Sometime in late 1995, I got my hands on a screening pass for a movie I had never heard of called BOTTLE ROCKET, and I'm pretty sure the only reason I went was because I noticed James Caan was in it. Pretty much the entire main cast (except Caan) attended the Chicago screening, which itself was quite poorly attended (it didn't help that the screening took place in a theater with many hundred seats instead of something more appropriately intimate). I loved the odd charm of BOTTLE ROCKET so much that in my head I signed onto the Wes Anderson-Owen Wilson (who co-wrote and starred) Express from that day forward.
I've been fortunate enough to talk on and off the record with Anderson several times over the years--most recently at the SXSW Film Festival, at which he snuck up on me from behind and tapped me on the shoulder to say hi while I was waiting for an interview for another movie to begin. He was kind enough to say that a Chicago screening and Q&A that we had done together of his latest work, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, was his favorite of current tour.
You know his films--RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, FANTASTIC MR. FOX and MOONRISE KINGDOM, along with a handful of memorable shorts and commercials--and if you're a film lover, you likely are or know someone who is an obsessive admirer of Anderson's work. There is something familiar about the universe that binds these films to each other. It's a place that exists in horizontal tracking shots, sudden bursts of action, and droll, amusing humor. And I find it hypnotic and other worldly at times.
There are elements in Anderson's work that resemble the world we live in in most way; but it's the way they don't that draws us in and makes us ache for each new work. Either that, or you find his work weird and unwatchable, and I tend not to argue with people who view him that way. What would be the point? You either revel in Anderson's skewed vision of people from time to time, or you'd rather only watch films with actors behaving like boring real people. There's a reason that once you sign on to work in you first Anderson film, it's something of a lifetime commitment, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL features all of the usual suspects and then some, and I can't wait to see which of the first-timers return.
After the Q&A a couple of weeks ago, I managed to sneak in a few minutes with Anderson, along with his latest discovery, Tony Revolori, who plays Zero the lobby boy, alongside Ralph Fiennes' hotel concierge, Gustave. I had a list of questions for Anderson that I don't think I looked at once. Sometimes, you're lucky enough to have that happen. He's a fantastic conversationalist and also knows how to work a crowd without seeming to. Please enjoy my talk with Wes Anderson and Tony Revolori…
Wes Anderson: Thank you very much. That was fun.
Capone: Of course.
WA: Did that feel good?
Tony Revolori: It felt really good. Anything we said, the crowd would have ate it up.
Capone: That’s probably true.
WA: Your slapping story was good.
TR: The slapping story was good, the falling in the snow story was good. The stopping in front of the camera dolly story was really good.
Capone: There was a tradition in certain '30s Hollywood films of these European directors who escaped Europe, came over here, and made these movies about these places in Europe--maybe even hotels in Europe. So, not only is the film set in that period, but it feels like it was made then, minus the swearing.
WA: I completely am in synch with you on that, and we had all these movies, Lubitsch movies--SHOP AROUND THE CORNER I’m sure is made in Burbank, Culver City, or wherever, but it’s set in Budapest. But it’s from Lubitsch, who was from Berlin; there was also Rouben Mamoulian, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder--we know the whole giant list, especially the '30s ones. But lately I have really gotten into the… I never really was that drawn to the pre-code movies. Some of the movies I have loved are pre-code movies, but I have always seen some collection of pre-code--they’ve had this Forbidden Hollywood ones--but I’ve always thought these were like b-pictures.
Then I finally started watching some of these other ones. I have a friend in France who’s a big movie buff, and he was telling me you’ve got to see these William Wellman ones, and I started watching them, and these are some of my favorite movies. And then I bring them up to people who know movies, and often they haven't heard of half of these movies, these early Wellman movies, the Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, Joan Blondell, who I knew nothing about. Movies like SADIE MCKEE. Have you seen SADIE MCKEE?
Capone: With Joan Crawford? Yes.
WA: SADIE MCKEE is great. I love SADIE MCKEE, and OTHER MEN’S WOMEN. We’ve just been watching dozens of them. There's a William Powell one I saw the other day called JEWEL ROBBERY.
Capone: That I haven’t seen, but I like Powell.
WA: You haven’t seen it? Well, it’s William Powell and Kay Francis, from TROUBLE IN PARADISE. Well, this is a great movie. It’s made by William Dieterle. And so many great scripts. Such a great writing and great energy and that pace, and I feel like watching these. I had always understood this thing about the transition from silent movies to talkies was this time when movies came to be stage bound, and they lost some energy, and I feel like this pre-code period, that’s exactly the opposite of what I see. I feel like they look like they’re made like silents, and often sequences clearly have been done as silents. People were waiting to use these extra muscles that they haven't been using that they developed on Vaudeville and on stage, and there’s just tremendous life and energy in that period of movies.
Capone: Somebody in the Q&A brought up this idea of nostalgia, and there are levels of nostalgia going on here. I think I broke it down that there are four different story timelines going on here. Everyone at every timeline thinks that the one they’re reflecting upon is better era to have lived in. And Gustave clearly represents an era before the era that we’re seeing there. Nobody in the time they're living in thinks they’re living in a golden age.
WA: Nobody thinks it’s the best. Yeah, you’re right. I’m not a super-nostalgic person. I like old stuff, but I don’t have a sense of tragedy about life and what we’ve lost. But I will say that there is a big difference between living in whatever the population is of the planet right now which is what? 7 billion? 8 billion?
TR: No, no, no. 7 trillion?
Capone: It’s not 7 trillion.
WA: It’s like 7 billion or 8 billion? Or is that wrong?
Capone: Seven billion sounds right, but I can look that up.
WA: Yeah, before we make fools of ourselves. [Pulls out his phone and speaks into it.] What is the population of the planet? 7.13 billion. What you said first was right.
TR: Oh, wow. Woo-hoo.
WA: Yeah, you got it right. When you said a trillion, you were off.
WA: Well, that is just a radically different world from the two-and-a-half billion from not that long ago. The rate of population increase is exponential, and so that has such a giant effect on what we can enjoy and what the planet looks like. Or what going to some bit of countryside is like. So that I think is a legitimate sort of nostalgia, but it isn’t a motivating presence for me.
I spend so much time in Europe, which to me is just always an adventure. I’m an American, I’m a foreigner over there, and I didn’t spend time there when I was a kid. I’m very inspired by the Europe that I see now. Just arriving in Chicago today, I was just going around, and I realized I haven't been in America in two and a half years. Coming to Chicago and seeing the snow, we came on a train. It reminds me of some kind of iconic America. Chicago is pretty amazing. Chicago is about as American of a city as you can get, this industrial giganticness, and it has a graceful thing about it.
Capone: Having Ralph Fiennes join your troop of largely regulars is wonderful. The times when you ran into him before you actually said, “I have this script with you in mind,” had he expressed an interest in doing something with you at some point?
WA: I had met Ralph in the kitchen of someone’s house. I went to a party in London sometime maybe 14 years ago. Anjelica Houston was there, and I went with her to sit in the kitchen, and then Ralph was sitting alone in the kitchen at this party and was very nice and made me feel like he liked something I had done. I would see him every now and then over the years. I felt emboldened that he might be interested to work together. I didn’t have anything from him where he had said, “I am dying to work with you.” I just had a feeling, a positive impression.
Capone: But you felt he might be receptive.
TR: Yeah. Yes, I did. And since SCHINDLER’S LIST, I just thought this guy was one of this small handful of Sean Penns and Daniel Day-Lewises of the world.
Capone: For those of us who saw him in IN BRUGES, we know he can do comedy by playing it straight; there are no jokes.
TR: He's so funny. And Martin McDonagh is such a great funny writer, and Ralph is so scary in that movie, but he is so funny in it.
Capone: Tony, most of your scenes with Ralph, and he’s receptive to doing multiple takes…
WA: He loved multiple takes, and he also had seen Tony’s videos. Tony and I had been working together making video’s with each other. Sending the videos, doing the scenes, talking about the scenes; he would do stuff with his brother and we would talk about them. I showed Ralph just a few moments of the work that Tony had just sent to me, and that was the first time he saw him, and Ralph was immediately like, “He’s great. I love him.” So I knew there would be good chemistry, because it’s just as likely that he could have said, “He’s interesting, but not what I pictured. Why him?” That’s a perfectly reasonable reaction an actor could have, and he personally just took to you.
Capone: The mentoring relationship that two have in this film, was it mirrored in real life? Did he guide you through the perils of acting?
TR: Yeah, it was a slight bit, definitely. It wasn’t very much like, “Well here you go, this is what I’m talking about, this is a certain thing that needs to be done within an actor.” It was more, “You watch me closely, and I’ll show you the way” kind of mentoring
WA: Without saying that.
TR: Without saying that. He kind of just said, “Look at me, and pay very close attention.” And I did.
WA: Meaning "Listen to me when I’m talking to you, and I’ll listen to you when we’re playing a scene."
TR: Yeah, exactly. And just feed off of each other. And really instantly that chemistry, that connection was there from the first moment I met him. He looks at me, gives me a big smile, half in his costume with pins all over him, he gives me this great big hug. I truly felt like this was the teacher. I remember one time he actually embodied M. Gustave very, very similarly. I was nervous about doing the kissing scene with Saoirse, as one would imagine, and I asked him for his advice, and he looked at me and said, “Well, just tell her this. I’m sorry if I get aroused, and I’m sorry if I don’t."
TR: Which I thought was great. It was just something to lighten my mood. He knew that’s what I needed to really relax.
WA: And did you say that to her?
WA: It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t really meant to be said.
TR: It was meant for myself to relax. But it was great to work with him, honestly. We read poetry off set, we did a lot of practice, we did tongue twisters, he taught me very many. So it was great working with someone as legendary and as wonderful as him.
Capone: There is something of a deliberate artificiality to the look of the film. Some of the model scenes and the miniature scenes.
WA: The ski chase.
Capone: It’s a fable, so it doesn't seem out of place.
WA: We're putting so much into trying to make this story and these feelings and share these characters and their life, and now I’m doing this ski chase with this stop-motion thing because I like it. Well, then I wonder, am I compromising the movie somehow? But I hope that my own judgement about it is all fitting together, because the only reason to do it this way is just because…well, it’s a couple of things. One, I simply like miniatures. I like animation. I like the paintings. And second, when we do these things it means, if we make a miniature of the hotel, then we can make it look any way we want. If we’re going to paint the entire mountain that it’s on, then we can make that whatever we want. So it’s also just having that choice.
Also I have this thing which is, if we use a very high grade of CG work, when I see that, even though obviously there are movies we love that are made all the time almost entirely using these technique. Nevertheless, I see this is CG. I know this is a movie technique where we take something and it’s fake, and we accept it as reality. Now, it may be a different version of how unreal or how real, but to me the CG is very clearly not real. So then it’s a matter of just which version of fake interests you more. And which version of the fake interests you more for this story? Because it’s all a concoction.
Capone: The one scene that really surprised me here, because I know sometimes people say that you have a very specific style, and "I can spot a Wes Anderson film even if his name’s not on it." But the pursuit through the museum, the shadows, the editing is very different than anything I’ve seen you do before. It’s tense, dark and evil.
WA: Well, there’s a couple of things I can tell you. One is I’ve never had blood like this in a movie.
Capone: By far, except for maybe MR. FOX.
WA: [laughs] Yes, you’re right. MR. FOX has it’s own type of violence, and MR. FOX originally had much more blood. We pulled back from the blood because we were like, "This is a PG, and let’s find the balance." But I think the reason this movie is so bloody, because I didn’t even really think of it that way until after the movie was finished and I was just doing some color grading. A friend in Paris came to watch with me, and he brought his daughter, who's eight, and she started reacting and covering her eyes and getting scared, and she didn’t like people getting like dismembered. And then I was covering up her eyes too.
Somebody asked me, why is it so bloody? And my answer is, I think because of what’s about to happen. The world is getting brutal, and this is some way of expressing that within our own story. But that sequence in particular, there are a couple of scenes in the movie that I thought about '30s Hitchcock movies and using what I feel are Hitchcock techniques or just Hitchcock-type editing. But that scene in particular does not comes the '30s. This comes from the '60s Hitchcock--TORN CURTAIN--the best scene in TORN CURTAIN, half of it is that scene. He’s in the hotel, he gets onto a bus, he gets followed into a museum. The Hitchcock one goes on. We take a couple of different turns with it, but the scene is modeled on a Hitchcock scene, and it’s another one like what I was saying: there’s inspiration and plagiarism, and we lean towards plagiarism on this one, but we did our own thing with it.
Capone: My father grew up loving trains more than life itself. He had a freight rail line going through his backyard in eastern Pennsylvania, and he actually ended up working for Amtrak as an executive. You feature trains in several of you films, and I hear you’re taking trains everywhere on this tour.
WA: Yes, trains are great, but we just had this train experience.
TR: It was fabulous.
WA: Yeah. I’ve never been on a train like this before.
TR: I haven't been on many trains, but I haven't been on a train like this one.
WA: We went all over Europe on trains recently. We went to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Prague. Yeah, we had a great train journey, but this one we just took from...
TR: New York.
WA: New York was a Pullman car. We chartered a car, and it was an actual '20s Pullman car, and there’s actually no other car like this. They fold down the beds, but it’s not like a compartment. It’s that thing like in SOME LIKE IT HOT or PALM BEACH STORY, where you walk down this corridor, and there are curtains on both sides, and there's a bed on the top and a bed on the bottom. I’ve never been in one like that, and that’s what they ran last night. It was great. Yeah, your father would have liked that.
Capone: Well thank you both so much. It’s great to see you again.