Sunday, November 19, 2006

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER—The Evening Class Interview With Tom Tykwer

Tom Tykwer established an international fan base with his highly original and innovative 1998 hit Run, Lola, Run and followed that success with the equally entertaining The Princess and the Warrior (2000). Though he's made a few films since then, including his contribution to Paris, je t'aime (2006), none have been as highly anticipated as his most recent venture Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer based on German author Patrick Süskind's 1985 global bestseller and the most expensive German film to date, with a budget somewhere near €50 million and worth—in my estimation—every (ahem) scent. We met for a one-on-one at the Ritz Carlton where he charmed me with his good looks and confident manner.

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Michael Guillén: Tom, are you familiar with the term synesthesia?

Tom Tykwer: Yes.

MG: Because I felt your film was the most synesthesiatic cinematic experience I've ever had and—as I was reviewing critical response to the film—they seemed to be saying the opposite, saying you had not achieved the sense of scent through a visual medium. I have to absolutely disagree.

Tykwer: There are mixed reviews, that's true.

MG: I suspect some people haven't understood your synesthesiatic challenge.

Tykwer: They didn't really understand it. In Germany you have to really, you probably have this—you know that phenomenon? You don't have it in America and that's one of the things I really admire about Americans—if you pick up on something quite exceptionally big, a novel that is so much a myth in Europe and particularly in Germany, and then you join forces with a notorious producer who is connected to commercial hits, you suddenly … people turn a bit against you.

MG: Yes, they take aim.

Tykwer: It's interesting because I totally didn't expect this ever to happen to me. [Chuckles.] I don't know why because I never thought this could happen to me and it did happen a little bit with this one and I found it quite interesting, actually, to experience that. I felt that people were not watching the movie but they were trying to judge a phenomenon. The texts that you probably are relating to, I didn't feel like they were really talking about the movie. I didn't feel like they've seen it. They had so many prejudices carrying inside that they couldn't just let go and watch the movie the way it was.

MG: I find often much critical response carries that predisposition and they're not watching the movie that's been made. [Tykwer sighs.] That's why I always appreciate the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker because I often am just confirming, "Did I actually see this? Or am I projecting into the film?" I'm very wary of doing that as an audience member.

Tykwer: At the same time, it's fine if you see what you see, y'know? I'm completely happy to read any kind of perspective as long as I feel it's taken the effort serious that's been made to put this on screen. I didn't go and just [say], "Okay, now I'm doing a big, bestselling novel" as if that was an easy thing to do, right? It was the most complicated film I've ever done. I was trying to be really faithful and at the same time really subjective and individual with my approach or our approach—because anyhow it's not me, it's like a group of people that create this stuff. It seemed like that for some of those perceptions there was no way of winning. There was no way of achieving, no way of having success in it.

MG: Exactly, pleasing everybody. I agree. Not to be too fawning or anything like that, but, I think it's your most accomplished piece.

Tykwer: Thank you very much.

MG: Technically it's stunning to look at—the whole production design, the musical score that you collaborated on or, basically, composed—I thought it was extremely accomplished.

Tykwer: The funny thing is that I feel like in America, the response I'm getting so far, is so much not influenced of course by any predisposition because the novel is not like a myth here, it's just known, it's like a book that people know but it's not like this—in Europe, it has this kind of Lord of the Rings status.

MG: Here I think you're going to get more knee jerk reaction to Dustin Hoffman's casting.

Tykwer: Which is also surprising.

MG: Because we have the investment in him—like you were saying he's our buddy [Tykwer chuckles]—so it's hard for us to step out of that established familiarity.

Tykwer: But he's great in the part! He's fantastic! He's always fantastic and in this one in particular because it's a daring step for him. I love it. But, of course, I understand that people feel like, "Oh, that's Dustin."

MG: His greed was comic. A subtle expression of greed, which I liked a lot.

Tykwer: [Chuckles] Me too. There's some very sarcastic part about it that I enjoy. I'm sorry, you were talking about the olfactory descriptions, synesthesia ….

MG: Yes. Why that interested me was because I recently interviewed Steven Shainberg for Fur and we talked a lot about masks and you made a comment in your Q&A....

Tykwer: It sounds like an interesting film. Is it?

MG: I really enjoyed Fur.

Tykwer: There are some people who hate it.

MG: I think you would respond to it very well.

Tykwer: You're the second person to tell me that.

MG: Because of the creative adventure of it, which I feel you took in Perfume. But one of the things you said in the Q&A last night, which really intrigued me, was how you were saying that here was a character who had no scent and—I haven't read the book but my understanding is from talking to people who have—that he was horribly disfigured and ugly and, to that extent, ignored and rendered invisible, no one took notice of him.

Tykwer: Which for me is very contradictory.

MG: In your film you took a different tack. You made him a more tortured soul than a physically disfigured person and he's alarmingly romanticized. What came across for me was this hunger he had or this mission he had to capture the essential souls of these young women—their scents—and you made a comment last night that the folly of this was that scent is not identity, that this was a person who had no identity—as characterized by scent—and was striving to secure it through the scents of others.

Tykwer: His concept of identity is built on his limited…—because he doesn't have social skills. He hasn't been educated at all in terms of how to analyze identity beyond his own self-invented system of smells. He's an obsessive collector of something, which we all know a little bit about, the whole thing that can happen to us when we start collecting things and we get really obsessive about it and it becomes its own world. A universe inside our world and a universe we escape to because we feel safe in there because we set the rules there and it frees us from the cares that we on a daily basis have to live in. His disposition to smell is in a way, of course, pathological or—let's say—fanatical, because his belief system says, "I am what I smell like. My smell is my identity." Which is not really so far-fetched as it immediately seems because in a strange way secretly on a certain level I think we all agree.

MG: We all have a pheromonal signature.

Tykwer: Exactly. In the pheromones is actually … the way we meet each other, we identify those pheromones immediately and we analyze them already and we can analyze basic genetic structures of the being that we encounter and already make decisions in terms of sympathy or antipathy or mating business or no mating business [chuckles] and all that stuff is being done based on olfactory "first glance" experiences. Modern science says it's faster than the visual reaction. Of course it's faster because sometimes we smell somebody before we actually have seen the person. But that whole system is still something in discovery. Anyway, as I was saying yesterday, there's this saying in German—ich kann Dich nicht riechen—I can't smell you, or I don't like smelling you, which means I don't like you. Sympathy and smell and acceptance and smell and all these things have a strong and a close relation to each other in our own idea. This whole idea of saying identity and smell is deeply connected makes total sense. He is, of course, obsessive about this idea but it's not so far-fetched.

If I may add one other thing, the thing about smells being also for us—I'm always bringing up this example because it also connects me to this whole musical idea that in the film I'm trying to investigate—when you catch a glimpse, a whiff of a scent of something sometimes what can happen to you is that it is something that reminds you of something that happened to you a long time ago. For instance, the other day when I was walking down the street in Berlin, and it had rained, and the street was wet, and there was some vegetation around, and somebody was cooking something and it was coming out of the window, the smell of the cooking, and there was a little bit of coal oven heating systems in the air, the combination of all these smells formed to an atmosphere that brought me back to being a six-year-old boy walking this—I had exactly the way in front of me that I was walking to go to school, this path, this pavement that I had to walk on my way to school, because it was the combination of smells, the asphalt, the coal ovens, the produce that people were cooking, the vegetation, I don't know what else, but it was a very complex combination of smells that had an incredible impact on bringing me back into this time and making me feel like a six-year-old boy again. I was thinking how much of my memory is connected to smells. If we believe that our identity is basically how we organize our memories, even including the suppressed ones, but the way that we put our memories together is moreorless what builds our identity, that smells are utterly important for this.

The only thing that resembles this is equally abstract and it's music, which is completely fascinating because everybody knows too when you put on a song that you've heard like 20 years ago and you haven't heard it since, but it had a big impact on you then, you hear it now and you're being propelled back into that—you sit there in that room when you were listening to it when you were, whatever, kissing your first partner or anything—it can bring you so strongly back that it has the same sensory … it connects you to the same experience level and, at the same time, people sometimes say, "I can give you the soundtrack of my life", which means like the songs that—if you put them together—they're connected to my most important memories of what I would consider to have built my identity on. Then, on top of it, that came to me then when I realized when I was investigating the whole subject that the whole vocabulary of the perfumery business is all built up on the musical signs, of course, because you speak about notes. In perfumes you speak about a note and then a note forms to a chord—it's what Dustin Hoffman is explaining in the film—and chords are building up to a composition. The entire science of perfumery is built up on the vocabulary that comes from the musical signs.

MG: Well, that's what first got me thinking about the synesthesia.

Tykwer: Right.

MG: Because I thought here they are blending scent with sound and you, as a filmmaker, took it one step further and informed us of that blend of scent with sound through the visual.

Tykwer: Exactly.

MG: To go back a bit to the idea of scent as memory, what that makes me think of—off the top of my head—is leafcutter ants in the rainforest. Their trails look like footpaths and you would think that their trails they're visually walking upon, like we walk down a road, but that's not it at all. Their trails are scent trails. They're smelling their way and their nests and their way of foraging out into the rainforest is all structured on scent.

Tykwer: How do you know about stuff like that?

MG: My training was in Central American studies and I worked for many years in the rain forest. Now, my next question is on behalf of David Lowery, a filmmaker I know on line, who was curious about the screenwriting history of this project. Perfume is a film that has been trying to be made for quite a long time that, due to the hesitancy of the author—as you were explaining last night—hasn't come into fruition until just recently. But it has gone through phases. At one point the project was attached to Stanley Kubrick—

Tykwer: That's all myth. He read it once and didn't really want to do it.

MG: Oh? So Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, all these directors allegedly attached to the project, none of them had developed previous scripts?

Tykwer: That I know of, none of them developed scripts.

MG: So that's my true question: you never read any previous drafts that you subsequently developed? The current script is your own writing?

Tykwer: Yes. But, when I entered [the project], there was one first draft that Andrew Birkin had written in collaboration with Bernd Eichinger, and I stayed of course with this writing team. So I joined the writing team that already was there and we went on for something like two years and through probably something like 20 other drafts to then find the final script; but, I think some of the structural basics of that first draft when I first entered was very fruitful and important for what ultimately became the movie. So this is how it was.

MG: One final trivia question. I mentioned the synesthesia as a caveat to say that you don't need a scratch-and-sniff card to appreciate this movie.

Tykwer: [Laughs.] I would really be disappointed if people were missing the cards because I always thought this whole idea of making something really smell would be the capitulation of my art.

MG: Yes, it bastardizes imagination.

Tykwer: Yeah, exactly, I mean that's the idea of it. The book didn't smell and it was all up to the language of literature so now it's cinematic language that has to convince.

MG: But I was reading that Thierry Mugler has a toiletry bag of perfume scents that interpret the film, is this correct?

Tykwer: Yes.

MG: Have you smelled them?

Tykwer: Yes.

MG: Do they remind you of your film?

Tykwer: It's amazing. It's amazing stuff. It's really very daring. It's completely confusing and actually quite disturbing because it goes through 15 individual scents that relate to, whatever, like Paris streets 1738, fish markets, "Orgy" one's called, and they're not nice. That's an important thing, you know. If you smell Paris street in 1738, it's a nightmare. But what's amazing about it is it's really multifaceted and very complex smells of rotten elements, sweat, I don't know what, really disturbing. And for instance "Orgy" really smells quite strange, but it definitely smells sexual, and it definitely smells like human bodies and sexual hormones and I don't know how they captured it. They're very experimental about it. They've done some really new experiments [in] how to capture scent. Some are beautiful of course but most of them are more disturbing.

MG: Well, thank you very much for you time; I appreciate it. Good luck with the film.

Tykwer: Thank you.

Cross-published at Twitch and in abbreviated form at Entertainment Today. My thanks to Reinhard Seidel for helping me with the German translation.

12/11/06 UPDATE: Marie-Hélène Wagner and Ayala Sender have both written insightful perspectives on Perfume enhanced by their sensibility as perfumistas. Ayala writes at SmellyBlog: "From a perfumer's point of view, some of the scenes are a nosewatering eye candy: the antique perfumery of Maestro Baldini, with all the beakers and vials and elimbics and flacons and flasks; even his supposedly-boring lecture about the Egyptians and the 12 essences and the 13th secret essence is intriguing for a perfumer staring at the screen…" She was pleased the film featured Grasse, "the Mecca of Perfume" and included "flower harvesting to enflourage, maceration and distillation."

Marie-Hélène respectfully credits Tykwer with being a pioneer and—whatever faults the film may have—she reminds "that pioneers open the way rather than close it and in doing so spend a vast sum of energy and creativity on the path-clearing phase." She's endeavored a two-part review of the film with the first part general and the second from the perfumista's perspective. The first part of her review can be found on her site The Scented Salamander and cross-published on Movies Online. I anticipate her second installment.

12/20/06 UPDATE: IFC's Aaron Hillis has a great talk with Tykwer about why folks would identify with a serial killer and the smells of Berlin, and poses a "fascist question" about which sense Tykwer would be willing to give up.

01/24/06 UPDATE: Over at the Twitch site Karim Fanous alerted me to his musical rendition of Perfume. Not only does he have an adulatory MySpace page celebrating his devotion to the novel, but also a YouTube live performance clip.

04/01/07 UPDATE: Pacze Moj applies atonal theory to interpreting Perfume at his site Critical Culture. A unique perspective.