New-Release Bonus: Interview with Tom Tykwer

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

When Tom Tykwer came to Seattle to promote Perfume, I specifically asked the local publicist for a one-on-one interview—if only for ten minutes. Fortunately, I got twenty. I had seen Perfume two weeks before, and desperately wanted the chance to string five or six questions together, in order to see if I had come even close to reading Tykwer’s intent correctly. The director was relaxed and conversant, more than willing to entertain my rather pointed questions. I was very up front in letting him know that, although I found his film brilliant, I wasn’t really sure I liked it.

GW: In an interview you did with Project A during the publicity tour for Run, Lola, Run, you mentioned Taxi Driver, and “the alarming idea” that the audience could “identify with a character who is so strange and so cruel.” Did that play into your thinking in developing this movie?

TT: That’s funny. I don’t remember that quote. But, yes. It’s one of the very few films that I’ve been relating to in the development of Perfume. Actually, I sat down with Ben Whishaw, the [star of Perfume], who had never seen [Taxi Driver], and watched it again with him because there just aren’t very many examples of this. Of course, that was one of the reasons that I was attracted by the material. It’s just so fascinating to be seduced by a story or by a character—to follow him and to get to understand his motivations to such a degree that you are even able to… not accept, but to stay with him, even though he breaks all the rules that a protagonist usually has to keep and follow. I really love that. I love how much this material is stretching this limit.

GW: That moment when he catches the essence of the first woman he kills really sells the empathy that we develop for the character. Obviously, his humble beginnings and the unfortunate circumstances of his birth and upbringing, too, and all of that. But understanding what it is that he’s after, and what he’s trying to capture, certainly is essential to sympathizing with his quest—

TT: Sure.

GW: If not his methods.

TT: Sure. There is something about him that is deeply human—in his motivations and his needs—and then he loses track of the right way to handle it. There’s even something human in what he’s doing that’s not acceptable: just because it’s not acceptable doesn’t mean we don’t understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Which is very disturbing, of course.

GW: Right. He just never acquires the proper social guidance or moral framework, or whatever you want to call it—

TT: Social competence.

GW: To guide him. Social competence, yes. Now, the subtitle of the film is “The Story of a Murderer.” It’s not often that a film like Taxi Driver comes along and gains a wide audience—even though the subject of the movie is such a disturbed character. Were you really hoping for a wide audience for this film, or are you going to be content if it just finds a small audience that gets it?

TT: Well, you have to remember that in Europe, it’s a massively beloved novel, and admired as a book. It’s like The Lord of the Rings of Europe. It’s really a cultural myth—so there was no way to not confront the idea that the film had to have some sort of mass appeal. But at the same time, I felt like, “Okay. But if that’s true at all—and I’m starting to get used to it—it’ll be maybe unexpected.” It’s kind of an experimental mass-audience film—on the level of how it approaches its protagonist, and how it picks up on filmmaking methods that aren’t the conventional ones you usually get with mass-audience pictures. I’m probably just slowly becoming a specialist in these sorts of things. But it’s a huge hit in Germany. It’s gigantic, unbelievable. It’s done more than double of Run, Lola, Run.

GW: Really?

TT: Which was really big there. It’s unbelievable. It’s more than Harry Potter now.

GW: So is the success in Germany what’s led to the release in the U.S., or was the distribution deal already in place?

TT: The distribution deal was in place. It was quite an expensive film to make.

GW: Yes. So it would have to be presold.

TT: We have a strong company behind it here, and Spielberg loves the film, which is good support. He really loves it, which is fantastic for me, of course. He likes the drastic and radical part of it very much.

GW: One of the things that struck me as fairly radical about the film—and I only really got this after quite a bit of reflection—was that, structurally, it seems to be very (for the lack of a better word to describe it) “Kubrickian.” I’ve often felt that Kubrick’s films are structured more like symphonies—they seem to have movements that restate themes, rather than a conventional, continuous narrative flow. And Perfume strikes me much the same way, where the first half has a very distinct feel from the second half of the movie. How did the decision come about to abandon John Hurt’s voiceover narration at the halfway point?

TT: From the beginning, the concept of the narration was that it was to be the framework of the film. There’s a tiny bit of it in the middle that kind of cuts those two halves. It’s exactly at the point you’re aiming at—I think you’re talking pre-Grasse and Grasse.

GW: Exactly.

TT: These are the two halves.

GW: With the interlude in the mountains.

TT: Exactly. There is the interlude which is connected with the [early] narration; but apart from that, there is no narration in the film. I always felt intrigued by the idea—apart from the idea that it is just a matter of taste, some people not liking narration in films whatsoever, which I don’t understand because I could name many examples where it’s just beautiful—and in this particular case was so supportive of it (besides the fact that John Hurt’s voice is so specific and strong, giving the whole thing so much gravitas) because there is something like a sense of security about it. The narration gives you an impression that the film will take care of you and protect you—and then it doesn’t.

GW: And then it doesn’t.

TT: And that I like.

GW: And that’s what I initially found very jarring. Not until much later, when I was reflecting about why I found it jarring and why it had such an effect on me, did I realize it was a function of the narration. That you had deliberately pulled—

TT: The idea was that you’ve offered the audience a safety net, but then you let them drop from really high. So it doesn’t feel like it’s giving you any safety any more. The way that the audience is introduced into the film is probably pretty shocking; but at the same time—because of that voiceover—you feel like there will be guidance. But at a certain point, you’re left alone with this very disturbing and peculiar man. So I wanted—and this is a particular strength of the book, of course—the audience to get involved in his ambitions and motivations. And to a degree… not that you accept what he’s doing, but that you get so curious about the path that he’s on that you don’t really let in all the moral reservations that you should be building up against him. You don’t build them up. And you suddenly find yourself following him all the way to the bitter end, because you know what’s driving him and you know that something about it is so universal that it’s personal, something we all know something about. Somebody who feels like a nobody, trying to be a somebody—trying to find recognition, trying to overcome the social incompetence, and yet ending up miscalculating the means. Getting fanatical about something. It’s about a fanatic, and about how fanaticism can slowly creep into us. And I don’t think anything about that is really strange to us.

GW: Not within the breadth of human experience, no.

TT: No.

GW: What’s really striking is that the moment that you release the safety net and force the audience to drop down, as you say, coincides with the moment at which Grenouille abandons his own safety net. Not until that point does he really allow himself to fully indulge his pursuit, with his new methods.

TT: You mean when he finds out that he doesn’t have a smell of his own?

GW: Yes. Before that, the first murder is an accident, so we’re willing to forgive that one.

TT: Which is different than the novel, by the way. In the novel, it’s not an accident. We substantially changed some things to make it work—in my opinion, to make it work. That’s part of the difference between literature and film.

GW: That deliberate change helps a film audience stick with Grenouille—

TT: I agree.

GW: It’s extraordinary. Your timing works out tremendously well, for the intended effect. It will be curious to see how American audiences, with the different aesthetic values that Americans have, respond to that.

TT: You are the American audience, aren’t you? That’s what I always think. I always say that I amthe German audience. I watch movies all the time, and I watch all kinds of movies. So when I make a movie, I try to make one that I would really find convincingly surprising, and different, and original. The only problem that most people have—and that people like us have even more because we see so much—is that it’s so difficult to find something compellingly new and fresh. It just doesn’t exist very often. So I’m drawn to material with this potential, where you have the feeling that you’re crafting an experience that’s unlike any other. At the same time, because I love cinema—because we love certain elements of the cinema—the disguise of the film can still be something very beautiful and familiar. It looks like an epic historical drama. But quite soon, it becomes something beyond that. Which is something that I look for. Now, I don’t know about American audiences, but generally I feel that we underestimate the audience, because they’re just like us—and they have a strong nose, always smelling for something fresh out there, something they haven’t seen yet. And then they go for it. Especially the American audience. They really want to discover things.

GW: Well, using the metaphor from your film, I would say that the “head chord” struck me very strongly; the “heart chord” disturbed and bothered me; but the “base chord” really stuck with me, and affected my long-term view of the film.

TT: That’s so great. Very nice. Nobody’s said that before. Yeah, that’s how it should work. Exactly. First impression, second impression, then the way you chew on it. There’s something about this film that I hope will be more demanding, in a good way. The problem with most films is that the head, heart, and base chords all come at once—they hit you, you eat them, and you go. You’ve already finished digesting as the end credits roll. But the films that make a difference always stay with you, do something to you.

Perfume is scheduled to be available as part of your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream it at YouTube.

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