Berlin: Wes Anderson on Why Avoiding Awards Season Can Be a Good Thing (Q&A)

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Wes Anderson

The director of Berlinale opener "The Grand Budapest Hotel" discusses creating imaginary Nazis, why he likes dining in Poland and his empathy with James Schamus.

This story appears in the Day 1 Berlin daily.

If Moonrise Kingdom was pure Americana, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s love letter to 20th Century European history. The allegorical romp, set in the made-up Republic of Zubrowka, is Anderson’s eighth film and stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H, a legendary lothario and concierge of a famous European hotel. Newcomer Tony Revolori plays Zero Moustafa, a refugee and lobby boy, while Anderson regulars (including Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Owen Wilson) populate the large ensemble cast.

Anderson, 44, also inspires abiding loyalty behind the camera. Grand Budapest, produced by Scott Rudin, is the fourth Anderson movie financed by billionaire Steven Rales’ Indian Paintbrush. The film opens the Berlin Film Festival, a fitting launching pad considering its subject matter (and that it was shot in the German town of Gorlitz). Fox Searchlight releases the film on March 7 in the U.S.

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There is plenty of whimsy in Grand Budapest, but there is also violence. Outside of a gunfight in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you’ve never really introduced blood and gore before. Why now?

Anderson: I will tell you that in the process of trying to finish the film, I was screening the movie to check color and make some last decisions, and a friend of mine in Paris came to watch with me, and he brought his daughter. She was covering her eyes because people were suddenly getting chopped up. It surprised me, and I was caught off-guard. Things I thought of as gags were suddenly seen as brutal violence, which I agree, I haven’t dealt with a lot in the past. It’s definitely not my usual thing.

How did you discover Tony Revolori?

We did a very big search. When you are looking for young people who have never been in a movie before, it always helps to set aside months and months and months, at least for me. It’s usually the first thing we do. As soon as we had this script, Steven Rales funded the casting process, which involved hiring a casting director in England, a casting director in France, one in New York and another person in L.A. We also had satellite searches in Israel and Lebanon, and in different parts of North Africa. We were sort of expecting to find someone who was Arab, or something like that, and certainly somebody from the Middle East. I don’t know what the character is, exactly, but he is some invented mixture of Arab and Jew. In fact, after many people read, we found [Tony] in Anaheim. His parents are Guatemalan and he is a very American person. Tony was so funny and charismatic and appealing that I was really won over by him immediately.

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This is the first time you have worked with Ralph Fiennes. What were your impressions?

Anderson: I had wanted to work with him for some years, and he was just about the only person who could do this character. He is tremendously prepared and deeply invested. You are dealing with a sort of force on the set. He’s studying the words in a way that few actors do. I had always thought of him as a Shakespearean actor, but he’s more of an American method actor. That’s fun.

The movie is told in a series of three flashbacks and shot using three different aspect ratios that correspond to the time period. Part of the film actually looks square. Why is that?

Anderson: We’ve done a weird thing. The beginning of the movie is 1.85:1, which is what we are used to. Then we go to 2.35:1 for the 1960s stuff, which is a normal wide screen. Then we go to academy ratio, which is the original aspect ratio of all movies until CinemaScope and VistaVision came along, right around 1950. Academy ratio was the shape of movies. It’s the old-fashioned way. When you shoot something that way, you use the whole negative. When you shoot something in 1:85, you are cropping it.

The Artist also was shot using academy ratio. Why were you drawn to it?

Anderson: I’ve always wanted to do a movie in academy ratio, like a lot of directors. It’s a great shape. Some people say it’s the best shape.

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You’ve made only one big studio film, The Life Aquatic, released by Disney’s Touchstone label. Would you ever work for a studio again?

Anderson: Well, I mean this one [Grand Budapest] is Searchlight, which is part of Fox. The boss must be Rupert Murdoch. We can sort of make the kind of movies I do on our own. I have Steven Rales and Scott Rudin, who I have been working with for years now, and we have our own little thing. This is the third time we’ve worked with the Searchlight gang. My last movie [Moonrise Kingdom] was with Focus Features and James Schamus toward the end of his tenure, and we had a very good experience. I think most people would like a subsidiary to deal with people like me. (Laughs.)

Schamus was ousted from Focus last fall as part of an effort to make the specialty unit more genre-minded. Were you upset upon hearing the news?

Anderson: Yes, I was. I was sad if he’s sad, but I don’t know the circumstances. He’s the head of the jury in Berlin, but he’s probably sequestered from people like me who have movies in competition.

Many filmmakers want their specialty films released in the fall or winter during awards season. Are you OK going out with Grand Budapest in March?

Anderson: I don’t even have an opinion about it anymore. Every movie I’ve ever done was released in November or December until Moonrise Kingdom, which opened in May. It did better than any of my films had done in ages. It seemed like it helped that it didn’t come out in the middle of all this stuff [awards contenders]. It didn’t round up all kinds of prizes, so why not be released in May? And we weren’t finished with Grand Budapest in time to come out last year. I would not have wanted to try to rush it out. At the same time, I’m very happy not to wait 10 more months to release it. And Berlin seemed perfectly suitable, since we filmed the movie in Germany.


Anderson: We were in a city in Saxony called Gorlitz. Half of the city is in Poland and half is in Germany. You can walk across the bridge and be in Poland, where we would often have dinner.

Did you have a favorite dish?

Anderson: The Polish way of doing a rabbit, which was pretty amazing. The other thing was, they are not on the euro in Poland. The exchange rate is very unfavorable to the Poles, so you can go and have a very big dinner for the price of a light lunch.

How would you describe the experience of making Grand Budapest?

Anderson: Of all my films, we had the best ensemble of actors and people who have a lot of chops. Another interesting thing was working in a little city. It became our studio. We found almost everything in the movie right where we were. We were filming three minutes or six minutes away from where we were living. All of our production offices were in the old department store that served as the hotel. At one point, I thought we should try to buy it. They wanted one million euros. But I don’t know what we’d exactly do with a department store on the edge of Germany.

Did you visit old hotels in preparing for the film?

Anderson: At first, I did a lot of Internet research trying to find the place, thinking we’d all go live in this old hotel. Eventually, what I found were great images of places that don’t exist anymore. We did visit Vienna, Budapest, Prague and a couple of spa towns in the Czech Republic, and then all over Germany, where we found the department store.

You have your own version of the swastika in the film. How did that come about?

Anderson:  It’s a made-up country, and made-up wars, so we also needed to have our own made-up fascists. Our swastika is called the zig-zag.