For a filmmaker who has adapted a wide range of novels – from David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” to Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume” – for the big screen, filmmaker Tom Tykwer swears he’s not just walking around reading books in hopes of finding new material. Still, his latest feature, “A Hologram for the King,” does spring from one of the writer-director’s favorite authors: Dave Eggers.
Tom Hanks stars in the film as businessman Alan Clay, a former long-time company man at bicycle manufacturer Schwinn, who has now changed gears to work for an international technology firm. In the middle of great personal upheaval, Alan’s new bosses dispatch him to Saudi Arabia to pitch a very fancy hologram communication device to the king, mostly because Alan met the king’s nephew once before and thus has some sort of in with the picky royals (eh, not really). As Alan navigates unfamiliar territory, both literal and figurative, he fights to communicate with pretty much everyone around him, a classic story pumped up with some kicky technological additions.
Indiewire sat down with Tykwer after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about his fears of adapting books, when he knew the internet was a thing and why his new film is really a sequel to “The Big Short.”
You had your premiere here at Tribeca the other night. Do you generally like watching your movies with audiences?
Yeah, it’s crazy how it changes your perception. You’ve seen the movie a million times and then it actually really changes its timing and everything. I actually enjoy test screenings, I think they’re great. I don’t really think the paperwork is that efficient.
You don’t like those notes?
Yes, it can be good, just in terms of logical problems and stuff like that. The sense that you get from the film, the moment it plays, things that you’re still stuck with or end up with even though they’re boring and stuff. You have it always.
It’s crazy, because with TV shows, they don’t do that. I’m amazed at how effective they are now, so I feel a bit confused about that, how good TV shows have managed to just still look tight even though the production is so insane with those shows. Many times they film it while they’re mixing the previous one and they’re cutting away. It’s kind of broadcast before you even have time to think about it.
“Hologram” seems to have come together more quickly than some of your other projects.
On “Hologram,” it was not that slow actually. I read the novel and it had just been published, or even maybe before. I loved [Eggers’] work, I read all his stuff and we know each other from a previous project we were trying to pull off, which didn’t happen. So we became friendly and I read it and it was the first time that I had this reflex in quite a while. Because it’s not that I sit down and read books and always look out for the next movie. I really enjoy reading.
You’re not reading to find new material for films?
I read, I do read and I really very often think, “Please, people don’t touch this. It’s a great book.” And then sometimes you get surprised, some books don’t look like films and then somebody turns it into something really different than original. I do remember that I read this book, people had asked me about it, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” I had read that book, and I though, “Don’t touch it, don’t touch it.”
It’s a description of perceptions — there’s so much about abstraction, our own vision that we make it with it, and then of course Julian Schnabel goes and makes a movie and I thought it was…amazing.
So I never judge anyone who tries. You do really find, as a filmmaker, your own version. I read this book and I felt like I had this immediate instinct that I had thought I knew how this could become the nature of the film. I felt really involved, because of many of the subjects.
The narrative itself is quite classic, but it uses very modern trappings to tell it.
It picks up a sense of society that is probably going through all the ages. There’s always a sense of a time ending and a new time beginning, and I think [that’s what] the novel is in structure, and that’s why I feel like the movie could do the same. It’s about tides in history, and the takeover of a new era. When we look back at this century, or let’s say the turn of the centuries, it will be about the transition from the analog to the digital world. That’s what it’s going to be.
Is that something that is personally interesting to you?
I do really remember the first time I had a proper conversation with someone who knew a bit more about the internet. I do remember that. It was a long night, we got really drunk, and I said, “Jesus, that’s going to change everything if it’s really working.” And he said, “Yes, the world is going to change.”
And suddenly, you knew that was true?
This is what happened. I just saw this film, I just saw this film a little late, “The Big Short,” which I really thought was an amazing film. I think Steve Carell has some of those moments which are so awesome, where he just realizes what’s going to happen. He knows, “Oh, my God, this is going to change everything.” The collapse that he can see coming is going to change the world forever, which it did, and it’s interesting because I saw the movie now, just after I had finished “Hologram,” and it’s kind of the prequel to “Hologram.”
It’s the prequel, it’s like the direct prequel. If I was still programming a movie theater, which I did for half my life, that would be my double feature. It will be first “The Big Short” and then “A Hologram for the King,” because it’s the direct results. This guy [lead character Alan Clay] has basically lost everything in the course of the crisis. In post-2008, he’s lost his job and he’s in this particular age, too old to start over and too young to retire. It’s this horrible, complicated situation for millions of people between their late forties and sixties, the Baby Boomers, who always believed in this whole idea that there always would be more and more, which is so amazingly described in “The Big Short.”
Alan Clay comes from a time when he clearly thought he would be with the same company forever, and he’s found that’s no longer the case.
The digital era, everything shrinks, personnel-wise, labor-wise. And then you also have to reinvent yourself towards new technology, you don’t grow up with it, so you can’t be as much at ease with it as younger people. There’s not even a way to compete, there’s no way, because it’s natural for others, and you have to really learn hard.
Alan does try very hard though, even though he’s not always successful.
For a male subject like Alan, this is like a declaration of impotence. Impotence is a subject that we’re handling here, the sudden sense of not knowing where to go and what to actually be, which is an existential crisis. And then again, that’s all in the book of course, and then there’s an underlying dark and weird — and even sometimes quirky— sense of humor, even in the novel.
What’s going to happen, and of course we don’t know, and I don’t know, is only one root of the novel that I decided to explore a bit more proactively. The side effects of the age, the digital age, is that we can be connected much easier with each other, we can have much more of a direct connection to even people that we might have never met, or may never actually meet, but still be in touch with each other, and really communicate and really learn from each other. I think this is something completely underrated and has happened in the last 30 years.
I think the way we’re talking to each other is new, I don’t think these kind of conversations were like this 30 years ago. That is beautiful. And probably that’s going to save us from apocalypse. Because we will want to and be able to reach out. It’s beautiful.
“A Hologram For the King” is in limited release today.