Wes Anderson and I had our third, and longest, Grand Budapest Hotel conversation in February 2014 at the Algonquin Hotel. Our conversation lasted a little more than two hours, starting at a small table in the hotel’s main lobby and continuing at another table in an adjacent bar. This is a segment of that conversation, a significantly longer version of which appears in my book The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is out today from Abrams.
How do you decide which details to include in a script, beyond the plot and dialogue?
I used to put a lot more stuff in my scripts. I used to put in everything I knew. If I had some information about the costumes or details of the set, I would put them in there so that the different departments would have it all in front of them.
And then, after a point, I stopped putting in a lot of that kind of stuff. I started trying to put in only the stuff that helps you along in the story, and that helps you picture a character as a person. And I stopped putting in specific music, unless it’s something that’s really relevant to the scene, like when the people on-screen are singing a Gregorian chant. I don’t name specific songs.
Why? Because the people who own the rights to the song might read the script and go, “Wow, Wes Anderson must really want this. We can charge him a lot”?
Or somebody else gets a hold of the script, and they use that song in another movie before we even get a chance to. You know, with that sort of thing, like with a lot of stuff, it’s not a terrible idea to kind of just keep it under your hat a bit.
Also, I don’t really like putting camera descriptions in screenplays, because they’re boring to read. Every now and then, I will say, “The camera moves to such and such,” but I only do that if I think it’s the only way for me to express what’s happening — that there’s no other way for me to describe it. Like, you know that one shot in The Darjeeling Limited where we’re kind of moving through this train car and looking at these people in the compartments? That’s something I wouldn’t know how to describe without mentioning the camera. You might as well just tell people what the shot is.
Your script reads like literature. But the delineation of what’s narration versus what’s action — that’s somewhat blurrier on the page than it is in the finished film.
Well, like I was saying, the screenplay is written to be read. So that means I’m writing it more like a short story. That’s what I always try to do: aim it more toward a reader than toward the people who are going to be making the movie, because I figure I’m going to be there, anyway.
On the set, you mean.
I mean, I can also go the other way, and describe things differently from the way I’m going to actually shoot them. Sometimes, on the page, I’m describing something a particular way, but I know I’m not actually going to shoot it that way once I’m on the set. A lot of times, I write it another way in the script because describing it exactly the way I plan to shoot it would take up too much space or just be confusing, and I don’t want to subject anybody to that. I want to give people something that’s nice to read. I’m also careful with the punctuation, and that certainly doesn’t show up in the movie.
If you were writing the narration after the fact, as some directors do, you could just make it fit with the action on-screen; but that’s not what you did in this movie. You went onto the set already knowing what the narration would be, right?
And the narration works with the image precisely. You have scenes where you hear a bit of narration, and then the character will say, “And then he said to me … ” and then the camera will whip-pan to catch a line of dialogue right when a character says it. How do you do that kind of filmmaking? I mean, in practical terms?
Well, doing that sort of stuff, you know, with [F.] Murray [Abraham] and Jude [Law] and Jason [Schwartzman] and everyone — when we were on the set, what would happen is, they would do their part, and then I would say the narration, and then they would continue.
So you were standing off-screen while the actors were performing the scene, reading the narration out loud?
Yes, but then I had one scene — I don’t remember exactly where it is — with Ralph [Fiennes], where I was going to do that. We’re doing the scene, we’re doing take one, and then Ralph says his thing, and I chime in, and this is the way we’ve always been doing it, and then Ralph looks at me and says, “What are you doing, darling?”
“Is it meant to be that way? Is there not another way to go about this? Can we not just imagine your voice?”
Could you “just imagine,” though, and get the timing right?
Ralph is very precise.
There were a couple of other places where I didn’t quite leave enough room for this line or that line, though, and I thought: “We’re going to have to go into the editing room later and figure out how to do that.” And we did figure it out. Nowadays we have, I guess you could say, digital alternatives. We can slow something down just slightly, imperceptibly, and speed something up a little bit, stuff that we never used to be able to do before.
It’s interesting, this sort of narration, because of this “Show, don’t tell” thing that they teach you in film school and in screenwriting books — this anti-narration sentiment. In fact, there’s a good joke in Adaptation about that. It’s the Robert McKee seminar when the schmuck screenwriter is sitting out in the audience muttering to himself in voice-over, going “I’ve sold out, I am worthless …” and McKee yells, “… and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends! God help you!” And, at that point, the voice-over narration on the film ceases and is never heard from again.
I wonder: When do we first hear narration like that, in a movie? Not where it’s just there at the beginning to sort of get you into the story, but where it’s all the way through? I mean, I can’t think of movies in the 1930s where there’s narration, but I can think of plenty of movies in the 1940s. Can you name a 1930s movie with the kind of narration we do in our movie?
I can’t think of too many. [But] I’m mainly going down this road because I’m interested in your thoughts on the “Show, don’t tell” edict.
Well, that’s the thing that some movies do, where you can tell they’re using narration to pretty obviously fix problems in the story. But if you do good writing as part of the narration, and if the narration is a part of the whole idea of the movie, that’s just a different thing. If you go to Stanley Kubrick’s movies, you see great examples of narration. Apocalypse Now is the best voice-over [ever].
It’s Raymond Chandler–esque. It turns into Philip Marlowe Goes to Nam in certain places. “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”
The Coen brothers have often done great narration, sometimes in pretty surprising ways. In The Big Lebowski, we have a narrator who seems like he’s one of those detached narrators, but as it turns out he’s an actual guy, and he appears in the movie. Who knows how he got there, but there he is. And they do sort of the same thing in The Hudsucker Proxy, but he’s a little more directly involved.
You do a version of that in Moonrise as well, where Bob Balaban’s “stage manager” character, at first, seems like he’s standing outside the story, but then, a few scenes later, he joins it.
Lebowski and Hudsucker: Both of those movies have a similar concept when it comes to narration. And Blood Simple has something like that, too, doesn’t it? Who’s doing the voice-over in Blood Simple?
That’s M. Emmet Walsh’s character, Visser. The private detective.
Emmet Walsh is narrating the movie himself.
From beyond the grave, presumably.
The Sunset Boulevard idea.
Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita is an example of active voice-over. It would be a very different movie if you didn’t hear James Mason reading bits of the novel to you. The sense of humor might get lost, and the whole thing would seem purely tawdry.
I feel like Jude entered my mind when I was thinking of James Mason in Lolita. And I wanted to work with Jude, anyway. I just saw him in Henry V here. He was so great in it. He’s also in that Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects. Did you ever see it?
Yes. Quite an underrated film.
Jude was great in it.
The tone of this film is ultimately a couple of inches away from being a fable. But it doesn’t feel like a lesson. They’re running, they’re climbing, they’re jumping, they’re hiding, they’re carrying pastry boxes so that you don’t see their faces. It’s very madcap, but there’s also the constant threat of death hanging over them.
It’s a little bit strange, this movie. It’s very gently paced, and then, suddenly, it’s pretty fast and goes along really, really quickly for the rest of the movie — but then, just as suddenly, it becomes slow again. Those framing scenes with Murray Abraham and Jude Law are just a whole different movie. I mean, they even have a completely different kind of rhythm.
The movie’s also a little bloodier than I expected it to be. I didn’t notice during the writing of it how many limbs are getting chopped off, how many knives and guns are being used. But when we actually looked at the whole thing in Paris, we invited a friend who brought his daughter there, and she kept covering her eyes. And we thought, “This is too violent for Lily!” I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I thought the bloody stuff was kind of supposed to just be funny. If you’ve got some screaming woman’s head lifted up by the hair, I can see now why that might be disturbing, but I can’t say that at the time I expected it to be gravely serious.
It’s bloody, but in the way that Evil Dead II is bloody. It harks back to that sort of Roald Dahl sense of humor that you teased out in Fantastic Mr. Fox. You’re not supposed to be horrified when you see Mr. Fox’s tail being worn as a necktie; it’s just a little sick joke. I like what you said: that it was Roald Dahl’s idea to shoot Fox’s tail off, but that your movie added the touch of turning it into a necktie. “That basically defines the collaboration.”
I read an interview with you once where you were talking about traveling in Europe and how World War II is still very much a presence there. You said, “It’s still right in the middle of our lives.” What did you mean by that?
I wouldn’t say it’s just in Europe. I feel like it’s that way in the United States, too. To me it is, anyway. I feel like some reference to the war and the Holocaust comes up most days, at some point during a day. I don’t think the same can be said of Napoleon or George Washington. World War II is such a gigantic, horrific, insane episode that it’s still kind of right there — or right here. It’s an incalculably gigantic event.
It’s certainly a presence when you travel in Europe. But in the states? Not so much. Except for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the United States was spared any direct physical impact by World War II. But there are still preserved ruins from that period in Europe. And people still stumble across bombs and mines.
That’s true. In fact, in Mr. Fox, they blew one up in the canal next to the studio where we were. They found a doodlebug, I think it’s called — that’s the kind of bomb — that had not exploded, and they had to detonate it. And they had a humongous explosion.
I mean, when they found it — I don’t remember how it was discovered; I think it was because they were going to do some construction, and they drained a part of the canal, and it revealed this bomb. We had to shut down the movie for X number of days, and it was a big thing. And then we recorded the explosion, and we used it in the movie twice. We have two bombs going off in the movie, and we used the doodlebug explosion both times.
I didn’t know that.
They blow up the Fox family’s tree; and then, later, Mrs. Fox does some detonating of her own. So we used the same bomb again. It was a local bomb.
[Wes inspects the author’s drink.]
What is that? Is that like a grappa or something?
That’s a coffee bean floating in it, right?
Yeah. I’m into sambuca at the moment. I’m not sure why.
I want to try something different here. Over the past six months, readers have been sending me questions that they would like me to ask you, and I have a few of them here. Maybe I can just ask them, and you can answer them?
Here’s the first one: “Do you have particular writing rituals?”
I use little spiral notebooks of a particular kind. I have an odd sort of format. But I don’t write out the entire script in a notebook and finish it that way and then start typing it. I write in the notebook, then I type some of it, then I go back to the notebook, and so on.
Although, on Moonrise Kingdom, I remember I had twelve or thirteen pages or something, the beginning of it, and I thought, “Now I should type this,” but then I kept going, and I did it all in the notebook. And then suddenly I was faced with, “Now I have to type this whole movie.”
Another question: “This is the first script where you have a solo credit for the screenplay. Your others were collaborations. What is it like working with different writers versus writing by yourself?”
Well, you know, this movie wasn’t actually that different of a process from other ones — different parts of different ones. Noah Baumbach and I, for Life Aquatic, really did sort of sit there together, all the way through the process. Bottle Rocket, certainly, and Rushmore: Owen and I were together while we were writing those.
But, on the other hand, at different phases of all of those scripts, there were times when I was working on my own a bit. So it’s not like I felt, on this movie, “I’m on my own here.” In fact, I had Hugo Guinness, who is a very old friend, hysterically funny and tremendously intelligent, working with me on the story from the very beginning.
“Will you ever write and direct a horror film?” And a related question: “Did you see The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, and, if so, what did you think of it?” Referring to the parody that Saturday Night Live did of your movies in fall 2013, starring Edward Norton as Owen Wilson.
Well, to answer that first question first, I would like to do a horror movie. And it would obviously not relate in any way whatsoever to what Saturday Night Live did. Edward did ask me what title I might use for a horror movie, though.
Was he trying to get ideas for the SNL spoof?
Right. He didn’t explain the context. I thought we were brainstorming together for a future project. But I was very happy to see the result. It looked like they spent some money on it.
Did they use the title that you suggested to Edward Norton?
Do you remember what title you suggested?
Something like The Whispen in the Stalking. I think we sort of made up some words.
Have you given any thought to what a Wes Anderson horror film might look like, or what sort of general mood you’d go for?
I don’t know. Maybe I might go for Alien or something.
OK, here’s another one. “Why have you never made a musical?”
Because I never really loved musicals. I think I like them more now than I used to, but it was definitely not a genre that I was studying. I wouldn’t mind doing a musical now, though, or, at least, throwing in a singing/dancing number here or there.
You could see there being musical interludes in your films, then, but you can’t see yourself doing a start-to-finish musical?
I don’t think so.
“Do you believe in the idea of guilty pleasure films, and if so, what is one of your guilty pleasure films?”
You know, the problem with my guilty pleasure films is that I don’t feel guilty about them. I don’t really experience that sensation. But, I guess, a movie like Godzilla might probably fit into that category. Any movie like Deep Impact or I Am Legend would fit into that category for me. Anything where the Earth is going to be obliterated or frozen or New York is going to be shaken to its foundation fits into that category. I’m drawn to that sort of stuff. I feel guilty watching video of a tsunami flooding a city. Have you ever seen that kind of footage?
I have, and I can’t tear myself away.
You’re seeing reality turned completely upside down and inside out. The transformation is so total and so radical. Anyway, I guess that would be my guilty pleasure — so guilty that I’m extremely reluctant to use the word “pleasure.”
I know what you mean.
OK, another one.
“How did your mother’s job as an archaeologist influence you?”
Well, the mother is an archaeologist in The Royal Tenenbaums. Other than that, I don’t know. I can’t say I really ever knew that much about what she was doing, though I’m sure you can see some little influences here or there if you look.
“Why do animals have such a rough time of it in your movies?”
I don’t think they necessarily do have a rough time of it. Compared to the humans, anyway. There’s a cycle of life and death, and all aspects of existence might figure into it.
“Have you ever thought of starting your own fashion line?”
I prefer to work on costumes that go with a story.
“Would you ever direct a film based on somebody else’s script?”
I would do that if I felt that I didn’t have something to do on my own, or if I didn’t have anything to adapt at that moment.
“How do you know if a gag is going to work in a movie?”
I don’t know. There’s a certain kind of joke where if the audience doesn’t laugh, the movie’s in trouble. And then there’s another kind of joke where they might not laugh the first or second time, but eventually they’ll say, “Oh, that’s funny.” And I guess there are also certain kinds of gags that are entertaining without having a punch line.
“You mentioned in an interview that you would like to make a science-fiction movie that is actually shot in outer space. Were you just messing with people?”
Well, I’m open to it.
OK, here’s a big one: “In your filmic universe, is there a God, and if so, does God stand aloof or intervene?”
Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), a Pulitzer Prize finalist for criticism, writes for New York magazine, serves as editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and is the author of The Wes Anderson Collection (Abrams 2013).
This piece has been updated to correct an error in which a mention of F. Murray Abraham was incorrectly changed to Bill Murray.