Although Adam Stockhausen didn’t win an Academy Award for his production design on 12 Years A Slave, 2014 has been good to him already, thanks to the Oscar nomination and the opening of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which got some of the best reviews of Anderson’s career, and smashed the record for per-screen averages in limited release. It’s only Stockhausen’s third film for Anderson—his second heading the art department, after Moonrise Kingdom—but he’s managed to quickly make himself a part of Anderson’s world, while perhaps infusing the director’s productions with a touch more real-world grit.
The Dissolve: The Grand Budapest Hotel literally takes place in a world of its own: the invented country of Zubrowka. But at the same time, you’re drawing on obvious historical reference points, like the spread of Nazi fascism and the brutalist architecture of Communist Eastern Europe. How did you balance the real and the imaginary?
Adam Stockhausen: Well, it’s an invented country, and it’s a stylized version of all those things. We went to this little town called Görlitz; it’s the easternmost town in Germany, on the border with Poland. And we spent a lot of time there, but we spent a lot of time in the whole area: Saxony, eastern Germany, and also down into the Czech Republic. That area has a lot of these elements. When you go to Prague, or this little town we went to, Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, there’s this magnificent old architecture. In Görlitz, it went back all the way to the Renaissance. There are buildings from the mid-1400s, but then there’s also Art Nouveau; the German word for that is Jugendstil. You see what happened during the war, and you see what happened after the war. There’s a lot of it still there; it surrounds you. So we went around and looked at all these places that were magnificent and original; there were some places that were really derelict, there were some places that had been renovated in a sort of a Brutalist, painful way, and we tried to pull details from all of that and swirl it all together in our own country of Zubrowka.
The Dissolve: The hotel itself had already been located before you came on board, right? Wes Anderson found it on an early location scout while you were still working on 12 Years A Slave.
Stockhausen: He did, yeah. He went on our first scout while I was still working down in New Orleans, and he emailed pictures of this department store and he said, “I think this might be the spot.” You just look at it and you think, yeah that is the spot. It’s fantastic. The bummer is, sometimes, or a lot of times, people will take you to these old places that were sort of former glory sites, and the ceilings have collapsed and the plaster is all falling off the walls, and the stairways are dangerous, and your feet are cracking through the floorboards. They’re wonderful and you can tell the amazing history that must have been there, but in the nuts and bolts department, where I have to eventually say how much it’s going to cost for us to strip and paint and make all these things, you look around and you go, “Yikes. It’s going to cost us an absolute fortune to be here just to make this place safe and inhabitable, much less to turn it into a grand hotel.” So that department store that he found was really just perfect because it was in decent shape and we didn’t have to spend a dime making it habitable. We just built our scenery inside of it.
The Dissolve: It’s obviously not intentional, but in a way, it evokes Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building, which was famously used in Blade Runner and other films. It gives the hotel a timeless quality.
Stockhausen: We definitely looked at that elevator. That elevator in our lobby is built. That’s all scenery, so the Bradbury elevator is definitely one of the ones we liked a lot and we took some details from it.
The Dissolve: You’ve made three movies with Wes Anderson now, beginning in the art department on The Darjeeling Limited. What are his reference points, typically?
Stockhausen: They come from all over the place. They’re very specific, but they can come from any place. They can come from a story, they can come from a painting, they can come from a movie. In this movie, there’s a Bergman film called The Silence, with the boy wandering around the hallways, we modeled our hallways on that. If you look at the hotel doors in that film, ours are a carbon copy. There’s a sequence in a Hitchcock movie called Torn Curtain where he comes out of his hotel and he gets on the bus and he goes to the museum; we have a bit of an homage to that sequence when Deputy Kovacs goes from his office to the art museum and he’s being chased by Willem Dafoe’s character. For the palm court we looked at Rousseau paintings. For the command tent in Moonrise Kingdom, we looked at Churchill’s war room. The references can be very wide, but they’re all pretty different.
The Dissolve: Going from macro to micro, what about the Mendl’s boxes? How long did it take to work it out so that they’d slide from flat to a perfect cube with the tug of a ribbon?
Stockhausen: It took forever! It took forever, and I can’t take credit for it. I was involved in the process in only that I was watching it develop every day, but the key people in that one were, first of all, Annie Atkins, who was the lead graphic designer on the film, and just did the most amazing job. The graphics in this film are really kind of beyond compare. And then Robin Miller was the key prop on the film, and he spent months trying to figure out the origami of that thing. It was really pretty complicated. When it works, it’s just the coolest thing.
The Dissolve: Even some of the people who love the film talk about it as an apotheosis of Anderson’s dollhouse style, but some of the visual elements take it in a very different direction. When Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave is thrown in jail, for example, the striped uniform he’s put in looks very much like the ones worn by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Because the movie’s so highly aestheticized, details like that leap out even more.
Stockhausen: Well, I think Wes has spoken a bit about those [Stefan] Zweig references, the memoirs about what happened in Europe and the loss of the Europe he loved and that he was describing—before both of the [world] wars. I think that’s something that’s definitely running through this film, but it’s told through the personal accounts of the relationship between Zero and Gustave and then also through Agatha. I find that, for me anyway, just as a viewer of the film, the emotional function at the end when you realize that loss and you realize it sort of in silence without directly witnessing it—I find it sort of heartbreaking, personally.
The Dissolve: It’s amazing how powerful it is to see the hotel turned into this drab block of concrete.
Stockhausen: And of course it’s not about the architecture at all. We’re just trying to support the story and give it a background. But it is kind of amazing when you go back into the ’60s hotel lobby and it’s revealed to be something completely different after having witnessed the events of the film. Suddenly, it’s not just drab in a kind of funny way. Suddenly it’s heartbreaking.
The Dissolve: How did you make sure that audiences would still know where they were after the transformation? You have to feel that you’re in the same space, even though everything looks different.
Stockhausen: Well, I didn’t have to worry about it at all, because it is the same space. And I knew that it would read like the same space because it is. The elevator’s in the same spot, because the old one’s still there; we just built around it. We shot that in reverse, so we built out the ’30s lobby, and then we built the ’60s lobby inside of it. We shot it and then we peeled away the ’60s and the ’30s was there. But I knew, with that set of steps going up to the concierge desk and then looking down and seeing the reception desk in the center of the room, and the elevator where it was and the sort of tobacco-colored marble column, I knew there was enough there to totally deal with the same space.
The Dissolve: The movie is so dense it’s easy to miss things. Do you have a favorite detail that viewers might overlook?
Stockhausen: The pace you feel when you watch the film was there when we were making it. We just flew through it. It was a real scramble trying to stay ahead of the game and have everything ready on time. I love what I see. Things that were a huge challenge to make flow by you on the screen in an instant, like when they get dropped off at the train, and the car goes under a little underpass and then the train pulls in up above and the car pulls in up above; that was incredibly complicated to figure out and involved a sort of papier-mâché train and a whole lot of fiddling around to make that thing work right. When it does, it’s just a great little moment, and the story races on. I love it when those little things work.
The Dissolve: The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extremely stylized movie, but it also has a handmade quality to it; the shots of the funicular that goes up to the hotel look like something out of a pop-up book. How do you achieve that effect?
Stockhausen: They have a handmade quality because they’re handmade. That’s one of the joys of working on this project, that you get to make these things by hand. That’s not always the way it’s done anymore, and that’s really remarkable. That comes through all the departmental levels of it, from the handmade quality of the miniatures that we use to all of the signage that’s painted by hand and it feels like it. That’s really lovely and fun to do. I think it gives it a very special quality, and I think you feel it. You feel it in this one also with all the graphic pieces. They’re all handwritten and all individually made. It’s bespoke, I think is the best word for it. It’s incredibly satisfying to be part of.
The Dissolve: There must be some CG involved as far as compositing elements together, but it’s hard to think of offhand.
Stockhausen: There’s a ton, actually. The colors are tweaked deliberately. Sometimes things need augmentation, like the facade of the hotel. There’s the miniature, but there’s the built environment that we go to when they’re in the Mendl’s van outside. That was a real set, but in the end, we ended up extending it. The area we built was really only the center area with the door in it, and we built the hotel letters, but the rest of it was just on this facade of one of the locations we were using. We ending up painting more gold and more pink and more detail into that facade just to make it even bigger. There’s tons of that kind of thing, where it’s sort of subtly used and you don’t feel it. It’s little bit of a magic trick. We’re using all of those miniatures and you’re very conscious of that technique being used, so your eye isn’t ready to see the small little digital things.
The Dissolve: A magic trick in the sense of misdirection.
Stockhausen: Misdirection, that’s right.
The Dissolve: The movies are so obviously different, but is there any comparison between working with Wes Anderson and with Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave?
Stockhausen: I shot them back-to-back, and I went straight from one to the other. It’s kind of this amazing journey from New Orleans to Germany. There’s one huge similarity and one huge difference. The similarity is that the references were key for both of them, used in a different way. In 12 Years, it was the historical references that we were digging for, because we were desperate to try to make the story real and authentic and not screw it up. We were aware of the historical importance of being truthful. In Budapest, we were pulling the specifics because that’s how we do it, and the story becomes richer the more specific you get. That’s how it was really similar: Dig and dig and dig until you find it. What’s different is Wes’ way of designing; each shot is very specific and very pre-planned and very formally thought-through. Steve’s process is the opposite. Steve’s process is to create a completed world that isn’t scenery. It’s actual stuff, it’s actually made—the inside and out, top to bottom. Then bring the actors and the camera together to inhabit the space and let the rehearsal bring out the truth of the story and actually turn the camera on. That’s an entirely different mindset, a whole different way of doing it. That’s a real change.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting, because 12 Years A Slave is a very visually precise film, and with McQueen coming from a background in visual art, you’d expect the still image would be his reference point.
Stockhausen: There was zero. There’s not a single storyboarded frame.
The Dissolve: It’s almost unbelievable with something like the whipping scene, where cinematographer Sean Bobbit manages to get into the action and find the right moments with the camera as they’re happening.
Adam Stockhausen: How that developed is Sean Bobbit and Steve and I planned out the arrangement. We say it developed in rehearsal, and it did, but we knew what the story was and we knew what events we were going to tell. For instance, in the whipping scene, we knew how important it was to put that whipping post in the right place. So we marched around there forever, and I had my art department with poles and ropes; we had a full-scale map basically laid out of where all the shacks and where all the buildings were going to be, and we put a giant post in the ground to be the whipping post, and we walked around for a whole afternoon with lenses and tried to think through how are the different ways that this could develop. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to develop, but we know the key things that need to happen. We tried to get everything to line up in a way that we could move 360 degrees around that whipping post. We would see something good at every angle and we wouldn’t be stacking up all of our stuff on top of itself. Then we did a similar thing with the hanging tree at the Ford plantation. It’s not as if it just happened on the day.