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Interview with Tom Tykwer, director of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Tom Tykwer directs Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, set during the 18th Century, about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a young man with a strong sense of smell who murders women to collect their odor and create the world's most powerful fragrance with Giuseppi Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) as his mentor. Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) investigates the serial killings to prevent his daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) from being the next victim. Based on the novel by Patrick Suskind. Tom Tykwer has directed Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven and the upcoming film, Paris, je'taime. I had the privilege to interview him.

Paramount Pictures will release Perfume: The Story of a Murderer on December 27th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did author Patrick [Suskind] agree to let you film the movie?

TT: He just finally gave in. The producer had earned it, who's amazing and very persistent and quite intense lovely producer. After 15 years of resistance, he just gave up. And probably he got curious about the film and he got relaxed about it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you communicate with him much?

TT: No, I only actually met him once. He's really reclusive, extremely shy, not at all a public person. There is just one picture existing of him. One photograph, 25 years old, I think, and he was very polite and very nice and wished me “all the best” and “good luck and please leave me alone”. ''(laughs) I think he spent, like, five years writing this, 15 years living on the theme of it. He just didn't want the crazy director to suck him into it for another 4 years which it took to make the film. I think he just wanted to be over with it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you choose Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman to be in Perfume?

TT: It's really something I never thought about. Dustin in particular is so famous for his nose and in America it seems to be running gag because when he did the graduate, everyone was smiling at the in dead that nobody really believed that he could become a star with that kind of a nose. He obviously fit perfectly maybe also because of his nose. But he offers so many qualities. There's this thing about Dustin I love so much because he's got this irony that we need for the character but he also brings gravitas to him and he always makes the most corky and burlesque characters still in history and foundation. He's just a genius and incredible fun to work with. He's extremely delightful, experimental, not at all somebody who sticks to any methods. [As for] Alan [Rickman], the first thought I had about this character, I said we need someone with immense posture, somebody who's really impressive and who looks like he might be strong enough, smart enough and impressive enough to hunt down our guy. I wanted that person to be a threat to Grenouille and at the same time that's what I love about the whole concept and the material. He's actually on the good side. You're kind of nervous about him getting too close to Grenouille because I want people to root for Grenouille even though he's the bad guy. I mean that's quite twisted. So to get Alan for it I was really lucky and happy because he also adds something very particular to any kind of film set in 18th century because of all the actors working on this film, he knows most about period. He inhabits it. If you put these clothes on him, he owns them. He walks in them as if he had never worn anything else. And he gives a presence and breathes the period into the film to a degree that lots of other actors can pick up on and profit from his knowledge about it. His body is so much into those movements and others need to train for that because people were moving completely differently then. He knows all about that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What particular qualities were you looking for in the women you were casting to as Jean-Baptiste’s victims?

TT: The first one and the last one were particularly hard to find because the first one needs to be a person that you can imagine that she might have been quite in reach for him - a person that must have a unique presence but at the same time be a lower class girl that might have been the one. He just messed it up, which is also a trauma of course for the rest of the film which just sparks all the other murders. Then the other one which was of course the far bigger role, the role of Laura, Alan Rickman (character's) daughter, I found it particularly difficult to find someone who needs to be extremely young obviously and carry that kind of innocence but at the same time give us the feeling of something like an older soul - somebody who has some knowledge and when you can disparage a hint of conflict of a young woman not really being happy in the times that she's born in and this quite modern relationship that she's having with her father. To get somebody who's hasn't been broken hearted yet because she' much too young for that which gives you this whole utopian flavor which leaves everything as possible and life is beautiful and all these things which is of course what we admire about young people in general. In particular there is a quality about young girls at the age between 13-16, where they haven't been poorly treated by some other idiotic male teenager and who broke their heart and fucked it all up, and they still believe it's all possible and love is grand but also beyond that they are usually more clever and educated and smarter than boys are at that age. Boys are a little late usually, and they start having sex not understanding anything about life whereas girls first know quite much about life or have this kind of strange period. and everybody knows it about 13, 14 year old girls, they seem to be much older already in their thinking and their attitude- not all of them but it's something you encounter quite often and also what makes you in love with it. More or less everybody can understand that there's an ideal about that stage. The unbroken heart with all the utopian syllables and a certain amount of knowledge that's unusual for this sort of age. You know it's one of a million to find and be ale to portray that, also to act it. So I found Rachel [Hurd-Wood] who's real good and just amazing. She's just compelling, one of those super rare finds- a really good actress but also somebody who really understands the complexities of this character.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How difficult was it to convey a sense of smell for the audience who watches Perfume?

TT: The experience was intense obviously because obviously the language was intense, no? That's what I always said. The book itself doesn't smell, of course, so it must be up to the language to challenge it to the semantic language in this case to find ways to represent the old factory world. Our key into this was taking Ben [Whishaw] who was like my salvation. He solved so many problems and made them work, but in the filmmaking process it was very much trying to be as close to the character as subjective with his way of experiencing the world and possible to make it like a physical process, like the camera would see him grab the items, the details, the objects and suck yourself towards them and organize it the way through he collects details. Understanding the reality is by picking little things. He never goes into a room and sees because he doesn't see anyway, and smells all the individual things and then as if there were notes, he puts the notes together and slowly they form a cord, then that cord maybe becomes maybe a composition. We were trying to follow that starting very often from close ups going a little wider and then having the wide shots more at the end of the sequence rather than the opening which it's the more classical way of doing it. But that's only one example of course. For me in the investigation into this whole subject most important influence was the development of music. Finding the music for the film was finding a way into the smelling atmosphere of it. Getting to investigate into instruments and how they can be very airy and very much representing a certain kind of smell was eye opening and solved most of the problems for me.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like filming the orgy scene?

TT: There were 800 people. This particular case was more challenging and more intense than others. In general, I wanted the crowd to be very real and not these types of crowds that you saw up in heaven period movies where they are going up and down in the background and you feel like they are robots and they don't even know what they are doing, where they came from and why. If the scene goes on too long, then they turn walls and don't move anymore because you told to them what to do. We put a huge effort into getting these people doing the jobs in the background to know what they are doing and to learn them. The fish people, they opened the fish and learned it or they were real fisher people. Or butchers and bakers, they were all people from the profession or they had to learn how to work. Sometimes there was a business that could go on for hours. They had real stuff to do, so we could create a real world and shoot it as if were shooting a little bit as if we were shooting a documentary. So it was a very Cinema Verite approach to 18th century France. Get the world alive as possible so we can do whatever we want and it's not like extras can say, "but what am I doing now?" They can just move endlessly. It's a method that I've actually established and learned about doing a film called The Princess and the Warrior . The Princess and the Warrior was set in the psychiatric ward and we brought all these extras to play patients. So we went into a real ward and investigated a lot and watched movies with them so everybody had their real historical case. So they could really live in the ward for an entire day and knew what to do and knew their specific ticks. So this is the same thing that we did here. Then, of course, we also put them in those dresses, not only the minute before they had to go on the screen but they had to take them home and live in these clothes which is also why people don't probably move so strangely in their clothes. This is like wearing jeans. This is what people were wearing. For the lower class life, the reality of it in the 18th century is that they were sewn into their underwear and it was cut open in the spring. They were not taking it off for five to six months. So you can imagine the entire stink. They had had buttons to open it of course for their business, but that's it. Then you have people who are already in a certain mood. They realize how serious you take it and how serious you take them and how much more that they feel they are giving life to a movie. Suddenly, they feel like actors, which they are in my opinion so that gave reality to a degree that I had never experienced. It was quite beautiful. And in the final sequence then, we of course needed a lot of rehearsal time for that. We put hundreds of people in a huge sports hall, and went through all these emotional transitions and then finally started undressing. They were together with a dance theatre group, a Spanish one which is a very famous dance theatre in Europe for very physical performances. Sometimes we would even include audiences for that. Everybody had to read the novel and understand what the sequence was all about and that they are all potential pros of candidates. Then, ultimately, when we had weeks and weeks of rehearsal, we really had a lot of time for rehearsing this. Then finally when it came to the shooting, which took more than a week, they were quite relaxed about it. They did it again and again and again and again.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you care about how the MPAA would react to that scene?

TT: I couldn't care less honestly. I didn't think about …what's the MPAA? [laughs] I really had other problems there.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What other challenges did you encounter while shooting?

TT: There was hardly any day that passed that didn't seem like the most incredible, scary challenge of my entire career. You could probably name as one of the most important moments is of course the scene when Dustin Hoffman and Ben Wishaw meet each other and when there's this sort of dual of the wizards. The geniuses meet each other and there's this sort of Cavilieri/Mozart tension in the room. There's this aging genius who's meeting this young boy pretending to be better. Of course he's quite upset about and then he realizes that he's far better than he could ever have been. And he's so super talented that the sense of competition and awe and tension in the room that I wanted to capture because I love that sequence in the book and I wanted it to be one of the outstanding moments in the film. Also because its' very much connected to the murders. You see in that sequence you really root with Grenouille. It's quite fund and fascinating to see this young guy convince this old genius how good he really is. So it was a challenge to orchestrate the different energies in the room because you've got this young, quite unknown, super talented actor with the probably the most legendary and most amazing actor of our times. Seeing how those competitive energies were influencing the shoot in a good way, of course they loved each other but they were playing around with it. Dustin is very good in setting up the mood that is kind of big fun and at the same time excitedly tense

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did the weather cooperate?

TT: We were lucky. I was lucky because I never wanted good weather. I wanted bad weather. It's a film about bad conditions, bad life conditions so the worst thing that could happen to us was sunlight. So, we were in summer in Spain which was the worst summer they've ever had and it was the one thing that I had been praying for.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Where did you find such beautiful locations to shoot, such as the lavender fields?

TT: The lavender fields are just as an example of course. They are in Provence, France of course. They only have them there. They don't exist anywhere else except for in a smaller part of Turkey and that's all. So you really have to go there. If you want to check them out in Germany, they just don't exist. The right architecture doesn't exist in places you expect it to be, so it was quite a road movie to shoot which was a huge effort. We had more than a 110 locations to cover. It's a number that is outrageous considering the budget, sounds like a lot but it wasn't much, considering the amount of stuff we had to cover. So we basically started to shoot the film in France in the lavender fields, then we went to Spain actually and shot a lot of Barcelona for Paris. All these weird things you do to create a reality that was believable because Paris unfortunately has been completely rebuilt in the 19th century. You can't go there and shoot 18th century because it doesn't exist anymore. So we went to Barcelona for that and then we went o North Spain, south of France to the border for other country side scenes. Then we stayed in Munich.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Was there a hidden meaning with the women’s red hair in Perfume?

TT: You mean was that on purpose? [laughs] It's in the book. Obviously, maybe it is a subconscious and one of the reasons you pick up on it and love it even more because I do like red hair but it's actually a complete coincidence. Maybe it was fate.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you manage to balance the different tones in Perfume?

TT: The tone is very much due to the way you approach he script I guess. I think it was very much thanks to Andrew Birkin, the key scriptwriter (of the team), also because he's the only native English speaker. He was very amazing in picking this very unique mix of irony and tragedy that so much sparks the novel's specialty and to translate that to into dialogue and into the language of the film. I was quiet obsessed with trying to capture that because I love the fact that you see a film that's both a horror film and something like a romantic tale. There's something disturbingly but awesomely romantic about it. But it's also a horror movie and a tragedy that's also very funny at place. I wanted to have that parallel. I always love it when genres intertwine in films and when that becomes quite effortless.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How long have you been involved with the musical aspect of films?

TT: Form the start. I started because I couldn't' afford it before and then I stayed with it. Because it is my major way into material. I understand it because of that. Of course I'm working with two other guys. We're a band.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on next?

TT: I'm doing a modern, contemporary film in present day (laughs). I 'm very close in doing a political thriller that's a little bit in the tradition of the '70's paranoia.

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