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“We’re really not saying all private bankers are murderers”: Tom Tykwer on “The International”

"We're really not saying all private bankers are murderers": Tom Tykwer on "The International"

Can we start with the shootout at the Guggenheim? Interpol’s Clive Owen has tailed assassin Brian O’Byrne to the museum (where presumably he went for a culture fix). The gunplay escalates when several more baddies emerge from the crowd, seriously pocking the Gugg’s white ramp – and this battle royal rages through the iconic spiral housing an art installation of moving video panels. The result is sheer joy, choreographed mayhem that approaches the level of a cosmic ballet. You want to applaud when it’s all over.

The mind-blowing set piece occurs late in “The International,” the action thriller from Tom Tykwer that kicked off this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The sequence harks back to “Run, Lola, Run”; like Tykwer’s calling card from 1998, it forms a self-referential loop about nothing much more than cinematic possibilities. But “International” also has weighty issues on its mind, namely the ambitions of agent Owen and Manhattan Assistant D.A Naomi Watts to bring to justice one of the world’s nastier megabanks. Seems the clean-cut felons at the helm will resort even to murder to continue financing terror and war. In pursuing their quarry (a reprise of Lola chasing after the money), Owen and Watts jet around the globe to such locales as Milan, Berlin, Luxembourg, a grubby looking New York, and, finally, Istanbul for a climax atop some rooftops around the Suleymanyie mosque.

Okay, the implausibles pile up: an honest Italian pol — really? And how did Clive find a parking spot in midtown Manhattan? How did a lowly Assistant D.A. snag this gig, plus a black leather coat to make Keanu drool? And how can two of the world’s prettiest people not get it on? Oh, never mind, the thing combines kinetic entertainment with a timely broadside on bank malfeasance – uncannily relevant, considering Tykwer first eyed this project years ago. (At the presser Naomi Watts joked the real criminal financiers are just a publicity stunt for the movie). What lifts the film above genre is the way Tykwer foregrounds architecture to startling and original effect, making it both a principal character and visual motif of forbidding beauty.

The other day at the Sony junket iW caught up with Tykwer, a one man charm offensive and so articulate, the publicist needed to yank journos away from him. (And yes, Clive is even hotter in person).

indieWIRE: What impelled you to make “The International?”

Tom Tykwer: I encountered the script in a very early draft that Eric Singer had written six years ago – before I even knew I might make “Perfune.” First, I was intrigued because there was really intelligent dialogue, for a change – as we all know, many scripts come along where people say these sentences of three words or less. Second, I liked the elaborate ideas and that the villain was a private bank. It might seem obvious now, but when we started it was a very eccentric concept! Thirdly, there was a sequence in the Guggenheim that sounded very promising [laughs].

There were also a lot of problems: the script was set in the late ’70s as a period picture. The protagonist was a Holocaust survivor from Belgium. The main interesting element for me was the issue of the global economy. The script was based on a real case involving a bank called the BCCI – nicknamed the Bank of Crooks and Criminals. I went off to another movie. Then we finally got [the script for “International”] right.

iW Did research into the project change your vision of how banks do business?

TT: This is a genre film and our goal was to create a good thriller, not a political documentary. We’re really not saying all private bankers are murderers. But when you investigate details through informants, it’s pretty scary to find out how close you’ve come to the truth, even when you push it to these extremes. [The film] is not about the banking crisis, really. Its investigators are hunting down criminals who represent a system that has existed longer than since Lehman Brothers had a heart attack. It’s the system that’s our problem.

iW: Could you talk about your casting of Clive Owen as the protagonist?

TT: I think Clive right now is just simply the first and perfect choice for what we would sillily call the thinking man’s action hero. He’s the most interesting actor of his generation who can combine a very physical presence with the idea that here’s somebody who’s really smart. You don’t think, is this guy really up to this? You buy it. And you immediately connect with him. Like at the Guggenheim you can see how overwhelmed he is by the situation. He’s reloading a gun and he’s like shaking. He survives because he’s incredibly lucky, not because he’s so cool. And he’s determined, his strength comes from a moral energy.

iW: I’m intrigued by the way you use architecture in your films. In “Heaven,” as I remember, the first overhead shot of Turin fills the entire screen.

TT: Actually, the opening shot of the movie is in a flight simulator. And then you go to a top shot of Turin from a helicopter over the city, which is like a grid lying on the characters, or whatever…

Yes, I’m kind of fascinated by how these architectural structures can influence emotional states in movies. In this film private banking interests have created a perfect system to run the planet – and they’ve built palaces that reflect that system. Also in Berlin over the last 20 years we’ had interesting new developments in architecture and some spectacular corporate monuments. I wanted to present Clive’s character as this little fly struggling in the spider web of the banking world.

iW: The architecture is both a thing of beauty and power but also menacing. Often the soundtrack turns ominous in synch with images of the buildings.

TT: There’s a strong atmosphere that these buildings create. They’re stunningly beautiful, but they also make you feel dwarfed. Small and unimportant contrasted with that incredible power. And of course that is a theme the film is investigating.

iW: The Guggenheim sequence was like a marvelous piece of performance art.

TT: That was a little bit the idea. You go into the museum and despite the insanity of the criminal activity exploding there, it was supposed to be like an orchestrated dance of energy. And if there’s one energetic unfathomable building in the world that makes you spin a little and lose your sense of direction, it’s obviously the Guggenheim, one of my favorite buildings of all time. It has this incredible aspect of being a sculpture in itself. It’s its own own protagonist. And when you go there people are equally experiencing the building as an emotional system.

When Clive comes in there it’s overwhelming what happens to him. He loses the concept of space and even time. It was perfect to use this building… No matter how and where you shoot, the spiral structure and this out of balance-ness of every floor so supports Clive’s situation there, with all the assassins firing at him. It was also a challenge because as a director, you can always investigate different professions. In this case I had the big fun to pretend to be a curator at the Guggenheim and find an exhibition for it that would be perfect for our movie.

iW: What was the show?

TT: I found an artist in Germany – Julian Rosafeldt – who’s a rising star of video art. Video art seemed the perfect thing to use in this film because we’re attacking a system that’s quite virtual in itself and you feel you can never see the people behind it, you never know who these people actually are behind these institutions that run our countries and daily lives. I wanted to use an art form that in itself is playing with virtuality, an art form that isn’t really there, just a projected image. Turning the museum into a battlefield, I also wanted to convey that these forces are also destroying our cultural identity. And I wanted to please the Guggenheim officials. They were very supportive and let us shoot there for a couple of days. Then we rebuilt the entire Guggenheim and shot six weeks in Berlin. But I wanted to present an exhibit that they’d feel comfortable with and could have hung there.

iW: Why did your brilliant DP Frank Griebe go in for all those top down shots?

TT: There’s a certain sense in the movie of Clive and Naomi being these lost individuals attacked by a system so much larger and powerful. The nightmare the film is trying to capture is that there’s so little to do against that massive structure they’re confronting. And yet the movie makes a strong statement that there’s no alternative. Both characters are driven by moral upsetness, they’re angry that their values are being attacked by morally ignorant business people.

iW: Why didn’t you let Clive and Naomi connect as a couple? I almost get the feeling from your film that the world’s problems are so overhwhelming, we’re in a post-love period.

TT: To a certain extent that is true. But if you look at the famous paranoia thrillers there’s very often not space for romance. The issues at stake are so important and demanding there’s just not the emotional capactiy. Look at “All the President’s Men.” You never even see a woman next to Redford and Hoffman, you never even know whether they’re married or not.

That Clive and Naomi don’t become a couple is exactly what I loved about the film. To have two of the most attractive actors of present day appear on screen and have that tension be part of the relationship… Of course they could fall for each other, but the truth is – and that’s the concept I was so fond of – it’s a movie about adults. And for people our age life is about something beyond just always looking for the right person to be with. At some point we sometimes just decide for somebody and that’s the one.

iW: Is that true for you?

TT: Of course. It’s true of everybody. I don’t have kids but I have a woman, yes… In reality we all sometimes meet someone we’re attracted to and feel there could have been this other life. But that person is not available or we’re both not available. We already have a life. And that’s not necessarily bad. But there’s a melancholy about the choices we make and the fact that we can’t live five other lives.

iW: They could have been swept away by passion.

TT: I don’t believe that, not in your forty’s. They’ve done that before and they realize you end up with the same problems with everybody, so better to stick to the potential in your relationship.

iW: Did you have a model thriller that influenced you?

TT: Some films from the ’70s that we all relate to when we hear political or paranoid thriller. “The Parallax View,” “Marathon Man,” one of the great classics of that period. Obviously, “The Conversation.” And some important European movies of the ’70s. Most of of all, I wanted to make a defining, spectacular genre thriller and have people take seriously what it’s about, yet get caught up in the energies that a thriller can generate.

iW: In “Run, Lola Run” you stretched time, putting 20 minutes into 90, and played with cinematic conventions. Would you say that you’ve moved away from more experimental films?

TT: No, “The International” is full of experimental challenges. To make a movie so visually particular and graphic, and to use architecture as a character was a super-demanding task. It’s a very complex thing to integrate that element into the structure of a convincing narrative. For me it’s always the same challenge: to do experimental films in a way that you don’t shove the audience’s nose in the experiment, you keep it exciting and entertaining. My favorite films are always both. You get lost in the narrative and character’s emotions so you forget about the inventiveness, but it adds to the spice of the experience.

iW: Would you say that there’s a common theme or through-line in your films? For example “Lola” stresses the role of chance and coincidence in people’s lives.

TT: I think that chance and coincidence are relevant to all the films I’ve done. One of the scenes in “The International” that I love is when the investigators follow the trace of the assassin and it leads to an empty square. And then super-accidentally the guy crosses the street and walks past them. I love also how coincidence infuses things with an energy of reality and avoids the pre-conceptualized cliches of storytelling. It can slam you into a completely different mode. The biggest coincidence in the film leads our characters to enter the Guggenheim.

The other element I’d always relate to is that of a passionate characer who’s a loner and struggles with a seemingly static and immovable system and tries to overcome it. So you could say Louis Salinger [Owens] is a relative of Lola.

iW: You got some mixed notices out of Berlin. How do you handle something like that?

TT: I saw only overwhelmingly positive reviews. The only bad one was from America… A moment… Anyway, Todd McCarthy can kiss my ass.

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