Where does Wes Anderson find the actors to play those original characters that populate his movies? We spoke to Douglas Aibel, a four-time Anderson collaborator and one of a team of casting directors assigned to THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, for the answer. Anderson's between-the-wars dramedy, set lavishly in what the Texas-born director calls "Hollywood Europe," opens March 7. The Fox Searchlight release boasts a large cast replete with Anderson veterans and newcomers, including F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson. Aibel, who previously worked with Anderson on THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and MOONRISE KINGDOM (for which he won a C.S.A. Award), is well known in New York theater circles as the Artistic Director of the Vineyard Theatre. He spoke to us from his "Midtown East" Manhattan apartment.
Wes Anderson's directorial debut introduces an artist fully formed. Here, we see themes and motifs that will appear time and again across Anderson's later works – the precise dialogue, the attention to visual detail, the deliberate pacing and, perhaps most notably, the central outsiders' struggle to define themselves. Luke and Owen Wilson play partners in crime – or so Owen's sweetly single-minded Dignan would like to believe, as he aspires to the gritty greatness of his hard-boiled heroes. In the film's climactic factory heist, the jump-suited bandits find Dignan's best-laid plans slowly unraveling, despite his heroic efforts to maintain the dramatic trappings of control. Things really go south when the aspiring scoundrels are interrupted by the return of the facility's employees. A frustrated Dignan chastises the interlopers. "You're always at lunch now!," he barks, to which one of the terrified employees points out the self-evident: "Not always." But the would-be mastermind isn't yet ready to admit to flaws in his perfectly orchestrated plan. "Yes, ALWAYS!" he maintains – a foolish argument against an undeniable fact. For all its frenetic fury, the moment is a melancholy revelation of Dignan's delusion – or rather, his hilariously desperate adherence to a romantic illusion. RUSHMORE (1998): Max and Rosemary's Final Dance
For Max Schiller (Jason Schwartzman), attending Rushmore Academy is the equivalent of finding his calling, his joie de vivre. It quickly becomes evident that Max's passions lie in the writing and directing of his school's theatrical productions. Our favorite moment takes place immediately following Max's theatrical magnum opus, "Heaven and Hell." At the cast party, billed as the "Heaven and Hell Cotillion," the cast and characters come together for a final goodbye. Max has come to terms with his expulsion from Rushmore and is able to find closure by continuing to write his plays elsewhere. In a moment reminiscent of Bogie and Bergman on the tarmac in CASABLANCA, Max and the object of his desire, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), share their final scene on the dance floor. Max asks the DJ to play "Oh La La" by the Faces. As the blue velvet curtain – and RUSHMORE – draws to a close, we hear the lyric: that summarizes the film: "I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger." THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001): Royal Tells Etheline He's Dying
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a disbarred attorney, terrible father and cheating spouse. Booted out of his hotel and in need of a place to stay, he ambushes his estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) on a New York sidewalk, a thoroughly inappropriate location for his housing request, yet consistent with those of other public humiliations in his family's past. When Royal declares that he wants his family back, Etheline walks away from him and out of frame. But when he says he's dying, she pauses and steps back into the shot. Etheline breaks down sobbing, where anyone can see her and, to avoid a scene, Royal improvises, takes it back, and admits he isn't dying. Which is when Etheline clouts him really hard on the neck and demands to know whether he is or he isn't. The next moment – his son Richie on the phone – allows us to infer Royal's calculated choice: he's decided to stick with the dying story. To Royal, a narcissist who has never put the feelings of his "family of geniuses" above his own selfish needs, this makes perfect sense. It will buy him some time and a place to crash. In his manipulative encounter with Etheline, Royal never takes his gloves off and never embraces his wife. We see a man willing to put a loved one through emotional hell to get his way. And we can't take our eyes off either one of them. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004): Steve Sees the Jaguar Shark
Surrounded by his loyal crew in a cozy submarine, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), an ocean-going adventurer and documentarian in the Jacques Cousteau mold, finally encounters the jaguar shark that killed his beloved friend Esteban. Zissou has seemed depressed throughout the film, wearing a deadpan expression even when, gun blazing, he shoots it out with pirates. But he lets emotion get the better of him here as all hands reach out to pat his shoulders and offer support. When the jaguar shark, bejeweled and beautiful, at last comes into view, Zissou's earlier threat of vengeance against it melts away in his catharsis, which comes after the loss of another loved one. This captain, it turns out, is the flipside of Ahab; he appreciates the creature and, in the big scheme of things, needs to make peace with nature just as he has tried to do with his possible son (Owen Wilson), his impossible wife (Anjelica Huston) and the pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) who has come aboard to tell his story. The scene is surprisingly moving, and is paced so as to allow a moment of reflection about all of the fascinating characters and relationships, the rivalries and hurt feelings, we've been observing up to that point like so many exotic fish in a tank. THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007): Running for the Train
It's the opening of the film, shot in slow motion, a train leaving the station. Bill Murray is running for it, and then into frame comes Adrian Brody, running just a bit faster. As he passes Murray he looks at him as if to say "that's Bill Murray..." but Murray doesn't make the train, Brody does, and so this becomes his film, his journey with his brothers. So often film and theater critics talk of a "point of attack" or "inciting incident" that propels the story forward. There's something whimsically wonderful about this story simply following the guy who made the train. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009): The Cousins Find Common Ground
The title character's young son, Ash (voiced by frequent Anderson collaborator Jason Schwartzman) feels inferior to his acrobatic, karate-chopping, yoga-loving visiting younger cousin, Kristofferson, who comes to live with the Fox family temporarily. During their first night together, he and Ash are forced to share a bedroom. There's a glowing solar system set, an idle train set and whirring rotating fan. A melancholy song, "Buckeye Jim" by Burl Ives, plays softly in the background. Worried about the condition of his spine, Kristofferson asks if he could slide his sleeping mat out from under the table the train sits on. Ash, upset that his athletically superior cousin upstaged him in front of his father earlier in the day, takes this opportunity to lash out and scolds him for taking part in a "sad houseguest routine." With that, an exasperated Ash turns off the light leaving only the glow of the toy planets and the sound of the music. Kristofferson, with a dollop of sadness in his voice, manages to let out a "good night." Hurt and lonely, he crawls under the train set and begins to whimper. The crying forces Ash out of bed. He glances at his cousin and turns on the train set. The electronic toy's accompanying upbeat music drowns out "Buckeye Jim" and after a moment, the two cousins are sitting quietly together in the dark watching the train go round and round its tracks. MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012): Sam Meets Suzy
Sam, thumbs twiddling, has no patience with Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludd," the church pageant his scout troop is attending. From the moment he ducks outside and walks past cast members waiting to go on, then pushes his way into the off-limits girls' dressing room, we're hooked. Sam focuses on Suzy, costumed as a raven, and their dialogue is direct and, literally, to the point: "What happened to your hand?" "I got hit in the mirror." "Really. How'd that happen?" "I lost my temper at myself." The unsmiling, no-nonsense demeanor of the two 12-year-olds contrasts with the world of artifice surrounding them. It's a beautifully realized world, complete with hand-painted waves, clouds and lightning bolts, and crammed with musicians in the pit. But Anderson seems eager to take us behind the scenes to the real people and their instantaneous yet deep connection.
How did you first meet Wes Anderson?
He approached me to cast his film THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. We hit it off, and it was a lovely collaboration, and I've worked with him since on THE LIFE AQUATIC and MOONRISE KINGDOM and then worked on the U.S. casting of GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, so it's been a nice run. I honestly don't know what drew him to me, but we just clicked the moment we met.
Do you always see eye to eye?
One of the things that I have loved about working with Wes is that he approaches the entire casting process, but especially the search process, with a spirit of adventure and openness. He is really open to anyone, and I'd say we've been in complete agreement every time.
What was your main assignment on THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL?
I did the United States casting – collaborated with Jina Jay, the London-based casting director. There was a casting person in Paris, and also one in Germany. The film shot in Germany and had a rather huge supporting cast, a lot of day players that were seen locally. One of the main jobs I had on the film was leading the search to cast the central role of Zero, who is the young lobby boy in the film. Wes actually approached me, even before I read the script, and just described in the broadest terms what he was looking for. We were told to search for a 16-year-old Middle Eastern boy with no experience. We didn't want a seasoned professional, just a very spirited and charming and intelligent and bright guy. I had an inkling, coming off of my experience on MOONRISE KINGDOM, that this would be a significant role in the film, and then when I read the script I realized that it was one of the leads.
Can you describe the casting process for us?
When you're casting the supporting roles, the actors go on tape with me. In the case of the casting of Zero, I auditioned a large gaggle of both professional and nonprofessional actors. We really made it a worldwide search process. We looked exhaustively across the United States, making contacts with Arab-American communities throughout the country – Dearborn, Michigan, for one, and Newark, New Jersey. We were reading kids [for the part] – when I say kids, I mean young people 15 to 21-year-olds – everywhere. We had sessions in Israel. We had sessions in Egypt. Obviously, it's not as easy to have auditions in every Middle Eastern country under the current circumstances, but we really tried to leave no stone unturned. Not that it was necessarily going to be an Arabic person, but that's where we began, and we were exploring actors of other ethnic backgrounds, as well.
And the one you chose is from Guatemala?
I think he is part Guatemalan. We saw him in California. He was only about 15 when he first auditioned. I had a pretty good sense of who Wes might connect with, and I remember Tony [Revolori] was, right off the bat, one of them. He was just marvelous. He actually flew out to Europe because Wes was in Paris at the time, and he read for him and met with him and got the part. And then we had to cast his adult self and cast F. Murray Abraham, which was a great gift.
This story is a period piece, set between the world wars. Do certain actors project another time and place?
I think there are actors that have a particular kind of nuance and elegance who seem to fit well in period, although it never ceases to amaze me that an actor that I think might not be that kind of person connects with the right role and is dressed perfectly and finds the right spirit for it. But there are actors who seem to fit period work well – Kevin Kline, for instance. So many of the actors that work regularly with Wes – there's a core group of actors who obviously can be seen in a number of his films – they just seem to have that sense of je ne sais quoi, that certain sense of style and elegance and wit and understatement and specificity that serves the period so well.
Many of them are also stage actors. Is that a contributing factor?
Yes, yes, indeed.
Anderson's films are highly stylized. Do you look for naturalism in your actors?
Oh, absolutely. What you find among some of the really fine actors working regularly in Wes' films is that they're utterly real. In MOONRISE KINGDOM, I know the director was attracted to children who could be utterly natural and not so stagey or performer-y, if you know what I mean. Interestingly enough, those two children – I mean, they're grown now, but children when we cast them – neither one of them really had any experience. Kara Hayward came to an open call, but she had never really done any performing at all. So there was no whiff of that sort of stage kid thing. And I think they were both very pure souls, very open, very unaffected, just present and in the moment. And I think that's why they both caught fire in the project.
With such a large cast, are you looking for actors who make a very strong impression in a short amount of time?
I think when you see the film your question will be answered because there are so many distinctive actors appearing in small doses, but they are indelible. I think of Tilda Swinton in the show. You'll never forget her. She makes every second count. The film is really about the relationship between the Ralph Fiennes character and Zero (Tony). There is a tender and surprising and interesting and subtle relationship that's at the heart of the piece with all these characters swirling around them. That was why it was so key to find absolutely the right person because he's the eye of the hurricane. The world of the film is seen through his eyes. That was the great challenge of finding someone completely unknown who could go toe to toe with all of these actors and, without any screen experience, still carry the project in part, and be the lens through which we're observing this wonderful world… I'm always struck in a callback situation by the way Wes interacts with young actors. He treats them as if they were adults. He's gentle, he's respectful, he's kind. He's really interested in whatever they have to say, what energy and what qualities they bring into the room. There's a lovely synergy there, and it shows when the films come out. If you look carefully, you'll also see several of the kids from MOONRISE KINGDOM in cameo roles here and there in the new film.
Are there any newcomers in this film?
Tony is the main one. Obviously, he's the co-star and he's completely unknown. But it's a really vibrant and charming cast. There are a lot of French and German character actors in small roles, and then a lot of familiar faces used in an unfamiliar way. That's one of the things Wes is so brilliant at in the casting process: the way in which he shakes it up. You'll see people you've seen in other Wes Anderson movies before like Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, but they're used innovatively; their roles are nothing like the last role they've done for him. I like to think you'll view their presence as quite refreshing.
How did you get started in casting?
I have two careers – one as an artistic director in the theater community. I run the Vineyard Theatre. I began in the theater as a director and producer, working with writers, but I always had a knack, in that process, for casting. In my very early days, I was friendly with and worked on a couple of projects with John [Patrick] Shanley [DOUBT, MOONSTRUCK]. The very first show I worked on at my theater was a play by John. I believe his first screenplay that sold was called FIVE CORNERS. Through him, I met the director of that film, Tony Bill, and he offered a job to me to cast the film. Casting became something that I was doing on the sidelines, and then gradually became a rather fulltime moonlighting job until today when I juggle both jobs and, in a way, both worlds.
Is casting a movie different than casting a play?
I think it is very different. I think film is more collaborative. It's somewhat more of a director's medium. One of the things I love about film casting is the intimacy of the process. By that I mean, when I cast a film, especially the early stages, I'll just bring an actor I like into a room and I'll tape them while I meet with them. It's just the two of us with a camera, and we shape an audition, which I then show to the director. So there's very little pressure to the experience for the actor and it's actually a creative and fun experience. It's a little more terrifying in the theater when an actor walks into the room and there are seven people sitting at a table, taking notes and judging them. That judgment comes in the film world at the end of the process, obviously. If you're lucky and you're beginning well before the film really goes into production, the casting director and director have a very close working relationship. You don't have to share them with millions of other people until it gets closer to production time. It's gratifying and wonderful, too, when you can promote and support new and young talent. And when an unknown or somebody you don't expect to be cast in a role gets a great opportunity, it's really thrilling.
There's a C.S.A. after your name in film credits. What does that mean?
It's the Casting Society of America, a casting guild. More recently, casting directors also unionized with the Teamsters. There was no official union for casting directors for many, many years. And so C.S.A. was a wonderful guild that was created, and now there is a union, too, so it's a good thing.
Casting is a monumental creative undertaking. Should we start to see more formal recognition of it? Perhaps even an Academy Award?
I do. I know that there's a lot of back-and-forth about that decision. But there are an awful lot of categories, and I think casting, particularly in the last decade or so, has really evolved into a creative process, and a significant one. I think both the individual casting directors and the field deserve that respect and recognition.
You've seen THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. What'd you think?
I loved it! I'm biased! But I love it.