Paul Farren met Annie Atkins to discuss her work with Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Wes Anderson’s critically acclaimed The Grand Budapest Hotel may not have won the Oscar for best picture or best director this year but it did come away with four Oscars, including Best Music and Best Production Design, both hugely deserved. As part of the Production Design team responsible was Irish-based Annie Atkins, who served as the lead graphic designer.
So what was the starting point for Annie as a graphic designer? “My Dad is a graphic designer, I had wanted to do this since I was about 5 years old. I pictured myself sitting at a drawing board like my dad did, hand-drawing type. I never imagined a computer, and then later, when I started work in advertising using Macs all day, I never imagined a world where we make graphics by hand again – which is what we do in film”. It was this desire to work in more tactile ways that led Annie to do an MA in Film Production at UCD, a course that has sadly discontinued.
After graduating Annie eventually found work specialising in graphic props for period dramas “building an extensive portfolio of telegrams and antique newspapers” working on the likes of Tudors, Camelot, Titanic Blood and Steel. Her work wasn’t going unnoticed and led to a graphic design gig on the Academy Award nominated animated feature Boxtrolls. It was while working on the stop-motion feature that she got word something interesting was on the way. “One of the designers there, Nelson Lowry, had designed Fantastic Mr. Fox with Wes, so he’d recommended me. I remember he’d sent me an e-mail that just said “something wicked your way comes”. I had no clue whatsoever what he was talking about, and then my phone rang.”
Annie’s role on the production, involved designing everything from telegrams, love letters, carpet patterns, to autopsy reports and love letters, then some. “Basically, anything with lettering, pattern, or a picture on it is usually the responsibility of the graphics team. We worked closely with the production designer, Adam Stockhausen, who oversees the look of the entire movie, and also the set decorator and prop master Anna Pinnock and Robin Miller, who oversee the dressing and furnishing.”
So was there anything specific about working with Anderson that was different from working on other films? “On other projects I might talk to the director about certain hero graphic props, but on this one I worked directly with Wes throughout, too. He’s an auteur, so every little thing we make is important to him. Sometimes we made maybe twenty or thirty different versions of props before he was ready to shoot on them. He’s particular about design but he’s also experimental – we’d look at hundreds of references from the turn of the last century for inspiration. Some of them real artefacts from the time – postcards, labels, packaging – and some of them from 1930’s movies themselves. I got to my desk one day and there was a neat little package of Lubitsch DVDs waiting for me to watch.”
Attention to detail was intense to say the least. “We used Tilda’s lipstick to make the kiss on her letter to Gustave so the colour matched exactly. The art department PA kissed 30 letters as it was being opened in shot so we needed repeats. You can buy imitation Mendls boxes on e-bay but they’re not the real thing – I can tell just by looking at them, there’s something off about the design, and they don’t have the little mistake in them that I know were made at the time. Wes wrote the articles for the newspapers, and also created other different daily rags for Zubrowka (the fictional setting of The Grand Budapest Hotel) like The Continental Drift and The Daily Fact. We developed a style of handwriting for Zero’s inscription in the book of Romantic Poetry that he gives to Agatha, and then the actor Tony Revoioira, wrote it himself adding extra little swirls here and there so it looked like it came from a teenage boy in love.”
So when did it strike her that she was working on something special? “I knew as soon as I got the first call about the film that it would be something special – all Wes’ films are special. But I think the day we had all the carpets laid for our hotel set was when I realised how beautiful it was going to be. I’d been working on the patterns for them with Adam for weeks. It’s quite an abstract way to work, designing on a relatively small screen for something so physically large in the tactile world. So when I walked in to the set for the first time and saw the carpets all laid out and how their colours affected the set – the reds and purples and pinks and golds – I was stunned. The whole set was being dressed and painted and furnished in the most beautiful colour palette, it looked like no other set I’d ever seen before. It was something else.”
On fond memories of the shoot Annie says, “One day the studio fire alarms went off. We all stood out in the snow for half an hour. I remember there were local paparazzi there too, but they didn’t seem to recognise the actors in their costumes because the next day the papers were full of pictures of extras dressed in their hotel costumes. I remember Wes climbing up on the roof of a van to take a picture of us all laughing in the snow.’
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Category: Exclusives, Featured, Interviews