastern European 1930s vibe required extensive research. "It started with a combination of scouting and reference," Stockhausen begins, "digging through books and films and contacting amazing old hotels to look at unpublished archival photographs, as well as traveling around and scouting. Some things, such as Turkish baths, you can look in books and see where in Europe you could find it, but you also want to try to build it. You do those things [scouting and sketching/building] simultaneously."
The color palette was also of the utmost importance, but this is an area where Stockhausen downplays his own role and gives his director the credit. "Really, it comes from Wes," he says. "He has the most amazing sense of color. He knew from our first discussion that pink was going to be important, and then when my team came in and began the work in pink, we added gold and had all of these colors sitting next to each other."
Stockhausen notes this required "tons and tons of samples" and extensive collaboration with costume designer Milena Canonero. "Milena and I sat and went through this process together because if we hadn’t, it could have gone completely off the rails," he says.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the biggest challenge in this film was the hotel. But the challenges in this respect went beyond the discussed "character" aspect, also including how Anderson wanted it built. "He wanted to see it in the 1960s first, and have that be a 'renovation’ on top of the 1930s," Stockhausen explains. "This meant that both had to be built at the same time, early in the schedule, with lots of pressure to get it done, but also a gulp of 'hope it’s good’ for the 1930s."
Despite the hotel being the greatest challenge from an overall perspective, the most difficult particular shots actually were outside of it, namely, the train stations. "We didn’t have any train stations in the area or a train that was willing to come to our area," Stockhausen says. "We did [one train scene] at a little overpass and tiny bridge. The set was a little fancier than a cardboard cut-out, but not a lot. It was so much fun to pull something like that off." (The memory of the characters finding the smell of cologne in the "train car" still makes him smile.)
"Making these movies with Wes is an extraordinary experience," Stockhausen says. "You’re not at home going to the movie studio doing things the way you’d normally do. The trains in 'The Darjeeling Limited,’ the scouting in 'Moonrise Kingdom’ or the hotel in Eastern Europe are extraordinary.’"