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.
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.