In Wes Anderson’s new film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” set to come out this Friday, the plot revolves around the theft of a 16th century masterwork titled “Boy With Apple” by the fictional artist Johannes Van Hoytl. To paint the perfect masterpiece for the film, the director turned to British figurative painter Michael Taylor. We got in touch with Taylor to ask about working with Anderson, the artistic inspirations for the painting, and who sat for the work.
You’ve had a long career as a painter and received the National Portrait Gallery Portrait Prize, the Holburne Contemporary Portrait Prize, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Changing Faces Award. Is this the first time you’ve created a painting for a movie?
Yes, absolutely. One of the producers contacted me initially and then Wes called and just said he wanted me to do it, then sent me a script. Intrigued and surprised that he intended to commission a real portrait, I said, ‘Okay, why not?’
What sort of direction did Wes Anderson give you? Did he have a very specific idea in mind for the painting?
By way of inspiration, Wes bombarded me with a bewildering selection of images by Bronzino, 17th Century Dutch painters, Durer, and even some Tudor portraits. I found this terribly confusing at first until I realized that each image contained some required element that had to be worked into the painting. He clearly knew exactly what he wanted. It was just that nothing quite like it yet existed. It was an irresistible challenge. He also sent a potpourri of pictures of grand hotels, castles and so on for atmosphere. He was very definite about the costume in particular. The finger and thumb holding gesture I suggested and is something I’ve always wanted an excuse to do, so that was in from the start.
After the initial exchanges and some phone calls Wes left me very much on my own for a couple of months, rather bravely I thought. In the end, curiosity —or panic — got the better of him and he asked to see it, which was when we began to work on it together until it fit his vision for the boy. He has a very exact idea of everything well in advance. Collaborating on a picture was new territory to me, but his extraordinary attention to detail (‘the little bit of paper on the wall? Yes, yes we must have the little bit of paper!’), good humored patience, and faith in his script somehow made it all come out right.
The name of the fictional artist in the film is Johannes Van Hoytl. Who came up with that name?
As far as I know, Wes did. It’s good, isn’t it?
Did someone sit for the actual portrait?
Yes, Wes suggested Ed Munro who they found at the Italia Conti drama school. We had to fit sittings in between his appearances in “Singing in the Rain” in the West end. Initially a set was going to be built in London for the sittings, but in the end Ed came to Dorset and we did several weeks of work in a local Jacobean house. Great for atmosphere. I then continued with it on my own.
How long did you work on it?
A total of over 3 months, up until quite close to filming in fact, which must have been a bit nerve racking for Wes.
Do you think you’ll work with Anderson again?
Difficult to say. He’d have to ask me first!
What other projects are you working on now?
I am working at present on a series of comparatively small, concentrated still life works. These tend to feature broken down systems, clocks and so forth, once highly organized, but now struggling to perform their intended function. Little comical tragedies.
— Ashton Cooper (@ashton_cooper)
(Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)