Capone rubs Tom Tykwer down with animal fat and tries to extract his PERFUME!!!
Published at: Jan. 2, 2007, 7:13 p.m. CST by quint
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. I didn't think it was possible for any filmmaker to re-invent the serial killer genre, but PERFUME (subtitled THE STORY OF A MURDERER here in the states) from German writer-director-composer Tom Tykver (RUN LOLA RUN; THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR; HEAVEN), is about as different as any film about a pattern murderer I've ever seen. Hell, Tykver even makes his tale of a young man obsessed with capturing the essence of woman in a liquid form about as sensual an experience as you can imagine. In most larger cities in America, this English-language film (based on the wildly popular novel by Patrick Suskind) opens this Friday, although technically PERFUME is a 2006 offering. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Tykver when he was in Chicago recently, and talked a lot about how much he loves horror films. A man after my own heart. Enjoy...
Capone: I was looking at your web site, and I noticed that in May, June, and July of , you went on a tour of Germany with your first film DEADLY MARIA.
Tom Tykver: Actually my first FILMS. It was a retrospective, which is a bit embarrassing. It was a package they were selling to cinemas. They did new prints of the films, totally new beautiful prints. Shortly before PERFUME opened in Europe, they thought people would want to pick up on my former stuff before this. As you may know, in Germany, and Europe in general, PERFUME is really a big deal, and it's been a super, super popular novel, and there has been quite some anticipation about the movie. Considering the material and what the movie is, the reception has been amazing. It's like HARRY POTTER, in terms of box office. It's more than double what RUN LOLA RUN did.
C: Was DEADLY MARIA a focal point of that retrospective? Do you have a special fondness for that film, since it was your first feature?
TT: Every filmmaker has a certain fondness for your first feature film. This strange, uncompromised, little bit hysterical, and usually a little bit naive thing that you've done. But the naivety of it is always...there's something attractive about it. But I have to say, when I see it today, it's something that seems a little bit far away. I definitely was a younger filmmaker. At the same time, I see all my subjects already appearing there. It's about a loner who is longing to be recognized and loved. She's a woman, in this case, falling in love with a neighbor she's not allowed to meet. A very Polanski-esque film. Have you ever seen it?
C: No. It's the only one of your older ones that I haven't seen. I've seen everything back to WINTER SLEEPERS.
TT: Which I just saw again as part of that retrospective and also because I was doing an audio commentary for a new DVD release. I did it together with Frank [Griebe], my D.P. It was really fun, but it's strange to go back more than 10 years. I was quite...DEADLY MARIA is a typical first film, with all the insecurities and messiness of it. But WINTER SLEEPERS still holds up. I was quite satisfied. It didn't feel dated.
C: Talking about PERFUME, one of the most obvious challenges about a character who has this heightened sense of smell is how to convey that on film. How do you convey smell on film? It's not a visual thing.
TT: I was never really worried about it. Of course it's a challenge, but the one and only reason why I go back to make films is because there is something unexplored about them. There's something about them that hasn't been done yet. First and foremost, I look at myself. Far before I'm a filmmaker, I'm an audience member. I still do watch as many films as I can every day. So I know what's going on in cinema right now. I know that audiences, the way I am, are really curious to discover something fresh and different and to be inspired by a completely different take on a subject or period or character. I thought much about subject, period, and character, this was completely unheard of.
The raw material had a feeling...there's nothing like it, and particularly the idea of making a film that focuses on somebody who is obsessed with smells, a film that wanders around the olfactory universe. I thought that was particularly exciting. I didn't see this as a story that offers a lot of chances for CGI ideas that represent smell, no green fog wafting though doors or digital particles entering the nose of the character. It was much more about his physical reaction to the world. His perceptions of the world do not go through the eyes; they go through the nose. It's not about what he sees, but what he smells, and about how greedily he picks up on all those details of the world, and how that makes sense to all of us because all of us relate strongly to the world through smelling. It is a substantial way of perceiving the world, a very intimate way. So there was something I thought would be very touching and interesting for everybody.
C: The sense of smell is certainly the least explored on film.
TT: You've seen the film, yes?
C: Oh yes. I think most of the people on our staff have seen it at this point, and all seem to be fascinated by it.
TT: I've been following that. It's fun to follow the reaction on your site.
C: I also noticed on your web site that you have a few essays on crucial horror films like HALLOWEEN and THE EXORCIST and the films of Hitchcock. Clearly you're a fan of the scary movies. With PERFUME, in which your central character is a serial killer, how did you avoid the trappings of every other serial killer movie?
TT: First of all, he doesn't kill for the joy of it. He isn't a killer who enjoys the killing. He's something like an artist, who wants to create the ultimate beautiful scent, and therefore he looks at his victims as the clay for the ultimate sculpture. I thought if we take over his subjectivity--and that is always what drives me to projects, if you have eccentric characters but the audience can still identify with them--and I was intrigued by the idea of having this kind of controversial and ambiguous character as the focus of attention and still get audiences to like him and identify with him and ultimately be in trouble with his fanatical choices. But at the same time, he's absolutely not the typical serial killer, insofar as there's always somebody hunting down the serial killer that we identify with, but we never really go to the other side. The exception to that is Hannibal Lecter, maybe. He is, of course, is murderer who enjoys the killing, which is a totally different thing. There's a big distance from us.
He's more a sibling to Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER or Frankenstein, outsiders, nobodies who try to become somebodies by creating something extraordinary. That that includes violence is not the point. They try to raise attention by creating something good, or something they believe is good or beautiful or right. Of course, they are mistaken, but there is something about it that we understand in their pursuit of happiness and overcoming loneliness. Because of course, we are all nerds like Grenouille [the lead character in PERFUME], we all have this problem of looking for a disguise for ourselves. The only thing he is suffering from is loneliness in a society that expects social competence from us, and he hasn't learned it.
Everybody knows about that. You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, "God, if only I was a bit more beautiful, or a big more intelligent, or anything." And then you put something on yourself, you style yourself, you put on a certain pullover, you do something with your hair. You do something that you think will make people think you are a little bit more than you think you are. And the tragic, strange twist of it all, is that no matter how much we change and style ourselves, we really, secretly long for somebody who doesn't care for the disguise, and just loves us for what we are behind the mask. And that's something we know is missing. And Grenouille finds out far too late that even though he's able to create a smell for himself that will make people desire and love him that what they ultimately desire is the smell and not him. It's still an empty victory.
C: That's one of the marvelous things about the film is that you're never quite sure what it's all leading up to, what will happen when he collects these scents from all these women he's killing.
TT: You get very curious about it. You begin to want him to kill them all because you really want to know what's behind it. That's what I found fascinating.
C: With the character himself, who is so uncomfortable in his own skin. And these killings don't seem to be a sexual thing, although he does only target beautiful women. He's so unlike the profile of other serial killers on film.
TT: Well, there is something sexual about it. It is so much about desire. It's totally about picking up the erotic elements that make people become attracted to each other. It's quite disputable how much we are attracted to the surface versus something below the surface, and how much it is a mix of both and how you put that in the right balance. That's the secret of all attractions. PERFUME has a strong sibling-hood to cinema. Cinema is a beating thing that doesn't exist without projection. It's just in can, and you need to open a can as you open a bottle of perfume. And then it's still something very fleeting and abstract. What perfume does is manipulate your desires and emotions, and it's aim is to seduce. It's invented to seduce, which is exactly what we do with film. I felt that was so fascinating that we were doing a film about the essence of cinema itself.
C: We talked before about how this film was different than others about killers, but were there any filmmakers you looked to for inspiration on PERFUME?
TT: Honestly, we really investigated these kinds of movies a great deal, and there is not much. There's a little bit of M; there's definitely some of the two adaptations of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, both the René Clément film [1960's PURPLE NOON] and the one by Anthony Minghella. I think Minghella's film is quite successful in keeping us close to the character, who is a murderer, and you sympathize with him and be fascinated by him. But that's about the end of the whole list of influences. There are more Travis Bickles than just the TAXI DRIVER one. But Travis isn't really a murderer. He goes to take revenge for a girl but it's a different motivation. That's what I loved about the story of PERFUME, I couldn't really put it in my memory and compare it to other films. I have to just come up with something completely different.
C: You've written about your admiration for HALLOWEEN before, and much like John Carpenter, you do your own scores...
TT: Remember, by the way, HALLOWEEN, I was 13 when I saw it, and I had already seen a lot of horror films at the time because I was a big horror film fan. And it seems ridiculous, but then it was absolutely unlike any other film ever made. There was so much about it that had not been done before. There is 45 minutes of nothing happening but intense suspense. And then there was the idea of the guy coming back again and again and again for no reason; there was no reason for it. It was sensational. Of course, now we've seen a million rip-offs. Still, this is the iconic horror film about the unknown territory. I'm still saying, that film is as high as ambition gets. It's a complete horror masterpiece because it broke all the rules and set new ones. John Carpenter is a master.
C: And I brought him up to talk about you scoring your own films. Is it true that you are composing the score while you work on your scripts, as sort of a subtext to the written word?
TT: When I join the writing team of Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger, there were three of us writing then, I actually started the composition process together with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. It was funny, I was working in two threesomes at once. It is for me the best solution of all to start investigating into the music from scratch. A project starts evolving from your imagination, and your understanding of the story is at its peak, and Andrew and Bernd were taking me through the structure and motivation. In doing the music, you get to understand the abstract parts of the film, like the emotions and the atmosphere in particular. I do believe that atmosphere, perhaps as much or more than story, makes films unforgettable. People want to revisit films, of course because of the plot, but more so because they have an intimate memory of the feeling that is carried by the movie, something it evokes. It's like there's something about it that brings you into it in an atmospheric way that you love to revisit. There are some films that I don't so much care about the story, but I see them again and again because I love the atmosphere.
It took us two years to develop this film. But the great thing was once were started to shoot, we had the music in place. We could even play the music on set sometimes, we could work with that music, even in the editing. Alexander Berner could take that music and use it in the first cuts. People should really start to pick up on this idea again, because it used to be like this. People have gotten so used to temp music now, then forcing composers in a very short period of time to kind of copy what they've already got. Why not take the composer on the voyage from scratch? There's no reason not to do that. It's great to be able to give him ideas while you're working on the script, while you're preparing. It's so inspiring and so useful in creating the atmosphere you want to create.
C: In a lot of your films, you tend to work with younger actors. So it was startling to see faces like Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman in PERFUME. Tell me your best Dustin Hoffman story.
TT: [laughs] The good stories are all over the place. When you start shooting with Dustin, its' a sheer joyride. For a director, he's heaven. He's so enthusiastic, almost childlike as an actor, like he's just started. And the energy he brings to a set is all about, Let's explore, let's not stick to any rules, just find out what fun we can have discovering. You can ask anything of Dustin, and he would try because he's still discovering the filmmaking process. I totally adored his work.
C: Tell me a little about the short film you did for the PARIS, JE T'AIME collection of films about Paris, which will finally be getting released in 2007. I believe your entry stars Natalie Portman.
TT: Yes, it's a compilation of films about Paris. The only thing you were obliged to do is keep things at a certain length, to stay in one district, and it had to be about love. I chose the 10th District because it was the place I used to go when I took the train from Germany when I was a teenager. Some of those boulevards are covered with cinemas and hotels, and when I was young I could go there and get a cheap hotel room and spend the day at the movies. So it's a beautiful area there, and I took one of my favorite actresses and spent a lovely week with her.