When moviegoers enter a theater showing a Wes Anderson film, they find an entire world of splashy colors and whimsical visuals that only vaguely approximates real life.
Yet whether following the misadventures of three bumbling young crooks attempting their first heist in “Bottle Rocket,” observing the romantic travails of a young high school genius who’s too smart and creative for the world around him in “Rushmore,” or exploring the comically extreme dysfunctions of an eccentric New York City family called “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson makes audiences empathize with lovable losers who are marching out of step with the conformist world around them.
Add in the bizarre yet touching bond formed between a famous ocean explorer and the now-grown son he barely knew he had in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” three brothers attempting to reconcile their broken bonds while traveling on a train through India in “The Darjeeling Limited,” and an orphaned boy falling innocently in love on an odd island in a time approximating the 1950s in “Moonrise Kingdom,” and another pattern emerges. Anderson loves to take broken families and find ways to either bring them back together, or at least to help his characters find a new form of family from the friends around them if they can’t save their own real ones.
That theme is on rich display in his newest and most ambitious film yet, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which opened last Friday at the Arclight Hollywood and Landmark Theatre in Westwood and is expanding both locally and nationally throughout this month. The movie tells the wildly inventive story of how a young refugee named Zero Moustafa rose from being a lobby boy in one of Europe’s greatest hotels to become its owner, but along the way it shows the amazing impact that a concierge/mentor named Gustave and his first love (who remains his lifelong love) have on his life.
Each of these films have plenty of laughs on their surfaces, arising from their characters’ eccentricities and the amazingly detailed imagery of their settings, clothing and endeavors. But the quest for family and connection arises from Anderson’s own childhood in Houston, in which his parents’ divorce while he was still young marked a major landmark in his development.
“When divorce happens, the illusion of perfect happiness is just gone, so I created my own illusions,” recalls Anderson, speaking recently at a press event in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “I was a liar. I remember I was very dishonest, always trying to pretend to be rich. Drawing pictures of mansions, chateaux in the Pyrenees. Page after page of fantasy for myself.
“It seems to me there is a lying which is just trying to bring fantasy into reality,” the 44-year-old Anderson continues. “Where you project an image of yourself that is false, maybe because you feel you are not exciting enough. The other is lying for deception. Where you want to cover your tracks, not get found out."
Those forms of deception have carried into being themes in his work, from the goofy college-age slacker Dignan who believes he’s a master criminal but gets caught on his first crime attempt, through Royal Tenenbaum lying that he has stomach cancer to force his family to reconcile. Yet despite the fact that some of his movies, including the new “Budapest,” are rated R, they maintain an overall spirit of innocence that make them seem impossible to offend any viewer.
Throughout his eight-film body of work, Anderson has been known for building a de facto family on his sets as well. Owen Wilson has starred in seven of his eight films, with the only exception being the stop-motion animation film “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009. Owen also co-wrote Anderson’s first three films, sharing an Oscar nomination for their superior effort in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and comedy legend Bill Murray has been a regular ever since Anderson reinvented Murray’s career by giving him a plum role in 1999’s “Rushmore.”
“I wouldn’t say the world brings my characters to me, but I will say that Gustave, the character played by Ralph Fiennes — the inspiration for him was a real person,” explains Anderson. “But it wasn’t like somebody came to me and said, ‘Here’s an idea for a story.’ I’ve never had that happen to me in a way that meant anything to me.”
Yet Anderson does admit to creating some of his greatest characters specifically for certain actors. Gene Hackman had even announced that he was looking to retire from acting when Anderson hounded him to play the lead patriarch in 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and in creating Gustave for “Budapest,” he only had Ralph Fiennes in mind.
“Over the years, I’ve discovered the way to make somebody not want the part is to offer it to them. Maybe it’s just actor psychology,” Anderson said. “Because I was so locked into it — I only do one movie at a time — I don’t have six scripts sitting around and think, ‘If this one doesn’t go, I’ll do the other one’ — this is all I’ve got. And I’ve only got one guy that I thought could play this so I was very anxious about it and I don’t think I would have accepted him saying ‘no.’ I would have been all over him and, at a certain point, he probably would have had to break down.”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” also features a major subplot in which a Nazi-like government is rising to power, creating a sense of menace and danger to the proceedings surrounding young Zero’s life that also causes Zero sadness while he recounts his story from the perspective of old age. Anderson thus creates a touching additional resonance by expressing the innate human desire to pursue their dreams and find love without oppression — strong ideas that have guided him from his own emotionally troubled childhood, and which now inspire a new generation of filmmakers to build works in his style.
“I like that. I think usually I might not have seen if they’ve done that or not, but I just think that’s nice,” Anderson said. “I know who my inspirations have been, and how closely I’ve wanted to do something like this person, that person, and how many ideas I’ve stolen from these guys and how many things I’ve just literally recreated what other filmmakers did. There’s a sequence in this movie where Jeff Goldblum is going to be murdered, and it’s very closely modeled on a scene in ‘Torn Curtain,’ the Hitchcock movie. And so I think it’s nice that there’s a continuity and you can see people kind of take something from the other and make it in a new way. It’s another way to know your work will live on.”