Director Wes Anderson seems like a man out of time and place.
Here he is dressed in a suit on a sunny day at South by Southwest at a hotel patio bar while all of the others around him are the kings of casual. Anderson, who divides his time between New York and Paris, jokingly complains that he has no clothes for this weather.
Then there are his movies — quirky, meticulously constructed set pieces that often show off a European-leaning sensibility. That’s especially true for his new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a fantastical cinematic confection about a concierge and a bellboy on an adventure set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka.
But here’s the thing: Anderson is a Texan, from Houston to be exact.
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“One thing is that now that I live half of the time in Europe, I definitely feel like an American over there,” he says. “I feel like a Texan in Europe. I’m not like them. And I don’t speak the language, any of the languages. But I would say when I lived in Texas — I lived in Austin, too — I always wanted to live in New York and to go abroad. In a way, I think that’s about wanting to go on an adventure.”
And it’s the very European and very adventurous Budapest — featuring Ralph Fiennes and a constellation of star cameos including Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan and longtime Anderson friend Owen Wilson — that could draw in the director’s biggest American audience yet.
It just might build on the success of the 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom (which earned Anderson an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and grossed more than $45 million).
Based loosely on the work of the late Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, Budapest — with its use of miniatures in place of buildings — is an homage to the days of cinema gone by. Anderson used miniatures in the 2009 stop-motion animation tale Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it was something he was happy to do again.
“I love old movies with miniatures,” he says. “It’s a little tricky because, when old movies used miniatures, people at the time thought they were real. Now, we see the fake stuff and are more tuned into it. To use a miniature now is more overt and different from the old way. But there’s a charm in miniatures that I like. With the kinds of movies I do, it fits in.”
This is an element that certainly adds to the movie’s sense of whimsy, though it also helped make Budapest one of his most difficult shoots.
“It was slower. It took a long time to prepare it and figure out how we’re going to do it and where,” he says. “There were a lot of things that had to get built and all that kind of thing. But it wasn’t a thing where I felt frustrated. I’ve had movies where it’s much more difficult where you finish the shooting day and don’t feel so good. This one, every day we finished I felt good, and it was ‘Let’s relax. We got that done.’ ”
Texas film culture
Audiences were introduced to Anderson in 1996 with his first film, the shot-in-Dallas Bottle Rocket. This is also the movie that introduced the world to the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke.
From that relatively simple tale of three guys trying to pull off a robbery, Anderson’s films — through The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou — became more elaborate and intricate.
He has established his own voice, which some might find precious and overbearing, but is most definitely his own.
It puts him in the front ranks of directors whom the Lone Star State has produced, right up there with Richard Linklater ( Dazed and Confused, the “Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight” trilogy, and the absolutely astonishing Boyhood, which is coming later this year), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven, Badlands) and Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, El Mariachi, Desperado).
Anderson credits his time at the University of Texas at Austin with fostering his own film culture. “There was film library system at UT with a very large library of movie books, and they had lots of videotapes and Linklater had started his film society above the coffee shop,” he recalls. “There was something to plug into.”
Now that Anderson is becoming more of a household name, might he ever be tempted to do something totally against type? Something less ornate and brocaded and more along the lines of a straight-ahead, shoot-to-kill action film? Is he feeling the pressure to pick up the phone if mainstream Hollywood comes calling?
“I don’t know because it’s not I like I’ve made a movie that was some $100 million smash thing. I never made a Black Swan or an American Hustle,” he says. “So I don’t feel any pressure. … The main thing is to have a good sense of what you want to do and and have good collaborators. The thing is, these movies, whether you do them on a big scale or smaller scale, they all cost a huge amount of money — even if that huge amount of money is $1 million, that’s still a huge amount of money.”
Besides, he says, he goes into every film thinking he’s doing something very different from what he did before.
“But when people see them, they say, ‘I knew immediately this was your thing,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I think about the new ideas and characters and how do we make this the most effective and I think that makes each film different.
“But the stuff that makes my movies like one another is the stuff that I don’t put as much thought into. Its more like handwriting, it’s sort of automatic.”