It’s Wes Anderson week at EW! Ahead of the Oct. 22 release of The French Dispatch, we’re celebrating the auteur’s singular filmography with a series of throwbacks celebrating his most beloved titles. Here, production designer Adam Stockhausen recalls the process of building the intricate sets for 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about a place moving through time. Through the focus on the titular once-fancy resort, director Wes Anderson and his many collaborators tell a short history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. We see the hotel in its ’30s heyday, then watch it wilt during the Soviet era of the ’60s before becoming the inspiration for a beloved book in the present day.
This meant that a lot of the film’s storytelling had to be born out in the sets, some of which were built within each other in order to portray different time periods using roughly the same physical space. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s who also worked on The French Dispatch, compares the filmmaking of The Grand Budapest Hotel to solving a puzzle.
Martin Scali/Searchlight Pictures Wes Anderson and Jude Law on the set of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
“We did this Russian nesting doll thing where we built the ’60s hotel inside of the lobby of the older ’30s hotel,” Stockhausen tells EW. “It’s a really complicated puzzle and a different puzzle than you get working with anybody else. Working on a ‘normal’ movie, you’re dealing with normal questions like, ‘Will that set fit on stage 3? Stage 3 is only this big.’ With Wes, it’s like, ‘Do you think you could build this one set inside of this other set and then take it apart over a weekend? And then build the elevator beyond this wall…’ It’s just an entirely different set of problems to solve, and it’s really exciting.”
While scouting locations in Europe, Anderson and Stockhausen got a lot of inspiration from the history encoded in the real-life places they found. For instance, they came upon a local civic center that had once been beautiful but had been left to rot; Stockhausen recalls seeing hammer marks where intricate carvings had been knocked away. They ended up using that space as the setting for the 1968 dinner conversation between the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) and the young author (Jude Law), who provides most of the film’s narration.
Searchlight Pictures F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
“One of the fun things about working with Wes is that the stories relate to place,” Stockhausen says. “We weren’t shooting this story about Eastern Europe in California, we were shooting there. So the process of going to scout these kinds of places revealed all these really interesting stories. We kind of collected some architecture as we went. We’d be scouting a place, and it wouldn’t work, or it was in the wrong town, or it didn’t make the cut, but there would be a little detail.”
As an example, Stockhausen recalls: “We were in the Czech Republic, and we stumbled into this place, and it had these vinyl chairs bolted to the wall. It hit you in the face. The wall they were bolted to had this wood veneer that was attractive but also plastic-looking at the same time. It was just such a great thing that we just decided to lift that idea completely. Then we decided we liked them so much that we went and actually got those chairs. We convinced them to let us unbolt them from the wall and put them in our place.”
Searchlight Pictures Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
The filmmaker’s innovative approach to problem-solving extended beyond the titular hotel itself. The characters travel around Europe a bit, so several scenes are set on a train — and there is a marked difference between riding the train before war breaks out and later in the film when it’s staffed by black-clad fascists.
The only problem was that the train scenes felt impossible to shoot. Stockhausen and Anderson couldn’t find a train station that worked and didn’t want to build their own train (though Anderson had done just that on his 2007 feature, The Darjeeling Limited). Eventually, they found a creative workaround.
“We ended up doing this completely inside-out solution where we said, ‘Well, let’s never see the train,'” Stockhausen says. “‘Let’s just make a box, and put it on a dolly track and have [key grip] Sanjay Sami push it. By virtue of looking out of it and calling it a train car, you’re gonna believe it’s a train. We’ll just look at the platform.’ So we went to this area that was a little warehouse, and it had a really nice wall, so we painted ‘Gabelmeister’s Peak’ on it and had a little forest of pine trees leading into it. It was an inside-out way of solving the problem.”
Searchlight Pictures Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes in the ski chase sequence from ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
A similarly inside-out approach was taken on the film’s climactic ski chase, when Zero (Tony Revolori) and Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) are on the run from the deadly assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe). This kind of action setpiece seemed a little out of the ordinary for an Anderson movie, but the creative solution was very much in keeping.
“We were looking at that sequence like, ‘Well, do we want to do a kind of James Bond ski unit in the mountains and shoot it from helicopters?’ The answer was emphatically ‘no.’ We didn’t want to shoot it like that,” Stockhausen says. “Wes decided to make it with stop-motion and miniature work. So there’s ski figures, and then we cut in that sequence with elements of live-action of him going with binoculars through the forested area, which we painted on a wall and brought in a few trees. We sort of assembled the whole thing as this kit, with pieces of live-action, stop-motion work, and miniatures.”
This kind of innovation has stayed with Stockhausen in the years after The Grand Budapest Hotel. As he’s continued working with Anderson and other directors, Stockhausen has learned that “no matter how daunting a problem seems, we’ll figure out a solution to it, and it’ll be fun.”