Hotel Zubrowka: An Interview with Annie Atkins


Posted March 10, 2014 in Film Features

Few directors have an aesthetic as instantly recognisable as Wes Anderson’s. But the cult filmmaker doesn’t do it alone. Part of the design team for new flick The Grand Budapest Hotel is Annie Atkins, a Dublin-born designer who’s previously turned her dab hand to props, posters and graphic set pieces for productions from The Tudors to What Richard Did. With a knack for hand-drawn fonts and period detailing, Annie’s talents come to life in explosive fashion in Anderson’s new production – perhaps his most exquisitely stylised yet, all pink baroque and faux-vintage trinkets. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka in the early 20th century, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s otherworldly aesthetic is at once terrifyingly evocative of facist-era Europe, yet dazzlingly beautiful in its ice cream-toned pristineness. One custom street sign and invented postage stamp at a time, Atkins translated Anderson’s dreamworld into a (filmic) reality. We talked to her about working with Wes, and sourcing antique pornography.

 

How did your career in design come about? Was there anything you were doing before it? What did you study at college?

I studied Visual Communication Design at Ravensbourne. My dad is a photographer and designer and my mother is an illustrator, so I’d always been leaning in that direction. I wanted to work in advertising so I went to Reykjavik (to McCann Erickson) and was there for four years. Advertising didn’t quite feel right for me somehow though… when I handed my notice in I remember the director saying “I’ve been reading your blog: maybe you need to do something more emotional for a while?” Emotional?! But that’s when I decided to go and study film.

What brought you to Iceland, and why did you come back? 

The first year or so in Iceland was rather difficult. I didn’t have any friends and it was 2003 so I didn’t have a laptop or the internet either. Imagine! I spent a lot of time by myself eating sardines from a can. In my second year things picked up, though. Once you manage to make one friend it’s easier to make more because you can just steal all their friends. By the time I moved to Dublin in 2007 I didn’t want to leave, but I wanted to study in my first language. I still go back to Reykjavik for a month every summer, when it’s daylight all night long. That’s magic.

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I imagine that designing graphic set-pieces/props requires a much bigger spatial awareness than advertising graphics. Did you have to learn architectural drawing? Was it a difficult thing to get used to?

When I worked in advertising I made absolutely everything digitally. Then when I started in film I had to learn how to physically make three-dimensional pieces with my hands – graphic props like vintage cigarette boxes or royal scrolls – there’s a lot of cutting, sticking, and stitching.

With graphic construction pieces — like, for example, the stained glass theatre canopy that we’re shooting on Dame Lane at the moment — I work with the production designer, the art director, and a draughtsman who all design the structure, then I issue my own plan to our construction crew with all the decorative graphic panels that I’ve drawn. I then liaise with the sign-painters and laser-cutters and metalworkers and glaziers who get the piece executed. It’s always so exciting to see a large piece like that go up. It was the same with the sign for the hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The graphics are a real opportunity to set the feel of a show, I have to say I absolutely love it. It was a tricky transition from advertising but I can’t imagine doing anything else now.

When working on period film, are you a faithful historicist, or do you use a bit of artistic license? (I’m guessing you often have a few blanks to fill in as well.)

I find the best way to approach period props is to start with a real historical reference and work from there. You have to remember it’s a story you’re creating, not a documentary, so yes, you’ll need to make it cinematic. The most common stretch of truth you see in film graphics is probably 19th century newspapers: large headlines didn’t exist on the covers in ye olden days, it was all small ads. But they’re a strong graphic story-telling device so, hey, we turn a blind eye.

How many of your graphic props do you design, and how many do you source?

Well, everything is made in-house, but some are direct copies of historical items and others are created from scratch. The tickets to board the Titanic, for example, are copies of the real things. Sometimes you get clearance for certain brand usage so it’s nice to use old advertising to help a film feel realistic – my favourite is an 1800s poster the size of a building that just says “Bovril Repels Influenza!” For Wes’ film, though, he and the production designer Adam Stockhausen were creating an entirely fictional country, the State of Zubrowka, so everything had to be invented from scratch – banknotes, flags, postage stamps, passports – even if it was just background material. We based everything on real references, though, mostly from ’20s and ’30s Eastern Europe.

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What’s the oddest graphic prop you’ve ever had to source/make?

Antique pornography is always a weird one to research. All that ankle and cleavage. I can hardly look.

I read you have a sizable archive of “printed ephemera” to draw from. What sort of stuff do you collect?

I have hundreds upon hundreds of Victorian goods receipts. I know that sounds crushingly boring, but they really were a thing of beauty, looking at them now. I also have deeds from the 1800s written on calfskin, and American poison labels from the ’20s, and an English love letter from 1733, folded and sealed with wax, which I’m particularly fond of.

Is it all work-related, or is there a bit of personal hoarding there too?

Oh god, I don’t even know what the line between work stuff and personal stuff is anymore. I work six days a week and when I’m not working I’m at the cinema. Everything is work-related!

What’s the best antiques market you’ve ever visited?

Berlin, for sure. I got so many beautiful old banknotes there, and old family photos, and somebody’s notebook from 1923 filled with poetry in many different handwritings. It belonged to a woman who was dying of consumption, and she had asked all her friends to write their favourite poems in the book so she could read it while she was alone in her bed. Apart from the romance of it, it’s also pretty valuable reference material for different 1920s handwriting styles. Wow, that sounds cold.

Moving onto The Grand Budapest Hotel specifically – tell us about some of the things you created for the sets there.

Wes makes great use of graphics as a storytelling device so there were literally hundreds of pieces to be made for the film. I think my script breakdown was over 20 pages long. We made bloodied ripped up telegrams, pastry boxes, books of poetry, maps, character passports, patterns for carpets, all the signage you see in the film, banknotes, flags, a police report with Jeff Goldblum’s fingerprints on it… so many different things, and from three different time periods, too. And, of course, the book that opens and closes the film itself, with a drawing of the hotel and the title on the front of it. That’s my favourite piece – it’s a simple illustration but I’m so proud to have drawn it for him. I was a fan of his films anyway, and now I feel like I’ve been in one!

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When did you first meet Wes Anderson? How did working with him come about?

I had been working with an American film designer on a different project [Nelson Lowry, who designed Fantastic Mr Fox], when one day he sent me an email that just said: “Something wicked your way comes.” I had no idea what he meant. Was I going to be fired? Then the phone rang and it was Wes’ producer in New York saying they were prepping a film in Germany and would I be interested in joining them? It was a shock. I think I managed to keep it together on the phone and sound at least somewhat professional, but after we hung up there was a lot of jumping up and down.

Wes has a very famous and distinct aesthetic. Was that difficult to adapt to? Was it a bit intimidating at first?

I think after spending years working on pretty varied period shows I can adapt relatively quickly to different styles. Was it intimidating at first? Oh god, I was so nervous! It was only a week between getting that initial call and packing up and moving over to Germany. As soon as I got there, though, my M.O. was to keep my head down and work like a dog. I showed him the first drafts of some graphics within a few days of landing, and I remember his reaction being pretty good – then we started on the iterations. We made up to 30 different versions of some props!  He and his crew are all so lovely, so it didn’t take long to settle in.

How much time were you able to spend engaging with the filming process – were you ever on the sets while things were being filmed, or were you a bit more removed, working on them before the action took place?

Usually with construction graphics you work about two to four weeks ahead, and with props and dressing graphics you work a few days ahead. But our offices were in the same building that we were using to shoot the hotel scenes in, so we’d be walking past the set all the time. We’d be designing the newspapers and you could hear the acting going on – gunshots and chase sequences. It was a really fun environment to work in – lots of laughter and action.

A lot of enigmatic personalities featured in the film… did you get to meet many of them? Were any of them particularly charming?

Ha, yes, that town [Gorlitz, on the German-Polish border] was strangely small for so many actors to be living in at once! It was so odd to be doing your shopping on a Saturday afternoon and stand in line with Bill Murray. He’s charming – of course he is, he’s Bill Murray. And Ralph Fiennes is charming too – he showed a real interest in the graphic props, too, which is always a winner with me! Saoirse Ronan is my favourite though – she’s full of spark and it was great hearing a Dublin accent on set. I didn’t party though, I’m afraid to say, so I have no gossip for you. I was in bed by 9 o’clock every evening with my laptop, organising my font library.

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The poster design is incredibly beautiful and eye-catching. The font has a very starkly ornate beauty to it that reminds me of design movements like the Vienna Secession – that early dawning of modernism, when things were pared down but still very beautiful and luxurious. I don’t know if that was an inspiration at all? If not, what was?

Ahh, I love this poster! It was a real privilege to help Wes execute his idea for this. It’s pretty much how he described it in the first email he sent me about it: a photo of the miniature hotel model, superimposed over a scenic art piece from the set. I drew the lettering for the hotel sign by hand, based on a beautiful old Shepheard’s Hotel [a celebrated hotel in Cairo in the late 19th century] sign from the 1920s that he’d picked out. I like that the letter spacing is slightly off, just like in the reference. It’s a part of Wes’ aesthetic that I love the most – he’s so particular, yet he doesn’t want anything to look too perfect.

Are you much of an art fan, or more strictly into design? Any particularly eras, people or movements you keep coming back to?

I really enjoy graphic design in the periods before graphic designers existed. The Victorian era is a real favourite of mine. I love that there was no corporate identity. In one institution you can see so many different styles: the blacksmith designed the lettering for the cast iron gates; the sign-painter determined the type style for the shopfront; the glazier shaped the letters for the stained glass; the printer chose the hot-metal font for the stationery. These days we have one font per building and the craftsmen are the manufacturers rather than the designers.

When you’re working on poster design, how much of it is informed by the aesthetic of the film itself, and how much comes from external influences? For example, the history of poster design itself?

Most of my graphic prop and set work for film is based heavily on historical references, so poster design is a chance to do something more original and contemporary. I never look at the history of poster design, to be honest. I like to watch the film and then try to capture the mood by layering up texture. It doesn’t necessarily match the visual aesthetic of the film, rather the tone of the story. I don’t even use a grid for film poster design – it’s probably one of the more intuitive areas of my work. But most of my poster work is for small indie Irish filmmakers, so there’s more freedom in that, than if I were designing for a big distribution company.

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Are you a pen and paper kind of person, or do you work digitally? Whether that’s taking notes, jotting down ideas, or designing a font …

A rule of thumb in graphic prop-making is: if it’s supposed to look like it was drawn by hand, then draw it by hand. You could waste a whole day trying to give things hand-drawn looks in Photoshop, I can’t stand seeing it in films. Especially “handwriting” made with script fonts – argh! Another bugbear is typewriter fonts used for real typewritten letters. Oh my god. Actually, this is one of the reasons I loved working with Wes and Adam so much – they really champion the use of authentic printing / writing / painting methods in film design. And our wonderful propmaster, Robin Miller, gave me an antique 1930s German typewriter to make all the police documents with.

You’re also writing calligraphy for Noah – when did you learn the skill, and did it take a long time to master?

I started learning as a teenager, when I set up a Calligraphy Club with my equally nerdy friend Cathy at school lunchtimes. Needless to say, we were the only members. Then we started Embroidery Club and History Club but nobody wanted to join those either. And now, 20 years later, Hollywood wants in. Take that, scornful classmates of 12N!

What else does 2014 have in store for you?

A holiday! And maybe some science fiction. I haven’t done anything futuristic before so that would be fun.

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Hotel Budapest, featuring the marvellous work of Annie Atkins goes on general release on March 7th. You can see more of Annie’s work at www.annieatkins.com.

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