'Grand Budapest Hotel' Editor Barney Pilling Recounts Cutting the Film in Medieval Tavern

“Every three or four days, another Hollywood legend would fly into town to do their piece."
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

On Jan. 15, editor Barney Pilling was in the U.K. working on Suffragette and about break for lunch when a music editor turned on the Oscar nominations. "J.J. Abrams was calling out the editing nominations just as I was trying to sneak out the door," he said, chuckling. "It was a joyful moment, and we watched the rest of the telecast."

But the end of the announcement, The Grand Budapest Hotel had racked up nine Oscar nominations (tying Birdman for the most noms) including best picture, as well as the first Oscar nomination for Pilling (An Education) and director Wes Anderson.

The madcap comedy about hotel concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and featuring an all-star ensemble cast was Pilling's first outing with the director. For inspiration to capture the "period sensibility and approach to the humor," he watched early Ernest Lubitsch films, such as The Shop Around the Corner. But perhaps the biggest influence was Anderson's unique style itself.

Calling the film an "editor's dream," Pilling pointed to "what a spectrum of life and character and humanity that Wes got into the film, largely because of such a wonderful cast," which included Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law.

Read more Double Nominees for 'Unbroken' and 'Birdman' Provide Contrast in Sound Mixing Categories

That certainly made for an interesting shoot. The Grand Budapest was filmed mostly in Gorlitz, Germany, where the set for the hotel lobby was build in a defunct department store. "Every three or four days, another Hollywood legend would fly into town to do their piece. We all went out for meals, and it was a wonderful, rich environment of passionate, really talented actors.

"Wes keeps a tight set; he likes everyone to be close, like a big family," he continued. "Gorlitz isn't a big place anyway, so a movie of any size would end up taking over the town. We were all based in one guest house on the square, and my edit suite was in the basement of the Ratskellar, which is the sort of town hall, an old medieval beer tavern, which was less than a five-minute walk to the set."

The editing centered on capturing the humor with the pacing and the sound — and of course, shaping the performances. Getting all that in the right rhythm sometimes involved slowing things down, speeding them up or pulling parts from different performances. "The script read fast," Pilling said. "But Wes' style is you have less edits than a comedy that is shooting in a more conventional way. The wipe pans or camera moves take the place of edits."

Sound was key to the humor. "The soundtrack that Wes and I ended up with at the end of the editing process formed the backbone of the [sound design, editing and mix]," Pilling said, citing as an example a shot in which gifts for jail prisoners are on a conveyor belt and a guard is looking for contraband. "That was second unit, and there was no sound, so everything had to be built from scratch when you hear the cheese being stabbed or the sausage being chopped. The volume is ever so slightly heightened, and that helps make it an amusing sequence."

Pilling added that Anderson was very clear on his aesthetic choices but gave him a lot of takes from which to choose and shape performances. "Instead of a few takes where they were working out the camera or the blocking, as soon as the camera starts to roll you are getting usable performance materials, allowing Wes to get performance variations [and] really strive for the funny."

Sometimes there were "happy accidents," such as during a sequence that takes place on a train. "Just after Gustave and Zero [Tony Revolori] have been roughed up, [Inspector Henckels, played by Edward Norton] and Gustave recognize each other from the hotel," the editor said. "Ed and Ralph did wonderful things that day. It was two brilliant actors enjoying each other's performances and coming up with something unexpected and fresh. They were bouncing off each other. I remember that take being funny and warm and tender all at the same time."

Of Fiennes, Pilling said, "I don't think I've worked with anybody that has the mastery over the English language that he does. There are huge soliloquies that he has to deliver. Many of this speeches run three-quarters of a page and they are not easy speeches, with complex, verbose dialog. He mastered that — [remembering the lines] and delivering it so fast — and he seemed to know exactly how he did it on the last take and could just change one, even half, a word sometimes on the next take."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA

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