BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Critics of Wes Anderson’s unique brand of fantastical, eccentric, clockwork filmmaking often suggest that his movies are airy, ornamental inventions lacking the gravity of truly profound storytelling.
On first blush that may seem true. Each of his eight meticulously handcrafted films has proven itself as intricate and multi-faceted as a Faberge egg. Not everyone appreciates their delicacy, but no one can deny their exacting artfulness.
Ralph Fiennes knows this knock on Anderson’s work, yet this most respected British actor – twice Oscar-nominated for weighty dramatic performances (in “The English Patient” and “Schindler’s List”) – quickly jumped to embrace an antic, comic-tinged role in the director’s new Eurocentric caper, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
During press interviews for the film, hosted by Fox Searchlight at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, Fiennes, who has known Anderson off-screen for many years, said the director’s movies are indeed visually playful but also possess a depth of character and humanity that detractors often miss.
There’s plenty of eye candy in Anderson films, he said, but there’s always much more there than meets the eye.
For his role as the Grand Budapest’s suave concierge, Gustave H., who sets off with his loyal lobby boy (Tony Revolori) on an antic caper involving a family of noble scoundrels and stolen Renaissance art, Fiennes said he had a very specific model in mind in fleshing out the character.
“It’s imagination, I suppose,” Fiennes said. “There is a great wealth of information on the page of the screenplay, which immediately gives you a sense of someone. Actually, there is a guy Wes and I know – a friend of Wes’s, someone I know – he was a little bit of a model for Gustave.
“Gustave is a man of innate confidence, but he also has got little vanities and is overly fastidious, perhaps, about some things and has neuroses about smelling nice all the time.
“Also, I started thinking of other people I know,” Fiennes said. “The agent who first represented me, who has sadly now passed on, he was sort of Gustave-like. Larry was known as one of the gentlemen agents in London. Everyone thought he was incredibly charming, honorable, always did business very honorably. He loved opera, particularly, but he also could absolutely go into profanities very quickly if someone was frustrating him. Larry was someone who definitely came to mind playing Gustave, but also if a part is really well written, so immediately your imagination is firing on all cylinders.”
Anderson also gave his cast homework to help build their characters, Fiennes said, in a list of classic Hollywood and European films from the 1930s.
“Wes asked me to see a movie called ‘Trouble in Paradise,’ which is a very early Ernst Lubitsch film, and I also watched ‘The Grand Hotel,’” the actor said. “What else? ‘A Shop Around the Corner,’ another Lubitsch. I also had to view ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ and he asked me to look at an Austrian actor that I love called Anton Walbrook, who is famously in ‘The Red Shoes.’ I think a bit of that – his middle-European fastidiousness – is something Wes wanted me to think about with Gustave.”
Fiennes said he is especially drawn to Anderson’s almost childlike wonder at the magic of movie making, and that that creative enthusiasm is infectious.
“Given the scale that you imagine when you read the script, you have to understand that this is not a big-studio budget, so there has to be an inventiveness about how it’s realized on screen,” Fiennes said.
Much of the interior footage was shot in a cavernous old shopping mall, remade to look like a fancy, old-world hotel, the actor explained.
“I was completely amazed about it,” he said. “One corridor, you can shoot at different angles and it looks like lots of corridors. I love all that stuff, and one of the great pleasures of this was there were a lot of old tricks of the trade to create the impression of an opulent time. Wes loves that stuff and takes a childish delight in how he can create an effect relatively cheaply.”