Tom Tykwer Interviewed – ‘Perfume – The Story of a Murderer’

     December 30, 2006

TomTykwer first gained international recognition for Run, Lola, Run. Since then he has made a few smaller films, butwith his adaptation of the extremely popular Patrick Suskind novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Ithink he is on the verge of mainstream success.

Perfume has taken a long road to finallyget to the screen. Tom covers a lot of the history of its journey and alsoreveals that even though Stanley Kubrick was always rumored to have wanted tobring this film to life, the truth is he never set out to do it.

Tomtalked really fast during the roundtable interview and he also had an accent.While the transcription was done as good as possible, if you listen to theinterview you’ll see what I mean….

Perfume has just opened in limitedrelease and will be expanding on January 5th. If you missed Brian Orndorf’s review you can read it here.

Thisinterview does contain spoilers.

Question:You probably heard that Stanley Kubrick said that this was unfilmable.

Tom Tykwer: First news, I met theproducer of StanleyKubrick two weeks ago, Jan Harlan, the guy who he’s worked with all his lifeand he said it’s a complete myth. It’s not true. No, because Kubrick – and Ieven don’t know why – he was reading the book and thought about doing it andthen just didn’t want to do it. He said something like, ‘No, it’s not my nextfilm. I’ll do something else.’ And not because it’s unfilmable because why ofall people should he say that. He always took quite complicated novels and hewas always inspired by – I mean ‘2001’ is, I think, ten times more unfilmableas a novel than “Perfume.” “Perfume” is a perfect film concept. It’s goteverything you want in a movie. I mean it’s got a brilliant storyline. It’s gotan incredible conclusion, an incredible resolution. I mean a good ending whichis very rare. It’s got a fascinating hero and it’s got an amazing setting thatyou haven’t seen. I mean I haven’t seen a movie in the 18th century that looks…I mean most films are always [about] the aristocratic world, the upper classlife, all that stuff and here we have a film that really goes into street life,into the reality of what it was like living there for 98% of all people. That’swhat I found fascinating and then on top of that you have the world of smellsto explore. It’s great. It’s full of challenges, of course, and some undonethings in there like of course the smelling part but, you know, I always saidthe book doesn’t smell so there must be something about the language of thebook that is successful rather than it being unfilmable because of somethingabstract. I mean all the films that I’m interested in, they’re actuallyinteresting because they filmed something abstract, you know. It can be anemotion, it can be anything, but I mean if it’s the world of smells, there’s definitelynothing unfilmable about it.

You werevery hands on with this. I just came across a line in the production notes aboutthem calling you ‘the lord of the dirt’ where you actually got out there andyou were shoveling the dirt around to make it looked like 18th century France.You also did the music for this and you were so involved in every aspect ofthis, I’m surprised you didn’t just go ahead and be Jean Baptiste yourself. Canyou talk a little bit about your hands on approach to every aspect of thisfilm?

You know, hands on always sounds abit…maybe the wrong description… I’m just very… I love the job that I’m doingbecause it gives me an opportunity to be involved in so many different levels ofartistic and creative processes, but I work with a team which is reallyimportant to me and I’ve worked with, for instance, the same D.P., director ofphotography, all my life. I’ve never had any film meter film process withouthim so it’s the two of us and then there’s the production designer who’s donemost of my films, the costume designer that I’ve worked with for awhile and themake-up designer. I mean all these people and their craft and their crew we arelike a family that grows together so it’s that kind of a language that togetherwe’ve established. You know, most of the people that worked on “Perfume” workedon “Run, Lola, Run” which now is 7 or 8 years ago. For me, it’s much more aboutbeing involved in all these levels because I feel that the more you want tohear… I mean the films that I enjoy, they speak, they have a voice and thatvoice comes from the fact that you feel like the artistic elements that theyare put together of are not separated. I don’t believe so much in the systemthat you pick a composer, you pick a cinematographer, you pick a director, andyou take it from the director and give it to this editor, and then you take acomposer and he puts the music on top of it, then all the elements are just puton top of each other. But I believe in this intertwined system of artisticcreation for film and these are the films that are actually more… I know we allknow what I’m talking about because there are some films which, you know,they’re okay to watch because they’ve got all these great production values butyou probably watch them once, you forget about them probably by the time youhave your shower the next morning. (laughs) So you wash them off and they’regone. And there are other films that stay with you and you go buy the DVD. Youwant to watch them again because there’s a character in them and I’m not sayingthe character is the filmmaker. It’s the filmmakers and it’s the way that theytried to really organize the material in a way that it becomes something like apersonality itself. I always call…myfavorite films are like my… they’re like friends, you know, and I loverevisiting them and if they’re really interesting, they have to tell somethingto me like in even 5 or 10 years. You know, some friends you lose a little bitof a connection with and then you see them again and you feel like that doesn’treally talk to me anymore which is also fine but these are the films too that Icare for. I want to make films that people relate to as friends that go throughtheir lives. I mean for me to feel good sometimes when I’m kind of not in placeor in shape, it really works on me, you know, as if meeting a good friend towatch a film that you really care for and it can be kind of a disturbing filmbut you have like a personal relationship to that film. It gives you this pleasureof not being alone on the planet.

I heardat one point that Johnny Depp was very interested in the project. It was hisfavorite book. He’d read it years ago and somehow wanted to be involved in it.Is that anything that you’re aware of?

I’ve heard about more or lessevery actor between 20 and 40 was kind of interested which is obvious becauseit’s a fascinating character and the novel has a really great following, youknow. I mean in Europe it’s really somethinglike “The Lord of the Rings.” (laughs) It’s a myth and so I can imagine thatJohnny does have affection for this but I don’t know. I never met him about it.

So whyBen [Whishaw] and how many other choices did you have?

We had a lot of choices because wejust… I met like just tons of actors in pursuit of the right one and then wealways felt like we should not stop until we found the right one – not justsomeone or, you know, the most beautiful one or the most famous one or anything– but it seemed to be the film was unfilmable if you don’t feel like you’vegot the actor that can deliver the complexity and, of course, the othercontradictory energies of this protagonist. You know, he’s both kind of naïvebut very determined and precise. He’s of course very dark and scary and at thesame time, there’s something innocent and boyish about him and that’s all whatBen had. I mean Ben understood so much about this character in the firstaudition that I immediately knew it after minutes that that was him. I haddiscovered him actually on stage. I was sent to see a stage production of“Hamlet” in London at the Old Vic Theatre and he was a 23-year-old doingHamlet in a way that I had never seen Hamlet. It was so different and sowonderfully modern also and peculiar and physically so unusual. There’s something,you know, this feral quality about his acting that I find completely rare tofind, actually impossible to find. I never… There was nobody who was even closeto his qualities.

Tom saidthat you were the one who knew all the influences of the literary charactersthat were mixed to become the main character in “Perfume.” We were talkingabout Quasimoto or Frankenstein or The Stranger. What influences were youthinking about when you thought of the character?

Well, you know, the problem of thecharacter is you want to have somebody you feel attached with and you want tohave a hero but at the same time…and you have to stay with him all the waythrough the film even though when he starts killing people and there’s not manyexamples. Of course, there’s many examples in literature, but literature has adifferent set of rules so for me it was most important to investigate alsofilms that exist and I didn’t find many. There aren’t many films. There’sprobably a film like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” You could name that. You couldname “Taxi Driver.” Of course, you can always say Hannibal Lector is kind of a hero but akiller but they’re all, especially him, he’s like enjoying killing whichGrenouille isn’t. You know, for me, the important thing was that we findsomebody who has… and that’s why when you mentioned “The Stranger” or when youmentioned existentialist writers and of course, Sartre being a writer also whowrote this book…what’s it called in English, “Nausea?”

That’s abook, hmmm? “Repulsion.”

Whatever. You know, theexistentialist writers who have developed a way to describe characters bothlonging for some kind of recognition in the world and at the same time totallybeing disconnected with it and this contradiction being something that we allsecretly know about, that we all know about the fact that we are…we all knowabout being a nobody as something that is an everyday nightmare and that theonly way to overcome it obviously is to find some specific attention and somespecific affection. We miscalculate, of course, all the time about it but whatwe do is we present ourselves by dressing ourselves up or putting on perfumeand doing all this stuff that we do because we want to sell something on top ofwhat we probably are and then when people only react to that, we don’t feelunderstood. So it obviously means that what we ultimately long for is somebodywho looks at us and cares for us and loves us without all the disguises,without any of the perfume, without any of the clothes, without anything, justthe naked being that we are. Still it is the disease of our society to try andachieve the opposite, to try to get people seduced by something we wear as adisguise or, you know, something that we invent around ourselves which is thenature of celebrity life and which is also of course the nature of lonelinessof any celebrity or any pop star. When you see them in concerts, there’ssomething amazing about them being so much admired by so many people. At thesame time, you always feel a certain strange loneliness about that one personabove all the others. And in a strange way they always envy the people downthere because those people down there, they’re with each other and the one upthere is alone.

I thoughtyou’d created someone that was even less sympathetic to a viewer than “TaxiDriver” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or the other one you named. That was veryinteresting how you created that character.

But he is still somebody you stayattached to. No? I mean you stay with him. Don’t you?

Yeah, I did,and then during the transition to the second part, you know, after the firsttime he kills the girl, I thought of “Mice or Men” or something. And then afterthat, he’s doing it to create this ultimate perfume. But I thought that it wasinteresting that I lost my sympathy for him, you know. I wasn’t concerned abouthim anymore as far as what happened to him.

Uh huh.

At the veryend, I don’t know if this is my theory or it is what you think too, we see thatthe perfume blinds everybody, that everybody doesn’t behave as though they knowwhat they are doing. Do you think from the moment he kills the first girl byaccident that he’s blinded as well by the human scent and that he doesn’t knowwhat he’s doing?

Well, however you want to put it,obviously this is his traumatic experience. Yes, I would say so. It’s atraumatic way of experiencing loss and it’s also more or less dawning on himthat this was his shot, if you want to say so, there was somebody that he mighthave been able to connect with. You know, she’s not unreachable. Then later,the girl that he then projects all his fantasies on which is Laura, she’s adifferent class. There’s no way he’s ever going to have anything to do withher. But this is real, this could have been something but because he didn’thave the social skills and he hasn’t learned it which I find so universal. Youknow, I mean everybody knows the situation you are confronted with, you know, agirl or a boy, whatever, and you don’t know how to do it. You just don’t knowand you might mess it up and then it becomes a trauma because then you feellike you’re not able to do this, you don’t know how to handle it, and that’show many people stay lonely. Especially today, in the loneliness of society,it’s a big issue and I think it becomes his all over ruling trauma that leadshim to become this fanatic… fanatical in pursuit of recognition because hewants to kind of numb that feeling of loss by the amount of recognition thathe’s then looking for. So he wants to be totally loved by everybody even thoughhe secretly knows that his desire was only to be loved by this one person maybe.I mean he didn’t even know her, but of course even that is a projection.

The castis very international from all sorts of different countries. What thought processwent into casting Dustin [Hoffman] and Alan [Rickman] in the picture?

Yeah, but the cast is mainlyEnglish except Dustin. Yeah, there are some smaller roles with Germans, this istrue. It was basically first thoughts… I mean my first instinct went towardDustin for Baldini because I think Baldini is a fascinating, beautiful, funny,quirky, and quite flamboyant character and I think that’s all what Dustin is.He is very funny, very flamboyant, and very quirky and at the same time thereis something about him that knows about the idea of an aging genius, you know,because that’s him. And in the most beautiful way he brought that to the part.What I so much admire about Dustin is that no matter how burlesque a charactercan potentially be, he always adds a certain amount of life and history to it,that there’s suddenly a gravitas to the personality that’s not just the funnybone of the film. Suddenly he is someone and I always felt like we neededsomeone because, you know, someone with a lot of history confronting thisperson who has this kind of no oneness about him, this Grenouille. And also thewhole competitive element that came in through the fact of, you know, theyoung, up-and-coming super genius meeting the aging genius. I loved all theseelements about it and having somebody also very familiar to be Baldini opposedto somebody that supposedly is a nobody in the film and is also still – I meannot much longer any more, but at least for now — a nobody in the moviebusiness like Ben — I mean I’m sure this will change – was also adding to it. ButI mean I know Dustin. We knew each other for quite a while. He had called me yearsago when he saw “Run, Lola, Run.” We always wanted to find material for eachother and this was for me…he was born to play this in my opinion. I so muchenjoyed this part of the film and he’s in there. There’s also lightness to itthat is really helpful for the film.

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This is one of his better performances in a long timewhich reflects really good direction on your part. Was it typical, withoutgiving anything away to the readers, to leave his part when it was time forDustin Hoffman?

I wanted people to really be sadabout it and to be kind of a little shocked but this is, of course, this is thedark humor that the novel has that we wanted to capture in the film too. Yousmile about it even though it’s really horrible, but you know it’s this kind ofdoom, the idea of fate that’s haunting Jean Baptiste. I liked that. I likedthis whole part about it and of course, it’s good that Dustin was able to pulloff this whole irony part about it too. You know, when he’s lying down for hislast sleep and he seems to be so satisfied. This is typical Dustin that hepushes a moment like that because he knows that the next scene is going to showthat the entire house is collapsing. He’s acting with the knowledge of thiseven though of course that was shot in a completely different…

Can youtalk about touching a book that so many people love and the fans of the bookwill come to see the movie and judge it?

You know, of all the challengingparts about this production, this was the one thing that I was really verycarefully keeping in mind the fact that it’s not only a best seller, like Imean there’s lot of best sellers that people just read away like someblockbuster movies you just watch them and then, as we said, we shower themoff, but some books they stay with us and this is one of those books thatpeople so much loved and had a personal and intimate relationship with that itseemed like a very strong responsibility that we are taking over because Ireally wanted to make it work that people are not disappointed and at the endfeel like, you know, it’s not the book that I’ve read but at the same time Ithink everybody expects from an adaptation that it both stays as faithful aspossible to the material, but it picks up on a very individual and specific andsubjective point of view so it is definitely our vision of the novel but Ithink what we really tried hard, hard, hard to achieve is that it stays veryclose to the realm that the novel has designed and this whole idea of a quitedark and unusual atmospheric approach to the 18th century. The way that we willlet ourselves be influenced by paintings was very much driven by the feelingthat we all got from the book which I wanted people to get a color and densityand texture quality experience from the film that resembles the one from thebook.

A lot ofpeople don’t realize the smells from that time without the modern technologythat we have now with sewage.

Yeah, it’s incredible.

What itsmelled like then.

Exactly. And it’s somethingabsolutely unexplored, of course, in literature as much as in films. Life, infact, was a nightmare for 95% of all people because you were literally wadingthrough the mud and filth of the shit that was thrown out of the windows. Youknow, people were throwing all their garbage through the windows with no sewagesystem whatsoever so you know this stuff was rotting on the streets.

Howtricky was the orgy scene in terms of directing because you have 750 people outthere? Was it any different than say directing a fight scene or something tothat effect?

It was unlike anything I’ve everhad to do. Yes. I mean everything about it was as complicated as you imagine(laughs) and of course, it’s not like you invite crowds and then tell them,‘Okay, go for it.’ I mean you have to really make them…


…understand what’s going on. Youhave to really…yeah, it was a long way to choreograph the entire procedure. ButI felt like, okay, I can’t pick up on this material and not take that challengeas seriously as possible. I mean I have to make… we have to make this sequencein particular work and make it work in a believable way, otherwise we shouldnot touch this. And so what came to my mind was the idea that it’s basically… Iconsidered this to be something like an emotional choreography. It’s like theway the bodies move is something like a movement also of the senses and of theemotional transition. You know it’s an unbelievable transition. They go fromhatred to admiration in a very short period of time and then fall for eachother and undress and we always call it ‘the rapture’ sequence. So what helpedvery much was that I cooperated with the dance theater group from Spain, La Furadels Baus.

Ahh, Iknow them.

Yeah, well you should, of course,they’re really famous. They’re great actually.

I went tosee them.

Yeah, me too. I knew them fromother productions. They’re famous for very physical dance performance theaterand they, of course, were also able to help me communicate with most of theextras which were Spanish extras because we shot the film in France and thenorth of Spain and that was the Spanish part of it and you know thecommunication process was really important to get them really to understand. Everysingle one needed to be ready to get a close-up because through theirexpression and also in the faces the whole transition would have to be told. Soafter I think four weeks of rehearsals and we put them in a sports hall and wereally slowly got them to learn how to get that emotional transition and thenwe went for the undressing part and even undressing… To get undressed with acostume of the 18th century is really like a spectacular event because theywere so complicated and they were wearing like five things on top of each otherand all of it was kind of sewed into each other. They had to learn this alreadyfor hours and then, of course, the rest of it and it was a very long processbut as always, once you rehearse something to a degree that people reallyunderstand what it is, the moment you enter the shooting they were completelyready and not worrying and we shot for more than a week and at the end of thatweek they didn’t even want to stop.

Was thereany one where you guys had to be, ‘Hey, hey, you’re going too far?’ Like any ofthe extras, did they take it a little too far?

Yeah, you had to sometimes becareful with them, of course, and of course you also had to be careful aboutthe fact that … you know, I always thought it was probably good to have a lotof couples and it turned out to be a totally wrong choice, of course, becausethe idea was of course that everybody is with everybody so all these coupleswere getting nervous when their partners were going somewhere else and so itwas a big singles convention, a nude camp singles convention. (laughs)

Did youshoot 24 hours of that?

Material, 27 [hours] but yes, 27hours of material only on that. You can fill up a library of DVD’s with all thecut out moments. (laughs) Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the film.

Were thegirls red heads in the book or is that your choice?

No, they were in the book. I meanmaybe it’s a reason why I love the book but if so, it’s totally subconscious. Ihave no knowledge of a very specific obsession about red headed girls.

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