Do you remember that Boy with Apple painting in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel? The one painted by the late Johannes Van Hoyt? Well, that painting was actually painted by Michael Taylor—an artist who lives in London and studied at the Worthing College of Art and the Goldsmiths School of Art. He has won the Lark Trust Award at the Royal West of England Academy and the Holburne Portrait Prize at the Holburne Museum of Art, along with many others. We talked to Michael Taylor about his process working with Anderson, and what it's like to channel somebody else's vision.
VICE: How did Wes Anderson approach you to work on The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Michael Taylor: I was initially approached by Molly Cooper, one of the producers, with a very non-specific question about if I would consider painting a portrait for a film. I was intrigued that this was intended to be a commissioned portrait with a sitter rather than a prop, so I asked for more information and it went from there.
Wes called me up a little later and we began our discussions. I think the first thing he told me was that the artist was named Johannes Van Hoytl, which endeared me to the project from the start. Then he sent me his extraordinary script—it had my name watermarked on every page, so I felt like I should've kept it in a safe. He also sent along a whole lot of pictures for inspiration. That's when I knew that I'd like to be involved.
How did Wes Anderson communicate what he wanted for the painting?
The images he emailed me after our initial conversations were a pretty varied and eclectic bunch of paintings, old postcards of Grand Hotels, cakes, mountains, and other things he'd been looking at for the style of the film. The paintings were slightly contradictory and confusing. There were 16th Century Italian Mannerist paintings by Bronzino, some German Renaissance stuff, a Durer, a Lucas Cranach, and one or two Holbeins. I think there were some Brueghels in there, too.
It didn't help that Johannes Van Hoytl is so very suggestive of a 17th century Dutch artist. Wes also wanted it to be funny ("not very funny, just a bit funny"), which I thought we could maybe achieve by the device of the hands holding the apple. I suspect that—although this looks a bit funny to us—in the 16th or 17th century it was quite often used without any comic intention at all. It gives our boy a faintly ridiculous pomposity.
A lot of the ensuing emails concerned costume specifics. Wes had a very clear idea of the kind of colors and textures he wanted: furs, velvets, the codpiece, and so on. There was quite a bit of pull and push between us over this… I had to bear in mind what would work in the painting, and he knew what he wanted for the film.
Wes usually won, although once the costume designer and I changed the color of a little detail. Wes somehow got to hear of it and demanded to know why he hadn't been told. He liked to know everything.
Why was Ed Munro chosen to pose for the painting? Did you enjoy working with him?
Wes sent me some pictures of Ed asking what I thought of him as our Boy, and I just said, "Perfect!" I don't know how many others he'd auditioned, but they found him at a London stage and dance school. We got along well during the sittings—although he remembers that I ended up banning his iPhone and chewing gum during the sittings.
Where did you paint Boy with Apple? How long did it take?
Initially it was proposed to build a London studio set for Van Hoytl to work in, which didn't appeal to me at all. I suggested we use a Jacobean manor house near my home in Dorset and have Ed and his mother Sarah come and stay for the sittings. This proved very satisfactory. He was in the West End production of Singin' in the Rain at the time, so we had to fit sittings in around that and his school holidays. Overall, I worked on it off and on for nearly four months.
Was your process of working on it it similar to when you work on an original painting?
It wasn't really a portrait as such, but wasn't really one of my own paintings either. While not needing to be a strict likeness—one of the usual prerequisites for a portrait—but it did need to be done from life. Never having worked on a film prop before or collaborated on a painting I had to invent a process as I went along.
For the first time I felt that I should pay attention to the back of the canvas—so instead of staples, the canvas was nailed to the darkened stretchers with old rusty tacks, and I made up, printed, and glued a number of European framers and dealers' labels to the back, suitably tea-stained and torn. The frame also needed to be convincing, so after discussing various style options with Wes, I asked framer and restorer Philip Elletson to make a gessoed, gilded, and hand-painted antique frame. He did a wonderful job—even used woodworm-riddled wood and antique brass rings.
Lastly, the script demanded that the painting be smaller than my usual scale in order for it to fit under someone's arm. This caused me some anxiety—for reassurance, I would ask friends of various heights and arm lengths to pretend to steal it for me!
How was working with Wes Anderson?
He was very patient and considerate to work with, while politely getting exactly what he wanted. Once we had agreed on a pose, costume details, and some props, Wes left me on my own for a couple of months. Knowing how he works normally, and considering the key role the painting holds in the plot, I'm sure this must have been more than a bit of a nightmare for him. As filming neared, he asked and then pleaded to see it. Although I would normally never show anything until it was finished, it was, after all, his film, so I sent him an image. His response was conditionally enthusiastic, but came with a lengthy but courteous list of director's notes to, as he put it, "get this thing moving in the right direction."
I could see where he was going with it. Although this was all new territory for me, I just thought "OK, these things can be done, why not?" I asked for more time, and provided I felt they could be made to work, began to scrape things out and make the suggested changes. A bird skull on a pewter plate that we had agreed on ended up on the painting equivalent of the cutting room floor, along with a picture of a castle and a lovely curtain rail which, in retrospect, I wish I'd fought to keep.
I could retain the period quality of memento mori ('Remember you will die') that the skull had imparted by adding the beginnings of organic decay to the apple. We tacked the little bit of paper to the wall, adjusted the facial expression, and finally chose the Latin inscription. So I could work on it when Ed wasn't there, I had taken the precaution of making a whole series of stereoscopic 3D transparencies as reference, which proved very useful at this stage.
We kept bouncing images and suggestions back and forth by email. The adjustments got smaller and smaller until it looked like it might never get finished, so eventually I just boxed it up and shipped it out. The final version contained a bit of both of us. I feel that, in the light of its subsequent role in the movie, most of the changes were for the better.
What is the significance of the subject of the painting?
Well, of course the painting has absolutely no significance outside the context of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Without the film, it would have no reason to exist. I think that any hidden meanings or symbolism therefore would have to be sought within the script, and for that the best person to ask would be Wes.
His particular sense of comical, dark melancholy can be found in his choice of the portrait's content up to a point—the insistence on fur, his specific interest in the costume and the little piece of paper tacked to the wall, or his positive response to the pose of the hands and the things he edited out or changed.
Where is the painting now?
I have no idea. After making it a nice, padded, wooden box to protect it from the rough and tumble life on set, I pasted a label, "How to care for your Boy with Apple," in the lid and mailed it to Wes in Germany. I rather like the thought that it has a kind of independent life. It's out there making its own way in the world, now.