Wes Anderson came to Chicago at the beginning of the month to promote his new film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel." He arrived by train, stopping on his way from Los Angeles to New York, where he lives. He even had his own private train car. Now, you might assume his mode of transportation was about drawing attention to a new movie — pure whistle-stop promotion. And yet Chicago was his only stop: Anderson just prefers traveling by rail.
Still, doesn't that sound exactly like a Wes Anderson film?
The details are eccentric, elegant, anachronistic, a tad precious. After almost 20 years and eight movies, his work has become so synonymous with an intricately composed, melancholy storybook aesthetic — the fading, color-coordinated patriarchs of "The Royal Tenenbaums," the "Peanuts"-like whimsy of "Moonrise Kingdom," the alternately manic and lonesome shoe-box world of "Rushmore" — you might even picture his train as a toy, chugging past dioramas of small-town America. A picture not unlike the charmingly artificial backdrops in "Grand Budapest." Or the hotel itself: Interiors were shot in an old department store in Germany, but when Anderson shows the outside, it's a model.
A dollhouse world.
Actually, standing inside the director's orbit, however briefly, can feel like a Wes Anderson film too: After a packed recent screening of "Budapest" at the Music Box Theatre, Anderson stepped backstage, surrounded by assistants, publicists, crew, critics. Roman Coppola, his friend and collaborator (and son of Francis Ford Coppola), poked his head into the doorway: "Wes, I'm going to see a friend, and I'll catch up." Anderson nodded and walked through an opposite door and into a snowfall, grabbed a parka from the back of an Escalade, then trudged up an alley. At his side was Tony Revolori, the 18-year-old newcomer whose lobby boy in the film accompanies Ralph Fiennes' concierge on a series of adventures.
Having reached the unmarked lounge that the Music Box keeps in an adjacent building, Anderson passed through one more room and dropped onto a couch. With his camel-colored sports coat, matching pants, longish hair and thin, expectant face, he reminded me of a golden retriever. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Like any filmmaker, any artist, you show certain tics, return to certain themes.
A: I do, I do.
Q: Only for you, that seems doubly true. For one, the passing of a time and place, the decline of a group of people — for instance, the way "Grand Budapest" is set in a civilized European mountain resort between world wars, or even how "Rushmore" brings the daydreaming of its hero back to earth and suggests a loss of innocence — appears to be a unifying thread in many of your movies.
A: A lot of that stuff, I try not to think about that. I don't want to think about it, to be honest. I would like to keep themes, motifs, whatever, abstract. I work on the characters and the experience of the film itself, but I never set out to document a world before it's gone or anything like that. The (Austrian) writer Stefan Zweig, for instance, who inspired "Grand Budapest," shares that theme to some extent, and his memoir was "The World of Yesterday," but he also wrote this book "Brazil, Land of the Future." So he felt he had found a place where life is lived as it should be. He wasn't only looking toward the past. On the other hand, he didn't feel that strongly enough to continue living (the author and his wife killed themselves in 1942).
But your point: The reason I make a movie set in a certain time and place has more to do with whatever I am interested in at that moment, and I am drawn to old things. I like what time can do to people, to buildings and to art.
Q: But even "Moonrise Kingdom," which you shot in Rhode Island. I grew up there. It doesn't capture the place, as it is, so much as the way I like to remember seaside towns when I was younger, a time I can't return to. "Jaws" does that too.
A: You know, when we made "Moonrise Kingdom," I was always thinking about Spielberg and "Jaws." Because "Jaws" comes on like this genre picture, when in fact it's a beautiful portrait of the life of a place and time, the day-to-day existence. It's informed by those rhythms. So we went to Rhode Island many times before shooting, and we used everything — the coast, its feel. It's how I like to make films, within a limited space.
Q: And with a very specific sense of what will be in that space, right? Every prop, every wallpaper, perfume bottle, book spine, seems researched and highlighted.
A: A whole group of people help do that. It's a huge amount of research. And it's not just about meticulously researching objects we will include, but also finding ideas and things to include. To me, every frame of film has to be great until I feel that we should use that frame. If I want to make that frame of film better, I will say, "We can do more with it." Which can result in a very long process of refining everything in it. I don't have preconceptions.
Q: Is it the same with people? Why use Bill Murray as often as you do?
A: Nobody ever asks why, but it's a reasonable question: I work with certain people over and over, and ... I am a fan (of Murray's). I always want to introduce new people to my films but I like a reunion. Bill Murray, even more so. Before I knew him, I was an exponentially greater fan of his than anyone I knew. He had a life before me, of course. Now we have this working history. He has mentored me in a way (since they first worked together on "Rushmore"). Why use him? Well, it's one thing to just get Bill Murray, to find him even. Beyond that, he is supernaturally predisposed to act — there's such a sadness in him.
Q: He's a way of projecting heartbreak.
A: And he can access it.
Q: Now that you've been making movies for about 20 years, I wonder if the way you approach what you include in a frame is a cataloging instinct to capture a thing, a person — a way of saying, these things existed in this place at this time.
A: Yeah, you're describing something I can relate to. If you told me you had this stuff to show me and it was inventoried in a certain way, I would definitely want to see that. Did you see that short film on "Saturday Night Live" last fall? (A spot-on satire of what a Wes Anderson slasher flick might look like, from the whimsy to the cataloging.) They had a character list every object in front of him. Hopefully, I have not become a parody. But there are certain tics …
Q: Were you flattered by that?
A: I was in-between. It's nice to be included, and there was affection there; Ed Norton was in it, and he's a close friend. But I was slightly embarrassed too: Is this what I do?
Q: They got your number.
A: They did. But I would make a way scarier horror film than that.
Q: So do you see your style as inevitable at this point?
A: Good question. But there are so many moving parts and things to research for future films that whatever connects my movies — the repetition, to be harsh about it — is significantly dwarfed by the new ideas. It's a bit like this: I write a story; it's completely different from the last story, but the handwriting is the same, and I can't escape that. I don't want to force myself to adopt someone else's handwriting. It's just my personality.