The concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel (played by Ralph Fiennes, centre) takes a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under his wing. Image: FOX
Wes Anderson is much as you would expect him to be from watching his quirkily nostalgic movies: eccentric, exacting and encased in tweed.
When Life! and other reporters speak to the writer-director in New York, he is in a tweed suit that looks like it could have come from the wardrobe department of Moonrise Kingdom (2012), his droll 1960s tale of young love.
With this and other comedy dramas, the 44-year-old has established a unique narrative and visual style that has become instantly recognisable, establishing him as one of the most consistent cinematic auteurs today.
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, a comedy of manners about the adventures of a hotel concierge, he has done it again, creating yet another hyperstylised, nostalgia-drenched comedy drama to explore some of his pet themes – young lovers, mentors and proteges – against, as ever, an intricate and precisely arranged backdrop.
But although the indie director has gradually found a broader audience for his work – Moonrise Kingdom was his highest-grossing film since the 2001 family drama The Royal Tenenbaums, earning more than US$68 million (S$86 million) worldwide – he tells Life! that chasing commercial success or mainstream appeal is the last thing on his mind.
“You don’t really have any control over that, so I don’t really know if there’s anything to think about with it,” he says in an interview.
“With some kinds of movies, maybe you can do something to the movie to try to make it more popular or something. But with my kind of thing, I don’t know what you’d do,” he says.
“I just try to make it according to what I think is interesting or the best. I think about the audience in terms of, ‘Are we being clear, are we getting things across?’ But in terms of how people react, it’s a total mystery, so I don’t think about it very much.”
With Anderson’s reputation for perfectionism – from insisting on an obscure brand of cigarettes a character smoked in The Royal Tenenbaums to banning his animators from using computer-assisted technology in the stop-motion animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) – it is not hard to imagine that he is pretty good at staying focused.
This precision extends to his personal appearance. The fashion-conscious Houston native is a well-known aesthete and has been featured on several best-dressed lists over the years, so it is hard not to glance at what he is wearing today – a well-worn but impeccably tailored suit that also gives him a faintly professorial air, as does his careful enunciation of each word.
As with his other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is packed to the brim with meticulously curated cultural, cinematic and artistic references.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Jude Law, it is set mostly in the 1930s, at a grand old hotel in a fictional city modelled after Prague, Vienna and Budapest.
As the hotel’s legendary concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) finds himself accused of murder and scrambling to clear his name, Anderson creates one of his classic capers and stories-within-a-story, all against his rose-tinted version of Central Europe between the wars.
The director, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story, was inspired by the writings of a 1920s Austrian novelist named Stefan Zweig as well as his own travels “in Hungary and the Czech republic, and seeing these grand, belle epoque hotels, their renovations inside, these layers of histories and ideologies expressed in these renovations”.
But as aesthetically conceived as it is, the nostalgia that has become the hallmark of his films is often tinged with sadness.
“When we were preparing for this movie, we looked at lots of old pictures of different parts of Europe. And something about looking at old pictures and going to those same places and seeing how they’ve changed, it can be a bit sad.”
Still, he insists he is not entirely stuck in the past. “Really, my experience as a foreigner in Europe is not really so nostalgic,” says the director, who lives in New York with his girlfriend, Lebanese writer Juman Malouf, but keeps a flat in Paris. “It’s more an adventure for me, travelling around like that. I like seeing old things, but I’ve had a great time getting to know new places in today’s Europe.”
For this film, he and his crew took over a small hotel in the town of Gorlitz, Germany, close to the Polish border.
“It was a great experience. Everybody was there together, everybody had dinner together every night,” says the director, who ordered actor Tony Revolori – a newcomer who plays Gustave’s sidekick and loyal lobby boy, Zero – to do an apprenticeship at a real hotel.
Of course, even an arthouse darling like Anderson has his detractors, among them critics who accuse him of being overly repetitive with his themes and those who say his movies are more art-directed than directed, with depth of story and characters paying the price.
But Fiennes, 51, says Anderson’s films have a strong emotional core: “Wes wants you to root for these quiet heroes, these people who come through in maybe difficult circumstances.
“And often in his films, there is a sort of a fraternal journey. The thing about brotherhood or friendship is very important to Wes.”
And clearly, the director has no shortage of fans in the industry.
His films often feature the same rotating ensemble cast of actors, some of whom have become frequent collaborators. They include Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, who both make an appearance in this movie.
Anderson’s breakout hit Rushmore – the 1998 film where Murray played a millionaire who has to compete with a teenage boy for the affections of a schoolteacher – effectively reinvented the comedian as a serious dramatic actor. The 63-year-old then went on to appear in several other films, including The Royal Tenenbaums, where he and A-list castmates Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller worked for minimum pay.
Wilson is another repeat customer, having met Anderson when they attended the same university in Texas, and going on to co-write Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket (1996).
Now, the director has his pick of the litter when it comes to casting his films, although he has a penchant for picking unknowns or those whose stars may have dimmed.
He wrote Gustave with Fiennes in mind, he says. “I’d hoped to work with him for a long time, and with this part, I don’t know who else could’ve done this part and made him seem like a real person.”
Finding 17-year-old Revolori, meanwhile, was the end of “a very long search. We looked all over the world and we ended up finding him in Anaheim, California”.
As for the rest of the cast, which is jammed with stars doing cameos, he admits with a smile, that it was not that difficult to woo them.
“Many of them are people I’ve worked with before. For all of those people who are well known, I send them the script and try to convince them to do the part, but a lot of them are old friends now, and usually, some of them are people I feel I can go to and I’ll probably get them.”
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on March 19, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.