Monday, November 20, 2006
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER—Q&A With Director Tom Tykwer
Tom Tykwer recently attended a preview screening of Perfume: The Story of A Murderer at San Francisco's Embarcadero Cinema. Tykwer was introduced by Ingrid Eggers, Program Coordinator for the Goethe-Institut, annual sponsor of San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. He fielded questions from his press and word-of-mouth audience.
Straight off, Tykwer expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the music had been turned off while the remaining credits rolled for the film. He explained that the music had been interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic. His disgruntlement was understandable in light of the fact that he composed the music. He also noted that he was very fond of all the people who had worked on the film so he was hoping not to distract from due acknowledgment by the Q&A. On the other hand, he admitted the credit roll lasted 9½ minutes and wasn't sure how much of the audience would be up for that. It would be best, he conceded, to open the movie up for discussion, qualifying: "I know it's a movie—at least it was meant to be a movie—that takes a moment and needs a moment to breathe on an audience in the true meaning of the word; but, as I'm here now, I'm ready."
Since she had the microphone, Eggers began the questioning. Noting that the film was based on Patrick Süskind's bestselling novel, published in 1985, and that it took quite some time to make a movie adaptation, Eggers considered the history of making the film and offered that there had even been a satirical documentary made about not making the film (Rossini, 1997). "So I think Patrick Süskind had reasons why he didn't want this book to be made into a film," Eggers suggested. "I don't know what his reasons were, but my question to you is—when you read the book—was it something you could immediately translate into film or did it also take some time for you to think about this and make it?"
It took four years, Tykwer responded promptly, of trying non-stop to find a way to make the adaptation work. Also, you had to factor in that Patrick Süskind is something of a phenomenon in Europe and Germany, "like a mystic a little bit." He's somebody who has actually never appeared in public. There's only a single existing photograph of him. "It's a bit like J.D. Salinger or Terrence Mallick," Tykwer explained, "We know they live or they lived but we're not really sure. And he behaves also a little bit like that." Tykwer met him, of course, and Süskind didn't appear at all to be worried about the film being made. He just didn't care to sell the rights to his novel. After 15 years, however, he probably became curious about what a film based on his novel might look like.
Tykwer has, of course, often been approached about why he picked such a distinctive piece of literature to turn into a film and his first reaction is precisely because the novel is so distinctive. Anybody who knows the novel has a strong memory about it. It's like nothing else you've ever read and is one of those books you can't compare to anything else. "You don't know how to describe it. Or maybe you can describe it but it's an experience you've not had before," which was appealing to Tykwer because that's the kind of movie he's interested in: movies that you look at, that you experience and you feel like there's something about them that you haven't visited yet. They take you to a place that you haven't been before. So he was attracted to the whole concept of the novel and never understood anybody who claimed it was unfilmable. He thought it a brilliant film concept.
"Everything that a movie needs is in there. It's a very unusual story. It has a fascinating hero; a dark hero, I agree, but still that was the challenge: that we have someone at the center of our attention who is both at the same time the one person we can attach ourselves to and at the same time he becomes a murderer. I was very intrigued by the idea to try and do the same thing that the novel was successfully doing by seducing you, or us, into staying and holding tight with this person and not letting go, even though he at a certain point steps into territory that I'm absolutely not agreeing with, of course. I like that moral friction that we get into throughout the film because this is something we understand about him or we understand about his motivations. There's something deeply human about him in what he's longing for. That's what fascinated me. I wasn't worried about all the other things that came along with it. The fact that it's a film about the world of smell never really made me worry in terms of saying it's impossible to do because I've always said the book doesn't smell so why do we worry? It's obviously a matter of language and the literature language does his part and the challenge for us, of course, was to do the same with cinematic language and it's up to you to judge that."
His collaboration with Dreamworks has been a good experience because they really loved the movie, which is great. It's not the first thing he expected, to have people who are confused by the film or perhaps even disgusted or repelled, being nonetheless supportive.
Asked why he made the film in English, Tykwer retorted, "What language did you expect?" When told German, he responded, "Why German?" The strange thing about English, he clarified, is that supposedly it is the world language. Showing people living in France and speaking English is absolutely no problem for anybody; but, imagine someone named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille walking through Paris speaking German. His audience laughed. Even he would have a problem with that, Tykwer admitted. Nobody really wondered why in Amadeus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a New York accent or why in Dangerous Liaisons the French elite spoke English. It's considered normal. Even for Europeans it's completely normal. Further, financing a film such as this is difficult; it wasn't a cheap movie. Doing it in English helped its international—i.e., commercial—appeal. Tykwer was ultimately grateful for the choice because the English language helped him secure Ben Wishaw for the title role, and Wishaw saved the film. The filmmakers knew they could do whatever they wanted with any stylish idea, that they could come up with any brilliant concept on how to shoot this movie, but if they didn't find the right guy to play Grenouille, they might as well not start. So they searched for the right actor for a long time. Their search, in fact, spread out to different countries and languages; but, after seeing literally hundreds of actors, Tykwer found Wishaw, who was 23 at the time and playing Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in London, Laurence O'livier's theater. "He was just amazing," Tykwer described, "I invited him to an audition. He was the first one who could deliver this strange paradox of the character that we were so much looking for. I find it so amazing that he's at the same time vulnerable and dangerous, that there's something boyish about him and something really complicated and scary and that there is an innocence next to the darkness that I admire, which is his work."
Complimented that one audience member considered Perfume to be the best film adaptation from a literary source she'd ever seen, Tykwer said that in Europe—where the novel is much better known than here in the States with a stature comparable to The Lord of the Rings—many people cautioned him not to touch it for fear of "messing it up." He was a bit worried about that, of course, because he loved the book; but—though he's the first to say that some books should never be turned into movies—Perfume seemed to be offering itself as a film. Marcel Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past, for example, was adapted to cinema but, in his opinion, it shouldn't have been "because there's some literature that belongs to literature whereas Perfume is both great literature but also an amazing concept for a film." Obviously the challenge is to deliver a film that stays as faithful to the novel as possible but at the same time looks for a specific, individual approach and a subjective vision of the book, which he believes his film accomplished. For those who are familiar with the novel, they will observe that the film encompasses changes and accents that differ from the novel. That's the only way to do it, Tykwer insisted, if you're going to do it at all. He hates those films that are based on novels that are literally page by page exact transcriptions.
With regard to the film's narration, Tykwer was asked if John Hurt had been involved from the beginning. To a degree, he explained, narration is a matter of taste. In general some people don't like narration in cinema, they feel it's selling out on the idea of cinema, but Tykwer totally disagrees; he loves narration in general. In this particular case he felt the narration served the movie. He liked the "trick" of it with John Hurt in particular, whose voice Tykwer admires because it gives you a feeling of a safety net and offers protection. Hurt's voice provides an epic introduction into something that then turns out to be quite different. Tykwer liked the friction and the energy that happens when you start out thinking, okay, there's a safety net, but actually as an audience you're being dropped off from a far higher point than expected. There's something dangerous about the movie even though it offers the protection through that voice. That's what he enjoyed about it. Beyond that, Tykwer loved the language of the book where these narrative passages appear. Süskind's words mix irony with tragedy. In actuality, Hurt's voice is only there for the first 20 minutes, and in the last 7, and in the middle his voice reappears for about 5 minutes, primarily to cut the film in half, like two musical movements. The narration is a framing device that divides the film in the middle. Between leaving Paris and reaching Grasse there's this transitional zone of the film where the narrator, in effect, reintroduces Grenouille. After that the narrator disappears until the end of the film. But John Hurt's voice leaves behind an intense trace, which makes him quite dominant even in his absence.
Tykwer was asked to describe how he effected the crowd scene at film's end. Was it difficult? No, Tykwer smiled, it was very easy. Basically the crowd undressed and they filmed it. Certainly it was a long path to get there, one of those major events of which he knew in advance that if he didn't pull it off really convincingly, he'd better not do the film. What he did ultimately was to collect and choose the people for his crowd scene out of thousands of applicants who responsed to advertisements run in their papers. They gathered as many prospectives as possible. Some people knew what the scene was basically about and—when they were introduced to the situation—they had to sign off on a document that allowed them to be filmed naked. But still Tykwer had to choose the right faces. He wanted the physiognomy of a different period, which was oddly difficult since, strangely enough, very often people look modern when they're naked. It's difficult to explain why, but Tykwer offered that sometimes you see faces that just don't feel like they would have been around 200 years ago. Further, he wanted to have all sorts of bodies, all ages and types. So it was a long way to even get to the filming of the scene. Tykwer ended up having a little less than a thousand extras, but, made them seem like more by framing them variously.
They rehearsed for a long time. The scene was shot in the north of Spain. Fortunately, Tykwer quipped, the Spanish people, especially the Catalan, are very open minded. Rehearsals were the core to everything. They invited these people into a sports hall, introduced them to the process of getting undressed, all of which was relatively easy. "If everybody's naked, you don't worry any more so much," Tykwer explained. But the big problem was to then have them touch each other and to do things to each other. It turned out to be an error in judgment to think they should cast a lot of couples, who ended up not working out at all because they became very nervous when their partners started touching someone else. It was psychologically demanding. Tykwer had to remove all the couples so that the crowd in the final filmed scene is composed of hundreds and hundreds of singles. "Or maybe pretending to be singles, what do I know?" Tykwer smiled. He also had support from one of Spain's most famous physical dance theater groups. He staged dancers among the extras because he wanted the scene to feel like a choreographed, emotional, transitional movement. After several weeks of rehearsing all these actions with all these people, ultimately when Tykwer came to shooting the scene, they were ready and relaxed and didn't mind that there was a crew of 150 people around them who were dressed with seven cameras and all that. They had completely let go.
"I think it's amazing what they delivered. I don't think it's so much about the nudity part. It's really about the emotion that they were able to express. The whole transition from hatred to admiration is happening in their faces. These are not actors. These are bakers and secretaries and journalists and all kinds of people. I was really amazed by that. We gave them all the book. They all had to read it because we really wanted them to understand why this scene was so crucial. It's not background action we're talking about here."
Tykwer's complaint with period films in general or films with mass crowd scenes anyhow is that they are in essence stiff costume dramas where extras are put into costumes five minutes before the cameras roll. They wander around a little bit unrealistic in wardrobes they don't know how to wear. Tykwer hates that. He hates the whole idea that background action is just about movement and not about life. "It becomes life if you talk to those people, if you really get them to live in those clothes, if you let them take the clothes home, come back in them, recut them so they're really comfortable for them, and then dirty them down and have them live in that muddy state. Then the jobs that they had to do on screen, we either wanted people to know what the job is or to come from these jobs, like fishermen being fishermen, and butchers being butchers, and that really changed them a lot." It was Tykwer's general approach to make a period movie that didn't feel like most of the period movies that bored him because they are so much into presenting what a beautiful picture they've produced, too often just showing off what they've done. Often these period pieces get bogged down in detail because the filmmakers—who have expended so much effort to create all these images—want to boast the effort, which for Tykwer, of course, is completely boring. He wanted to create a reality that you bought whole. His desire was to create something like a cinema verité time travel journey into the 18th century, where he could film the way he wanted as if he had traveled back in time with a stedicam to an 18th century street. Yes, it's important to have beautiful backgrounds and beautiful set-up, though not always "beautiful" of course, but an ambiance and an atmosphere he could sometimes just throw away by panning over them because they're just there, as if he were shooting on the street outside.
Eggers mentioned that the only character who looked stiff in their period costume was Grenouille, which she assumed was intended. He didn't look truly comfortable in his blue outfit at film's end. For that matter, he didn't look comfortable in any outfit but especially not in his blue one.
Tykwer praised Grenouille's "amazing presence" especially in that scene, which was weird for Ben Wishaw in itself let alone within character coming to the understanding he achieves at that juncture. That process of coming to an understanding could not make him appear comfortable, of course. But, in reality, Wishaw enjoyed wearing the blue outfit after so many months of wearing his other raggedy outfit or nothing at all. That there were so many people was again interesting for Wishaw because, as can be imagined, for half of the shooting he was completely by himself and alone with the cameramen and no actors to act with. His was a really lonely part. Tykwer didn't shoot the movie chronologically; he began with Wishaw's segment with Dustin Hoffman. That was good because it helped him develop his character by giving him someone to act with. It's the longest sequence that he has where he has somebody that responds to him.
A young man in the audience relayed that Grenouille in the novel is invisible. His charisma is non-existent. If the character in the film strays at all from the book, it's that he is very charismatic and compelling. What led Tykwer to that and how did Hoffman become involved in the project?
It would be a problem, Tykwer admitted, to have a protagonist in a film who was not charismatic. How Grenouille is described in the novel must remain within literature but, for the purpose of the film, Wishaw was challenged to be charismatic but act invisible, to approximate the novel's description. Tykwer feels Wishaw achieved that challenge. Cinematically, in the beginning, Grenouille is introduced in half-shadow, and that stylization is maintained throughout the film, several times he's filmed in half-shadow, people don't really realize he's there. That was one way to render his invisibility.
Tykwer found it difficult to portray Grenouille as someone that people do not relate to or that they overlook. Also in the novel there's the significant description of Grenouille as heavily scarred, distorted and quite ugly. Tykwer elected to cinematically interpret these literary descriptions of scars as psychological scars on the character's soul, which then became something Wishaw had to discover for himself as an actor. No other actor came close to Wishaw in effectively capturing this tortured soul. For Tykwer, Wishaw was Grenouille; he didn't doubt it for a second. So even though the descriptions in the book might be different from what is seen on the screen, what Tykwer felt when he read the book and what he got across in the film is essentially the same character.
As opposed to finding Wishaw for the role of Grenouille—which was a long and complicated voyage—Dustin Hoffman was the first phone call. Tykwer read the book, started to write the script, and the first call he made was to Dustin. It was very simple. He called him. Dustin said yes. That was it. The same with Alan Rickman. Both were famous actors in the film world who were easy to cast who came eagerly to the project.
One audience member wondered if Hoffman played the character of Baldini as Tykwer intended? If Hoffman hadn't gone off in his own direction, because his portrayal seemed a bit off and at odds with the rest of the film. Tykwer said that he's only been receiving that reaction in America, which is probably due to the fact that American audiences are so familiar with Dustin Hoffman, he's like everybody's "buddy." To appreciate his performance as this quirky, Italian guy is slightly problematic; but, for Tykwer, Hoffman delivered a heartwarming, interesting performance. The character of Baldini is quite exploitive with regard to Grenouille and there's something basically unsympathetic about him, or at least in the attitude he has towards the hero. At the same time, you feel this kind of fading genius. You feel so much about his desire to come back again. Tykwer felt Hoffman was putting his own life into this whole situation and related that he had fun on the set having a joyfully competitive relationship with Wishaw, enacting the aging genius to Wishaw's fresh talent. It was honest. You could see it on the set, feel it on the set, that the two of them were sparring a bit with this. Hoffman transformed what could have been a grotesque, comic, burlesque caricature into a profound character. When he ultimately dies, it's crazy that you can smile about it at the same time that there's a sadness about losing this character. "This is how I see the movie," Tykwer excused himself, "What do I know?"
Cross-posted at Twitch.