Tom Tykwer and the scent of a serial killer

Michael Fox January 8, 2007

Bay Area moviegoers were initially turned on to German director Tom Tykwer’s elegant, precision-crafted handiwork at Berlin & Beyond, which presented his debut feature, “Deadly Maria” in 1996 and “Winter Sleepers” two years later. So it’s a sweet little coincidence that his latest opus, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” opens the week before the popular annual showcase of new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “Perfume” is a classical epic of a rake’s progress — OK, he’s a serial killer — daringly adapted from a best-selling novel widely acknowledged as unfilmable. (In fact, author Patrick Suskind famously refused to sell the movie rights for years, albeit on other grounds. German filmmaker Helmut Dietl used that amiable struggle as the basis for his terrific 1997 satire “Rossini,” an evisceration of sexual and business ethics in the movie business.) “Perfume” also represents a further step away from the MTV hyperkineticism of “Run Lola Run,” the international hit that Tykwer could have easily parlayed into a string of stylish, empty exercises the industry would have lapped up. He has commercial aspirations, to be sure, but Tykwer is also an artist whose priority is challenging himself. We spoke with him when he visited San Francisco in November for a day of press interviews.

SF360: Given that you’ve worked in English on consecutive films — “Heaven” and “Perfume” — do you feel you are less of a German filmmaker now and more of an international filmmaker?

Tom Tykwer: That’s a good question. I’ve always considered myself to be a German international filmmaker from the beginning, actually. Also, my very first films traveled a lot, so I’m sort of used to this idea of a cosmopolitan cineaste. I don’t think it’s so much because of the language in a film. In this case, it was, ‘How do we handle it?’ It’s a famous novel set in France but written in German, and we want to make it something like an international movie and the international movie language is English. For some strange reason, nobody really wonders why people in France in this movie talk English, but it would be very disturbing if they were speaking German. We know that it’s a convention that English has become this kind of multinational language. Nobody even wonders why Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has a New York accent.

SF360: You might have provoked an international incident with the French if they were speaking German.

Tykwer: Yes, yes, maybe yeah.

SF360: I came across an interview you did some time ago where you talked about your fascination with films like ‘Taxi Driver,’ where we’re asked to identify and sympathize with a character who, in your words, ‘If we met them on the street we would hate them.’ That’s precisely what you’re doing here.

Tykwer: That is what’s fascinating about the material, that you’re getting very close and involved with somebody who then leaves the accepted path of morality quite substantially. But at the same time you get so close to him that you can’t really escape staying with him, in a peculiar way. You can’t really let go of him as you follow him throughout the story until the very bitter ending. And that is something that fascinates me because what is basically driving him and his real motivation is something we all know about. It makes him very much an Everyman. Because he’s a nobody. He’s somebody who’s extremely lonely who longs to be somebody, who longs to be recognized, seen, smelled, and ultimately loved. And that, of course, is substantially the issue of ‘Taxi Driver,’ too. He seeks recognition in a similar way, crossing borders that we wouldn’t cross. We have an understanding and a respect for him. He’s not a murderer because he enjoys killing. He’s a murderer because he’s in pursuit of beauty. And his pursuit of beauty brings him to situations that-women have to die for it, but the way he perceives that, he looks at it more that they are part of a beauty sculpture. He takes their beauty in order to create something. Like a piece of art.

SF360: I think that’s the perfect metaphor for a filmmaker. I’m thinking of Hitchcock, of any artist or any person who, in the pursuit of creating something, is oblivious to the consequences. Filmmakers don’t kill their actors, admittedly, but does that metaphor connect with you?

Tykwer: To kill in pursuit of beauty is something, yes, artists do know about. But I think everybody does know about it. As a metaphor for being ready to ignore many rules that we grew up with, to say ‘It’s for a greater good so we need to accept this sacrifice,’ yes, that’s something everybody knows about. Everybody has this kind of dark side. That’s why Hitchcock has been such a phenomenon. It’s beyond the fact that he was a great technical filmmaker and a fantastic narrator. There is something about the obsessiveness in his major works that attracts us in a very specific, peculiar and secretive way. There is something secret that we connect with in Hitchcock’s work that makes all the difference to so many other thrillers that we can see. There’s something objectively involving and disturbing about them that makes us feel somebody broke the darker corners of our own soul. If ‘Perfume’ does any of that I’m very happy.

SF360: I know that you composed the music, and you often compose the music for your films. Did you design the poster as well?

Tykwer: No. I think it’s beautiful. It’s an amazing poster and it’s actually DreamWorks, and I’m very grateful for DreamWorks. I think Steven Spielberg had a strong influence on this. He was really hands-on with the poster. DreamWorks has been very supportive of the whole film, in particular Spielberg. He’s given me a lot of input. He was involved in some of the last stages of editing and was very nice.

SF360: Did you edit in Germany?

Tykwer: No, we did some editing over here because we did some test screenings and twisted a bit around.

SF360: What was it like for you working with him? After all, you’re hardly a first-time filmmaker.

Tykwer: Well, it was super exciting. He’s like a living myth and at the same time an extremely down-to-earth, comradely, respectful, lovely guy. And of course, one of the few geniuses we have.

SF360: His films are more commercial than yours, so was there any tension in terms of him wanting to make things more, shall we say, understandable?

Tykwer: Oh, no, I consider him quite a radical artist. I think he’s always done what he really loves most. I don’t think he has ever compromised his own vision for commercial reasons. I think that’s a big misunderstanding. It’s only that his personal vision has obviously shared the taste of many people. But if you look at films like ‘Munich’ or ‘Schindler’s List,’ it’s so obvious that he has a big, open mind for challenging material. He is completely supportive, especially in the daring part of this project. He was supporting me very strongly to not compromise on any level considering the darkness of the character or the disturbing footage of the last 25 minutes.

SF360: Let’s go back to the score. We think of music as reflecting the psychological or internal life of a character, which can’t be articulated. In this case, there’s also this smell business, that’s hard to convey unless you’re doing scratch and sniff cards like William Castle or John Waters did for laughs. So where did the music come in the filmmaking process? I’ve seen ‘Rossini,’ and I know ‘Perfume’ was a long time coming to the screen.

Tykwer: Quite a hilarious film, isn’t it? A great comedy. Very sarcastic but also touching.

SF360: So did you start composing before you started writing?

Tykwer: The way we always work, my collaborators, Johnny Klimek and Reinholdt Heil, we start composing from Day One. I also started to write on the script. I went back and forth between composing and writing the screenplay for, I think consecutively, two years. So the score would grow while we were writing the script and discovering the structure and let’s say the motivations of the characters in the screenwriting. I think that’s always what you mainly focus on in writing a script. On the other hand, in composing the music you get a sense to discover the atmosphere and the emotional depth of the material. So it’s more the abstract ground that you are searching, and of course it’s fantastic if you do that [in] parallel because the music builds up and becomes quite developed in your mind before you have actually started shooting. And then when you shoot, you have a very clear vision of both atmospheric and structural basics.

The greatest thing about it was that we had most of the music finished by the time we started shooting. Because we had already recorded it with a smaller ensemble, I could play it on the set to the actors and really make the moments, especially the moments that Ben had to do being very much alone, because most of the time he was alone with himself or some dead body. Later — most editing today of films [is done] with temporary music or music that we take from other films. I don’t like that at all. I hate it because very often people get stuck with it, and then they ask composers to just copy it and change it a little bit. You sometimes recognize music from another movie, and just two notes have been changed. I wonder how often the score of ‘American Beauty’ has been copied for other films. What’s the name again — Thomas Newman — a fantastic composer. That score has been a temp score for dozens of films. And then some poor composer had to come in and kind of duplicate it without stealing it. I think the great thing is when you have the score in advance, developed based on all the ideas you have been pursuing and preparing and then cutting [the film] with that music, so that the editing is inspired by the music and the music is related to the material.

SF360: ‘Perfume’ begins in Dickens territory — with an orphan. How did you put your own mark on what is a somewhat familiar introduction?

Tykwer: There is always something romantic about the nightmare of Dickensian childhoods. If you look at David Lean’s film of ‘Oliver Twist,’ the orphanage is a beautiful, large set. It’s very impressive architecture, and if you think about it, it’s a pretty nice place for these orphans to live in. It’s quite enviable to grow up in a beautiful spot like that. What we had to do was to make this world believable on a level that is both cinematically overwhelming but also giving a feeling for the brutal, cruel reality of the 18th century, and an orphanage not being a very grand-scale object of architecture but the most shitty place, where seven kids wee squeezed into one bed. We wanted to be truthful to the take the book has, depicting the period as a hell to live in and not a poetically transformed place.

SF360: The look of ‘Perfume’ gets progressively brighter and sunnier, while the character’s darker nature comes into focus.

Tykwer: He thinks he’s going towards enlightenment, and the landscapes and the surroundings appropriately change. At the very end of the day, as he’s confronting the final truth, it’s a very bright scene. Its cause, of course, is also a nightmare. He realizes that it was all a great misunderstanding. His pursuit of happiness and his pursuit of escaping loneliness made him the loneliest person on the planet. He is surrounded by so many people and still stays completely alone. I love that idea that someone goes towards enlightenment and the movie follows that path and stays as subjectively close to this character as possible, only in order to show that it’s not about the light, that what he ultimately finds is the wrong truth.

SF360: I hope that’s not your experience as a filmmaker or as an artist, finding yourself alone, even though you’re surrounded by people.

Tykwer: [The ending], when he’s finally on that stage, it’s related not so much to myself, even though the subcontext is about manipulation and manipulation being, of course, the essence of a filmmaker’s life. At the same time we were looking at the whole idea of celebrity and this whole idea of a rock star, and when you go to pop concerts and you see these icons up there you see all these screaming crowds around them. You always feel that these people are admired and lonely at the same time. That contradiction is a sub issue of the film, the world of celebrities and what we do to become that, only to find out that this kind of admiration that you’re receiving is not what you ultimately longed for. Because what you longed for is just that one person that looks at you without any disguise or makeup or any plastic surgery and just loves you for what you are, beneath all that. These people that do all these things to themselves and get this kind of artificial love, they end up suffering from a completely different disease, which is the celebrity’s loneliness. We all want it but at the same time it’s scary.

SF360: Because each of your films takes so long to make, are you presently inclined to take on something that could be completed more quickly?

Tykwer: You don’t choose projects like that. You are always on the search for the one thing that excites you most for your next two, three, or four or five years, Whatever it takes, and if it takes four years like this took, it’s fine because once you pick up on it you get so into it that you don’t really suffer from the fact that it took such a long time. I’m always worried about picking up on something that I might get bored with halfway through and then I’m stuck with it. So I have very high, what do you call it, stakes? I have to be subjective on a subconscious level and on an intuitive level I have to be really mesmerized. We spoke about Hitchcock before. There are films that we love from Hitchcock because they’re professionally done and they’re very exciting to watch, but there are [other] films that are masterpieces for another reason-he had an extra bit of involvement in there that he probably wouldn’t have been able to explain, but it’s an instinctive reaction he had towards his material. I’m always waiting for this, either for a spark of an idea that comes to me for a script that I’m writing or something that comes towards me. And then I don’t care how long it takes. I never get bored by it.