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Interview: Tom Tykwer's Scent-And-Mental Journey

by Peter Sobczynski

The creator of "Run Lola Run" talks about his latest project, an epic-sized adaptation of Patrick Suskind's bizarre serial-killer period piece "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer."

Ever since “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” German author Patrick Suskind’s novel about Grenouille, a mysterious young man in 18th century France whose obsession with smells drives him on a dark and murderous quest to create the ultimate scent, was published in 1985 to rave reviews and enormous international sales, it has attracted the interest of filmmakers eager to bring the heady brew of sex, violence, creepiness and juicy characters to the screen. However, despite the interest of such renowned filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, no one seemed able to figure out how to bring Suskind’s narrative, one that relied so heavily on a sense that could not be easily replicated in cinematic term, from the page to the screen. For a while, it seemed as if it would remain one of those properties that would tantalize ambitious filmmakers every few years only to remain unsolved.

Finally, German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, who caused an international sensation of his own in 1998 with the release of his giddy pop entertainment “Run Lola Run” and has cemented his reputation with such off-beat dramas as “The Princess and the Warrior” (2000) and “Heaven” (2002) was unexpectedly hired by maverick film producer Bernd Eichinger to adapt “Perfume.” With an international cast headed by relative unknown Ben Whishaw as Grenouille and filled out by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood and a budget said to be the largest in the history of the German film industry, “Perfume” has finally reached theaters and the resulting film has proven to be more than worth the wait. Darkly funny, morbidly creepy and visually impressive in equal measure, it is one of those films that will provoke intense reactions in anyone who sees it–viewers will either love it or loathe it–and it culminates in a final sequence that is sure to go down as one of the truly unforgettable set-pieces of contemporary cinema.

Recently, Tykwer sat down to discuss “Perfume” and the challenges of adapting such a strange and unique project for the screen.

Patrick Suskind’s novel “Perfume” is one of those properties that people have been trying to bring to the screen for years without success–Kubrick was once rumored to have taken an interest in it and Ridley Scott spent time working on it as well before throwing in the towel. How did the chance to film it come your way?

I was approached by the producer, who had fought to get the rights for half of his life. This writer, Suskind, is quite a peculiar guy–he didn’t want to sell it for what seemed like ages and I think that after 15 years of resistance, he either just gave up or he was curious about what a potential movie might be like and he sold them and Eichinger, who is kind of a legend in Germany as being the biggest producer we have. It was quite an unusual combination of elements, what with Bernd being related to this whole other level of filmmaking and the book being such a best-seller and a period picture on top of it, and when they came to me, I was a bit confused at first. Then I looked at the novel again–I had read it before back when it was new–and I loved it and found so many things in it that I felt close to. I felt that I could tell something particular about this character and I decided to do it.

I usually complain about period films because I often find them to be stilted and artificial and more concerned with showing off the art design and having everyone wearing their costumes as if they were in a fashion show. I felt that maybe I should stop complaining about them and try to do it right. That was my major fundamental challenge and ambition. I sat down with the production designer and the costume designer and I said that we needed to make it work on the level that you were walking around the 18th century as you might do today. We wanted to give a modern and contemporary feel to it so that you felt as if this was the world that these people lived in, this was how they moved and these were the clothes that they wore.

Was there any resistance from financiers in regards to doing it in this manner instead of taking the more conventional approach utilized in most period films?

No. Bernd was the one and only producer that I had to discuss with and since he was one of the co-writers, he was involved from the very beginning in the whole conceptual design of the film. We were all determined to make it a tale that didn’t establish this distance to the period but made it become whole for the audience.

I presume that one of the major stumbling blocks in trying to bring “Perfume” to the screen came from the fact that the story relies so heavily on invoking the sense of smell, which is almost impossible to recreate in the context of a film unless you go for a gimmick like Smell-O-Vision or the scratch-and-sniff cards that John Waters used in “Polyester.”

Yeah, but that would be quite stupid and the sign of a massive lack of fantasy and trust in the art of filmmaking. The most obvious reaction to that is that the book didn’t smell, obviously, so there must have been something about the language that the novelist picked that made the olfactory world blossom in front of us. If literary language could do that, I believe that we can use cinematic language to explore this world while sticking with the main character throughout–it is all about how he experiences, discovers and understands the world through his nose. He picks these things with his nose–he greedily sucks them in and I wanted to be greedy with the camera and design and the editing. His approach is to take all these details from a room or the street as if they were notes that he would slowly put together into chords and those chords would become some kind of musical composition.

Music was a major influence and inspiration here. Music and smell have this very intense and close relationship–they are both abstract things that we experience on a level that is deeply connected with our emotional memories. Nothing can trigger our emotional memories more intensely than smells or music.

And at the same time, both are incredibly subjective–what sounds or smells wonderful to one person could just as easily drive another person crazy or make them ill.

Exactly. I grew up in an industrial town in West Germany with a chemical factory at the center of it–if I smell the air pollutants from a chemical factory in combination with some wet asphalt and vegetation and somebody cooking something, I’m at home! I get very strong and intense memories of my childhood but other people just puke. That also shows how intensely our smelling system is connected to the way we construct our identities–identity is a collection of memories and the way we organize them. In the film, the whole idea of Grenouille saying that smell equals identity, I am what I smell, does make sense. I always thought that there was nothing else you could say that about but music–you can put on a specific song and instantly go back to when you were 14 and in love for the first time as if you are in a time machine–but you can get that with just a whiff of something.

Your past films have all had morally ambiguous characters at their centers and “Perfume” is certainly no exception. After all, Grenouille is not only a serial killer, he preys exclusively on young women that represent the epitome of purity and innocence. What is it about this type of character that interests you as a filmmaker?

That is the fascinating part about cinema–it can take us someplace where we luckily don’t dare to go. Cinema can investigate the darker parts of our desires and can make us follow traces in our souls of the more forbidden parts so that we can explore them without having to break the law. I was particularly fascinated with this character because I think there is something deeply moving about him in that there is something in him that we can all understand. He is just a nerd and most people feel themselves to be nerds. He is a collector of things like many film people that I know and that you probably know. I used to be a complete crazy collector of any kind of film–I would see everything and not for any particular reason but just for the collecting–and I realized later that I was creating this kind of parallel universe in that it was a system that I could rule that just gave pleasure instead of the chaos that would surround us as social reality. The social incompetence that everybody faces every day in the daily struggle of life is something that Grenouille is just an exaggeration of–he is not that different from all of us in the way that he is trying to put on a disguise to make people think he is more beautiful and lovable than he is. This is a desire that we all know about–we always try to make something different out of ourselves and ultimately realize that whatever we tell people about ourselves doesn’t give us the same satisfaction as having people like us for who we are without any disguise or the fake perfume that we put on ourselves.

There is an interesting paradox in the film in that while it is a story of a serial killer doing horrible things to innocent people, it is tonally the lightest thing that you have done since “Run Lola Run.” Was the lighter tone a conscious choice after doing the more somber likes of “The Princess and the Warrior” and “Heaven”?

I loved the mix of it. I loved that it is a film that mixes up tragedy and irony and gives you a lot to laugh about and a lot to be scared about. It is a deeply dark tale with many elements of a horror film but there is something about it that is so crazy that it allows you to have fun with it. That is the kind of film that I love.

Did you have any particular cinematic influences that you looked to when making “Perfume”? There were many elements–especially the episodic nature of the story and the sardonic narration–that were suggestive of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and the wild climax invoked the spirit of Ken Russell’s “The Devils.”

As I am constantly watching films all the time, there are so many inspirations coming in at the same time that I sometimes don’t put them together. For this film, we weren’t looking specifically at filmmakers as much as we were looking at painters to help us find the right lighting and coloring and saturation of the imagery. We looked at a lot of paintings from the 17th century–Rembrandt and Caravaggio and others who would focus on one light source. Funnily enough, since we worked off of the DI–the digital intermedia that allows us to work on the colors in post–a major inspiration was watching Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and the way that he used colors in there as a way of emotionally designing the film. I was blown away by that stylistic development–it was one of the most amazing achievements in recent film history.

Since anyone who goes to see “Perfume” will come away stunned and amazed by the climactic scene, a epic set-piece that begins with Grenouille being led to his execution and ending in a highly unanticipated manner, I have to ask how you went about staging that particular sequence.

It was a long process. It was a really big effort that had to be taken because if we couldn’t pull off that sequence, there was no reason to make the movie. I understood it as something like an emotional choreography and since it was choreography, I needed to find someone to work on it with. I found this amazing Spanish dance troupe that specializes in very physical dance performances that even sometimes involve audiences. With them, we developed a method to create a core group and then bring hundreds and hundreds of people around them. We went through an enormously long period of rehearsals to bring them closer and closer to the emotional transitions that they had to portray and to get them to understand that any one of them could be a potential close-up candidate. Finally, after some weeks of rehearsal, we shot the whole thing over a week and these people had been put so much into gear from preparing for it that they were ready and willing to go again and again.

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originally posted: 01/08/07 09:06:02
last updated: 01/09/07 04:37:39
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