Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) is everything you would expect him to be, if you're familiar with his films. German, impeccably groomed, dressed all in black, he is fierce and passionate. He appears relaxed at first, but then you realize that's just a well-practiced cover for the nervous energy underneath, which comes springing out unleashed when he gets talking enthusiastically about something -- like his latest film, the bizarre, dark fable Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, adapted by Tykwer from the enormously popular Patrick Süskind book of the same title. Tykwer was in town recently on a press tour for his film, and sat down with Cinematical to chat about the intricacies of making a film about scent.
Cinematical: I wanted to talk first about what drew you to this story and adapting the book into a film.
Tom Tykwer: Well, I'd read the book when it first came out, I was 20, maybe younger. And I had a strong memory about the intensity of the novel, and the graphic nature of it. I had forgotten about some of the subplots, and then I reread it when I was approached to adapt and direct it, and there was so much I found that attracted me to it, that it was almost a continuation of what I had been doing before. It is, at its core, about a person who is very lonely, who is trying very hard to be somebody, who is trying to find some kind of recognition, and is ready to break all kinds of rules to get that. And that's something that feels very familiar to me, you know, from other heroes of my stories that are all in similar situations. And what they're all looking for, really, in the end, is some sort of redemption through love. And either they get it or they don't – in this case, he ... miscalculates a bit.
I love that I could have this very personal relationship, this identification with the character of Grenouille. And at the same time of course, the way the story goes and of course the period of the piece, were completely alarming challenges.
I had never done a period piece before, I'd never been involved with costume dramas and such. And also because in most cases, this life, 18th century, 17th century films -- in aesthetic terms, so often you feel like they are presenting to you the production design; the people are wearing costumes that don't look or feel at all as if they've been really living in them, they are just wearing them like marionettes, like puppets. I hate that.
Cinematical: I didn't get that sense from this film. The design felt quite authentic.
TT: That was a major, major struggle, to get it not like that. I said okay, I can complain about those things, but maybe that is a good reason to make the film – to make a film that is not like a bad period drama. The dream that I was having was to get a feeling of a period as if we were in a time machine, as if we'd brought a camera back with us and were just able to shoot it as it was, in a cinema verité style. We're just there.
And we shoot as if it's a modern film, except that of course it is the 18th century. And that is a major effort, as you can imagine. Because when you pan over it, every element has to look like the 18th century. That is the secret of it, and also the secret about why I wanted to do it, and also the secret of the novel. The novel was not about the aristocracy, it was not about the kings and queens, it was 18th century, the lower classes, the dirt and the filth and the stink that they had to live among.
Cinematical: And you captured that very realistically -- there were times watching it when I was thinking, "I'm really glad I didn't live back then."
TT: It was an endless process. And with all the extras of course, we had to be very careful, because they make it real. And so we had to pay attention to every single person's teeth, you have to really get the hair -- I mean, they didn't wash themselves for months, for God's sake. Even with a pan shot, it has to all be there, because you can't have one wrong thing pop out at you to take you out of that time and place. One wrong thing really sticks out. And people don't really analyze that, but they do get it. They'd notice it if it wasn't done right.
Cinematical: The story is so focused on scent, which is not something you can really capture and convey visually. How did you work to bring that theme to life in a visual way?
TT: Well, I always felt the novel was very good at translating his (Grenouille's) addiction to scent. And so I felt like, okay, as the book doesn't smell itself, it's obviously due to the quality of the literature, of the language. And so I felt that it was a wonderful challenge to see what we can do with cinematic language -- to, let's say, describe and embrace someone's perception of the world that goes entirely through the nose. So what we were trying to do was actually achieve a way with camera work and color schemes and everything, to really adapt ... how he perceives everything – when he walks into a room, we pick up these elements. He focuses on the details, dissects them. So rather than just going with a wide shot, we focus on specific elements as he is smelling them, as he's putting together a "note," and then those notes become chords, which slowly become a composition, which then ultimately became a wide shot. So we were working our way through the nose, from the object and the tactileness of all that, to certain idea of how to build up an imagery.
Cinematical: So in structuring the film you basically followed the structure of perfume itself: From note to chord to composition, throughout the film.
TT: Yes, exactly. And also what we were trying to do was to have this guy be our guide through everything, and to be as subjective as possible, because, you know, he's a rather complicated character to follow – which I loved about him, that's he's so difficult to understand and all – but it makes a challenge. So I thought that the whole strategy of the film should be around his energy, that we should follow him all the way through, even when he goes into regions where we are kind of reluctant to follow – when he becomes a murderer, of course.
Cinematical: The whole film was very much from his perspective, his point of view – which is actually the same thing you did with Lola (in Run Lola Run).
TT: Exactly, it is what we always do, we structure around the character.
Cinematical: In Perfume, though, you're dealing with a character with this very complex personality. Did that make it more of a challenge, structuring around a character like Grenouille?
TT: Well, yes, in a way, but that's the fun of it, isn't it? If it was an uninspired, not very complicated person, that would lead to an uninspired, not very diversified style of film, and I am not interested in exploring those kinds of characters.
Cinematical: There are enough uninspiring films out there already.
TT: Exactly. And I really want to investigate characters who I find interesting, and if I don't see a project has that potential, I cannot see myself attached to it. But also what I thought was really fundamentally important to me was music – music really played such a great role in the developing the film. A bit like with Lola, where the music is really the pulse of the film, and you can't really imagine the imagery without the music because the two are so intertwined. It's really kind of one unit, one element. And I felt this was one more kind of material that really asked for this kind of, one unit of music and imagery and sound design in general.
(In) most if not all references to smells (in the film), the music is the one that gets closest to that abstract impression of something which is so much connected with our idea of memories, and how we organize them. We organize them very much through connections, and through the way our memories are triggered .And as we all know, there is a connection between the memory and smell. You capture a smell that becomes a part of you. It can be something like: it has just rained ... and there's the smell of wet vegetation around ... and someone is cooking something that smells good ... and suddenly I'm brought back to a day when I was walking to school as a six-year-old boy -- the way I looked and what I was thinking about and how I felt -- and that was 35 years ago! And this whole emotionality of it is part of the millions of pieces of what my memories are made of. The way in which I organize them, you could say, is who I am.
And so the whole equalization of smell equals identity, this whole concept that Grenouille is so obsessed with, makes sense to everyone when you think of it. And the funny thing is that music is just the same, you know? When you hear a favorite song you haven't heard in twenty years ...
Cinematical: ...it brings you right back.
TT: (laughs) Yes, it does, doesn't it? Three dimensionally, you are suddenly back in that room, where you had your first kiss or what have you, and there's nothing like it! Scent and music, they have this kind of sibling relationship, and that's why I felt from the start that music would be really crucially important to the development of the atmosphere, and the whole texture of the film.
Cinematical: The tone of the film was so set by your musical choices – I especially wanted to talk to you about the choice of music for the sequence where Grenouille murders the majority of his victims. Your choice there was to keep the music very light-hearted, not sinister or dark or spooky, which gives that scene a very different feel emotionally from what you would expect. So I wanted to ask you about how you feel that musical choice reflects what is going on inside Grenouille as he is taking his victims.
TT: Oh, very much so. It was to make it clear, especially for that sequence, that he isn't the kind of killer who – he doesn't get any satisfaction out of the killing. He is a collector of beauty. And he doesn't really – the whole moral implications, and problems of course, once you start thinking about it morally, he is completely unaware of. And what he's doing is, he is completely obsessed with and quite intently working on creating an artistic masterpiece. And these are all elements he is collecting, which are all a part of his ... sculpture of maximum beauty. So they are all like pieces of a sculpture.
Cinematical: And as a part of that, it's about making himself feel like a complete person as well, yes? Because he has no scent of his own.
TT: Yes, but of course what he considers to be complete turns out to be quite tragical. But at the same time, yes, that is what the music does there, to make it like a very inspired "playground" sound there. And that is very much what the music does, is to sort of guide us along his life, and also to introduce the concept of smell by a musical theme. And I was lucky because I could start writing the music right from the start of the script. I was composing the same day I started writing the screenplay. So that whole writing process of script and music was completely parallel.
Cinematical: So it was all very symbiotic, the way in which you built the film?
TT: Yeah, and when you write a script you are investigating structure, and modulation and things like that, and when you write music it is much more about abstract emotion than about the outside world that you are investigating. So if you can develop in parallel, it is perfect really. So if you've written the script and done the music as well, you have a much better idea of what the atmosphere of the film is supposed to be like.
Cinematical: Lets talk about the casting of the film, particularly Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman. Were those actors already attached to the film when you started working on it?
TT: No! How could they? I am casting it.
Cinematical: Sometimes it does happen that way, though – a big name actor gets attached to a script before a director comes on board.
TT: No, no. I do not work that way. I have to find the actors during the process of developing the film. I would never be attached if I was not doing the developing. This whole process to me of writing a script, and attaching actors, and then just adding a director – it's completely absurd. That's bullshit! It's bullshit, you know? I'm upset by this whole idea, because it means that it's just like, a regular meal that you are cooking. There are some films, I guess, where you can do that, but not mine. If you are to make a particular movie with a specific voice, a whole language, then you need to be right there. And with the whole crew, I have specific people that I work with.
Cinematical: So for you as a director, it's really crucial to be involved with all elements, from the writing to the design to the music.
TT: Yeah, well, that's for every director, you are always very involved with the production designer. But these guys are people that I've grown up with, I've known them for a long time already. I always work with the same key people on my films, it's kind of like growing up together. So when we work together we already know certain things. And so I insist as a director on having my own team. You can't hire me without my posse. I have never had another DP (director of photography) -- most of the people at the center of my crew, the department heads, have been with me for quite a long time already.
Cinematical: Working that way gives you so much more creative control over your films.
TT: But you are able to work that way, only if you insist upon it. Most people are not strong enough to just insist. You have to just insist and then what can they do? I'm not going to make a movie if I can't bring my people. And either they (studios) don't want to let you do that, or they'll let you do it.
Cinematical: Don't you think there's a tendency in some directors to kind of "sell out," though, and do what the studio wants, just to make a movie?
TT: I feel like that happens, I don't know how often though.
Cinematical: When Run Lola Run came out it did very well in Europe first, and then became a huge hit also in the United States. Perfume also has already done very well in Europe, but the book is more well-known there, and this is a different kind of film – how do you think it will play here?
TT: I have a very good instinct here. Most of my films have done quite well here. Even though there is a cliché about lazy Americans who ultimately look for something convenient and easy to digest, I've had quite the opposite experience. My general feeling now is that audiences here are very open to discovering, as long as what they see is also entertaining. If Perfume is not entertaining, then I don't know what is – it's just also very ... strange and bizarre. But that's the best of both worlds you can get, and I think people will recognize. I really believe that.