Wes Anderson’s bubblegum pink Grand Budapest Hotel isn't a real locale, but a combination of the innards of the Görlitzer Warenhaus department store, an exquisite 14' by 7' miniature model, and landscape paintings for the scenery. Every detail that exists in Anderson’s meticulously-crafted film world, from the tiered pastries of the fictive Mendl’s bakery to the carpeting that sprawls across the hotel’s lobby, passed under the keen eyes of production designer Adam Stockhausen before being set into motion. Along with the film's eight other nominations, Stockhausen is up for an Academy Award for Best Production Design for the film, his second nomination since his work on 2013's 12 Years a Slave.
“It all begins with a lot of research. We build up a whole palette of information,” Stockhausen told The Creators Project. And for him and his team, that started out with trips to the Czech Republic and Eastern Germany to seek out the fictional alpine town of Republic of Zubrowka, or at least which details they could source and collage from real locations. When Stockhausen walked into the Görlitzer Warenhaus department store, for example, he was impressed by its preservation. The sweeping and romantic Art Noveau architectural style set the perfect canvas for his story.
At the beginning of the process, Stockhausen also visited the Library of Congress to pour over their collection of photochrom postcards, focusing in on grand colonnades and hotels on the hillside. Collected, Stockhausen explained, they reminded him of a “travelogue across Europe.” Unlike showing monuments such as Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, he noticed that the postcards from that era showed a broader view of Europe in that they showcased obscure places that not many people had heard of. “It was like zooming out,” he said. Culled from those collected visuals, the pastel color scheme and vintage aesthetic became very important for The Grand Budapest’s overall look.
One of Stockhausen’s favorite scenes was shot in a train station. In it, the locomotive pulls to a stop and Edward Norton comes forward to the camera, leans in, and sniffs for the scent of the film's protagonist, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The team had researched the look of trains and stations of that era, but couldn’t find any that fit. Instead of crafting a whole set, however, they decided to turn the scene inside out so that viewers saw the train station from inside of the train, “so you only need a tiny frame of it to believe that you’re on the train as it pulls into the stop,” Stockhausen explained. The team then used a tracking dolly shot on redressed and repainted siding, transforming it into a spur of train tracks.
To Stockhausen, production designing is essentially problem solving. He and his team are constantly thinking of creative ways to bring Anderson's vision to life. While scouting locations, for example, Stockhausen and the team came across taxidermy-filled hunting villas in Germany. “It was such a striking image," he said, "we knew we had to bring this into the movie, and the reading of the will was a great place to do it.” In addition, they had admired Klimt’s paintings, especially the ones of birch trees. The result was a mixed setting that featured both birch woods and stuffed creatures.
For Mendl’s pastry shop, the location had to be created in two parts. The front, which would be as “pretty as the pastries,” was captured in a Dresden cheese shop, while the sooty, dreary baking area in the back had to be filmed elsewhere. "It was fun because you see this pink, green, and yellow frosting in this space thats covered entirely in soot," says Stockhausen.
Stockhausen believes that his work creating spaces and environments for stories to grow in is thrilling as much as it is terrifying. Fortunately, he and Anderson have sharpened a method for mechanizing scenes hundreds of moving parts by starting with the broad picture, and then tackling the nuts and bolts piece-by-piece. "The way you perceive a story is really influenced by the setting in which you see it told," said Stockhausen. "Film is such a visual medium that i think that it has a lot of impact. It's certainly exciting being a part in telling those stories."