Wes Anderson’s string of idiosyncratic, personal films includes Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom and now, The Grand Budapest Hotel. At the camera for all of these films was Robert Yeoman, ASC, and in each case, they chose to tell their stories on film.
“I’m such a believer in film,” says Yeoman, whose resume also includes Drugstore Cowboy, Dogma, The Squid and the Whale, and Bridesmaids. “I prefer the look and the on-set discipline. I find that when shooting digitally, the camera doesn’t cut, and people’s attention seems to wander. I look around the set and everyone’s on their phones. The process has been polluted. I think film causes people to concentrate on the shot. When the camera is rolling, everyone knows the importance of the moment and is paying attention. This energy is translated onto the film.”
Film is also a key part of the look Anderson and Yeoman designed for The Grand Budapest Hotel. “It’s a period movie set partly in the 1930s,” says Yeoman. “Wes and I like the texture and more poetic quality that film brings. It was the right way to go.”
The story plays out in three different time periods: the 1930s in Eastern Europe, the 1960s, and the late 1970s. A first-person narrator (Tom Wilkinson) relates a tale he heard in his younger days from the owner of the titular hotel, the story of an imperious concierge, his elderly lover and a priceless painting he inherits when she dies.
The astonishing cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Saoirse Ronan, and of course, Bill Murray.
The German city of Görlitz, the easternmost town in the country, provided Anderson with most of his locations. Situated on the Polish border, Görlitz escaped bombing during World War II and retains much of its old world, Baroque charm. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Richardson, ASC used the city as a backdrop for parts of Inglorious Basterds, and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC shot parts of The Reader there.
“We found an old abandoned department store that had a beautiful skylight at the top, and Wes just fell in love with the space and felt like he could transform this into his hotel,” says Yeoman. “It also served as a lot of different sets for us as well. The top floor became the center for the production offices, wardrobe and art department. We were pretty self-contained so it was a very efficient place for us to shoot.”
The filmmakers chose a variety of aspect ratios to delineate the various time periods. The majority of the movie takes place in the 1930s and was shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, close to what was then referred to as Academy format, the standard for most movies in that era. The 1970s scenes appear in a 1.85:1 frame, and the 1960s scene play out in a widescreen 2.40:1 frame accomplished with older anamorphic lenses. A well-stocked collection of 1930s classic films, including many Ernst Lubitsch comedies, was kept on hand for inspiration and for ideas on how to compose within the 1.37 frame.
As he did on Moonrise Kingdom, Yeoman shot the entirety of The Grand Budapest Hotel on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. “Wes likes the idea of using a single stock,” says the cinematographer. “We don’t use an 85 filter. We rate everything at 200 ASA. It gives the movie a kind of visual coherence.”
Yeoman and Anderson place a premium on natural light, and the abandoned department store included a large skylight above the main room. Unfortunately, the short winter days meant that Yeoman need to augment that light by bouncing 20 4K HMI fixtures into a giant white muslin above the skylight to maintain consistency through a longer shoot day.
Extensive practical lighting, including numerous sconces and chandeliers, also played a role in hotel interiors.
“Sometimes we’d float a soft light in for close-ups, something quick and easy like a gem ball,” says Yeoman. “That’s one of the great things about film – we knew we could capture the range pretty well. And on exterior day scenes, I don’t think we used any additional light. We embraced the natural light and went with that as our philosophy.”
Most of the interiors were painted in distinctive tones, in keeping with Anderson’s aesthetic. “It’s a well-orchestrated palette,” says Yeoman. “Obviously, Wes is vitally concerned with how color is rendered in the world that he has created. Sometimes we’ll shoot tests with different sample colors to see how they’ll come out on film. And that can be manipulated in the DI as well.”
After finishing The Grand Budapest Hotel, Yeoman went on to film Love & Mercy with director Bill Pohlad. That film depicts the story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Wilson is played at different ages by both John Cusack and Paul Dano. Paul Giamatti portrays the musician's Svengali-like doctor, Eugene Landy. The majority of the film was shot on 35 mm film, and about a quarter of the story is told on Super 16 film, underexposed slightly to emphasize grain. These scenes depict Southern California surf culture and the rock ‘n’ roll scene of the early 60s.
“I love film,” says Yeoman. “I fight for it on every movie.”