In the U.S., German director Tom Tykwer is readily known for “Run, Lola Run” (1998), which earned him a slew of recognition, including the 2000 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, as well as kudos from Sundance, Seattle and a host of honors from his native Germany. In 2006, Tykwer presents “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” based on a bestselling novel by Patrick Sueskind. Set amongst the backdrop of murder and obsession in 18th-century France, the film is centered on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who has a unique talent for discerning the scents and smells that swirl around him, which he uses to create the world’s finest perfumes.
Strangely lacking any scent of his own, he becomes obsessed with capturing the “irresistible but elusive aroma of young womanhood.” As Grenouille’s obsession turns deadly, twelve young girls are found murdered. Panic breaks out as people rush to protect their daughters, while an unrepentant and unrelenting Grenouille still lacks the final ingredient to complete his quest. In this interview with indieWIRE, Tykwer shares his early obsession with “King Kong,” how his producer persuaded the “Perfume” author to allow a movie and his eclectic top 30 films. Dreamworks/Paramount opened the film in limited release last Wednesday.
What intially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has your interest evolved through your career?
I got lost in cinema at about age nine when I saw “King Kong” for the first time. Since then my life has been circling around and actually happening in this strange dark room called a movie theater–mostly, of course, because of that flickering light at the end of it. Before “King Kong,” I had believed there was another world, that existed parallel to ours–that was locked into a TV set or movie theater–in which creatures like Kong did actually exist and live. Then, I realised it was all manufactured. And then again, I loved the fact that this revelation did not take the magic away. It enhanced it. Because if it was manufactured by people, it meant that there was actual craft involved, and human beings mastering this craft, [and] that there was a craft devoted to manufacturing fantastical, invented, crazy but also living, breathing worlds. That there was a language behind it that could be explored and then used end experimented with, and that that language was understood by nearly everybody in the world–because everybody was and is watching films, all the time. I wanted to be active on both sides of that dialogue.
My interest in filmmaking has never really lost touch with that fascination, and I think as much as I have enjoyed becoming a filmmaker, I have enjoyed staying [a part of the] audience. I am making movies because I still get so much out of watching them. And I very much enjoy discussing them. Discussing movies makes me understand people, ideas, illusions, emotions, myself, life, art, the world. So, the movies that I am making, first and most of all, have to satisfy myself as an audience [member]–and an audience greedy for the inspirational, conflictuous, beautiful and magical potentials of the narrative in moving pictures.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you still would like to explore?
I’m exploring all I can imagine to explore in filmmaking with every project I get connected with.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” came about.
The novel “Perfume” has grown to mythological status in Europe during the 20 years since it was first published. The author, Patrick Sueskind, did not want to sell the rights first, and it took producer Bernd Eichinger 15 years to persuade Sueskind, who finally gave in. When I entered the project, screenwriter Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger had developed a first draft of a screenplay which was already quite impressive. Joining forces, we went through another 20 or so drafts to get to the shooting script, and discovered that as much as “Perfume” always felt to be a fantastic concept for a movie, the novel itself–when you get to its detail–was a nightmare to adapt for a movie. A protagonist who murders innocent young women? A film that’s set entirely in 18th century Paris’ lowest class street life, where people actually wade in filth and mud of pre-sewery streets and alleys? A film without anyone relevant for the story surviving it? But that was exactly what I liked about the project–that everything about it felt [like] a challenge.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Given the darkness of the material and at the same time the relatively big scale of the production, it [was] a very long and bumpy road in financing. To me, the key for the film was to find the right actor to play Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. The search for the actor took nearly one year, and hundreds of meetings, until I finally was sent (by casting genius Michelle Guish) to the Old Vic Theatre in London where a new production of “Hamlet” was staged, and there was this 23-year old actor named Ben Whishaw doing a Hamlet that I had never seen in such a different, contemporary and moving fashion. In the following audition, Ben presented a quite fascinating mix of energies–between naive and calculating, innocent and scary, dark and beautiful. I knew I had found Grenouille.
The other thing is that I never thought I might make a period picture until I stumbled into this one. I have been complaining a lot about the stiffness of many historical dramas, [and] about the way actors move statically in their costumes, or how the camera shows off the art direction. or that one feels like [one is in] a museum, but not in the world of that time. So many people get ready for something rather boring when it’s period–also because in most cases “period” is reduced to the realm of the aristocracy, to the upper class. With “Perfuem,” that’s all different. We decided to make a movie that throws you into the dirty, stinky mess of 18th century Paris with full force, as drastic as Sueskind did in the novel. [We want] the audience to feel like they have traveled with a time machine into that century and were able to film it just as it was there. Not “presenting” it, but using it as a background just as if it was a modern contemporary movie.
And that became a major challenge. Because, of course, you have to dress and create everything, every detail, every wall, every background, every spot of dirt on every costume, every bit of mud on any alley for every frame of the picture. And then again treat it as a “throwaway.” Never be proud of the effort it took. Make it feel real by nearly ignoring it.
What are your all-time favourite films?
I had to do a Best 30 list recently for the magazine Steadycam. Here it is:
“Miracolo a Milano” (Vittorio De Sica, Italy 1950)
“Halloween” (John Carpenter, USA 1978)
“Jules et Jim” (Francois Truffaut, France 1962)
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg, USA 1977)
“Kill Bill Vol.1” (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2002)
“Psycho” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960)
“King Kong” (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest Schoedsack; USA 1933)
“Otto e Mezzo” (Federico Fellini, Italy 1963)
“Rosemary’s Baby” (Roman Polanski, USA 1967)
“Breaking The Waves” (Lars von Trier, Denmark 1996)
“Rashomon” (Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1956)
“Time of the Gypsies” (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia 1992)
“Blow Up” (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/England 1966)
“Lawrence of Arabia” (David Lean, England/USA 1962)
“Week-End” (Jean-Luc Godard, France 1968)
“Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, USA 1976)
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (Frank Capra, USA 1946)
“Les Enfants du Paradis” (Marcel Carne, France 1945)
“The Deer Hunter” (Michael Cimino, USA 1978)
“The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972)
“Distant Voices, Still Lives” (Terence Davies, UK 1988)
“The Exorcist” ( William Friedkin, USA 1973)
“Blue Velvet” (David Lynch, USA 1986)
“The Shining” (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980)
“Sunset Boulevard” (Billy Wilder, USA 1950)
“Sans Soleil” (Chris Marker, France 1982)
“Carrie” (Brian De Palma, USA 1976)
“Marathon Man” (John Schlesinger, USA 1976)
“Alien” (Ridley Scott, USA 1979)
“Rocco e i suoi fratelli” ( Luchino Visconti, Italy 1960)