Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most ambitious film to date. Filled with locations, costumes, and set pieces, there is quite a bit going on in almost every frame including some well-crafted action. Anderson has proved himself as a capable action director over the past few years, what with the chases in The Fantastic Mr. Fox and, of course, Steve Zissou’s toe-to-toe battle with pirates. While Paramount may not be calling him to helm the next Transformers — not yet, anyway — he continues to show a real knack for action.
Even though The Grand Budapest Hotel has a relentless pace, it’s still a character-driven story for Wes Anderson. It’s kind of a buddy comedy, following Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), as they try to prove Gustave’s innocence in a murder case. That synopsis is reductive, but it’s the main focus of the story, which Anderson worked on with his buddy Hugo Guinness. Anderson has collaborated with other screenwriters on all his films, from Owen Wilson to Noah Baumbach to Roman Coppola, but this is his first solo credit.
Our discussion with Anderson began with his penchant for not writing alone. Here’s what he had to say about his process, from his scripts to making commercials, at SXSW:
Is it a different process between the writing partners you work with?
Yeah, I think it can be. They are different, but the process is generally the same. For most of these movies it’s a story that I want to do and they are helping me do it. On the other hand, Bottle Rocket, for instance, was something Owen [Wilson] and I had really started just together. So that’s a bit different. But otherwise, it’s pretty much the same sort of process on one thing to the next. It’s more fun, but it’s also I just know it will be better if I have a partner.
Where do you start? Do you outline?
I guess what happens usually is I have certain things in mind. It goes back and forth between having some ideas and then trying to organize them, and then writing some, and then trying to organize it again, and then writing some more, and seeing where they all go. This movie, this Budapest Hotel one, was written more in sequence than most of the other ones. The Moonrise Kingdom one, I had scenes from the end set aside for a long time. I didn’t know how it was going to unfold.
All your films have a singular voice. They never feel compromised.
I make compromises all the time. I don’t have somebody saying, “You are not allowed to make this choice,” but I make compromises…Well, I don’t even know if I’d call it compromises. But I have a million collaborators who all have a voice and all have an opinion, and I listen to them and we figure out what we’re going to do together. I don’t have somebody saying, “You can’t do this or that,” particularly. But I work with a team.
I guess it’s a little mysterious to me. The first movie I made I probably had less of a clear…I wasn’t as aware of what the opportunities were for visual things. But then, yeah, mostly the movies are kind of the way I wanted them to be more or less.
How has your crew grown over the years?
I would rather work with a smaller group and keep it as simple as it can be. Often, what I’ve put in the story is bigger and more complicated, so I’m trying to kinda balance between my wish to have a sort of documentary size crew and my ideas of what we’re actually going to film that can be quite big bigger than what you can do with a documentary kind of group.
What do you get out of making commercials?
Well, the thing with the commercials is, often, the thing that can make the better one, it’s not that I just show up on set and do it. It’s that I do a lot of preparation before and then maybe don’t even go to the set. I’ve done some where they were made in different countries and I did all my work from my computer. There’s one that we did that’s a series of product commercials that are…I don’t know how to describe them. Roman Coppola and I wrote them together just very spontaneously. We missed a train and we had a day to catch this next overnight train. We wrote them. And then I had already scouted some locations for something else, and I used these locations I found in Budapest.
We planned out the sets and everything. We made a very careful plan, but the shooting, I was just watching the monitor from my computer in Paris and Roman was in Budapest. Anyway, it’s really more about how careful you plan them. Some of them I’ve written, I’ve rewritten them. Some of them I’m just shooting what they want me to shoot.
Ralph Fiennes said he gave you different options for Monsieur Gustave H., that there’s other versions of him that could’ve been in the final film.
It wasn’t like Ralph was saying, “I’ll give you this choice, give you that choice.” It was the thing that we’re always doing, which is trying some things and trying to get it the best it could be. We tend to do lots of takes, but very, very quickly, one after another. It wasn’t like there’s a different version of the character that we’ve set aside. There is always whatever you choose in the editing room. If you’ve done 25 takes, you are only going to use one of the 25. But he was trying to make this character into a real person. So I would say if you look at 25 takes, it’s 25 takes of the same character maybe doing it different ways.
Have you ever radically changed a film or character in post-production?
The editing is a complicated thing. There are so many shots, and so many cuts, and so many other effects that are part of the editing that it radically changes from when you first put it together until it’s finished. It may not be that we’ve rearranged the scenes, but it’s changing radically in terms of the pace and exactly how it’s cut, and the music, and the sound, and all of those things. That’s all a big part of the editing process. Not since Bottle Rocket have I had a thing where we really took out a big part of the movie or had a major structural change.
What was that big part of Bottle Rocket?
It was a scene that they were getting in trouble with the police and they got…I can’t even describe it. It was a part early in the movie where nothing really happens. That’s why it got cut. There was just a long section that we lifted.
You’ve been very fortunate in the past with the songs you get for your films. Have you ever not gotten the music you’ve wanted?
We had some Beatles songs that we tried to get over the years that we couldn’t ever really get. We couldn’t ever get them cleared.
When writing, do you know what songs you want to use?
It depends. Sometimes I have music in mind from the very beginning. Some scenes are sort of written for the specific music. This movie, almost none of the music was thought up in advance. It was essentially all written for the movie after it was edited it.
Probably your most divisive film is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Why do you think that is?
I just watched it. I didn’t watch the whole thing; I just watched the beginning of it because we are making a Blu-Ray. There are parts of it I thought I cut out that I didn’t cut out. It seems long, but I don’t want to change it. But who knows? Once a movie has been around this long, making it quicker or more efficient is probably not particularly interesting to people, because they already know the movie. All they are going to do is miss parts. Anyway, I do feel like it hits its stride at a certain point and gets going. It’s got some great parts. And Bill is great. So many different people did such great work on it.