I love everything about Wes Anderson movies. From the way he creates unique worlds to the unusual characters that occupy the screen, Anderson is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker that always makes something special. His newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, continues his streak of making exceptional films. The story mostly takes place in early 20th-century, and revolves around the goings-on at a famous European hotel where a legendary concierge (Ralph Fiennes) mentors a young employee (Tony Revolori) against the backdrop of a changing continent. The film also stars Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Lea Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwarztman, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, and Owen Wilson. For more on the film, here’s all our previous coverage.
The day after the world premiere, I participated in a great roundtable interview with Fiennes in Berlin. He talked about how he got involved in the project, working with Anderson, having group dinners with the cast, if his process changed now that he’s directed his own movies, if he’s interested in directing more Shakespeare after tackling Coriolanus, and so much more. Hit the jump for what he had to say. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens March 7th.
RALPH FIENNES: He sent me a script and was a bit vague about what part he wanted me to consider. Said, “Tell what part you’d like to play.” “Oh well, I suppose the big one.” I’m joking, it was a funny approach because it was slightly circular and then he said, “No, I’d like you to play Gustave.” Of course I said, “I’d love to.” It was on the page, it was a great part, seemed very funny. I didn’t know how he wanted it pitched because it’s a part that could be portrayed quite as Broadway or campy way possibly. His note to me, the man is simpler and comes from you that’s what he felt it was working. We did lots and lots of takes so there’s a whole other Gustave out there.
When do you know when you’re in good hands with a filmmaker, when it’s a good collaboration?
FIENNES: You go on a gut instinct that someone is observing you, giving you good notes. You have an instinct, it’s a good note or when it’s a sort of bullshitting note. I think all actors are quite quick to sort of feel, “This person’s really seeing what I’m doing and they see my weaknesses or they’re letting me breathe.” Like anything to do with trust, in any relationship it emerges and just the chemistry, vibe between two people. You just know whether this is someone I like to be with whose interaction with me I believe in. There’s not one thing. It’s not great if someone gives you sort of bland praise without giving you clear direction and say, “This is good, let’s try it like this.” I have worked with someone who seemed quite inarticulate and just would say, “That’s good, that’s good.” That’s very frustrating because—it’s nice to know something is good but you know it can always change. There’s infinite ways to play a scene, infinite possibilities of how to say any line, and if you feel you’re with someone who is aware of that and at the same time is sort of guiding it—their film because they know what they want their film to be. When you feel a mixture of someone having an intelligent discussion about where to take it, at the same time they’re not indulging you and that you feel they are nurturing their film to where they want it to be, as an actor you want to feel you’re in the hands of someone who’s got the reins.
Were there times that you resisted Wes?
FIENNES: There was only one time when I felt that prearranged camera moves—which I tried to make work because it required me and Tony to go to these different places in the course of a scene. They’ve been pre-decided and I couldn’t make them organic, I tried to. In the end I did say, “I’m really finding this hard. I’m trying to make it work.” And there’s a thing when something, you just feel it works. It can be something given to you and you go, “Ah this is a good idea, I can work with this.” Sometimes it cuts right across your instinct and that’s when I might resist. I believe you should say, even if the director might be insistent, I think it’s very important to say, “Look, I’m not feeling this. I’ll try to make it work but I got to let you know.” I mean, absolutely blunt resistance, I’m not sure I’m that sort of person. There’s only one day to shoot a scene so under the umbrella of, “Let’s be transparent with each other because we want to make it as good as we can,” if it’s not working to say it.
Did he alter the scene?
FIENNES: He could see then. He’s a very smart guy. He sort of had a plan, saw that it wasn’t quite working and said, “Okay, we’ll do it this way.”
Is it a walking and talking scene that you had to kind of adjust yourself?
In the hotel?
FIENNES: No, it wasn’t in the hotel.
At what point in the process did he show you the animatic he created of the movie, was it when he was offering you the script or on set?
FIENNES: He was very open and wanted to show us the animatics. They helped a lot to a point, it was sort of satisfying to see, “Oh this is the movie.” You could see what it might be but I didn’t want to look at that. I didn’t want to study them because I wanted to find it on the day, you know. I think ones own imagination, the world you’re inhabiting as an actor is a thing you need.
You were committed to the part, you were on set and then he showed it to you?
FIENNES: No, before. He had prepared all this way in advance. He would sort of say, “If you want to see it, it’s here.” I did see some of them and they were great to see but I didn’t want to be so wedded to them or feel it present in my head as an image while I was doing the scenes.
Now that you’re directing, do you kind of sit and think, “This is how I would do it?”
FIENNES: No, no, not at all. Certainly on this film, it’d be much more, “Oh I see. This is interesting, this is how Wes is doing that. Wow.” I mean, often times it was his camera man, Bob Yeoman, has to do very complicated and highly precise camera moves that have to come—the camera has to whip pan 90 degrees and not be seen to jiggle. It’s incredibly difficult camera operation Wes was asking for and it’s impressive to see it. I actually felt I was learning.
Now that you’ve directed and edited yourself, how has that changed you as an actor? Do you approach it differently now with the experience of directing?
FIENNES: I think because I had to face all the bad stuff with an editor, you have to sort of watch yourself if you direct, you have to face it and see stuff often you feel is embarrassing or wrong or, with a good editor, it’s shape. It’s kind of released me in some way, I think. I think, “Oh well, they’ll find it.” The actor shouldn’t edit themselves or be anxious. On the day, be free. And the actors that I admire are always the ones who are inventive and their imaginative life in free-willing. It’s a director’s job to go, “No here, don’t do that, go there.”
Who are those actors that you admire?
FIENNES: Mark Rylance, on stage would be a sure one. Very sad of course about Phillip Seymour Hoffman but he would be someone that I’ve seen every single performance, I feel. There was a great actor, totally free and totally in his world, just totally inside something but so present in it. That would be two people who come to mind.
Do you feel competitive with other actors at all, someone like Rylance?
FIENNES: No, I think I feel more inspired when I see Mark. I think I have felt competitive in the past with people but I went to see Mark on stage in New York and just felt like he inspired me. I want to get back on stage. I saw Twelfth Night.
Do you have any fun anecdotes you can share about what happened behind the camera while you were in town filming?
FIENNES: I get asked that question and my mind goes blank. It’s like saying, “What are your 10 best films?”
You were probably working all the time while they were hanging out. How long were you there?
FIENNES: About ten weeks. We work all together all the time, actors came and went.
Bill Murray said that at any point in the day he’d go to a bar and someone from the cast would be drinking.
FIENNES: I just remember a great atmosphere of us all being together, at night, in the evening, that’s what I’m carrying in my head. On the sets it was very cold and we’re all in a green room together and being fed coffee and sandwiches, waiting and waiting and waiting. That was a wonderful sense of camaraderie because the conditions were quite basic. There’s no studio-style special treatment for anyone and that creates a great atmosphere, everyone’s the same.
Were the dinners voluntary or was it something Wes wanted you all to do?
FIENNES: They were totally voluntary. We all went out to these restaurants. Often, I would want to change the pattern but it was a constant and that’s always good to know it’s there.
FIENNES: I think like everything, the tone of Gustave the person emerges, so towards the end it’s sort of there. But I do remember Wes would—we did lots and lots of takes—he would want to see the broader version maybe, I got the impression, “I want to see, maybe that’s the one that will work.” And I loved that, that was great, to feel like you’re being, “Go this way, go that way, try this,” until you’ve exhausted it. I think it the process, I don’t know how clearly I’m remembering this, but I have a memory that the first two or three weeks were us finding it. And then probably by half way through, whatever I was doing sort of seemed to be on his own, that was becoming Gustave.
Is there anything in the final product that surprised you in terms of which take and tone? Was Gustave pretty consistent?
FIENNES: It seems to me that Wes has chosen the sort of simpler, more—for lack of a better phrase—underplayed takes. That’s my sense but thank God I haven’t been in the editing suites, so I don’t know.
I’m surprised Gustave uses expletives in the movie because he’s so polite, he knows poetry and every once in a while he throws in an f-word. Was that surprising when you read the script?
FIENNES: No because one of the people I thought of, my old agent, who’s sadly passed on now, he was a gentleman, very precise, had been an actor, quite honorable, known as a gentleman, talent agent, and he would often say things like, “I can’t believe her, she’s such a cunt.” He would come out with expletives, “I don’t give a fuck, who cares.”
There are some great moments where Gustave has these frustrated outbursts and they’re very palpable and very funny, specifically in the confession box.
FIENNES: Lisa, my publicist says that’s me.
Leading up to those moments, making that organic, is that a matter of doing a lot of takes or shooting chronologically or is it just you building it up and letting it go?
FIENNES: We did lots and lots of takes. So probably that frustration has come out, “For fuck’s sake, Wes! What the fuck’s going on here?”
When you’re on set, do you know when chemistry is working or can you not see it until you actually see the movie?
FIENNES: That’s a very good question. I think sometimes you do have a sense that it’s there and then you hope it’s being caught. If the camera’s not in the right position, all this chemistry can be flying around and it’s not being filmed. Sometimes you think it’s there and then you see it and it was there, sometimes you think it’s there and you see it and you go, “Oh, I thought that was going to be better than that.” Other times you think, “I fucked that up. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in it, I lost it, I couldn’t do it.” And then actually when it’s all put together, “Oh, chemistry.”
I’m curious about your process as an actor and how it’s possibly changed over the last few years. Have you done anything that’s sort of streamlined it, do you still spend the same about of time in preparation?
FIENNES: I think probably directing myself in these two films and being with a great editor who had to be kind of rigorous, and then look at other actors and edit performances. You do, to a large extent, construct performance. It’s a cliche, performance is made in the editing room, and I’ve come to see the truth in that—the idea that they say performances are usually made in the editing room because what you film is the raw material. I think just going through the process of saying, “Which take do we use? Why is that the take we want? I want that take can you edit again, I’m not sure that’s the one, I think it’s this one.” And just because you go through that process, I think somehow it’s made me, and I can’t really articulate it very well but, I think it’s made me sort of more open about the possibilities.
I’ve come away from it feeling, “Just be open. Don’t try to manage your performance as an actor, let the director…” It’s come back, in the end, to the truth in the piece of advice … it’s confirmed, I should say, a piece of advice that was given to me very early on by the principle of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) which is where I went. When he auditioned me, he said, “Your speech, monologue, is fine. It’s good. Yeah, I think you have ability but you’re making it happen. Don’t make it happen, let it happen.” And that’s a sort of subtle shift I think, as an actor. Of course you do make it happen, you make yourself learn your lines, you go to the set but there’s a bit of your head you should let go of. So do a sort of simplicity and being kind of an interior part of you that’s open and present. Having gone through editing process, I can see that in actor’s faces there’s point where they’re not managing their performance and that’s, I think, the best place to be. You’ve done the homework, you’ve learned the lines, at that point you just sort of let it out. No amount of preparation, research, no amount of that—and even Stanislavski talked about it, he said, “At the moment of inspiration you have to do all the work but then there’s a point where you just have to be ready and be open.” You can make that happen but it’s sort of to do with letting the anxiety of an actor which is, “Will I get it right? Will it be good?” Letting that go of it and just being very present.
Do you look back much? Are you a person who looks back?
FIENNES: I reflect on things but I don’t really look back.
Do you ever look at like The English Patient and watch that performance and see a different actor?
FIENNES: I’m made uncomfortable seeing stuff. I always come away thinking, “I’ll be better next time.” I saw that film last when Anthony [Minghella] died and it was on television. I find it very moving because he had passed away and suddenly the making of the film, less so than the content of the film, came back to me—where we were filming, it was a long, long shoot, five months, I think.
Have you been nursing any notions of doing another adaptation of a Shakespeare work and what was your experience with Coriolanus? Kenneth Branagh recently said he got sick of financing smaller, more artistic films and you seem to have taken over the mantle. You’re the guy I associate with being the interpreter of Shakespeare these days.
FIENNES: I don’t know about that. All I know is that one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor was because my mother had succeeded in instilling me a sort of response and a love of Shakespeare’s texts when I was very young. I did have to start it in school but prior to school, I had a mother who put on recordings of Laurence Olivier speaking speeches, and I kind of thought it was great. In my twenties deciding that’s what I wanted to do and it was sort of the idea that, “Well, I might be able to be in a Shakespeare play.” It was a prime motivator, I wanted to be an actor. I actually came to Stratford-on-Avon in 1988, I think, that felt like my big break, “This is it. I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m at the Royal Shakespeare Company.” I was aware of Coriolanus as a play and when I was in drama school, I saw it on stage and it really affected me. It’s not an easy play but it gathers to a place where it’s profoundly moving. I just saw Tom Hiddleston be fantastic as Coriolanus at the Donmar, and again, the power of the play, it’s weird for me to see because it’s probably the one text I know because I had to edit it and live in it and played it on stage as well as filmed it. But I saw this great production and this gathers to this place that’s real, pure, to tragic momentum. It reminded me that’s the thing, why I wanted to make that film.
I don’t know if I’ll make another Shakespeare film but I couldn’t get this mad idea of making Coriolanus out of my head and for a long time I had it in my head as an idea but thought, “No one will take me seriously. I’ll just be another actor putting their Shakespeare vanity project on the table.” It was really John Logan who when I pitched him, I put together some photographs with the help of a photo researcher, so I had a sort of file of images and that was a very exciting moment. I broke down the play into filmic ideas using images—photojournalistic images of war zones and protests, and generals’ faces and faces of powerful-looking women for the mother. So I could actually, as a pitch go, “This is the story, this is what happens.” And every time I pitched it, in my own words with this sort of visual aide, I could feel people really listening and they had come into the room thinking, “Eh, actor here with a Shakespeare project, eh.” But then the story seemed to have some kind of potency and it was really John Logan who had a love of Shakespeare, when I also did this pitch to him, he said, “I love it. I would like to write it.” That was the first sort of validation of this idea.
It’s a very long winded way of saying that whole journey had its own particular thing to do with that play that I felt very strongly about being a sort of parable about our times. If you look at the world now continually, like those riots on the front of your Herald Tribune, I think that’s the Ukraine, that’s a still from Coriolanus you see there. The Herald Tribune in the past, it always chose a photograph that seemed—the riots in Burma, the riots in Athens, or images of the war in Iraq, this is the film I’m carrying in my head. That’s why I wanted to make it, I felt it’s sort of an examination of our dysfunction as a nationalistic, tribal entities. I think the world is rocking and cracking open in weird and worrying places. And I think Coriolanus, the play, reflected that.
Could you talk about Wes’ handling of heavy material, like what you described, but in a very light way?
FIENNES: In the group just now we were talking about maybe—I don’t think Wes’ nature. I think he comes at things in a sort of delicate, almost circular way. The end of this film, with its pastiche, Fascist S.S. soldiers comes right at the time in the film is at its most kind of comic momentum. I think that’s a very clever way, this sort of punch at the end of the film is stronger because you weren’t expecting it, and the whole tone and comic momentum feel has taken us somewhere else. I think Wes would acknowledge there’s a sort of a “to be or not to be” Ernst Lubitsch reference in the background, why if you slightly ridicule, ridicule is also a weapon against forces of evil. Really clever, intelligent ridicule. I think it’s a very interesting area because internally something very serious happens at the end and it goes to black and white and something changes, it shifts. So the film has a sad, almost troubling quality at the end. Sad, sad story.
One of the things I found interesting about Gustave is that there’s sort of an ambiguous sexuality to him. Was that something that you and Wes discussed?
FIENNES: Yeah, absolutely. Wes was keen not to label him overtly but clearly all these things were there. There’s a sexual ambiguity in him, lines like, “I go to bed with all my friends.” Or when the prisoners say to him, “We think you’re a real straight fella.” And he says, “I’ve never been accused of that before but I appreciate the compliment.”