The Grand Budapest Hotel

I finally got around to seeing Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last night. Which means that when I got home, I was finally able to open a folder of bookmarks and read a whole bunch of articles about the movie that I’ve been stockpiling.

My favorite so far is this CreativeReview interview with Annie Atkins, the film’s lead graphic designer. There comes a time in every movie fan’s life when they first consciously realize that (holy mother of God) every single item in almost every single movie was designed, approved, and placed on the set by someone. Look around the room you’re sitting in and imagine that it had been an empty soundstage just a week earlier. I see a Cadbury Creme Egg foil wrapper on the end table next to my sofa. It’s there because I bought one a couple of days ago, I ate it while watching TV, I didn’t immediately pitch the wrapper, and by the time I turned off the TV and went to bed, I’d forgotten about it. That’s a completely natural and effortless evolution (and look, it’s going in the trash after I finish this post, I swear).

Imagine that this was a movie. Think about a set designer asking themselves “Does this character tend to snack while watching TV? What does he eat? Does he drink? Oh, the movie takes place in March. Maybe something seasonal? And is he fastidious about cleanup? If not…how big a mess should there be? A couple of days’ worth? A couple of weeks’?”

And that’s just for one wrapper!

The costumes and props are a big part of what makes a Wes Anderson film feel special. In most movies, Boy Scouts are dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. If the movie needs to call them something else, the costumer designs a Boy Scout uniform in a different color palette and changes one or two emblems to read “Forest Clerks Of America” or somesuch. In a Wes Anderson movie, every patch is a custom design and every scout’s uniform is a little bit different. It’s not even a detail that the audience consciously registers. Anderson uses props, costume and set design the same way that an artist might put an almost imperceptible dab of blue into all of the paints they use on an image. You don’t especially notice the blue mixed into the white, but the fact that it’s there helps your brain to tie all of these elements together.


(Aside: I must remember to have a $20 Dunkin Donuts gift card in my pocket the next time I attend a comic-con. I fully expect to see someone in a “Lobby Boy” costume and when that happens, I fully intend to reward this person with coffee and an assortment of pastries baked kind of nearby, vaguely recently. If I don’t see someone in a “Lobby Boy” costume, I will declare the con a scathing failure.)

My strongest impression of “Grand Budapest” is that of all the Wes Anderson films out there, this one is the Wessiest. In an alternate reality in which all movies are like Wes Anderson movies, this is the one that was made by the reality’s own version of Wes Anderson.

Therefore, the props are even more lavishly designed than what I’ve come to expect. Not just to fit in with the director’s and the story’s aesthetic, but also to build extra layers into the story. Annie Atkins had to make all of that stuff happen, from an office on the set.

I’m grateful to this interview because of the high-resolution gallery of printed props. Printed items that flicked past on the screen hold still for long examination. During the movie, I was able to appreciate the screened packaging of the Mendl’s patisserie boxes and I recognized that the state seal of the nation of Zubrowka features a black bird of prey attacking a white dove. But wow…the newspapers are filled with real articles set in the reality of the movie, and the restaurant menus (which I don’t remember even appearing on screen) are specific to the Grand Budapest’s dining room. No detail is missing or skimmed over.

Atkins speaks of the role that such props perform for the actors. We might not see the menus, or the papers scattered on the concierge’s desk, but the actors do. And having “real world” items in front of them helps the actors to anchor their characters and define their performances.

(I remember an interview with the late actor John Spencer, about the props for “The West Wing.” If his character was being briefed about a stealth attack helicopter, the props department would prepare a folder of actual information on that subject for his character to leaf through…again, despite the fact that nine pages of Lorem Ipsum interspersed with some big photos of helicopters were all that were needed for the purposes of filming. “I sometimes got so engrossed in what I was reading that I’d miss my cue,” he said.)

This kind of stuff spikes my interest, particularly as virtual sets continue to find broader reach in films. Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” armor is a bodysuit with tracking tags, topped with a helmet. Ditto for most of the spacesuits in “Gravity.” How does this affect the actor’s performances?

In “Apollo 13,” Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon were performing inside a historically-accurate mockup of the Apollo 13 crew and lunar modules. Hanks is a space nut, so he studied hard, mastering the training manuals that NASA prepared for its own personnel and listening to unedited recordings of the chatter between Houston and the crew during the mission. By the time shooting began he knew his stuff so well that when his character needed to be doing something, anything, to look busy…he was reaching up and flipping the exact switches on the exact section of the console related to the functions of the mission at that point during the flight. No script, not part of the plot…cycling that specific breaker was just something his character ought to be doing during Hour 5 of Day Two of the mission.

The production even put the set on a plane and flew it in zero-G arcs, to shoot scenes in true microgravity. The actors were floating in space, inside an environment that was accurate to the closest detail. How did that enhance their process, compared to actors who had to perform their lines with complete commitment to the truth of their characters, while at the same time having to tell themselves “This isn’t a box painted green, in a room painted green: this is a rock in a forest, and there are cars from the 1940s parked in a clearing about 20 feet away…”?

Aren’t they missing something by not having the physical presence of a costume or a set around them to get them into the role?

Or is this a naive question that only a non-actor would think about? Maybe the actors in “Gravity” preferred the soft, capture-tagged jumpsuits. A spacesuit helps an astronaut do his or her job, which is to work on a satellite in orbit without getting killed. A costume spacesuit helps a actor to do his or her job, too…which is to create a believable character without getting distracted by how uncomfortable the outfit is. 

I’ve read interviews with actors that praise motion-capture filmmaking. Tom Hanks compared his experience on “The Polar Express” to doing a small stage production. In conventional films, he said, he spends most of the time waiting in his trailer while the crew sets lights and cameras and microphones. He said that he enjoyed motion-capture because all of the technical filmmaking stuff would be done later on. He was free to just spend most of his time on the set, actually acting.

I loved “Grand Budapest,” with a couple of minor reservations. I thought some scenes ran too long; if a scene isn’t advancing the plot or showing us something about the characters, I get a little antsy. I wished that many of its interesting characters stuck around for a while instead of just coming and going, and (this isn’t a spoiler, I promise) the story is set inside so many layers of storytelling that I could be forgiven for comparing “Grand Budapest” to “Inception.”

But I recommend it. I strongly recommend that you see it in a theater while you still can. Any Wes Anderson movie is a sumptuous visual experience and “Grand Budapest” exceeds everything else he’s done.

It also left me with the impression that I missed a lot of the movie’s subtext on this one viewing. I love that reaction; it suggests that there are layers to the thing and that the director didn’t feel the need to leave his intentions right at the surface. “Grand Budapest” doesn’t exactly take a turn in its final act, but there’s a solemn sense of gravity about its events that wasn’t there at the beginning. And that wasn’t the result of sloppy filmmaking.

The movie is set during a set in Wes Anderson’s version of 1932 Europe, not history’s. But the tension is the same: it’s a moment of transition. It’s the end of an era in which, when your train is stopped and boarded by armed men in uniform, you can have faith in the influence of your travel documents,  your personal connection to the chief-of-police’s family, and your personal grooming. Some people are as unequipped to handle the change in atmosphere the same way that a fish isn’t equipped to handle dry land.

Also, the story’s from the point of view of a man in his early old age recounting experiences from his late youth. As such, it makes sense for him to have a nostalgic tone at the start, and finish in melancholy as he looks back on how these transitions effected the  people in his life, and the hotel. There was a golden era, partly based on reality, partly based on what we hoped it to be, but now it’s long past. The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t what it once was, but it’s a memento of a time that he cherishes.

Finally: F. Murray Abraham’s score at roles in which he plays an old man telling a story about what he was up to thirty or forty years ago is now 2-nil in the actor’s favor. Fun fact: at 74, he is now as old as Salieri was supposed to be during the “present day” sequences of “Amadeus.”

Now that the idea “reshoot the ‘Old Salieri’ sequences with the real 74 year-old F. Murray Abraham” is in my head, I deeply, deeply regret not being a founding employee of Google or a Powerball lottery winner. I bet I could make it happen on a $20,000,000 budget (with half going to the actor). It’s enough dough to convince Murray and Milos Forman to defer the “we mustn’t tamper with art” arguments to a later date (say, during a 60 day vacation rental on one of those islands Richard Branson owns). I wonder if Abraham’s performance would be even better, now that he doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to look back on one’s youth?

Damn damn damn. That’s a great idea. Then I’d do the same for the “Back To The Future” movies. It’s even better than the idea I had where I digitally edit “Seinfeld” and other sitcoms to swap out the TVs, phones, and computers for moden devices that don’t make the show look so dated.