In stores today is New York TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s handsome new book, The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, published by Abrams, the follow-up to last year’s similarly sumptuous The Wes Anderson Collection, which dives deeply into the making of Anderson’s new Best Picture–nominated film, dissecting every angle and influence with commentary, illustrations, and photography (watch the book’s delightful trailer here). Below, an excerpt of a conversation with Anderson on how and why he chose the actors in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
This movie is probably the closest thing to an out-and-out farce that you’ve ever attempted. Yet there’s a melancholic sensibility overall, especially when Zero takes over as the narrator. Brutality is everywhere. And binding it all together are stories of older men picturing their younger selves.
I don’t feel the movie quite as a zany thing. I was hoping it would be more of a sad comedy. But with a ski chase.
This not-too-zany film also features Willem Dafoe punching people in the face, an activity he seems to be good at. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a long time, and this is one of my favorite Dafoe performances: an amazing, almost entirely physical performance.
I love Willem. I saw him in this Robert Wilson production with Mikhail Baryshnikov not too long ago.**** He’s really unique, Willem, because he’s not in any way simply a movie actor. He brings his experience with the Wooster Group and with all kinds of avant-garde theater, with Richard Foreman and so on, to anything he’s in. He mixes disciplines, like dance and mime and, kind of, sculpture. Willem is using all of that stuff in the Robert Wilson thing. He dances just as well as Baryshnikov in it. Willem is just a great dancer. You know, you expect Baryshnikov to dance divinely. It’s an exciting thing to see.
Anyway, in our movie, Willem doesn’t speak much. It’s just his physicality, and I feel like he gave us everything. It’s quite something just to watch him walk. He created something for us.
I hadn’t thought of Willem Dafoe in quite those terms, but I can see that. There is something very gestural or dance-like about him, and that’s part of what makes him a memorable actor. He cuts a very imposing figure, and he does a lot with his body. It is his gesture that is the poster of Platoon: that iconic image of Sergeant Elias raising his arms up. And of course, The Last Temptation of Christ — you don’t get much more physical of a performance than that.
He was a great Jesus.
The parts that you’ve cast him in have showcased a different aspect of his talent than we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, when he had his breakthrough. They’re generally bigger, they’re more theatrical, they’re more stylized, and they’re funny. He’s almost a purely comic, poignant character in The Life Aquatic, and, even though it’s animated, you can still feel Willem Dafoe in that rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox. He’s really hamming it up as this rat — like he’s a bad guy in a Sergio Leone film or something, but jazzy. In this film, he’s a purely malevolent presence, yet there’s something very elegant about him. Self-actualized. Like this is what he was put on earth to do: kill people and be evil.
Willem is kind of a classic. And Adrien Brody, another classic. He and Willem had a very good chemistry. You can feel it even when they’re just sitting beside each other. I felt like there was some dark bond. Like they were connected.
You know, Willem and Tilda Swinton are both people who love to act, who just love to do this. But they aren’t really just actors. They’re more performance artists. They’re interested in any variety of performing, really.
When you say people like Willem Dafoe and Tilda Swinton aren’t just actors, what do you mean?
They’ve both done a lot of performing outside of movies and outside of, I guess you’d say, the “normal” theater. Tilda has done numerous performance pieces that appear in museums or in other contexts, completely different kinds of staged work that may not exactly involve scripts or even characters. And Willem has done more avant-garde theater. They’re both people who turn up with collaborators whom you don’t necessarily think of first, in relation to actors.
In our movie, Willem and Tilda are both playing characters and continuing their personal tradition of making things, outside of playing roles, if that makes any sense. Tilda, I think, would be interested in being aged, just as an experience. I feel like she’d be into doing that even it weren’t for a movie.
Having somebody artificially age her, and then just walking down the street?
Or just sitting in a chair somewhere. And Willem’s role—well, Kabuki is not exactly the tradition a performance like that comes out of, but it’s not necessarily too far afield of it, either. I’m talking about the challenge of playing a character that’s about movement and expression, and not about the words, or even necessarily actions.
Certain kinds of actors almost seem to have a nineteenth- or even eighteenth-century idea of what it means to be an actor. You get the sense that they might be acrobats, or maybe they would’ve joined the circus, if it were a different time and place.
You use Tilda Swinton in that way—a primordially “actorly” way—in Moonrise Kingdom and in this film. In Moonrise Kingdom, she’s almost more of a presence than a person, like a fairy-tale troublemaker. When I think about her in that movie, I think about her in relation to the space around her, because of the clothes she wears—their color, their texture—the way she enters a room, the expressions on her face.
I guess in that one, the name of her character is an institution: Social Services. I think both that character and her character in this newer movie are meant to be real people, and human characters. But at the same time, you could say they’re something else, too—somehow I connect that back to the way Tilda and Willem relate to their other work.
Do you remember the first time you noticed Tilda Swinton?
We were at Sundance when Orlando played there, so I went to the opening of that movie, and there she was.
She had a dazzling impact on this whole little town that week. She couldn’t be more different from one character to the next. She’s done a lot of Jim Jarmusch and all of Derek Jarman. What’s your favorite Tilda Swinton movie?
It’s hard to choose, but right now I’m partial to Only Lovers Left Alive. She’s sweet, paradoxically enough, considering that she’s playing a vampire. She’ll be a voice of reason for a while, and then she’ll go feast on blood.
She’s a wonderful vampire.
She’s also somebody who naturally draws people to her without seeming as though she’s trying to draw people. I’ve been in the same room with her a few times, and it always happens. She’s a magnet.
That’s just charisma, I guess.
Jeff Goldblum: also charismatic, though it’s a different wavelength. He was always interesting and always respected, but I feel like recently he’s entered the pantheon in some way.
There was a certain moment when Jeff became a big star, probably when he did The Fly.
That’s one of the greatest performances I’ve seen anybody give in anything. It might be among the great lead performances in a horror film, up there with the best of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. Almost thirty years on, I still can’t stop talking about his performance in that movie.
There aren’t so many people who you can hand pages and pages and pages of legal text and say, “Entertain us with this.” But, of course, Jeff can do it. When he’s preparing, you hear him practicing all the time. He rehearses like he’s doing a play, and that’s great. I love that.
As Deputy Vilmos Kovacs,***** he uses his hands in the most amazingly distinctive ways. I wasn’t surprised when I learned he was a pianist. His hands do a lot, I think, to make all that legalese a bit more dynamic. You see that during the reading of the will. There are actually three performances going on in every scene with Jeff Goldblum, and two of them are by his hands.
Jeff just has great dramatic instincts. He makes things compelling. In every scene he does, he’s not just thinking, “Can I make this sound more natural?” He’s thinking, “Can I make this sound more exciting?” He finds where the drama is.
He was not in a whole lot of Robert Altman movies—Nashville was the first, nearly forty years ago—and yet somehow I think of him as an Altman actor.
I do, too. And I think Altman thought of him in that way.
I didn’t know Altman very well, but he and his wife, Katherine, and I had a conversation once, many years ago, about Jeff, and he talked about him like he was a part of his ongoing stock company. They also talked about Bud Cort in a similar way. Bud Cort’s only in two of Altman’s movies, M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud, and Jeff’s only in two: Nashville and Beyond Therapy. But maybe Jeff thinks of himself that way, too, in some way: as an Altman actor.
He does more with less in Nashville. He doesn’t even have dialogue in that. He’s just a presence in the background—gesturing, existing. He’s even doing magic at one point.
I’m sure Altman saw it and said, “Let’s weave that into it. Whatever Jeff’s doing over here, let’s film it, and we’ll have another ingredient.” He’s probably in The Player, too, actually.
You’ve used Jeff Goldblum in a couple of movies now, and it’s interesting that in both of them, he seems incredibly confident to the point of arrogance, but then you bring him down a notch, and we discover new shadings. There are moments of sweetness and vulnerability in The Life Aquatic toward the end; Alistair Hennessey and Steve Zissou even have a moment, and it feels real because you can feel warmth between him and Bill Murray.
And in The Grand Budapest Hotel, of course, he carries himself with such tranquil confidence; then comes the stalking sequence at the museum. There’s a fear in his eyes that’s unsettling, because you’ve never seen it until now. You get the feeling this is the first time in a really long time that Kovacs doesn’t feel like, “Eh, I’ve got it all under control.” And it’s his last moment on earth.
Jeff’s a great one to work with. He’s very fun to have around, super-focused, and a very gentle presence on a movie set—and he’s always on it.
You mean physically on the set?
I’ve heard that’s something you like—for actors to stay on the set between setups.
He and Willem both stayed on the set during Life Aquatic. They didn’t want to leave the set in between setups. They stick around. Why does anybody need to leave? I mean, maybe somebody needs to go put on a different costume, or have their lunch or something, but really, in general, I feel like it’s better to stay with the scene.
Saoirse Ronan: She doesn’t have this storied history of some of the other actors we’re talking about.
She’s one of those people who, if you see her in a few movies, you think, “Oh, this one can do anything.”
We’d only met each other briefly, just one day, when Saoirse arrived in the middle of the shoot. The first scene she did was the shootout in the hotel. Her first day of shooting was the climactic sequence of the movie.
And I said, “So, you’ve come out of this elevator, and now these guys are going to try and follow you, and he wants to kill you, and so on” and then instantly: There she was. She turned it on: terrified. It wasn’t one of those things where there was any adjustment. She just knew the script, and then she knew how to get herself exactly to the right place.
Somehow, very young people who’ve worked a lot, in my experience, are like acting computers, in a good way: They just know how to do it. It’s like you’re speaking a foreign language, but they’re fluent already.
Speaking of people who know the language: The Society of the Crossed Keys sequence gives you an opportunity to do kind of a roll call of people who have appeared in Wes Anderson films.
We’ve got Bob Balaban, and we’ve got Bill Murray, and we’ve got Wally Wolodarsky, and we’ve got the one who’s newest, Fisher Stevens. I’ve been friends with Fisher for many years, and not only are Fisher and I friends, Fisher and Ralph are old friends, too, and Fisher and Edward Norton are old friends.
Ralph Fiennes is very funny in this movie. I have seen him be funny before, in certain scenes of certain movies, but “funny” is perhaps not the first word you think of when you think of Ralph Fiennes. He first came to the world’s attention as a dramatic actor in films like Schindler’s List and Quiz Show, and he’s been very intense, at times romantically dark, in lead roles: The English Patient, The End of the Affair. And a whole generation now knows him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in the Harry Potter films. Did you envision Ralph Fiennes as Gustave when you wrote this, and, if so, was there anything in his filmography that made you think that he was the right actor for, basically, a light comic lead role?
I don’t necessarily see too much of a distinction between somebody who’s able to be funny and somebody who’s just able to be good. He’s obviously one of these spectacular talents. I knew Ralph a little bit already, so when we were writing it, I was thinking of the real person,****** but from the very beginning of working on the story, Ralph was the person I thought ought to play it.
You know, there’s another thing: People who act in movies aren’t necessarily that comfortable with paragraphs and paragraphs of dialogue. They aren’t necessarily people who are ready to give speeches in a long take without a cut. That isn’t necessarily the way movies are done, and that isn’t the way movie roles are generally written. I’ve never had a character who talks as much as M. Gustave. Well, none of that was going to be a problem for Ralph.
He also has some of that 1930s “European” quality that we talked about. He brings a bit of George Sanders to certain scenes of his. When things turn madcap, we may think of Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours, and Alec Guinness in some of the Ealing comedies. It’s not quite screwball, that style of performance, but there’s a touch of it, I think.
A lot of it’s fast dialogue, and that’s kind of an old-fashioned thing, but I don’t even know what I’d compare Ralph’s performance in this movie to. In the end, he doesn’t remind me of anybody. He’s such a forceful presence. He brings all his energy into every scene.
I always pictured him as coming from a Laurence Olivier sort of tradition, but it’s not really quite that. He’s more like a Method actor. He wants to do it from the inside out, and he wants to feel it. He wants to be the guy. I’ve never had anyone who was like that, to that degree. I’ve always wanted to work with somebody very “Method”—somebody who’s going to kind of demand things.
I’ve worked with Harvey Keitel before, and we had Harvey again on this movie, and Harvey does that. Harvey requires certain kinds of attention and insists on an extraordinary level of preparation, a level that some actors don’t even think to do. I loved Harvey doing that sort of thing when we did Moonrise Kingdom. He did it here, too. On this movie, Harvey doesn’t have a huge role, but he took his fellow inmates and went and stayed for forty-eight hours in the prison we shot in. He and the other actors lived there, and they figured out their whole backstory together, and we rehearsed over there. By the time we were shooting the scenes, they had a whole relationship. Ralph comes from something like that tradition.
The total immersion school.
It’s the Russian way. Not that they do it in Russia, but you know what I mean.
Going back to gestures: There are lots of what you might call “anchor points” for performances—little recurring bits of business, such as the way that Gustave is always saying “darling.” And the way that the character walks is important: his gait. Gustave does actually seem to have steel in his spine.
Do these character touches tend to be things you that talked about with the actors ahead of time, or do the actors work them out on their own?
Well, the “darlings” are just in the script. But I don’t think Ralph necessarily says to himself, “How am I going to walk?” I think he’s working more with, “How do I feel?” and “How do I think?” And then it moves on from there to “What am I wearing?” and “Why am I wearing it this way, and not that way?”******* and “How does all that make me move, and how does that make me stand, and who am I?”
Speaking of process—in many of your films, you are extraordinarily concerned with process, with procedure, with tradition. Rushmore is the first film where those aspects really jump out: The hero defines himself by his association with this academy that has a storied history. One often gets the sense, when watching your films, that there is a particular world that you’ve created, and that there is a particular way within that world in which things are done.
That becomes incredibly important in this film, because, like Rushmore Academy, and like the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a place with a storied history. Certain things are done there, at a certain time, in a certain manner.
That’s the source of a lot of the comedy between your two main characters. You’ve got this one early exchange between Gustave and Zero that’s an example of what I’m talking about. He tells Zero, “Run to the cathedral of Santa Maria Christiana in Brucknerplatz. Buy one of the plain, half-length candles and take back four Klubecks in change. Light it in the sacristy, say a brief rosary, then go to Mendl’s and get me a Courtesan au Chocolat.”
“If there’s any money left, give it to the crippled shoeshine boy.”
You can see a bit of that mentoring thing in Zweig.******** It’s definitely there in Confusion. And in Beware of Pity, there’s this younger man who’s being told a story by an older man.
In our movie, the mentoring thing is largely there because our friend is like that in real life. He mentors, kind of automatically, more or less anybody he gets to know.*********
“Our friend” being the guy you modeled Gustave on?
So you met this man through Hugo Guinness?
I met him through Hugo, yes.
Can you tell me about him?
We’ve never said his name.
I just feel like it’s better not to. He’s an old friend, a very old friend of Hugo’s, and now he’s been friends with me for at least fifteen years. He’s not a hotel concierge, but he would be—and he would be the first to claim this—one of the great hotel concierges on the planet, if he so chose.
Why would he be one of the greats?
Everything that makes a good concierge, he knows how to do. He also—in the same vein—already knows all the concierges of all the hotels. He will sit and chat with somebody at the desk of a hotel for an hour and come out with all kinds of gossip. He’s been on the circuit for a long time. And there are lots of lines in the movie that come directly from him.
Can you give me an example?
Well, like when Zero says, “She was eighty-four.” And he says, “I’ve had older.” That’s him. The “darlings” come from him. Really, we just tried to write his voice.
That’s how the poetry ended up in the screenplay. The real-life inspiration for Gustave recites poetry. It’s kind of his … well, I don’t know if I’d say habit, but it’s one of his techniques for getting from A to B: There may be a poem along the way.
Did you write all of Gustave’s poems?
I should say, there are really no poems in the movie, just snippets of poems.
That one fragment he recites when he’s hanging from his fingernails by the edge of the cliff almost sounds like he’s about to launch into Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I think he wants to go out in a blaze of glory.
When Gustave says, “Rudeness is merely the expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved—and they will open up like a flower.” Is that just a line from your friend, something that he said that you liked and decided to use in the movie?**********
No, that was a line from Hugo, I believe.
Do you personally believe in that sentiment?
I would say: It depends.
There are plenty of times when somebody is rude because they’re scared or uncomfortable. They’re agitated, and they’re worried that they’re not being treated properly, or they’re rude because they think they’re standing up for themselves or against some kind of injustice, and later they might step back and realize, “That guy was drunk; he wasn’t really trying to show me up.”
It certainly is a good bit of instruction for somebody who’s going to work in a hotel, because they’re going to have to deal with all kinds of demands and emotions.
You know, Ralph had a very funny idea for Gustave. At one point, we were having a conversation about the character, and then Ralph did Gustave for me, at five different stages of life.
Ralph’s very good at that sort of thing. On a movie like this, everything is all written, and he’s learning the text, you know, and doing it. It’s a bit like a play. But Ralph can also just make up dialogue spontaneously, at will. In fact, we shot all these montages where he’s talking to these old women, and when he’s on trial—things like that. There was nothing written. Unfortunately, there’s no room in the movie for us to be able to see all of that, but it was good writing he did on the spot.
At one point, spontaneously, he did for me what he saw as Gustave’s story. It involved a transition from a sort of a Dickens Cockney street urchin to a kind of East Londoner, saying: “Hold on, you’re not going to want that one, sir, I think.” And he followed Gustave through a series of improvisations that showed the evolution of his learning and his education, and the affectation and the development and the refinement of his accent.
I guess that’s what probably happened to somebody like Noël Coward or Cary Grant.
It’s the movie in microcosm. People transform themselves even as the countries that created them are being transformed.
I like that.
**** The director is referring to The Old Woman, a stage production directed by Robert Wilson and adapted by Darryl Pinckney.
***** “Vilmos Kovacs” combines the first and last names of two great American cinematographers, both of whom were born and raised in Hungary: Vilmos Zsigmond (b. 1930) and László Kovács (1933–2007).
****** The mutual friend who inspired the character of M. Gustave.
******* For more about the effect of period clothes on an actor’s performance, see page 74 of the interview with Ralph Fiennes.
******** Alexandre Desplat, who composed the score for The Grand Budapest Hotel, says on page 135 that “education” is a theme in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
********* For more about Stefan Zweig’s work as the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, see Act 3, which begins on page 175, as well as Ali Arikan’s essay “Worlds of Yesterday,” which begins on page 207.
********** The latter assertion is proved true in the film’s prison-break sequence: A fearsome inmate to whom Gustave has shown kindness strangles a prisoner who was threatening to foil the concierge’s escape.
Excerpt from The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz. Published by Abrams. On sale today.