Bill Murray and Wes Anderson seem to bring out the best in each other. Over the course of 16 years and seven movies, their partnership has become a match made in movie heaven.
It began with “Rushmore” (1998), a coming-of-age comedy that gave Murray one of the most sublime roles of his career. He played the unlikely but strangely affecting part of a steel tycoon vying with a teenager (Jason Schwartzman) for the affections of a first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams).
Since then, Murray has popped up in six more Anderson movies, including “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and 2012’s surprise hit “Moonrise Kingdom.”
The pair’s latest collaboration is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is now playing in area theaters. The starring role belongs to Ralph Fiennes, but Murray steals the show with a turn as the leader of a secret society of top European concierges.
So, what is it about working for Wes Anderson that gets the notoriously picky Murray to sign on the dotted line?
“We are promised very long hours, low wages and stale bread,” teases the actor. “That’s pretty much it. It’s that crazy thing where you’re asked to come and you work long hours, and you lose money on the job because you end up spending more on tips than you earn in [salary].
“But you get to see the world, and we’re allowed to let Wes live this magical life he has where his dreamscape comes true. So if we show up, he gets to have all the fun. I guess because we like him, we go along with him.”
Murray certainly has no regrets about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a fairy tale of a comedy which netted the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Set primarily in the fictional kingdom of Zubrowka, the action focuses on Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes), a concierge at the titular resort who spends a big chunk of his time romancing the guests, particularly the ancient – and very wealthy – Madame D (Tilda Swinton).
When she kicks the bucket, Gustave inherits a valuable painting from her. But collecting the treasure is harder than it seems thanks to all of the crazy characters who come out of the woodwork looking for their own piece of the inheritance. Rounding out the cast are Tony Revolori (as Gustave’s protégé), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, and frequent Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson.
Murray was Anderson’s first choice to play the nutty chief of the Society of the Crossed Keys.
Asked if there’s a father/son relationship between himself and his director, Murray says, “I’m the grizzled veteran I guess. I’ve really enjoyed the jobs, and I think I’ve been the father and the son [to Anderson].
“My children are not as well-behaved as Wes. But I guess I play [the father role] in some of the jobs, someone you can sort of rely on but, like in ‘Rushmore,’ someone who is completely immature too. I’m either the father or the father that Wes would like to be himself.”
While Anderson often works with the same group of actors, Fiennes is a first-time recruit. The filmmaker says that when he was conceiving “Grand Budapest Hotel,” he wrote the role of Gustave with Fiennes in mind.
“I don’t know of anyone else who could play it for a variety of reasons, but the main one being that this character is quite grand and theatrical and has to recite poetry and paragraphs of text,” says Anderson. “But the really crucial thing to me is that [Gustave] has to be a real person. … The most important thing for all these actors is that they will bring these real people to a fantasy context.”
Fiennes has directed a pair of movies himself, including the recently released “Invisible Woman,” but he admits that he needed the filmmaker’s direction to guide him through some of the trickier patches of the idiosyncratic film.
“Wes has written the film, and he hears it very particularly, and there are certain rhythms and details,” says Fiennes. “And of course we see from the films how beautifully constructed and designed they are. “Wes, I think loves all his actors and encourages them over many, many, many takes to explore. You feel exhausted, but happily exhausted because you’ve been given this great ride. To be in a film where the filmmaker is allowed to make the film they want to make is very rare. So it was a no-brainer for me – a great part, a great cast, a great director, a great script.”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is dedicated to Stefan Zweig, an obscure Austrian-Jewish author who escaped the Nazis but killed himself in 1942. Zweig is perhaps best known for penning “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” which was made into a 1948 film starring Joan Fontaine. “Stefan Zweig has not been popular in America or in English for some years,” says Anderson. “Maybe only in the last 8 years has he come back in print through Pushkin Press and the New York Review of Books. I think people in Europe are surprised that we don’t know this writer. They all know him in France and Germany. He’s enormously popular.”
Anderson became a Zweig fan after reading the author’s “Beware of Pity.”
“I loved it immediately from the first page, and I started reading all his fiction and his wonderful memoir ‘The World of Yesterday.’ Although our story is not really related to or based on his stories, there are sort of devices and atmosphere [borrowed from Zweig]. My intention was to sort of do our own version of Zweig.” It wasn’t only Zweig who provided inspiration for Anderson and Murray. While on location, Murray and assorted cast and crew members were treated to an Anderson-programmed film festival.
On the program: “Grand Hotel” with Greta Garbo; Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not To Be” with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard;” Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight;” Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence;” and two comedies starring the effervescent Margaret Sullavan – William Wyler’s “The Good Fairy” and Frank Borzage’s “The Mortal Storm.”
Initially, Anderson wanted to shoot the movie in Budapest, but after discovering how big and bustling the Hungarian city was, he settled on the smaller village of Gorlitz, which is located on the Polish border.
“I think our Budapest is connected to the Budapest in ‘Shop Around the Corner’ [Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 masterpiece starring Sullavan and James Stewart]. That movie was shot in Culver City or Burbank. Our movie is set in an Eastern European city, but it’s a city filtered through movies.”