If you happen to stumble upon one of Wes Anderson’s films while channel surfing late at night, you can usually figure out within seconds that it’s one of his.
Anderson’s rigorously precise compositions, his attention to detail, his cleverly devised dialogue and the performers’ distinct acting style all combine to make his movies stand apart from other filmmakers.
Not to mention most of his films are incredibly symmetrical:
Anderson's latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not only his highest-grossing movie at the box office, but also has collected nine Oscar nominations — more than any of his previous films. The 46-year-old writer-director is actually a favorite to win his first Academy Award, for original screenplay.
We caught up with Anderson at his suite at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood (where he was working on a screenplay with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola for a planned animated film!) to talk about the origins and process of creating the epic story-within-a-story that is at the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Can you explain how you first conceived of the story for "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?
I had a bit of a story and an idea for a character. We'd been tinkering with that for a few years. And then I started reading [Austrian novelist] Stefan Zweig, and at first I thought I might like to adapt one of his books — there's one big novel and many, many short stories. In the course of time...I sort of thought I'd like to do my own Zweig-esque thing because there are connections among them.
He has a particular style and set of interests. [It's like] someone meets a person and eventually that person tells him his story and we go back. They all have that sort of frame. That's something that we took from Zweig. There are elements of Zweig and also his memoir, which is about Vienna before the first World War and what it was like for him to see things change so radically and horrifically, ultimately.
So, we mixed that with our other idea and eventually this story took shape.
What would be most noticeable about the stage directions, the camera movements, the music cues? How have your scripts evolved?
I always try to make a script like reading a story. But the script is important to everybody. It's the reminder of some details and so it's kind of finding where's the balance of what someone in the art department needs to be reminded of in the right moments. We've figured out different systems of our own [in] my filmmaking group because there's so much information that needs to get out there. And I've had so many experiences where something got lost, where you forgot to do something, it fell through the cracks. Getting the information to the right person, the right place, the right time — it takes some particular organizational methods and the script is part of that.
As you write scenes, do you know what it's going to look like, or do you write it and then at a later point you figure out how you're going to execute it cinematically?
When it comes to something that requires that particular choreography, I find you can't write it if you don't carefully visualize it. Sometimes it means that you almost have to design the set to make the scene accurate, to make it a good set of instructions for what we're going to shoot. With this movie, we shot the movie on existing locations ... we made this town in Germany fit our script. That was kind of the process.
This film is set during the war. As you're watching the film, were you surprised at how violent it turned out to be?
Yes. You write something on a script and you have a simple description of something quite violent. In this case, Jeff Goldblum gets his fingers chopped off. Well, in the script it's a joke. In the movie, I think it's meant to be funny, but it's also quite brutal and it's a character we've gotten to know and it's a reflection of a brutality that's coming into this whole world. When you're making it in a movie, you're creating bloody fingers that you have to approve. It's much more visceral and it's right in front of you. It's not [just] a sentence.
When you're writing, do you hear a particular actor's voice — male or female? Or do you leave it to the casting?
Usually, I don't start out with people in mind. Once you start casting it, mentally, you're starting to make the movie, it's not just writing. Usually what happens when I start doing that is I read the scenes imagining the actor and see how that feels. Sometimes that then alters how you write it from there, or you might change something a bit, hoping you might get the person. It usually comes in during the writing process.
Where did Ralph Fiennes come in the process?
In this case, he essentially came in at the beginning because there was a real person who was the model for the character. I think I had the voice of our friend in mind all the time, so I didn't really think of Ralph. But I'm always always aware that I had this person who can do this. In a lot of ways it was a difficult role. Ralph makes it seem very light and free, but I don't know very many actors who could take this part.
This film has become more popular at the box office of all the films that you've done. Do you have a sense when you're making a movie if it's going to connect or is it a mystery how people will respond?
So why do you think people are responding to this one?
I could come up with some notion, but it's complete guess work ... I had one a few years ago, ["The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"], that I thought, This is an ocean-going adventure story, it's the most commercial idea I've ever had...[but] almost no one went to see it. I thought I was making a kind of Spielberg movie. The world did not share my perspective on this. Up until the moment there's a real public screening — and it's not a test screening, the movie is finished and we are at a film festival or something — I have absolutely no sense of how it's going to go over at all. And really, even after that, I tend not to.
You co-wrote "Budapest" with Hugo Guinness. What advantages are there working with a writing partner and what is it like? Are you guys throwing lines out or are you doing it all electronically?
Roman [Coppola] and Jason [Schwartzman] should be walking in the door in two-and-half minutes and this is how we do it: I'm pointing to a notebook with notes and pages here...
With some incredibly neat handwriting...
Oh, I keep it very neat, yes. As you can see [there's something called] "De Palma Sequence." It has nothing to do with [Brian] De Palma. That's a person we're trying to steal from. It's actually an action sequence we're trying to write for an animated film that we have in mind. It's a kind of scene where, really what we ought to be doing is bringing in the De Palma blu-rays and imitating very precisely. Right now we're winging it a bit. We're going De Palma-esque but we probably just need to go De Palma.
Your film is nominated for nine Academy Awards. Do those nominations mean something to you? And if so, what?
Yes. Certainly I didn't expect we were going to get a whole bunch of nominations like this. I've never had that happen for any of the other movies. I've had a few nominations here and there but I've never had a slew of them like this. And it's great. Our movie won a Golden Globe, I've never gotten one of those before. And I was at the Director's Guild thing the other night and I've never been nominated for that before. It's great. Anyway, now it sounds like I'm just bragging about all the prizes we've got, but the emphasis I can make is that it's a new experience for me, it's quite fun.