2014 is a little under halfway over, but one film that is still firmly entrenched near the top of my "best of" list is Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel." And three months after its release audiences have shown their own approval at the box office.
As of Sunday, "Budapest" has earned an Anderson record $57.7 million domestically and $157.9 million worldwide. In fact, it's now made more domestically than classic Fox Searchlight releases "The Full Monty," "28 Days Later" and even "12 Years a Slave" (and "Sideways" is within reach). Critically? "Budapest" is arguably the best-reviewed film of Anderson's career (certainly on Metacritic). Not what you'd expect for a March release these days.
Obviously there will be much discussion over the next three to four months whether "Budapest" will "be remembered" by Oscar voters in December or whether its early release date has doomed it from major awards consideration. Trust, Fox Searchlight is going to wage a serious campaign for it (and dear God Ralph Fiennes better get a Best Actor nomination), but with the film's digital and DVD releases underway, I thought it would be a good time to offer up a conversation I had with Anderson that I was unable to post before the film's release.
It was a sunny February day in Los Angeles (frankly, a common occurrence) and we sat down to discuss "Budapest" in a Four Seasons suite, which has probably been used over the years for more movie interviews than as sleeping quarters for hotel guests. I remember being immediately struck by how upbeat and friendly Anderson was. Granted, he'd had a good couple of weeks. "Budapest" had earned strong reviews out of its Berlin premiere, but this wasn't Anderson's first critical hit. In the past, he'd seemed somewhat reserved or perhaps even uninterested in talking about his films. That was not the case on this day.
HitFix: I was lucky enough to see your movie in November early and I loved it. One thing that’s just been sort of in the back of my head that I wanted to ask you is just where on earth did you think to cast Ralph Fiennes as Gustave?
Wes Anderson: Well, I just had wanted to work with him for many years and I’d gotten to know him a little bit. And, you know, I loved him in "In Bruges" and I’d seen him in the play "God of Carnage" and he was very funny in both of these. I just wanted to do something with him. And then this character – when we started writing this character I thought "he’s the perfect one" and I can’t think of anybody else who can do this. And I still feel that way about him.
In the past Fiennes has said he didn't think he was good at comedy. Did you have to convince him to do the role? Did you have to sell him on it?
No. No. I’m surprised because he’s done some funny stuff. No, I didn’t know that but I don’t really think, you know – a role like this, it’s not like a movie where you’ve cast a comedian to do his thing. It’s an actor who makes a character, tries to make this person seem like a real person and, you know, that’s his job. Gene Hackman isn’t particularly known as a comedy actor or anything and I had him in a movie that was sort of a comedy part. But, you know, to me it’s just about, are they real in these scenes? If the scenes are funny and they make it real then it ought to be funny.
If that's the case, when you're on set and actors are going through a scene, do you like it if the crew just can’t help laughing because something happened? Or do you think it's a distraction?
It doesn’t distract me at all, but it's not necessarily the thing that tells you when something was good. Usually what gets a laugh on the set is either the thing that – for instance, if somebody’s done 11 takes and suddenly they do something totally different you might get a big laugh. Well, when people are watching the movie they’re not gonna watch 11 takes where they do the same thing and then see this. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it’s just that they did it so great everybody laughed and it was right. And sometimes the context doesn’t change so much. But I can’t say it’s a thing. Usually one thing that makes me laugh often is just if somebody’s being really good. Even if it’s sad or something it still entertains me in some way to see somebody do the scene in a great way. That surprises me.
Out of all your ensemble casts I honestly think this one is the best. I mean, there’s not a false note from any one of them. When exactly does the casting part start for you?
Well, in this case I had Ralph in mind from the beginning. But everybody else was sort of when it was done. I mean maybe somewhere along the way I started thinking about Jeff Goldblum. His part is a hard part because he has these long speeches and he has all this text and I thought Jeff, who can handle this much text, would be interesting with this. And I just know Jeff. I’ve seen him on the stage before and I’ve just known how masterful he can be at shaping a scene, and he’s very good with words.
I’m not sure if you’re cognizant of it or if it’s just us critically projecting our own thoughts, but it seems that from "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to "Moonrise Kingdom" to this film that you’ve got a new rhythm and a specific rhythm. It almost feels like you’ve learned something from making "Fantastic Mr. Fox" that you brought to "Moonrise" and to "Budapest" in how you construct these worlds. Would you agree with that assumption?
I think, yes. Anytime I’ve done a movie I’m bringing some things I’ve learned on the last one and saying, “Well, can I do this one better because of what happened here.” What went right or what went wrong. With "Mr. Fox" though it’s such a different set of procedures and the order of events is shifted. You edit an animated movie before you shoot it. You draw it out and you animate it and, you know, for a stop-motion thing it’s weird. On a live action movie the editing is something that happens later. Well, we started doing the same [since "Mr. Fox"]. We’d draw out all the shots. Once we had the locations and we’ve got sort of the sense of it, we’d draw it all out and we animate it. So we actually have done an edited version of it before we go shoot it. For my sort of stuff this is very helpful because it helps me not make mistakes. [In the past, there were times] where I didn’t shoot a shot. I said, "We don’t need it." And now I even tried to make it a rule like if I’ve put the shot in the animatic, we’re shooting it because don’t let me say, "I think it works like this, we don’t need it." Because later I’m gonna be upset about it. I’m gonna say, "Somebody should have told me!" So I just say don’t let me cancel shots. It's something I’ve done too many times.
Were you doing animatics before you did "Mr. Fox?"
I would storyboard them but I never pre-vised anything. And, you know, there are scenes I just know I could have done so much better if I had pre-vised. I mean, Steven Spielberg does pre-vis. You know, for this scene between the two of us he doesn’t want to know anything – he wants to come in and figure it out right then. But anything that has complexity and that stuff, I mean, they’ve got it all sorted out way in advance and they know what their thing is.
Do you feel working this way has given you more time with the actors? Does it make you feel like you pay more attention to other things?
What happens is we get things very, very prepared. We’ve got it all set up. We’ve built the right things, we’ve acquired the right things. And then when the actors come in they – you know, they know what I have in mind but they take over and it usually feels sort of like chaos, you know? They just start doing it. And we work very, very quickly. It’s not like we’re slowly, meticulously doing this stuff. The preparation is careful but the actual shooting is quite...
So you don’t like a lot of takes. You like to do it...
No, I like a lot of takes. But I like to do them very, very fast. So we often don’t cut between the takes. We immediately reset. We just go again right now and then something else happens.
Wait a minute. How many times did you make Ralph run away from the police in that one shot in the lobby?
That was not so much. That one was like 11 or something – 11 or 12 takes. It was, you know – which is not a lot of takes for us. (Laughs.)
But he also would run up the stairs, he comes all the way down, all the way up the thing and goes all the way back up but he also ran by – I mean there’s stuff that’s not in the movie where he’s continuing to run. But he didn’t do that in every take.
Oh, that’s good. For the production design and art direction on this film you worked with Adam Stockhausen who just got nominated for "12 Years a Slave" and...
Well, hey, he got nominated. It’s only the second time he’s worked with you and the art director, this guy Stephen Gessler, it was only the first time. When you bring new people into your world are you...
Who is that? Stephen Gessler?
I don’t know. He was listed as your first art director. Stephen O. Gessler. Did I write it wrong?
Well, you know, because what used to be art director – so, you know, now they say production designer. In the old days the art director was the production designer.
Now the art director is somebody who’s in charge of like construction and things like that. Adam was the art director on "The Darjeeling Limited," the movie I made a few years ago. Then we did "Fantastic Mr. Fox." I had a different group because of people who do animation.
On "Moonrise Kingdom" Adam was the production designer because Mark Friedberg, who I’d worked with before, he wasn’t available and whatever happened. And so we made Adam the production designer and he’d done a few things. And this one is also Adam again.
Well, I guess my actual question is how early do you start with him on a process for a film like "Moonrise" or this? And do you give him doodles? Do you give him references?
We start as early as we can. I start sending him something, he starts sending me stuff. But whoever it is, in this case Adam, he’s working on something else. So he’s in the middle of another movie but he’s going and he’s doing research and he’ll have somebody else who he’s got gathering us some stuff on the side.
And whenever there’s time we’re talking and I’m pulling lots and lots of images and things from the Internet and finding my own things. And I have my own people helping me. And so then we start combining it all and then when I finally get him – when he finishes his thing and he’s on to our thing, then it really goes full blast and the group begins to grow and we start the process of figuring out "where are we gonna do this," "how are we gonna do this" and "what is it gonna take." What I’ve envisioned versus what we discover in our wanderings. For "Moonrise Kingdom" I found a house on this placed called Jamestown Island just on the Internet, this lighthouse. A great image of this place. And we started researching what’s around there. And so the movie grew from finding that house.
We went to see that house and then we started looking all around there. With "Budapest," we found this department store that [could stand in for the hotel] and it grew around that. In both of these movies I found that to be a really good [solution]. I like to have a production that sort of stays close to a base and we adapt to things. But at least as big a part of it is just wandering around and seeing what you see and say, “Ah, here’s a way that we could do this part of the story.” When we were doing "Moonrise Kingdom" we were driving around and we saw this weird old kind of colonial looking compound on the side of the road. And it was all these old white clapboard buildings and it turned out to be a retreat for some kind of Christian retreat place. But very, very old like from the 20s or 30s. And it’s still going, but a religious thing. We made this into our kind of foster home, orphanage place.
It had things like rocks that said "The End Is Near and God Is Watching" on like giant boulders and things. And it just brought its own, you know, personality into this part of our story. And we adapted to it and I like that. I like when that sort of thing happens.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is still playing in theaters and is now available on digital download. It arrives on DVD on June 17.