The night train hasn’t yet left Berlin when Bill Murray pops into the compartment to ask where the balalaika music is.
This is not actually that surprising a question. The person he’s asking is Wes Anderson. It’s the day after the premiere of the writer-director’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the Berlin Film Festival, where it will go on to win the Grand Jury Prize. (It opens in U.S. theaters on March 7.) Murray and Anderson are en route to a press junket in Prague. Barely a minute passes before Randall Poster, the film’s music supervisor, comes by to announce that he’s brought speakers; the balalaika music will be in his compartment.
But let’s make the obvious leap: the scene revolving around Anderson bears a striking similarity to one of the set pieces you’ve come to expect in his movies. There are miniature bottles of Moët crammed into the sink, stern-faced German rail officials, a large cast of characters bucket-brigading luggage. Even the filmmaker, willowy and with piano-worthy fingers that he tends to steeple when he makes a point, fits in.
In October–the same month that saw the release of a massive coffee-table book about Anderson’s films–Saturday Night Live created a parody trailer for a Wes Anderson horror flick called The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, starring Owen Wilson, as portrayed by Edward Norton. As killers surround a house, they exchange notes on cute stationery with the homeowner. Meanwhile, the homeowner’s children prepare for battle with their favorite weapons, a “rock hammer, Swiss Army knife, slingshot, firecrackers, ship in a bottle, protractor, picture of Edith Piaf, assault rifle, little flag.” It did what the best parodies should, relying on and highlighting an inescapable fact of the work it lovingly skewered: that you know a Wes Anderson movie when you see it.
Those who dislike his work call it twee or fussy or hipster, but there’s no denying it’s unique. His is a body of work–eight features, from 1996’s Bottle Rocket to 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and now The Grand Budapest Hotel–rather than a run of movies. He’s been nominated for three Academy Awards: twice for Best Original Screenplay (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), once for Best Animated Film (Fantastic Mr. Fox). Norton calls him “one of the most original and distinctive directorial voices of my generation.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, fittingly, the grandest element of that oeuvre. It doesn’t take place in Budapest. Like many of his films, it’s set in a place and time that is one step removed from history. It’s vaguely Central Europe during the onset of 1930s fascism, and the aesthetics of the era are rendered with panache. It stars Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave, the hotel’s concierge, and Tony Revolori as his young protégé, with the cast rounded out by repeat Anderson collaborators such as Wilson, Norton, Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody, as well as first-timers Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan. It’s a caper, complete with a stolen painting and a jailbreak and a ski chase, and loads of locations–including one, the Bad Schandau elevator, that Anderson first saw out the window on an earlier trip along this very rail route.
But wait. Let’s go back to that train. This time, look closer.
This is a real train, and not even a particularly fancy one. Anderson, 44, is a real person. He’s in Berlin, which is a real city, for real work-related reasons. It’s easy to imagine that the filmmaker lives the way his fictional characters do, but what part of himself is really in the film? “Nothing I can think of,” he says. “I don’t think anything springs to mind.” Case in point: the reason he’s on a train is not so much the glamour as his distaste for flying. It’s not that his films aren’t personal–he uses them to showcase books and movies and music that he loves, and he credits time spent in various European cities over the past decade with helping him develop Grand Budapest (that his life is real doesn’t mean it’s not charmed)–but there’s a difference between making something personal and making a mirror.
Take, for example, the matter of nostalgia. There’s a vintage look to many of Anderson’s films, and sure, he cops to a certain love of the past. While researching potential shooting locations for Grand Budapest, Anderson traveled to many grand hotels before constructing a set based on that research in an old department store in the German town of Görlitz. Looking back at those trips, he laments the amount of beauty destroyed in the years since the real ’30s. “It’s hard not to sometimes feel like, What a drag. We had something great here,” he says. “Most places have changed radically. It is usually for the worse, a bit.”
But his appreciation of the past isn’t just about chic-hotel beauty–he’s also deeply concerned about overpopulation–and it doesn’t preclude a love of the present. Berlin is dominated by postwar construction, and Anderson believes being all new doesn’t have to mean being all bad. “[In Berlin], there’s also Renzo Piano and striking modernist stuff and the newest kinds of architectural ideas, things that just were not possible on the engineering front until pretty recently,” he says. “I feel like that balances it out.”
Besides, the nostalgia in Grand Budapest is not his own. It belongs to Stefan Zweig, a genteel Austrian-Jewish writer who escaped the Nazis but killed himself after it became clear that the beauty of life as it had been in pre–World War II Vienna could never be recaptured. He left a brave-sounding note about quitting while one is ahead. Zweig is one of the film’s main inspirations, the others being Hollywood visions of 1930s Europe, courtesy of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, and a friend whose mannerisms influenced Fiennes’ character’s. Zweig’s work was long out of print in the U.S. but is having something of a renaissance: he’s credited in the movie, and on March 13, Pushkin Press will publish a new collection of his work, curated by Anderson.
Zweig’s influence on the film means that The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place against a real-world historical backdrop, fictional though the movie’s version may be. More than any of Anderson’s previous films, it makes clear that the distance he puts between cinema and reality doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about something big and real. It’s got stand-ins for Nazism, with adherents dubbed the Zig Zags, and for communism too. So though Anderson doesn’t depict the actual history of 1930s Europe–that’s already been done so many ways, he says, that M. Gustave’s story is more interesting without it–he’s not skirting the issue.
“I don’t think I would think of actively staying away from one thing or another,” he says. “I can’t say that I have some new analysis of totalitarianism. I don’t want to stay away from anything or steer away from anything or avoid anything. I just want to make my story. What we know and the politics and meanings of all this stuff, it ought to be in there.”
A mystique can spring up around a filmmaker with a unique aesthetic, the idea that he or she is personally responsible for every second of every shot. But what reads to audiences as the individual will of the auteur is, Anderson is quick to acknowledge, largely the result of the auteur’s skill at choosing a team. “It’s a collaboration,” he says. “[Costume designer] Milena Canonero and [composer] Alexandre Desplat and these actors and all these voices … You cannot end up with the same thing if you change those names and keep mine.” Successful working relationships are how the sausage gets made, even when the sausage is a perfectly cooked, regionally appropriate, vintage-looking bratwurst.
That cooperation is part of the reason his merry crew keeps coming back. This is a man who admits he would time actors walking down a hallway and then ask them to do it again until they shaved off 15 seconds, a man who doesn’t shoot much coverage because he already knows which angles he’ll use, but his precision is a gentle one. Wilson, a longtime friend and collaborator, compares him to a ship’s captain rather than a solo sailor. “Sometimes you work on a movie and you’re not quite sure. You sense some anxiety in the director, that they’re not sure exactly what they want,” Wilson says. “But with Wes, you know he’s definitely steering the ship and doing exactly what he thinks is best for the movie.”
You can see it in the pastry boxes that show up throughout Grand Budapest. It’s hard to see the ribbon-trussed cubes as anything other than another confection, something from Anderson’s fertile imagination. But they’re also a practical solution to a directorial problem. Anderson wanted a box that could go from closed to flat in one motion, having learned that showing characters opening regular boxes is a waste of film. Roman Coppola, a frequent colleague with a good eye for mechanics, stepped in to create just such a box. When the ribbon is undone, all four sides of the box fall away like the petals of a flower.
Anderson doesn’t mind fans’ analyzing and categorizing his work–he did the same with favorite directors when he was a young film buff–but he doesn’t think his aesthetic can be attributed to hard-and-fast rules; he just likes what he likes. “In a funny way, I still don’t really know what a Wes Anderson movie looks like,” says Grand Budapest’s production designer, Adam Stockhausen. “It really is from scratch each time. There are no magic decoder rings. It’s not a formula.”
The openness partly explains how Anderson is still surprised when he sees dailies, a feeling he first encountered two decades ago. “I thought, O.K., so that’s what this is like,” he recalls of working on Bottle Rocket. “It was a good feeling.”
That balance works for actors too, explains Revolori. “It’s a bit like he makes a tailored suit and he makes it exactly the way he would like it, then finds someone to fit it,” he says. “When you put it on, you’re able to walk wherever you want with this great suit.”
Which is appropriate, because a suit is the only concession Anderson will make to the idea that part of him is, indeed, reflected in the movie. This particular train will leave the station eventually. After a dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague, there’ll be Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, New York City and Los Angeles. He won’t discuss his next big project, but he wants to go to Japan soon, maybe to shoot another installment in a series of shorts he’s made for Prada. So this particular chance to observe that Anderson’s life looks like a scene from The Grand Budapest Hotel will vanish like the past the movie recalls.
Except for one thing, something the filmmaker will carry with him even then. During the shoot, it was cold. The Zweig stand-in character had a warm suit in a nice herringbone fabric. Anderson had another one made. For himself. “There’s an identification with that character based on the fact that I actually stole his wardrobe,” he says with a laugh. “Other than that, I don’t really see anything.”
This appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of TIME.