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“Most of the Film is Done in 120 Beats Per Minute, But Some of It Is At 140 BPM”: Tom Tykwer on Run Lola Run

Run Lola Run

With Run Lola Run‘s 25th anniversary release this weekend in a new 4K restoration, we are reposting our Spring, 1999 cover interview with director Tom Tykwer.

Among the last year’s festival staples, the most exhilarating may have been Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. The self-taught 34-year-old Berliner’s third feature is a clock-driven, lighter-than-air romantic-action-comedy-thriller floating atop a percolating electronica score. The film plays out three potential narratives of what dangers and distractions the streets of Berlin hold just before noon for Lola (Franka Potente) and Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), two effortlessly cool, suddenly in trouble twentysomething lovers. Manni loses 100,000 marks belonging to his gangster boss, which has to be replaced within twenty minutes, and Lola is propelled into a foot race across the city to find some way to save Manni, herself, and their love. Godard once made the glib provocation that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but Tykwer needs only Franka Potente. There’s a gun here, too, but Potente’s performance as flame-haired, tattooed, selfless Lola is all propulsive motion. (Potente concedes that Lola’s locomotive stride is not her own, as she crabs her statuesque form into a running machine.) The $2 million Lola, which grossed $14 million in Germany alone last year, is the third from X-Filme Creative Pool, to which Tykwer, producer Stefan Arndt and directors Dani Levy and Wolfgang Becker belong. (Lola’s grosses led to a Miramax co-production deal involving a first-look deal, but the German quartet retain creative control, dubbing the deal merely a “roundtable think tank.”)

Tykwer makes expansive use of potentially clichéd elements oft-used in music videos and commercials, but rises above the contemporary visual vocabulary to make something timeless about destiny and love. “I wish I was a heartbeat, I wish I was a hurricane. I wish I were a hunter, in search of different things,” Potente murmurs in a song underscoring much of the film, and Tykwer’s film is assuredly a “different thing” from music video. While it harks back to earlier traditions, such as the movie as “city symphony,” Lola is reminiscent in its monomania of The Bicycle Thief (but here it’s neo-popism instead of neorealism). And Potente’s tireless running, low-slung and worn down by heavy Doc Martens boots, also suggests Eadward Muybridge’s pre-cinema motion studies, in which human and animal activity was broken down into a series of stills for examination. In forward motion, Lola becomes one with Lola, and the result is more than a stunt; it’s a brilliant confection, breathless, a kind of peerless pop perfection. Tykwer is an ardent cinephile, having made television documentaries on the work of Von Trier, Greenaway and Wenders, and we shared enthusiasms right after Run Lola Run’s U.S. premiere at Sundance.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot Lola from a greatly detailed script or was it more like a sheaf of storyboards?

Tom Tykwer: The script was pretty precisely written in technical terms. I was always concerned people might be afraid while they were reading it, that they might think it was a completely technical film with no emotional elements anywhere. I was very sure we would have to avoid this impression of the film.

Filmmaker: Peter Greenaway’s scripts are insanely detailed, describing things off in the corner.

Tykwer: Yeah, it was a bit like that.

Filmmaker: Did you always know the running time would be so compact? Eighty-one minutes is considered short nowadays.

Tykwer: Oh, yeah. It’s a very tight idea, it should feel like a strong idea that catches your brain, gives you an injection, and then you’re left alone with it. I wanted to leave that impression, not so much that you were completely lost in some epic experience of a film. I wanted it to be more of an inspirational blow to the brain. By the way, also, I don’t think you can keep up speed for any longer than that. It’s the absolute max, the maximum time you can have a really speedy film work. If it takes longer, it gets boring, exhausting.

Filmmaker: Most silent comedies were around 75 minutes –

Tykwer: Which is a beautiful length, I think. I know so many films which I would have loved to see at 75 minutes, and they’re 138 or something. I like that. I very much enjoy it, like when Aki Kaurismaki came up with all these 68-minute films. The Match Factory Girl, films like that, one good idea told in its absolute essence. After 68 minutes, you don’t feel like it was too little; it was a rich film. And you don’t feel there’s any ornament.

Filmmaker: You know one of Kaurismaki’s jokes – he assumes since he’s restless after 70 minutes to go to the bar, everyone else is, too.

Tykwer: That’s a typical joke that he makes. I personally do not so much appreciate these kind of interview answers [by filmmakers]. They are fun, but they don’t give you any clue to the film or anything else. It’s his strategy of escaping talking about messages or anything behind his films.

Filmmaker: Just thinking about the weave of music and motion in Lola, makes me want to see it again. One shot I was thinking of is particularly speedy, but a lot of less thoughtful directors, American-style video directors, would wind up cutting it too fast. It’s one of the wonderful longer takes, a gliding, craning shot where Lola turns onto a wide boulevard and the camera is on the left. In the second variation, the camera’s at the center; and the third time, it’s a slightly different – a lower shot on the right. They’re variations of the same shot and spatial continuity, but the effect is less the movie being speedy than the camera capturing Lola running in different fashions.

Tykwer: That’s what I tried to achieve. I didn’t want the aesthetics to become self-referential, but always referential to the level of the film they are chosen for. It has to do with speed, the visual style, the look of it, what scenes would be in video, photography, black and white, animation? It feels so clear now that these decisions were made, but I hope you don’t think there is someone behind this having an idea. You should just feel it’s right.

Filmmaker: It’s amazing all the variations you can get from the simple act of someone running, down to the Kurosawa trick of making things speed up by having a lot of verticals in the background.

Tykwer: Like in Rashomon, with Mifune running through the woods? That’s great.

Filmmaker: I want to talk about the music, which is lovely and propulsive. It feels utterly contemporary, yet it makes the film percolate. Do you know the group Underworld? They have a similar pulse –

Tykwer: [Laughs.] Oh yeah.

Filmmaker: In Lola, the music works as a kind of murmur and a pulse; an inner voice and a heartbeat.

Tykwer: That’s funny. I can confess this now. We had Underworld laying under some sequences when we were editing. We decided on some beats-per-minute. Most of the film is done in 120 beats per minute, but some of it is at 140 bpm. We just tried to find music with that speed. Underworld has this nice idea of writing the bpm on the records! So I took Underworld just because I knew how it went. That was so important, for the music to provided the basic level for the editing but not to have editing always on the beat. That is always terrible because it usually makes for stiff editing, it doesn’t give a fluid impression. We did a first edit, went into the music studio, did the first layout of the music, went back into the editing room, then left more or less half of the beats, made it more overlapping and crossing – only for really decisive situations does it make sense to be on the beat. It was as back-and-forth from editing to music studio. I wanted to it to feel like a completely one-unit experience. It’s all intertwined, the music, sound, visuals, like opera. One opera piece is in three acts. That’s why it’s three acts.

Filmmaker: It also goes back to the silent comedy structure – getting a laugh on the third variation.

Tykwer: There are silent films in there anyhow. The whole Mack Sennett…. The sheet of glass being carried across a street…

Filmmaker: It’s always fascinating, the borderline between banality and universality. There’s another group, New Order, where the combination of really banal lyrics and the singer’s uncertain voice somehow makes the music moving or heartbreaking. Let’s talk about the lyrics you [and collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil] wrote in English: “I wanna run, I wanna see you again, I don’t know if love is true, but I can’t think of anything more true.”

Tykwer: With any kind of art, you always start from a very complicated idea – “Oh my God, it’s so complicated to tell what I want to tell. It’s so incredibly interesting that I will never succeed to bring it all to the film” – but the longer you work on it, the more you find that the best way to express all this complicated stuff is to get simpler. Which is the same with sculpture and painting. It’s very often that you come to very simple things that are still so complex and fascinating. I feel that this is the most complex film I’ve done, the densest. In my movie Wintersleepers, in the very beginning you immediately know there are lots of levels but you also immediately know this is not going to be easy. With Lola, you are invited to join something that seems easy to join, it’s like playing a game.

Filmmaker: Why is it important for you to co-compose the score?

Tykwer: I can’t imagine not doing that. If I needed a big orchestral score, I would be always be a pain in the ass for any composer who wanted to be involved. The way things are built in my films, they are strongly connected throughout to sound design and music. If you see the rushes, you don’t guess how much sound will add to the density of the film. That’s why I couldn’t ever be this kind of director who looks in sometimes in the editing room and comes back for mixing. I’m present at every level, and I love post-production. And when you work with others, you can make it grow. You can invent something on the screen alone in the room. Sometimes I don’t have the music yet, but I have it in my mind, it makes me crazy. It’s almost like I need to stop, make the music, then we can go on shooting!

Filmmaker: Did anyone say, you’re just making a music video?

Tykwer: Sure. [Laughs.] I think that’s… There are some really good music videos, but ninety percent don’t get rid of the problem that they are meant to be advertisements. When some are really interesting, they still have some relationship to the song they are selling. Images pop up in front of you so fast so you don’t look away, and somehow then you might keep the song in your head and maybe buy the record.

Filmmaker: Opera was always called the art that could encompass all other arts – the German word, Gesamtkunstwerk – but film can do it in a much more seductive fashion…

Tykwer: I still of course have this idea of film as Gesamtkunstwerk; the approach is always there to combine everything under one roof so it fits together and doesn’t feel overloaded. That’s my problem with Greenaway – I can always see the guy behind the curtain being so proud with all the toys he can present. It is always frustrating to hear [critics say that] Lola is just a big video clip. Just because it uses visual methods that are completely normal to us now and works in the present tense doesn’t mean that I’m just trying to imitate advertisement noises.

Filmmaker: Coincidence usually doesn’t work with standard dramatic form: it doesn’t fly.

Tykwer: You just have to dare some things. You can imagine the first drafts of the treatment of this. People said, “What you do mean, you’re flashing back? Where should this be shown? On 11:30 on TV on the arts channel?” It came across completely experimental and formalistic to them. I realized there is such a big desire from the general public to see someone just not be stiff with an experiment, but be enthusiastic with experimental forms of storytelling. Really normal audiences like it when you’re not being verklemt – all choked up. German film in the ‘80s had interesting ideas, but many were so stiff and unsympathetic, you wouldn’t want to follow them. Lola was so incredibly successful in Germany compared to the first discussions of the treatment we had. Everyone thought, we have to keep the budget really down. Then it was the most successful cinema film this year!

Filmmaker: There’s a wonderful story by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, a true story, that goes something like this: During World War II, his father stopped to tell a joke on the street to someone on the way to his barber, and when he got there, everyone had been taken away. If his father had not stopped to tell a joke… All of Lem’s life, writing about potentiality and chance, would never have existed but for that joke.

Tykwer: That’s nice. That’s what Lola is about. The general idea, and very specifically, I am completely fascinated by this very banal thought: If you take life really so seriously, as I secretly do, you have to be aware of every, every, every moment. You have this responsibility for every moment. What we are doing at this moment may mean you’re not hit by the shuttle bus outside. Everything I do from now on is strongly connected to our meeting. Forever. Until I die. Everything is influenced by the smallest situation. It’s a very controversial thought. If everything is important, nothing is important. But on the other hand, I don’t believe that. You have to challenge coincidence, and there is a path to take. All odds are against Lola, and at the end, it shows it’s not by chance that she changes fate, it’s really her passionate, possessive desire to change the system that she is stuck in. And the system is time.


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