Interview – Adam Stockhausen

Interview: Adam Stockhausen

Academy Award-nominated for his work on Steve McQueen’s searing ’12 Years a Slave’, and having previously served as art director on the widely acclaimed ‘Synecdoche, New York’, as supervising art director on Wes Anderson’s ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ and as production designer on Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and of course most recently, ‘The Grand Budapest’, it is fair to say that Adam Stockhausen is firmly establishing himself as one of the most impressive and noteworthy figures in the film design industry.

Following the UK home entertainment release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, we recently caught up with Adam to discuss the film, his collaborations with Wes Anderson, his career to date and the inspiration and influences behind his work.


How did you first get involved with The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Wes sent me the script in the Summer of 2012. I was down in New Orleans at the time and had to keep up with the early scouting via email. In August I finished up on 12 Years a Slave and headed straight over to Germany to catch up.

We headed over to Germany for good at the beginning of October and set up the art department.

You previously served as Supervising Art Director on The Darjeeling Limited and as Production Designer on Moonrise Kingdom. Can you explain what your working relationship with Wes Anderson is like?

Well it’s great. I’m not sure how to describe it really except to say that we know each other pretty well now so there’s a shorthand–which is kind of just what you would hope for!

Wes Anderson’s unique style and aesthetic has become a defining aspect of his work. Do you have much free roam and input on a project like this, or are you restricted to a definite vision?

Wes has a very clear direction and vision, but the process of going from the original idea to the finished thing takes input from a lot of people.

We look at research and photo references for each and every piece that’s made, and Wes is inexhaustible, so in fact he’s always asking for more input, as much as everyone can manage.

How much research is involved in a project like The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Tons! There’s a lot of research and a whole group of people pitch in and help draw the images together. I do a bunch with my art department, but there’s also Jeremy Dawson, Octavia Piessel, and Molly Cooper–producers on the film–who do a lot of the heavy lifting in the early stages.

Did you revisit the films of Max Ophuls in preparation for the film?

Yes…In particular The Earrings of Madame de…. and La Ronde. But we looked at a lot of films from Torn Curtain and The Silence to The Shop Around the Corner.

From your experience working with Wes Anderson, are the references and inspirations behind his works limited to specific areas or do they tend to come from all over the place?

Well all over the place but not random if that makes sense? Wide-ranging but all coming back to a core idea might be a good way to put it.

There are a number of miniature models used in the film, primarily the 14 foot long and 7-foot deep hotel model as seen on the poster. Is there a specific reason for going down the miniature route?

Well the main reason is they are used when a real shot would be impossible or cost-prohibitive. That hotel exterior, for example, didn’t exist in nature. There wasn’t a real one that was just right, situated in just the right way on a hilltop above a town…so we had to make it. And making a miniature is a lot easier than making a full-size version.

Is the hotel interior inspired by one singular location, or are individual aspects taken from various sources?

It’s taken from all over. We were definitely inspired by the Granhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, but there are bits and pieces from all over.

There are bits from photographs we liked and other bits from real places we visited, and some others from film details. For instance, the windows in the long corridors are from the Pupp, but the doors to the suites are straight out of The Silence.

How did you transform the defunct World War I department store such as the Görlitzer Warenhaus into a working location for the film?

I think the building dates from 1913. It was a fantastic location–empty but still in great condition. Often we visit places that must have been amazing but have seen so much damage and decay that they can’t really be used. The department store was in perfect condition.

We moved in, set up a carpentry shop and got to work. We built out the early and later lobbies in the main atrium of the space and then built our other sets in the extra space ‘behind’ the main lobby.

When a production is so intricately detailed as The Grand Budapest Hotel, is there a sense that the audience will miss many of the finer details that would have taken so long to construct?

Maybe…but I think that’s ok! It’s a bit like the Mendl’s pastry…and hopefully you want another one.

From a production perspective, do you have a favourite scene from the movie?

Yeah, I’m crazy about the 2 train station scenes (Lutz and Gabelmeiseter’s Peak). In each case Wes turned a difficult shooting situation with a lot of limitations into something really special.

Were you involved in the construction of the Mendl’s Dessert Boxes?

I was involved, but you would really need to talk to Robin Miller (our key prop) and Annie Atkins (graphic designer)…they took the lead on this one!

You were recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Production Design for your work on 12 Years a Slave. How does your work on a film like that compare with something such as The Grand Budapest Hotel? Is the overall approach the same?

Well the process is similar even if the finished product is a different style. They both started with tons of research–historical and very particular for 12 Years and more wide-ranging on Grand Budapest. Then we pull forward the pieces that really help tell the story and add reality to the surroundings.

It’s funny, even in a fictional country like Zubrowka real details matter. The blue tubs in the baths, the towel buckets in the 60’s lobby, and the huge fluorescent ceiling are all details we saw in person and pulled out.

How did you first get started in production design and art direction?

I was working in set design for theater and met some amazing people working on films in New York. I started to do small drafting jobs for them mixed in between the theater projects. Eventually the film work took over and became full time.

I started art directing for the production designer Mark Friedberg. He was very helpful and supportive as I made the switch from art direction to design.

Which filmmakers and designers would you say have had the strongest or most significant influence on your own work? Is there any one specific film that you would credit with influencing your decision to want to enter the world of production design?

Not really. There were specific people, though. Mark, whom I just mentioned above, was a big influence–both in the decision to pursue this field and in learning the ropes.

Is there any particular film that you have worked on that you feel especially proud of?

I get pretty attached to each of the films I work on. Each one kind of leaves a mark–in a good way. But these last two – Grand Budapest and 12 Years – I’m especially proud of.

So often in film, the work of an entire art department can be overlooked in a mainstream sense and be attributed to the vision of the film director or the director of photography. Do you feel that the work of the production team is generally undervalued, or do you feel that there is an increased appreciation in the modern film world?

I think people notice! This actually gives me a great opportunity to talk more about the amazing team on Grand Budapest.

I’ve already mentioned Annie and Robin, but was also very lucky to have Anna Pinnock decorating the film and an amazing construction department from Studio Babelsberg in Germany to build everything. They were just extraordinary.

So what is next for Adam Stockhausen?

I’m just about to start shooting a new movie and recently finished While We’re Young. It’s directed by Noah Baumbach, shot in New York this last Fall, and I’m very excited about it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring production designers?

Hmm…I might not be the best to ask since I took kind of the long way around to working in film. My particular road was a pretty good one, though. I learned a tremendous amount not just about design, but the nuts and bolts of construction. I wouldn’t trade any of it.

Once you approach film I’d say find people who’s work you admire and try to work for them at any level you can. Then just dig in and do the best work you possibly can.

People will notice!

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