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Wes Anderson on ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ Nostalgia and Standing-Still Tennis

10 minute read

Earlier this month, the writer-director Wes Anderson was in Berlin, celebrating the world premiere of his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Days later, he was feting the film in Prague. But in between, he was on a late-night international train with cast members like Bill Murray and Tony Revolori, and balalaika music, and a mid-trip stop in Dresden, where on a cold night you can disembark to buy mulled wine on the platform.

TIME came along for the ride to discuss the movie — and how, even though the real-world railway setting seems to fit right alongside the fictional worlds he creates, he doesn’t actually live in a Wes Anderson movie. While those worlds are imaginary, Anderson is real — and you can read the full story from this week’s issue of TIME here.

Or, check out an excerpt from the filmmaker’s conversations with TIME, which took place in Berlin and Prague:

TIME: The movie calls out the author Stefan Zweig as an inspiration. How does that process work for you? You read the book and think, ‘I’m going to make a Stefan Zweig movie’?

Anderson: Well, in this case it went like this: I had this idea for a character that my friend Hugo and I had been talking about, based on a real person. We had a little section of a story, but we didn’t know what would happen next and we had set it aside. Then I started thinking maybe I would like to adapt [Zweig’s] Beware of Pity. Then somewhere along the way I just said, what if we put these two together, what would that be? And I think ,right at the same time, I thought, what if he’s a concierge, what if it’s in a hotel? And then I started seeing it in relation to some ‘30s-type movies as well.

Any particular ‘30s movies?

There are [Ernst] Lubitsch movies, Trouble in Paradise, and movies that were set in Eastern Europe but made in Burbank or Culver City or something, but directed by people from Odessa or Warsaw or Berlin. The Shop Around the Corner is in Budapest and To Be or Not To Be is in Poland and there’s one called Love Me Tonight, that’s Rouben MamoulianAnd then there’s other movies, like there’s one called The Mortal Storm; Frank Borzage is the director. And Grand Hotel. We brought them all to Germany with us, and we had them, and the actors would watch them. We had a little library of movies that are connected to our movies somehow. Also, the Hitchcock movies of the ‘30s were a pretty good inspiration for us. We stole things from these pretty liberally.

(MORE: Richard Corliss reviews The Life Aquatic)

How do you see the relationship between the fictional timeline you’ve created and the actual 1930s?

You don’t really, you know? At a certain point I just thought, I would like to just make up this country. There’s this book called Present at the Creation, it’s by Dean Acheson, and I read a chapter. The chapter is him talking about how what we call World War I and World War II, he analyzes as part of the same war. It’s not an idea that I’ve heard anywhere else, and it doesn’t have a lot of traction in academic historical circles, but it suited my story idea. I wanted to do what’s before the war and then what’s coming in this short period of time. Anyway, that was my solution to it. I guess the other thing: this is all ground that has been covered repeatedly and in many, many different ways.

You mean that period of time in Germany?

Essentially everything we’re touching on. Every historical aspect of the first half of the twentieth century in Europe has been done in a million different ways, and it wasn’t like I wanted to now do my version of that. My thing was to do a story about this guy, but I wanted to bring in things that I was just interested in from my reading and from my travels and have the history of it be sort of impressionistic.

One of the things I was thinking about, reading about Stefan Zweig and reading his work, was the German word Sehnsucht. It’s one of those words you always see on lists of German words with no translations, and it’s a very specific type of nostalgia, I think for something you can’t quite put your finger on, something you miss but can’t name. Working on a story about a fictional version of the past, is there an aspect for you of that — of nostalgia for something sort of unreal?

Often what happened with us during the period of preparing this movie was, we were going to places that we found in old photographs and seeing what they’re like today, and it’s hard not to sometimes feel like, ‘What a drag. We had something great here. We can see in this picture. This place was incredible.’ And most places have changed radically. It is usually for the worse, a bit. Even if there can be wonderful new architectural ideas, most of the time it’s a little worse because, you know, there are twice as many people. That’s not a nostalgia for something you can’t put your finger on…

But there’s this idea that everything changes.

I do think the biggest thing is that there are so many people. The fact is that our fate is that the population is going to continue to grow and the world is not going to continue to get bigger.

(WATCH: Bill Murray’s Heartfelt Minor League Baseball Hall of Fame Speech)

You mentioned all these other directors who influenced you. If some director 75 years from now says he’s influenced by Wes Anderson, what do you hope he means?

Jeff Goldblum had a very funny comment to me. Jeff just said to me, ‘When I talk about the movie, we haven’t really discussed what message we want to get across. Is there something you want to say? Is there something I can throw in that you’re not comfortable getting out there? And when you die, God forbid, when you’re 107, what is the sentence that you want people to say: ‘As Jeff Goldblum said about him…’

I said, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. I have no idea and I would not really want to participate in that conversation — in writing that sentence — but I like the idea that you’re thinking about it and I bet it’ll be a good one. ‘

I sort of feel the same way about that [question]. Somebody looking back? Well, if somebody’s looking back at these things, if there is a world and the movies that people make today are relevant in it, I don’t really have any opinion or wish to shape that. I’m sort of quoting Stanley Kubrick, but when I do a movie, all I want to do is make an experience that can be as strong a version of whatever it is as it can be. I don’t really like any explanations. We’re putting everything we’ve got into it and people are bringing in more to that, and everybody’s taking it a different way and everybody’s right in a way. At a certain point, my opinion about it is really irrelevant, so then it’s a good idea not to have one.

(MORE: Mary Pols reviews Fantastic Mr. Fox)

How did the budget on GBH compare to your other films?

It’s somewhere kind of in the middle. It’s a bigger movie, but the way we do the budgets mostly these days is I say, ‘I feel this movie is kind of like this, and there’s going to be this stuff to do, but the movie itself, when it’s finished, is this type of thing and I don’t want it to cost more than this amount of money.’ If I was making a movie that, which has not happened yet — well, it did happen, I was making a movie that I thought was a commercial adventure movie, Life Aquatic. Well, in fact, it was the same type of movie as all the other movies I’ve made. It’s an odd thing. We spent too much money on it [The Grand Budapest Hotel]. I want to say it’s not much more than $20 million, but we get tax incentives.

When you said Life Aquatic ended up being the same type of movie as the others, what type of movie is that?

Just not working in a very traditional genre way at all. And it’s probably the kind of movie where a lot of people are saying, ‘I don’t like this man,’ and we’re making absolutely no effort to change your mind about that. We say, ‘I know, you’re right, but we like him.’ And once it’s that conversation, you shouldn’t trust that you’re going to win over a big enough audience to make it a good idea to have spent that kind of money.

Is there anything that you wish people would ask about your movies that they don’t?

No, there’s not, because I don’t mind not saying anything. [laughs] I mean, having a talk like this, I’m perfectly happy doing, but there’s not a lot that I’m going to say that’s going to make somebody like the movie more.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’ reviews Moonrise Kingdom)

You told me you can’t talk about your next project, but is it already in your head?

There is sort of something, but I’m not sure if it’ll gel. I’m pretty much at square one.

Do you like to have a project in the works all the time?

If I don’t, I’m slightly worried that I’ll never make another movie. And that’s not a good feeling.

What do you do when you’re not working on a movie?

My stuff is just the same as everybody. Go see friends, go to the movies, go out to dinner and maybe travel somewhere and see a play, or read, or just waste time going around the Internet. I used to play tennis. I haven’t played tennis in so long but I feel like I should have a hobby, at least, and I think tennis isn’t really a bad one. It’s a sport you can do as you get really old. You can sort of start playing where you don’t take that many steps.

Standing-still tennis?

That could be in the cards for me.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com