Tom Tykwer—Perfume: The Story of a Murderer—11/10/06

Tom Tykwer became an international sensation when his film Run Lola Run emerged in the late nineties. His other films include Winter Sleepers, The Princess and the Warrior, and Heaven, based on a screenplay co-written by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. His latest film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer at long last brings a notoriously unfilmable German tome to the screen. I spoke with Tykwer at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Groucho: I sort of saw the story as the portrait of an artist without the benefit of perspective.

Tom Tykwer: (Laughs.)

G: Did you identify—I guess in some way you needed to—

Tom Tykwer: What do you mean "the benefit of perspective"?

G: Well, his amorality—I should say a "different perspective" I suppose, but I'm making a judgment there. He seems not to realize or care what effect he's having on others in pursuit of his art.

TT: Mm-hm. Well, he's trying to have an effect, ultimately. A strong effect, of course.

G: That's true.

TT: But you mean by murdering and stuff like that. I mean, he's not even contemplating about the implications of his moral diversions—yeah that's true.

G: Did you think of him as an artist in shaping the story?

TT: Well, in a way he does think of himself as an artist, does he?—I mean, the more fanatical he gets in his pursuit for this ultimate smell, he more and more, I think, also looks at this ultimate smell as a work of art and therefore, I think, also looks at all the victims that are involved as, you know, sculptural elements that lead to this ultimate piece of art. And so there is something about him, of course, that develops into a hubris—that I find quite fascinating about his character. So yes, I think there is—we took that idea quite serious: that there is an artist in a very difficult, let's say, in kind of an exaggerated obsessive mode.

G: Is that his most admirable quality? What should audiences admire about him?

TT: I don't think that audiences would admire anything about him; it's more that—the interesting part about him is the—stuff that's not so admirable, but that's very normal. And that's the stuff I think that makes us connect with him. What makes me connect with him is the fact that he is so deeply human in his motivations and in his desires and in his, you know, in his wishes. The only thing he's trying—that he's longing for is basically to be recognized. And to be seen and ultimately, of course, to be loved. Let's say to be smelled. (Laughs.). And he—so he's longing for something we all do long for, and he's battling with problems that we all do know about, which is social incompetence, you know, which we all know about. This whole problem of facing people and confronting them in a way that they start to like us. And then—I mean, he hasn't learned that. So that's what he's suffering from, and I think that's a very human problem that he's having that we all know about. It's just that, of course, as in lots of tales, he's just a slight exaggeration of that. (Laughs.) Of that very human conflict—

G: I wanted to ask about the difference between the way a film audience experiences a story versus a reader. And maybe the difficulty of making that happen from page to screen. I thought that maybe that might be a particular challenge with the ending of the book and translating that to film.

TT: Mm-hm.

G: Since the reader experiences it more abstractly, right? And they can fill in the gaps with their imagination more whereas you have to make it concrete. How did you deal with that?

TT: It's pretty concrete in the book. (Laughs.) Honestly, it's really very concrete. It's really—it's all there. It's really spelled out, exactly what happens on that square. So it's actually quite more graphic, much more graphic in description. I mean, it's really drastic. As the entire novel is quite drastic in—always when it comes to detail or to specificness. That's something about the novel that I love. It is not trying to escape through a poetic backdoor. It really goes for it. I mean as much as in the description of—I mean, what you've read already, the opening of the book is all about the dirt and the filth of Paris streets in eighteenth century and the reality of that. And you have never read something like it ever in your life because it's—you just didn't know! Because, I mean, most literature, of course, and most films that go to eighteenth century, they go to the aristocratic world. They go in to upper class, they go into these land country houses where people all look pretty and nothing looks very smelly, but the reality of those ages was there was no sewer system. People were literally throwing all the shit and pee and garbage out of their window; it was just rotting in the streets and people were wading up to their knees in the mud. It was a nightmare. It was really a nightmare to live there, and we wanted to portray this. We wanted to also find a way to get into this kind of drastic-ness by still keeping alive the epic quality of the novel. And that relates, of course, also to the ending. I've heard, like—you know, it is incredibly surprising what happens in the novel. As much in the novel as it is, I guess, in the movie. But at the same time, I think it's completely logical. It's a matter of sheer consequence. I mean, if it works, this is what happens. (Chuckles.) I mean, if the perfume works, that's what happens. Because, of course, the general idea about it being not so much only that they admire him and everything but the fact that he puts kind of a love drug on all these people ultimately must lead to the fact that they all fall in love with each other because it's not so much—I mean, the idea is, of course, he wanted to gain attention and then ultimately be loved. And then of course he has to realize that if you fall in love with the perfume, you never fall in love with the person. And that's how he discovers his loneliness. And I think—I'm quite fascinated by the whole subtext of that sequence that is so much about manipulating the masses and manipulating people in general and how, you know—that's why we shot it a little bit like a rock star concert or like a pop-idol situation, you know? Because this is how I always feel when I go to concerts. I'm letting myself fall into it, and I'm screaming along with everybody, and there's something cathartic about it because I think in the end it's even narcissistic for the audience more than for the person up there. You know? It always seems like they're always feeding their ego, but ultimately when you look at it, very often you feel like they're really, really lonely up there. You know, they have all these people seemingly admiring them, but what they do admire has, of course, nothing to do with what they really are or who they really are. So over the long run that makes them feel more and more lonely. And I've always found that a fascinating, mysterious contradiction. You know, that there's something we long for, but at the same time we—at the end of the day, nobody really wants to be up there.

G: Well the audience also gets to enjoy the, sort of, anonymity of the mob.

TT: And they love it with each other, right? And they make—they—you know, that's what I mean. It's so—

G: Liberating.

TT: Yeah, I mean, when you go—the same, you know, in Germany—I think soccer has become more famous here too, a lot more popular. I mean, Germany—I'm a soccer fan, and I—we very often go to the stadium, and it's a little bit different here, I think, because here it's part of normal life to go to the arena and see the game and have a drink and you talk and then sometimes you scream, but, you know, in Germany you are really, really focusing on the game, and you're completely hysterical about it. But the crazy thing is that it's kind of—the thing is you focus on the game and at the same time you're making an experience of it for the crowd themselves. So if the game is boring (laughs), somehow you don't let go of your excitement. And I'm sure you've seen these things like La Olla when people do "Oohhuoah" in the stands. This for me is always the ultimate proof for the fact that it's also, of course—the whole experience is not only related to these people down there who are the superstars, but is also the audience themselves that gives themselves an experience. Disconnected at the same time, right—?

G: Do have an opinion as to what defines that voice? Or what that voice sounds like or what's distinctive about it: your team and your vision, from other filmmakers?

TT: Yeah, well, you know, this is really strange, how to interpret your own—it's difficult. I mean, your writing—it's also strange to talk about your own writing in the way that you say, "Okay, what's your specific style?" You know, it's as if I was asking you as a writer, what is your style in writing? I could say, you could say some things, but they might be completely wrong or not really hitting the point because, of course, I mean, you have certain methods that you have established, but I mean there's so much fed by both your analytical observations of other works and your totally intuitive and subconscious affection to certain ways of expression.

G: It's a way of thinking or seeing the world that comes out in your process.

TT: Yeah, and it's so strange to describe that, you know? Because I always experience our way of working inside a film as very much open to discovery and at the same time trying to be distinct on a certain perspective on material that it's—it should always—

G: Guiding principles.

TT: Yeah, some guiding principles, yes, that I think are important. And I think our main principle is always that everything—we're doing should be related, or should be rooted in the subjective force or the subjective energy of the character that's—

G: Driving the story.

TT: That's driving the story. You know, and the energy should come from that. And the inspiration should be coming from that, and musical ideas should be inspired by it. So, you know, if you say Run Lola Run was obviously inspired by a young, quite hysterical, frenetic, passionate girl, that's why the film became frenetical, hysterical, and passionate. And now we've got a film that is also more reflecting on the darker sides of our inside that has definitely a dark tonality and some disturbing qualities about the main character. I wanted the film to be dark and disturbing, but of course also humanly warming because of what the character also is carrying inside is a desire that, as we've said before, is very, very understandable and very much something we know.

G: I particularly want to ask about—I'm sure everyone wants to ask about—dealing with the sense of smell. And since there is no particular visual language for that, it's up to you to develop a strategy as a filmmaker. So what was your strategy to bring the audience into that sense?

TT: Well again, I was never really worried. I thought it was just a big challenge, but you were never worried that there was a way to do it because I thought if literature language can do that, cinematic language should do because I think it's the most superior language in the arts. So I thought, well, there must be a way, if it's there in literature. And, of course, you know, it can't be about getting real smell to happen in theaters. I mean also the book doesn't smell, of course, so nobody obviously was missing it on that one. So I think, again, the inspiration mostly came from trying to attach ourselves as much as possible to the main character. And not see the world through his eyes, but smell the world through his nose. And really pick up on the physical process as much as we can. So, just for instance, the camera not going in there and showing wide shot and then in the typical way going into close-ups, but we very often started with close-ups of details; you know, as you said it's very much a tactile movie that examines surfaces and textures of elements and goes into all these details: tries to really pick up on these details the way he does with his nose and then building a picture as if it's of a composition, where there is musical relevance again, and building a composition from single notes, which are all these details, to then slowly forming a chord, and from those chords, slowly forming a complete composition, which then is the wide shot. You know, so there's very many sequences where you enter them by the details and then you go wider, wider and then you see the whole image. You know, that was one example of how we tried to be influenced by the subjective perception of the character to translate that into film language. And of course music played a huge part in it. You know the development of the music and how we make the music work with the script, actually. Because we were writing the music parallelly to the screenwriting, so the music was basically all there when we started shooting the film, so we could play to the actors, could create the atmosphere of the smelling and get the music to become a very strong reference for the smelling experience.

G: And are there indeed shots in the film where, if we were hearing the production sound on it we would hear that orchestra playing? Would—did they actually play to—?

TT: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah, very often we were using it on set—

G: We're almost out of time. I'm getting signs. I just wanted to ask about a couple of rumors that are on the internet about possible future projects, if you can confirm or deny.

TT: (Laughs.) Uh oh. Hot seat.

G: One I read: somebody suggested that you might be looking at the The Master and Margarita.

TT: Yeah, interesting—I read that on the internet too, and I seriously reconsidered the idea because—it was funny because the idea was given to me by internet—

G: Rumor, to begin with?

TT: Rumor.

(Both laugh.)

TT: I had never thought about it before. (Laughs.) And I had read the novel a long time ago, and now I've actually took it out of the shelf again and looked at it again.

G: Mm, interesting. And the other was that you were going to do a remake of John Woo's The Killer.

TT: Uhhhh—how did that get on the internet?

(Both laugh.)

TT: That's a very complicated story, but the true answer is "no." No, I'm not. But there is a script that has some—there's another movie that I'm involved with and interested in making that is a political thriller that has some roots in that old story, yes. But it's not really based on The Killers at all.

G: Ah-huh.

TT: Actually, no. So no.

G: Right.

(Both laugh.)

G: But a political thriller is in the future—

TT: Yes.

G: Is what you're telling us? Interesting. All right, thank you.

TT: Thank you...

[For Groucho's review of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, click here.]