A Wes Anderson film is usually instantly recognisable as a Wes Anderson film. Droll, dysfunctional characters in kooky costumes; meticulously realised, often imaginary settings; eye-popping colour; witty details; whimsy; Bill Murray. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his eighth feature, is no exception. Quite apart from the astonishing cast list – Brody, Dafoe, Fiennes, Goldblum, Keitel, Law, Norton, Swinton, Wilson and, yes, Murray – it may be the auteur's most visually sumptuous film yet.
Set in a spa hotel in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, a crime caper involving the hotel's concierge, a priceless painting, and two young lovers, unfolds between the wars. Framing devices show the Grand throughout history, from its heyday as a rich man's retreat, to its use as a fascist base, to its Sixties decline. That's a lot of devilish design details and Anderson left nothing to chance on set. There are credits for the porcelain pendant-maker and the handkerchief cross-stitcher, for the pâtissier and the mural painter.
There is a credit, too, for Annie Atkins, the film's lead graphic designer. She made the gorgeous, surreal poster which superimposes the pink wedding cake of a hotel on an alpine backdrop. She also designed and created every piece of paper that appears on screen. Newspapers, letters, shopping bags, police reports, wills, menus, books – if it has letters on it, Atkins made it.
Annie Atkins' striking graphic designs for Wes Anderson's films
Annie Atkins' striking graphic designs for Wes Anderson's films
1/7 The Grand Budapest Hotel: the poster
"When you look at the poster now, it's pretty much exactly how Wes described it to me in his first email. The hotel on the poster is actually a model that was made in Babelsburg. I drew the sign by hand and then the model-makers made it up and stuck it on the miniature. I love that sign. It's based on a real steel hotel sign from the 1930s. The typography is not quite evenly spaced. That's a real Wes thing".
2/7 Labour-intensive job
Annie Atkins at work on the upper floor of the old department store which served as the hotel
3/7 Mendl's cake boxes
"The cake box was quite a complicated prop, it went through a lot of reworks. This scene has Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) sitting in a huge pile of them so it was pretty important. It was quite a lengthy process getting the right colour pink. We were making about 500 of them so we really had to get it right. In the end, we covered the boxes in this pink paper that Wes loved and had them screen-printed in Berlin. It was one of the most coveted set-steals. I think every crew member took a box home with them."
Martin Scali/20th Century Fox
4/7 The Trans-Alpine Yodel newspaper
"Usually, if I'm making a newspaper for a film, I'll write the copy – just some generic text, because nobody is ever going to read it. With Wes, he wrote the newspaper – not just the headlines that you see, but all of the articles as well. The text is so Wes Anderson: "The highest of the high and the lowest of the low, the assassins of our cruel city this week exhibited noticeable democratic instincts..."
5/7 The last will and testament of Madame D
"This was huge – over 200 different documents, and you have to do 12 copies of everything, or 30 or 40 if they're going to get covered in blood and destroyed. I did the calligraphy myself. We wouldn't use handwriting fonts or anything like that. Everything had to be aged, too. It shouldn't look like it was made in an art department five minutes ago. We'd make a big pot of tea and dab it at the edges. There was one letter that Madame D has signed with a kiss. We had to get Tilda Swinton's lipstick from the make-up department so that it was exactly the right shade, but I think it was a graphics intern who did the kiss itself."
6/7 The Lutz Military Police Station
"That map that you see behind Ed Norton is an old one of Gorlitz which I adapted with the fictional place names from the script. The propmaster got me a beautiful 1930s typewriter so that I could make all the police documents. It was quite noisy; the people in the room next door didn't like it, but it had to be done. I particularly loved making the [spoiler alert] autopsy report for Deputy Kovacs, played by Jeff Goldblum. He gets his fingers lopped off so the police report has his fingerprints on it but only from one hand. That was nice. The fingerprints are quite big and I remember thinking at the time that it might not be very realistic but actually Jeff Goldblum has very big hands."
7/7 The Grand Budapest Hotel: the book
"This is probably my favourite item. There's something about having a prop with the movie's title on it, and I love the idea of a book starting off a film: you open it and the story begins. We made three copies because the scene was filmed outside on a snowy day; if one was dropped in a puddle, we would need a couple of back-ups. I remember something went wrong with my printer that day and I was having trouble getting the cover the right colour. I ran down to the set last-minute with the books and Wes was really happy with them. It was the very, very last shot we took."
It was a massive undertaking. The fictional setting meant that everything – stamps, banknotes, flags – had to be invented from scratch. "On the one hand, you're working in the style of the period, but you're also working in Wes's style," says Atkins. "So it's an amalgamation of two very special worlds and a lot of imagination."
Atkins, 34 years old and from Dublin, lived with the cast and crew in Gorlitz, a tiny German town on the Polish border for the duration of the six-month shoot. Her office was on the upper floor of the old department store which served as the hotel. "It was like being in a Wes Anderson movie," she says. "Snow everywhere and Bill Murray wandering about."
It was a labour-intensive job. Documents had to be typed on a vintage typewriter, letters hand-written in calligraphy, cake boxes screen-printed. "Adam [Stockhausen, the production designer] and Wes were very, very specific that if it was made by hand at the time, we should make it by hand now," says Atkins. "On another film, you might get away with using a laser printer. Sometimes we'd do 20 different versions of an item before Wes was ready to shoot it." Sounds demanding. "He's very particular, but he really loves this stuff."
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Atkins' first feature film. After art school, she worked as a graphic designer at an advertising agency in Iceland before enrolling on a film course at University College Dublin. There she met a producer on The Tudors and was hired for two series, to make scrolls and stained-glass windows and teach Jonathan Rhys Meyers how to use a quill. Since then, she has worked on Camelot, Titanic and Vikings and is currently on set for Penny Dreadful, a new Victorian horror series from Sam Mendes and Bond writer John Logan.
Working with Anderson was a rare opportunity to see her backstage work in the spotlight for once, she says. "Wes has such a graphic sensibility. The thing with graphics and film is that if it is good, it won't jump out at you. You really only notice the poorer stuff. Knowing that the stuff we were making was going to get some proper screentime was great."
'The Grand Budapest Hotel' is released on Friday; annieatkins.com.