Shot by Robert Yeoman, ASC, The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much a film in keeping with his previous collaborations with director Wes Anderson: a storybook tale with complex narratives and first-person narrators, captured in an illustrative style that’s both theatrical and cinematic. The central story is bookended by scenes set in the late 1970s, when an elderly author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts the details of his extended stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s. He recalls a story told to his younger self (played by Jude Law) by one Monsieur Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner at the time.
The film then transitions to the early 1930s, when Moustafa, then called Zero (Tony Revolori), serves as a lobby boy for the impeccable Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), head concierge of the hotel at the height of its fame. Trouble begins when Gustave’s octogenarian lover, the rich widow Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), is found murdered at her estate, and her will bequeaths to Gustave a priceless painting. The surviving Desgoffe clan vows to contest the will, but not before Gustave and Zero swipe the painting. The police then arrest Gustave for Madame D.’s murder, leaving Zero with the task of clearing his mentor’s name.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was shot entirely in Germany, and Anderson set the story in a fictitious Eastern European province, ŻZubrówka (a real-life brand of Polish vodka). As with many of the director’s films, vague historical and geographical references locate the story somewhere between fantasy and reality. “Wes prefers to draw from real-world references to create his own world,” says Yeoman. “In this movie, for instance, the Fascists in power aren’t specifically Nazis, but they certainly could be interpreted that way.”
During prep for the film, Yeoman and Anderson spent a lot of time scouting locations in Germany and Poland together. To get an idea of how certain scenes might play out, they sometimes used a film camera to shoot some scenes as they scouted, with various crewmembers serving as stand-ins. Anderson then used his own hand-drawn and voiced animatics to build the structure of each scene. “Wes tried to plan out as much of the movie in advance as possible,” says Yeoman. “He does painstaking research, and we plan our shots pretty carefully during prep. Occasionally, new ideas come up while we’re shooting, but we generally have a pretty good idea of what to expect for each scene.”
Anderson curated an extensive image library for his collaborators. “Many of those books had pictures of old European hotels from the 1930s and other visual references that were relevant to our story,” says Yeoman. Anderson notes, “Our best reference was the Internet. The Library of Congress photochrome-print collection is sort of like Google Earth for 1905. We actually found some of our locations that way, and a few of them looked a lot like they did 108 years ago.”
The production also maintained a library of reference DVDs, which included The Red Shoes, Twentieth Century, Love Me Tonight and Grand Hotel. “Wes loves the Ernst Lubitsch comedies of the 1930s: The Shop Around the Corner, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow and To Be or Not to Be,” Yeoman says. “We looked at those more to familiarize ourselves with the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which Wes wanted to use for the 1930s sequences. This aspect ratio opens up some interesting composition possibilities; we often gave people a lot more headroom than is customary. A two-shot tends to be a little wider than the same shot in anamorphic. It was a format I’d never used before on a movie, and it was a fun departure. You can get accustomed to 1.85:1 or 2.40:1 to the point that the shots become more predictable.”
Sequences set in the late 1970s, when the author addresses the camera from behind a desk, were filmed in 1.85:1, and scenes set in the 1960s were filmed in 2.40:1 anamorphic. Yeoman shot the latter material using anamorphic Techno-Cooke prime and zoom lenses from Technovision. “They have a very interesting quality — they’re not sharp and crisp like Panavision Primo anamorphics,” he notes. “I was a little nervous about how they fell off at the edges. I think the 40mm was actually pretty soft in the lower center. Cameramen don’t like seeing that, but Wes embraced the imperfections of the lenses because of their distinctive look.” Cooke S4 prime lenses and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom were used for the rest of the film.
Principal photography was strictly a single-camera affair, and Yeoman used an Arricam Studio provided by Arri Berlin. “When you’re as compositionally specific as Wes and I are, one camera is the only way to go,” the cinematographer muses.
Yeoman takes a low-tech approach to accomplishing Anderson’s trademark swish pans and dolly shots. “I generally prefer an Arri gear head, but at times I’ll opt for an OConnor Ultimate fluid head, particularly for swish pans that are more than 90 degrees,” he explains. “I can be more accurate and move the camera faster with the fluid head. We had several long dolly moves, and we prefer a large dolly like the Chapman Hybrid 3. Wes prefers to ride with a handheld monitor so he can be near the actors.”
Anderson constantly encouraged Yeoman and key grip Sanjay Sami to find new ways to accomplish shots. A new addition to their toolkit was the Towercam, a telescoping camera platform from MAT in Berlin. The Towercam was occasionally used in place of a crane or to boom the camera between floors, as in the sequence where an incarcerated Gustave and his fellow inmates stage a prison break. “When the lantern dropped through a hole in the jail-cell floor to the basement, we suspended the Towercam upside down so the camera could descend all the way to the ground,” says Yeoman. “Wes often challenged us, and Sanjay always came through!”
Yeoman shot the entire picture on Kodak Vision3 200T 5213. “We did that on Moonrise Kingdom and found that the lab could handle the correction [for day exteriors],” he remarks. “Without the 85 filter, the film stock is rated at 200 ASA instead of 125, which helps late in the day when you’re losing light.”
The Grand Budapest is first shown in a shabby state, its crumbling façade (a combination of locations in Görlitz, Germany, and miniatures shot at Babelsberg Studios) concealing an interior decked in flat shades of nicotine, with low ceilings and narrow halls. The cavernous atrium of a former department store in Görlitz served as the hotel’s main lobby. Production designer Adam Stockhausen hung a translucent egg-crate drop ceiling to the ground floor and boxed in the lobby with wall flats to make the Cold War-era hotel feel claustrophobic and oppressive. “It was an austere environment,” Yeoman remarks. “The entire lobby ceiling was designed to resemble an overhead fluorescent source, and we accomplished that with 24 12-light Maxi-Brutes shining through a layer of Rosco 216 White Diffusion that covered the ceiling.”
Yeoman lit all interiors with tungsten instruments and practicals on DMX dimmers, and he typically lit to T3.5. “We did a few zoom shots with a Techno-Cooke 40-200mm zoom in the 1960s hotel lobby, and I lit those to T8 because the anamorphic zooms look slightly soft unless they’re given a deeper stop,” he adds.