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Meet the Oscar-Winning Production Designer for Wes Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Steven Spielberg

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A miniature model of the Grand Budapest Hotel. All photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight
A miniature model of the Grand Budapest Hotel. All photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The first time production designer Adam Stockhausen worked with the auteur Wes Anderson, he rebuilt an entire Indian Railways train for the film "Darjeeling Limited." The next time the pair worked together, Stockhausen's team transformed an abandoned Linens 'N' Things in a strip mall in Rhode Island into the set of "Moonrise Kingdom," complete with a handmade miniature lighthouse in the parking lot. Most recently, the New York-based designer converted a 1913 Art Nouveau department store in Germany into a magnificent five-story hotel for 2014's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a feat that required the manufacture of thousands of period light fixtures for the hotel's striking Old World lobby.

In a CGI film world increasingly dominated by giant robots tearing down skyscrapers and spaceships blasting through the galaxy, Stockhausen has established himself as a medium for the art-house crowd. His first big break came on Charlie Kaufman's film, "Synecdoche, New York," and he has also worked with the celebrated British director Steve McQueen, who tapped him to design the look of "12 Years a Slave," last year's Oscar winner for best picture.

In February, Stockhausen took home an Oscar of his own for his production design work on "The Grand Budapest Hotel", a caper largely set in 1932 that follows a concierge, Gustave H., and his lobby boy, Zero, who become embroiled in a coldblooded aristocratic battle over a huge fortune. Through his designs for a single hotel building, the namesake Grand Budapest Hotel, Stockhausen creates an illustrated political history of the 20th century.

The film swings between several versions of the hotel, one that is frothy, pastel and luxurious, a wartime version filled with soldiers and red-and-black banners, and a drab orange-and-brown relic that has fallen into disrepair behind the Iron Curtain. Much of the broader resonance comes from the dark undercurrent of fascism and the high stakes behind the frenetic chases. The different versions of the hotel were built inside each other, "like nesting dolls," by Stockhausen's production team, which had about 25 core members.

The Grand Budapest Hotel in the fascist era

Although he had the full palette of Central Europe's palaces and promenades to play with, Stockhausen had a few trepidations going into the hyper-stylized film. "I didn't know a thing about Art Nouveau," he says in a recent interview at Building on Bond, a cozy Brooklyn café he frequents, with the kind of hand-made décor a designer can appreciate. "The only thing I did know about it was that I was terrified of it."

Wes Anderson and Jude Law in the 1968 version of the hotel

"The idea with the hotel was that I wanted it to fit in with the world that we were calling 'Nebelsbad.' It has a lot of Art Nouveau but it also has Baroque, and it has this sort of Germanness to it. How do you square that with a Rizzoli book on Art Nouveau?" asks Stockhausen, an enthusiastic 41-year-old with a thick head of brown hair and an air of Midwestern pragmatism that keeps him grounded in the upper rungs of Hollywood production. "Reality is a lot messier, and has other influences mixed in, and things aren't pure in that way. Trying to take all these influences and have it look like it's of a piece was the trick. That was a huge terrifying challenge."

Filming at Schloss Waldenburg

Stockhausen arrived in Germany two-and-a-half months before shooting began, and immediately started scouting filming locations with Wes Anderson. The pair were in the market for an ominous-looking baroque art museum where the attorney played by Jeff Goldblum could be murdered by the leather jacket-clad hit man played by Willem Dafoe (Stockhausen found this in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden); a dark, oppressive castle where a rich baroness' poisoning could be plotted by her children (the taxidermy-filled 16th-century Schloss Waldenburg); and a medieval stone prison that the concierge played by Ralph Fiennes could tunnel his way out of using a tiny pickax that had been smuggled into the jail inside a pink frosted pastry (a real 300-year-old prison in the small eastern town of Zwickau).

Inside a hand-made train carriage

One element eluded them, however. The movie had several key scenes that featured trains or railway stations. "It was really depressing: we kept looking at these railroad stations," says Stockhausen. "They were in the middle of nowhere, totally inaccessible. Getting period trains is a huge thing, and they are no fun to shoot with, because it's hard to get a train to go backwards and forwards on cue. It was just looking like it was going to be this incredibly unpleasant, hugely expensive bill."

At their wits end, the production design team decided upon a trick that used to be common in live-action filmmaking, but is rarer now: they built a miniature train and passenger carriage. "We made a train engine out of cardboard, and put it on a dolly track, and pushed it by hand, and had a little steam effect coming out of it," says Stockhausen. For a scene where a fellow concierge played by Bill Murray drops Gustave H. and Zero off at a railway station, "The station was six feet wide by seven feet tall."

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Although the miniature train station was an off-the-cuff decision, other miniatures for the film had been planned for weeks. The flamboyant pink and purple hotel that is on all the movie posters, not to mention dozens of exterior shots over the course of the film, is actually only nine feet tall and 14 feet long. In contrast, the red-hued hotel hallway inside the film set was 175 feet long. (The Warenhaus department store in Görlitz, Germany that was transformed into the set of the "Grand Budapest Hotel" had a completely different, much grayer, façade.) "I've always loved miniatures . . . I just like the charm of them," Wes Anderson told the New York Times last year. "The particular brand of artificiality that I like to use is an old-fashioned one."

Long before he was supervising the building of fake observatories and model funiculars surrounded by diminutive pine trees, Stockhausen was just a theater-obsessed kid growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He took every little theater job he could find. "I worked as an electrician and as a painter. I worked in construction shops, in theater making, and building scenery," he said. He worked his way up the ladder, until eventually he was designing sets for regional theaters in the Midwest. In 1999, he moved to New York, "because that's what you do."

For five years, he worked around the clock drawing scenery for theater and opera sets. The transition to film began in 2004, when Stockhausen began working for the production designer Mark Friedberg, who hired him to art direct "Synecdoche, New York," a postmodern drama directed by Charlie Kaufman about a theater director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose life unravels as he builds an increasingly intricate stage set. The next film Friedberg suggested him for was Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited," about three brothers who reunite on a train traveling across India.

"I got way lucky and Wes Anderson hired me as a first-time designer. He's kind of one of the guys in the business who can just do that if he wants to do that," Stockhausen says. "It was a huge break, because in this industry it's hard getting your first big solo thing."

The Darjeeling Limited

Suddenly, he found himself running around Jodhpur, India, finding all the craftsmen who would be hand-making elements on the train, from the elephants being painted on the outside of the carriage, to the person in charge of painting every piece of china, to the artist who decorated the ceiling of the dining car. "Every piece of it, you met all those people, and they would come and they would show their portfolio of stuff, and we would talk to them and say, "We think you're the guy to do the plates.'"

"That was a real train from the Indian Railways that they let us use. It was a combination of a couple different trains. We stripped it out down to the bare steel struts of the thing and rebuilt the whole interior of it," Stockhausen says. In addition to designing custom furniture, wallpaper, curtains, carpets, and light fixtures for every section of the train, he also had to create several carbon copies of the sets. Each of the main passenger compartments had an exact replica on the opposite side of the train, so that Anderson could film from any vantage point while the train was moving.

12 Years a Slave

While Wes Anderson is clearly charmed by nostalgic filmmaking tricks that don't look very realistic, such as miniatures and Technicolor painted backgrounds, other directors that Stockhausen works with yearn for the opposite effect. In 2012, he spent much of the year leading the production design team for "12 Years a Slave," an adaptation of an 1853 slave memoir that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2014. The Steve McQueen-directed film was shot in Louisiana. Unlike Anderson, who revels in the search for the perfect retro telephone, McQueen couldn't have cared less about individual elements in the set.

12 Years a Slave

"Steve wanted the freedom for those plantations to feel like real working farms, rather than Hollywood farms," says Stockhausen. "He didn't care what the piece of furniture was in particular, he didn't want to talk about it. But he was clear as day that he wanted a rich, fully realized environment. He didn't want to feel like he was on a set. The job there was to try to make the things authentic and real rather than making them feel like scenery."

Although he enjoys ornate Art Deco designs, Stockhausen says he doesn't have a particular aesthetic agenda that he needs to stamp on every film. "I don't have a style. My job is to listen to what the director wants, and figure out a way to make it. It changes every time, and there's never the 'me,' you know what I mean?"

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Indeed, Stockhausen's most recent project is a clear departure from his previous art-house work with Anderson, Kaufman, and McQueen. He just wrapped up the production design work for Steven Spielberg's upcoming Cold War thriller, "St. James Place," set once again in Central Europe but this time in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built.

"I got to the make the first iteration of the Berlin Wall under construction," he enthused, sounding as much like the theater nerd from Wisconsin he used to be as the industry veteran he has become. "How cool is that?"

St. James Place film still courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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