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Wes Anderson, onset with Jude Law, describes The Grand Budapest Hotel as being ‘filled with visual things.’Martin Scali

Wes Anderson's movies – a steady string of them since 1996, including Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel – are not hard to spot. They're a signature combination of intense, elegant production design and the illumination of character through small, telling moments. They're a fusion of deadpan hijinks, miniatures used to charming effect, and bursts of enthusiasm. They allow a repertoire of playful actors – among others, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody – to throw themselves wholeheartedly into eccentric characters who overcome obstacles with pluck and tenacity.

And they're kind of a miracle.

Not only do Anderson's pictures please fans and critics, and prove that there is such a thing as an American auteur. They also make money, in a climate that's not kind to originality. In fact, last weekend, The Grand Budapest Hotel set a box-office record, grossing $800,000 in just four theatres, two in New York and two in Los Angeles. $100,000 per screen is a lot. $200,000 is stupendous. (The film expanded to new cities yesterday.)

Of course, eccentricity has to be sincere; audiences can smell a poseur, and Anderson certainly has a subset of detractors.

Anderson, who hails from Houston, and is 44 – or, as he put it in a recent telephone interview, "I'm 44 or 45 or something like that" – is genuine. With his longish hair, thinnish voice, and rarefied areas of expertise, he may be the original hipster – in the best possible way. Talking to him gets you excited about all the things you could know but don't yet. Watching one of his movies is like peering into something handmade in another place and time, an elaborate diorama or pop-up book, whose worlds contain worlds.

"Those traits you mentioned, it's not like I'm consciously including those things," Anderson tells me. "But when you say them, I recognize them. I think, 'That sounds like a good idea. That appeals to me.'"

He's fine with the word "whimsy" – one that's frequently associated with his tone – as long as it doesn't mean "shallow." It shouldn't: Part of his greatness lies in the fact that, though his films are light, they're rooted in sadness. Watch Schwartzman visit his mother's grave in Rushmore; witness the loneliness of families who can't connect in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson may specialize in madcap fun, but it's always suffused with the melancholy of time passing, of beauty lost. Pain will get you, his movies say, but optimism is still a valid choice. It comes as no surprise that he was a philosophy major, at the University of Texas in Austin.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most Andersonian film yet, a veritable vidalia onion of a story, multilayered, sweet, but sharp enough to make you cry. Its primary plot revolves around Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a courtly concierge with impeccable tastes – in, among other things, pastry, cologne, fine art and older female guests – at an elegant Sudetenland hotel between the world wars.

But to get to Gustave, Anderson first introduces layer after layer of narrators and eras, sort of like unwrapping boxes within boxes. He manages to include a prison break, a ski chase, a murder mystery and a romance – but so delicately, it's as if it were all painted around the rim of a china teacup. And under everything is the vast, tragic sorrow of Middle Europeans trying to hold onto their civility in the face of the First World War's carnage and the looming brutality of World War 2.

The idea for The Grand Budapest Hotel came to Anderson and his writing partner, Hugo Guinness (Anderson unfailingly says "we" when talking about his films, giving credit to his collaborators), in two stages. Fiennes's character is based on a mutual friend of theirs, a 50-something Englishman who "has various qualities that do seem like he's from another time," Anderson says. But they didn't know what to do with him until Anderson discovered the work of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a Viennese novelist and short-story writer who in his heyday was as popular as Kafka, and whose work frequently employs layered narratives.

"You see it in Conrad or Kipling, Melville even," Anderson says. "There's a narrator, then his younger self, then a person he meets, then that person's story. You can really cast a spell, set a mood or a stage, during that introductory process. By the time the real story starts, you're in a trance. It worked on me." Once he had the idea of making Gustave a hotel concierge, he had his script.

The next step was finding the look and feel of the film. Anderson and his frequent production designer, Adam Stockhausen, trolled the Photochrom collection on the U.S. Library of Congress website, "which is like Google Earth of 1905," Anderson says. "You can walk across the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia; in fact, all over the planet. There are literally thousands of cityscapes, landscapes, and old hotels, in tremendous detail. It heightens your awareness of how different the world looked then."

They then toured Central Europe, studying houses, towns and artifacts in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. "The movie is filled with visual things, bits of architecture and cultural I-don't-know-what, things we'd see repeatedly – for instance, every single home had the same wood-burning stove in the corner," Anderson says. "We sort of used everything."

They also collected people, hiring extras with interesting faces. They shot on the German/Polish border: in Gorlitz, with its pristine period architecture; and in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, whose mountaintop Grandhotel Pupp was an inspiration. "We'd shoot in Germany, go to dinner in Poland, and Czech Republic was only 20 minutes away," Anderson says. "I think our imaginary country would have been located right where we shot."

Finally, the actors came in, a panoply of familiar Anderson players and new ones. Brody plays an aggrieved heir of Tilda Swinton; Edward Norton, who played a scout master in Moonrise Kingdom, is a police inspector; and Schwartzman, Wilson, and Murray are fellow concierges of Fiennes. "I love the feeling of getting one of these movies going, and people start arriving, and there are all these reunions," the director says. "Not just me and them, but them with each other. It's quite emotional. It gives the experience a different kind of weight."

Fiennes tackles his comedic character – a rarity for him – with particular gusto. "Ralph wants to feel like the character all the time," Anderson says. "He's deeply committed to it. He's into it." He's also the only actor Anderson has ever worked with who wants to do more takes than the director. "I feel like I'm always pushing everybody beyond where they want to be, but Ralph is happy to keep working, keep trying things," Anderson continues. "And he gets better. He can do 32 takes, and we'll use number 31 or 32. That's very unusual."

Multiple takes have become Anderson's method of choice, but that was born of necessity, he says. His sprawling casts are never all together; people come in for three days here, 10 days there. (Also popping up in The Grand Budapest Hotel are Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Saorsie Ronin, Bob Balaban and Willem Dafoe.) So he's learned to plan his shots meticulously, and when the actors come in, he shoots a lot of takes without pausing. "It's really chaos," he says. "As carefully prepped as it is, it feels like havoc. I like that. I feel an energy and spontaneity and charge from the actors."

Ultimately, Anderson wants his films to feel open-ended, to leave room for other people's interpretations – so he's not just showing off; so his movies soar, rather than collapse into preciousness. "I want," he says, "to make an experience."