Wes Anderson’s films have long been touted for the distinctly handmade worlds in which they take place. The filmmaker’s latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” set in the fictional country of Zubrowka, takes Anderson’s fastidious attention to mise en scene to a new level.
“I can’t say I ever think of the setting as a character,” Anderson says of the titular hotel, and its conspicuous presence in his comedic yet rueful story about memory, lost love and vanishing innocence.
Production designer Adam Stockhausen, who with set director Anna Pinnock is nominated for an Oscar, agrees. “If the setting becomes interesting and becomes less setting than character, I think that’s great. But that’s not the point,” he says. “It’s not trying to be a character itself, and it’s certainly not trying to upstage anybody.”
In fitting with Anderson’s roster of quirky worlds (e.g. the residences of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the Bishop family in “Moonrise Kingdom”; the eponymous train of “The Darjeeling Limited”; that loopy submarine seen in cross-section in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”), the hotel and Zubrowka may teeter into the realm of fantasy, but their inspiration is the very real period between the two World Wars in Eastern Europe. Anderson and Stockhausen scoured reams of old photographs of the region and took extensive scouting trips to Prague, Carlsbad, Vienna and Budapest.
Stockhausen credits those trips with providing him vital insight into the film’s design. “Sometimes you see real details that you could never make up,” he says.
Pinnock agrees the integration of the region’s actual structures created a rich, layered look to the sets. “We were able to create scenery and dressing over the existing ancient crumbling structures,” she says.
Anderson found that shooting on location, including a former department store in Görlitz, eastern Germany, with a huge atrium, bolstered the narrative.
“The characters sort of relate to that real setting,” he says.
Adds Pinnock: “Some things can get ridiculous or farcical I suppose, but there’s a reality to the characters. They’ve got human needs — they need a human environment that we can all relate to.”
The singular personalities of the inhabitants of the Budapest called for some Andersonian modifications to historical accuracy. Stockhausen delighted in making character-specific tweaks to the set. “All kinds of things are custom-built to work with the characters,” he says.
Pinnock also enjoyed reflecting the whimsical characters in her work. “Because the script is quite loose and funny, you could add a twist to things,” she says. “With Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), we were quite adventurous with color, and we used a very loud carpet.”
Much of “Budapest’s” design appeal lies in its range of its sets. In addition to the much-extolled use of existing small European towns, Anderson deftly used miniatures, which have become a celebrated aspect of his oeuvre. When the team determined that the exterior of the Grand Budapest could not be achieved on a full set, Stockhausen oversaw construction of a delicate, sugary-pink miniature structure, perched atop tiny Alpine slopes and a hand-painted backdrop.
“It allows for the way the hotel is presented to be a controlled thing,” Stockhausen says. “It expands the handmade look and feel and finish of the film to a new scale, where even the sky is handmade.” Stockhausen also points out that the film’s climactic action sequence might have clashed with the rest of the film had it been shot by helicopters on the actual Alps.
“The skiing and the sledding were tremendously fun the way it was done in miniature,” he says. “All of that could have been done full-scale, but it would have been a different movie.”