Annie Atkins – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Annie Atkins – The Grand Budapest Hotel
*Interview originally published in 2014
Words by Roisin Agnew // @roxeenna
“Five degrees removed from reality” is how Wes Anderson describes the worlds he creates. His maniacal attention to detail and his precision when it comes to design elements in his films have set up the cult and hype that surrounds each and every one of them. The idiosyncratic worlds he creates capture a world that resembles our own in everything, except that they’re shinier, brighter, and more perfect than anything we know.
So when The Grand Budapest Hotel is hailed as his most stylish work to date before it’s even been released, we take a sudden intake of breath and contact Annie Atkins. At moment of going to press Annie is one of the top three coolest people in Dublin after having worked as head graphic designer on the movie. The iconic signage over the hotel? That’s her. Here she describes how it was to work for Anderson, the attention to the minutiae and how Ralph Fiennes was her fave.
Can you explain how you first came in contact with Wes Anderson and the Grand Budapest Hotel project?
I was working away at my desk on Liffey Street one day, when my phone rang with a New York number. I’d never had a phone call from New York in my life before so I was excited before I even answered it, to be honest. It was Wes’s producer – they were starting pre-production on “a movie set in the Alps in the 1930s…”. I fell off my chair.
Wes is well-known for meticulous detail in his films. What sort of examples were evident on set?
Yes, Wes is super meticulous. Luckily I’m a nerd, so I actually enjoy making 30 versions of telegrams with very slight adjustments to the kerning! Wes is involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process – whether that’s fun stuff like inventing mechanical props, or if it’s just moving furniture around. I’m not even joking – I’ve seen him lift sandbags with the stagehands. We made a lot of newspapers for the movie and Wes wrote all the text for the articles. It was right in the middle of the shoot, too, so I don’t know when he had time, but he did it. I don’t think he sleeps?! I love those articles actually… I don’t think the camera stays on them long enough for anyone to read anything except the headlines, but they’re so funny. I have the front page of the Trans-Alpine Yodel framed and hung on my wall now.
What large-format graphics did you work on in the movie?
The hotel carpets were my first large-format job when I arrived. They’re all pink and red and gold and they took about 2 months to draw, produce, and fit. Wes and Adam (Adam Stockhausen, the production designer) wanted very particular shades of red and pink, so we couldn’t source ready-made carpets – like most things in the film, they had to be designed from scratch. What other large format graphics? Well, I also drew up all the lettering for the signage and then it was either sculpted by the model-makers, cut by the construction crew, or painted by the sign-painters. We didn’t digitally print anything that could have – or should have – been made by hand.
Wes’s films are well-known for the idiosyncratic worlds he creates – could you pick one of the props or design elements you created and that you feel best represents the world of Grand Hotel Budapest and explain why?
One of my favourite graphics in the film is probably the hotel sign itself – you can see it up on the roof in the poster. Notice the way the kerning is slightly wide between the A and the N in Grand? That’s Wes all over… he’d seen it on an old hotel sign from a grand hotel in Cairo and liked it. I hand-drew the lettering based on the reference he’d sent me, and then it was sculpted by our model-makers. It’s one of the things I love most about his aesthetic – he’s so meticulous, but he doesn’t want anything to look machine-made.
You initially started out working in the props department? How did you end up lead graphic designer?
Well, not exactly. The role of the graphic designer is to liaise with the production designer and director and then look after the graphics in any departments they crop up in – whether that’s Props, or Set Decoration, or the Art Department, or even little bits for costume sometimes. So I would take care of graphic props (like telegrams, newspapers, or the Mendl’s boxes), but also construction signage (like the hotel facade sign and prison signs), and then also Set Decoration graphics – things like the maps on the wall in Henckels’ office. Or, for costume, the badges that the girl who opens the movie wears on her coat. I was working under the brilliant propmaster (Robin Miller), set decorator (Anna Pinnock), production designer (Adam Stockhausen) and costume designer (Milena Canonero) so I’m lucky – they’ve done so many huge films and they were absolute rocks.
What’s the best part of your job?
Probably seeing it at the cinema! When I saw the movie for the first time it was magic seeing it all come together like that. I had lots of excited phone calls with my old colleagues in Berlin – it’s been a year now since we were all in Gorlitz together, as these things take so long to edit, so it was really fun chatting and reliving it all again. It’s a pretty special film, I think, so we were all thrilled to have been a part of it.
The film was shot for the most part in Görlitz, and everyone stayed in the same hotel from what I understand. Were you there? I read that everyone sat down for dinner together in a semi formal sort of way, is that true? Could you describe what that was all like?
Ha, yes, we all lived in Görlitz for the winter, but there were hundreds of us on the crew so we didn’t sit down to dinner at once together, no! Görlitz is a pretty small town and we kind of took the place over. It’s all tiny little cavernous bars and roaring log fires and snow and Christmas stalls. I hung out with the art department and the props guys. I made some really nice friends actually, especially the supporting graphic designer Lilliana Lambriev – she is brilliant and I’m hoping we’re going to work together again one day soon.
You got to meet the cast one presumes – are Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray awesome?
Yes, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray are very charming — Bill Murray is exactly the same in real life as he is in interviews and the stories you hear about him: droll ghostbuster. I particularly took to Ralph Fiennes though, as he showed a real interest in the graphics – which is all it takes to win me over! Wait until you see him in the film — he’s so, so funny. You could just hear laughter on set all day. I think Wes did something pretty special pairing him and Tony together – they’re a great duo. I’m really looking forward to seeing the film again now a second time, when I’m not on the edge of my seat analysing all the graphics. It will be fun to just sit back and enjoy the story.
UPDATE: The Grand Budapest Hotel has won the Oscar for production design.