Movie Interviews
1:49 am
Tue March 4, 2014

A Psychological Game Of Casting For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 7:34 am

Watching Wes Anderson's films can often feel like a tumble down a rabbit hole. With the opening credits comes entry into a world that's both weird and wonderful. The writer and director of movies like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom has long had a point of view that is completely original — even dating back to the fifth grade, when he and a friend dramatized a Kenny Rogers album.

"We built quite a nice set," Anderson recalls. "We just performed the whole album of The Gambler with puppets playing instruments."

His quirky sensibility wasn't always appreciated, though. "The thing that stuck in my mind was that it was a real flop, which is kind of a rare thing in fifth grade — to be panned."

Grade-school flops aside, Anderson stays true to that same sensibility in his latest film. The Grand Budapest Hotel unfolds as a story within a story within a story — a little like a trio of Russian nesting dolls. It's set largely in 1932 in the Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional country somewhere in Central Europe as fascism is on the rise. Ralph Fiennes stars as Monsieur Gustave, a fussy concierge at an elegant mountain resort. He's pulled into a madcap affair involving murder, a secret society of hotel concierges and one heck of a prison escape.

The film marks the first time that Anderson and Fiennes have worked together. They join NPR's David Greene to talk about the experience.


Interview Highlights

On Wes Anderson's unconventional way of asking Ralph Fiennes to star

Fiennes: I got an email from Wes saying he had a script, he'd like me to read it and to let him know which part I liked.

Anderson: That was a psychological game. ... I've always had this thought that the best way to get an actor to not want to be in your film is to offer them a part. The number of times I've had someone say, "Well, I like everybody else's parts — I'm not so sure about my guy ... "

Fiennes: But I didn't have that reaction. I thought Gustave was a fantastic part.

On what drew Fiennes to the role of Gustave

Fiennes: Gustave is witty and he's profane and he's possibly a part-time gigolo. He's fastidious, he's very delicately, sexily ambivalent in a way that's not specified — which I think is great. Although he might seem rather precious and vain, he actually is revealed to have a big and brave heart.

On the film's allusions to Nazis and the two world wars

Anderson: Our story is some kind of pastiche, I guess, of this period and this region. We have our own made-up country and our own war, which is maybe a mixture of the first and second world wars, and we have our own fascists. But that's really a background to the story, and what's happening isn't really about the war so much. That's just the context. This is a much more violent movie than I've ever made, and the violence doesn't necessarily have much to do with the war, but there is great brutality and I think that's why it's there. It relates to this dark cloud that's over the continent at that point.

On the potential for comedies to treat serious issues

Fiennes: I think comedy can treat serious matters very effectively ... When people use the word comedy, I think everyone thinks, "Oh, people laugh." But actually, the French use the word comedie to talk about drama, and the so-called comedies of Shakespeare are full of pain and loss and disappointment. So, [The Grand Hotel] is actually full of ironies and ambivalences and gray areas.

On what defines a "Wes Anderson movie"

Fiennes: One reaches for words to describe something which, in the end, everyone's experience of a Wes Anderson film will be different. I get the feeling, Wes, that in your films you have a huge warmth for your characters. Every one of them has sort of been loved by you into how you've created them.

Anderson: Every time I do one of these, I'm thinking about everything that's different from the last one and the new things that we want to do. Then, when the thing's done, you say, "Well, it's a lot like the one you did before." But this one is in Germany — we filmed in Germany, and it's in a made-up country. I don't know how it relates to one that's on a train in India. Sometimes, I'm aware I might be doing something similar to something I've done before, and the reason is because I don't like the alternatives that I can come up with. But generally, I feel like I'm doing something entirely different.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Watch a Wes Anderson film, and you tumble down a rabbit hole into a world that's both weird and wonderful. The writer-director of "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Moonrise Kingdom" had a point of view that was completely original, dating all the way back to fifth grade, when he and a friend dramatized a Kenny Rogers album.

WES ANDERSON: We built quite a nice set, and we just performed the whole album of "The Gambler" with puppets playing instruments. The thing that stuck in my mind was that it was a real flop, which is kind of a rare thing, in fifth grade, to be panned.

GREENE: Wes Anderson stays true to his quirky sensibility in his latest cinematic adventure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" unfolds as a story within a story within a story, sort of like a trio of Russian nesting dolls. It's set largely in 1932 in the Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional country somewhere in Central Europe, as fascism is on the rise. Ralph Fiennes stars as Monsieur Gustave, a fussy concierge at an elegant mountain resort. He's pulled into a madcap affair involving murder, a secret society of hotel concierges and one heck of a prison escape. This is actually the first time Fiennes has teamed up with Wes Anderson, who's known for working with the same actors, like a little theater company. And Anderson stayed true to his unconventional ways when he approached Ralph Fiennes about the role.

RALPH FIENNES: Well, I got an email from Wes saying he had a script, and he'd like me to read it, and to let him know which part I liked.

GREENE: He gave you the choice.

FIENNES: He did. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: That was a psychological game.

GREENE: You were testing him to see where he stood on this idea?

ANDERSON: Well, I've always had this thought that the best way to get an actor to not want to be in your film is to offer them a part.

GREENE: Why do you say that?

ANDERSON: The number of times I've had someone say, well, I like everybody else's parts, I'm not so sure about my guy.

FIENNES: But I didn't have that reaction. I thought Gustave was a fantastic part.

GREENE: I want to play a scene from the movie. Ralph Fiennes, your character here, is confronted by a police inspector, played by Ed Norton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL")

ED NORTON: (as Inspector Henckels) By order of the commissioner of police, Zubrowka Province, I hereby place you under arrest for the murder of Madame Celine Villenueve Desgoffe-und-Taxis.

FIENNES: (as Gustave) I knew there was something fishy. We never got the cause of death. She's been murdered, and you think I did it.

NORTON: Hey.

GREENE: We should tell our listeners the sound there is the sound of your character turning and just sprinting away, trying to escape.

FIENNES: The police, yeah.

GREENE: What drew you to Gustave? Because, Ralph Fiennes, you're sort of known for much more serious roles.

FIENNES: People say that to me, but I have played a few comedy roles. But, anyway, Gustave is witty and he's profane and he's possibly a part-time gigolo. He's fastidious. He's very delicately sexually ambivalent in a way that's not specified, which I think is great. Or he might seem rather precious and vain, actually, he's revealed to have a great big and brave heart.

GREENE: You know, as funny as this film is, like most of your work, Wes Anderson, that there is some darkness there, in this case, because of the onset of World War II, you know, is looming. How did you sort of deal with war and Nazis at "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?

ANDERSON: Well, our story is some kind of pastiche, I guess, of this period and this region. You know, we have our own made-up country and our own war, which is maybe a mixture of the First and Second World Wars, and we have our own fascists. But that's really a background to the story, and what's happening isn't really about the war so much. That's just the context. This is a much more violent movie than I've ever made, and the violence doesn't necessarily have much to do with the war. But there is great brutality, and I think that's why it's there. It relates to this dark cloud that is over the continent, you know, at that point.

GREENE: Why did you need that dark cloud there? What role do you feel like the war played here?

ANDERSON: The story was - there are many different inspirations for it, but one of the biggest is the work of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer.

GREENE: Who fled Europe in the 1930s and was the inspiration for this film, in some ways.

ANDERSON: Yes, in many ways. And Zweig's memoir is very much about the Europe that existed before the First World War where art was the center of everything, where this very refined culture that he had joined and had participated in this evolution was so suddenly destroyed. And really, when he looks back on his life, this is the thing he describes the most forcefully.

GREENE: Ralph Fiennes, you starred in one of the most famous movies ever made about World War II, "Schindler's List," and you played an incredibly tortuous role. When you do a movie like this and the war is sort of playing a different kind of role - it's a comic film - I mean, where is your head?

FIENNES: Well, I think comedy can treat serious matters very effectively. I think it's difficult to pull it off, possibly. But when I saw the set, with these sort of pastiche SS banners and things, I thought it was very cleverly realized, and there's no question what Wes is saying in the film. But my head is not in "Schindler's List." My head is in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." There's a lightness of touch and a deftness and a sort of wonderful simplicity. When people use the word comedy, I think everyone thinks, oh, people laugh. But actually, comedy, you know, the French use the word comedie to talk about drama, and the so-called comedies of Shakespeare are full of pain and loss and disappointment. And so it's actually sort of full of ironies and ambivalences and sort of gray areas.

GREENE: I just want to ask you both: a lot of people will say that more than any other director, when you walk into a theater and a Wes Anderson movie starts, you can tell immediately that this is a Wes Anderson film. Ralph Fiennes, how do you define a Wes Anderson movie?

FIENNES: Well, one reaches for words to describe something which, in the end, everyone's experience of a Wes Anderson film would be slightly different. I get the feeling, Wes, that in your films you, you know, have a huge warmth for your characters. Every one of them has sort of been loved by you into how you've created them.

ANDERSON: You know, every time I start doing one of these things, I'm thinking about everything that's different from the last one, and the new things that we want to do. Then, when the thing is done, they say, well, it's a lot like the one you did before. And I say, well, I say, I mean, but this one is in Germany - I mean, we filmed in Germany, and it's in a made-up country - I don't know how it relates to one that's on a train in India. Sometimes I'm aware I might be doing something similar to something I've done before, and the reason is because I don't like the alternatives that I can come up with. But generally, I feel like I'm doing something totally different.

GREENE: And is the next idea for the next film already churning inside?

ANDERSON: It's churning. It's churning, like butter.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, we'll look forward to it. Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, thank you so much for talking to us. It's really been a pleasure.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

FIENNES: Thank you very much.

ANDERSON: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes. Their new movie, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," opens this Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.