Tom Tykwer, The International
German writer-director Tom Tykwer, arguably one of the most exciting auteurs in world cinema, has been immersed in movies since he was a child and always seemed destined to become a director. Born in the town of Wuppertal in 1965, by the age of 11 Tykwer had picked up a Super 8 camera and begun making films. At the age of 14, he got a job at Cinema, the local arthouse theater, where he would stay after hours, repeatedly watching Blade Runner. After completing his compulsory national service in Frankfurt, Tykwer spent 10 years working at a Berlin movie theater as a projectionist and then a programmer. He made his first short, Because, in 1990, and his first feature, the dark psychological drama Deadly Maria, three years later. In 1997, he attracted attention with Winter Sleepers, about the repercussions of a car crash in a small skiing town, and then had a massive hit with the kinetic Run, Lola, Run, whose stylish mix of sensory barrage and narrative audacity made Tykwer an international star. He followed up with the offbeat arthouse romance The Princess and the Warrior (2000) and then brought another unconventional love story, Heaven (2003), with a script by the late Krzysztof Kie?lowski, to the big screen. In 2006, Tykwer directed a screen adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, about a murderous perfumer in search of the perfect scent, a work which had previously been deemed unfilmable. In addition writing and directing, Tykwer has also scored all of his films.
Tykwer’s movies have always had thriller elements but, as he puts it, he always got distracted by other aspects. All along, though, he planned to make a straight thriller, and it finally has materialized in the shape of The International. With a script by Eric Singer, the film centers on the obsessive quest of Interpol agent Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) to take down the International Bank of Business and Credit, a shadowy power player in the global financial market. However, as Salinger and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) close in on the truth behind the organization’s malicious dealings, they find that anyone who helps them is instantly “liquidated.” The International is a smart, classy thriller that harks back to the paranoia of Pakula movie’s of the 70s but also has a certain post-Bourne hardness and cynicism. Tykwer clearly enjoys himself as he focuses on the mechanics of the genre and, while the movie is thoroughly entertaining throughout, the shootout sequence in the Guggenheim Museum is a truly masterful action set piece that takes The International to a another level.
Filmmaker spoke to Tykwer about working from another writer’s script, the importance of his “family” of collaborators, and the joys of curating and then destroying the Guggenheim.
Filmmaker: What first attracted you to this project?
Tykwer: Well, I got involved in this over six years ago. Funnily enough, I did this full-on, big really demanding movie in between and all the way along I was continuing to develop this. When I read one of the very early drafts in early 2003 by Eric Singer, I think I was mostly attracted to the fact that here was a concept for what for could ultimately be a really exciting thriller. I had not done a genre movie, but I was always really attracted to trying to find one. I thought the dialogue was intelligent, really convincing and outstandingly well-carved out in this film, and there were really, really good ideas for what could ultimately become some spectacular set pieces, which I’ve always wanted to direct. So it was an arrangement of ideas that attracted me and, of course, one of the central ones was a political paranoia thriller where the system that the investigators are fighting is not anymore the idea of the world of secret services or the CIA or “The Company” or whatever, it is global finance and private banking firms and the corrupt elements within that system.
Filmmaker: With the exception of Heaven, this is the only film you’ve made which you haven’t written yourself. How different does not being the writer make your approach as director?
Tykwer: I guess the reason it took so long is because I have to slip under the skin of the script, to make it my own in a very similar mode to when I write it myself. I also need to be really close to the writer and feel like it’s a collaboration on every level, and that was just the case with Eric. He’s a film maniac like me and he’s quite obsessive about his work. He’s fun to be with and we spent enormous amounts of time together, so I felt really part of the creation process. He’s the writer, though. There’s no doubt about that. At the same time, I think I really needed the script to transform itself into something that I really believed could be that somewhat defining thriller of our time. I didn’t want to deliver a movie that feels like any other movie, and that takes time when you take on a thriller, because there’s so much detail and logic that you have to really care for.
Filmmaker: What particularly did you feel you could bring to the thriller genre? Perfume and Run Lola Run have both had thriller elements in them already, without being thrillers.
Tykwer: I know. The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven, they all actually have. This is what I mean: it’s been lurking around the corner in every single of my movies and I always feel like I’ve been chickening out, because I have too much respect for the real thriller. But it also had to do with the fact that I was obviously obsessed with all kinds of other issues and ended up making these hybrids where there are genres intertwining. I said, “Ultimately, I need to find something where it’s kind of straightforward going full-on into this genre and it doesn’t get lost in all the other interesting things you can make films about.” This was the first time that I ran into a subject and to a concept to a film that allowed this.
Filmmaker: The film’s subject, namely the corruption of the banking system, is incredibly resonant with the current global financial crisis.
Tykwer: Of course. It’s really about the potential for criminal or corrupt-spirited minds within the system and how much it offers them the opportunity to act outside of certain moral terms. And that’s an old problem, a problem we’ve had for decades. Even the collapse of this bubble that the system has driven itself into is something that has been predicted forever. I think if there’s any upside to this crisis – and the crisis itself is awful – it might be that we’re much more aware of the complexities and intricacies of global finance nowadays. It has exponentially grown our knowledge of it just because of this massive shock that we’re all under. Suddenly we really want to understand what’s going on, we really need to understand what’s going on because we’re protecting ourselves.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that you’re a movie maniac, so what were you influences for this film? You talked about paranoia and the thrillers of the 70s come to mind, especially those of Alan J. Pakula.
Tykwer: Pakula obviously is probably the quintessential filmmaker for what we would call the paranoia drama. Even though it’s not so obviously politically related, even a film like Klute has that vibe where there’s an uncertainty. There’s a feeling that Jane Fonda’s being looked at, there’s companies and places that look so starkly cold and corporate, and there’s human beings at the center of it that are just victims with no knowledge. That is the concept that drives all these movies, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, and I just believe that these films have some qualities that make them kind of timeless. You see All the President’s Men today, and it’s an amazing film because it’s so intense and it takes the audience as serious partners in understanding and investigating this case. And there’s other films like The Conversation, which is one of my favorites of Coppola. A very, very important film for me in particular relation to The International was Marathon Man, again more a film that focuses on the thriller than the paranoia, but still there’s a company that’s called “The Company” that works beyond the CIA or within the CIA – you don’t really understand – and it all represents this kind of fear system that people obviously found a lot of truth in. It represented a contemporary fear, but it’s now transformed into global economy representing this, much more our daily life being controlled by them than by the secret services. But I must insist that it’s been a European film generation that we were relating to as much as an American, as there were filmmakers in the 70s like Francesco Rosi and a French director called Henri Verneuil who really did contribute very much to this genre and who had a strong influence on the filmmaking here.
Filmmaker: You shot the film mostly in Germany, and there’s a fair amount of German money in the film so do you view this as being a German film or a Hollywood film?
Tykwer: It’s a Hollywood film because it’s a studio picture. I mean, 90% of the budget comes from Sony. There’s some support from the German funding [bodies], which just happens when you spend that much money in Germany. And, of course, it gives me the opportunity to really work within my filmmaking system that I have individually developed to create a very particular style and to work within that group that I believe is inextricable from me. I don’t actually exist as a filmmaker without the cinematographer Frank Griebe or the production designer Uli Hanisch or the editor Mathilde Bonnefoy, or the composers that I always work with. It’s a very close family that creates these movies that try to be very identifiable in their language. If a studio like Sony approaches you, they know this is something that supports what they are looking for, because they are looking for a particular vision from somebody like me. They wouldn’t want me to deliver something that at the end is not stylish or identifiable.
Filmmaker: Your last couple of films have been studio pictures, so do you see yourself now as a Hollywood director?
Tykwer: I don’t really know what that is. I mean, I’m a filmmaker with a particular vision and a family of creative partners that I stick with and honestly I don’t really care where the money comes from as long as I feel protected by the people who give it to me. And I was very protected in this case. I don’t have any of the usual stories that you hear from filmmakers when they get involved with a studio. There’s not a single moment in the film that I had to compromise on because they wanted something else than I did. I think from the start they knew what they were looking for and as long as they felt I was doing my best to deliver the particular vision that I’m able to create, they were happy.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard that there were some reshoots to add more action scenes to the film, though. Is that right?
Tykwer: I don’t know where that came from, no. That’s totally strange information that I’ve never heard about. I mean, more action – excuse me?! If you look at the script, which probably isn’t so difficult to get, every second of action in the film is in the script. It hasn’t been redone. Eric told me about [the reshoot stories]; he said, “It’s so strange.” It’s always a bit upsetting, but just because it’s on the net everybody gets to read it.
Filmmaker: We must talk about the Guggenheim sequence because it’s really one of the great action set pieces in recent memory. How long did it take to first orchestrate and then shoot?
Tykwer: Well, it’s great to hear that, because it took quite a lot of work. There were times when we said, “Why do we still call this movie The International? We should just call it The Guggenheim – we’re spending such an incredible amount of time just prepping this one sequence.” It had to do with a very specific architectural space and it’s very individual demands. You can’t really call the people who run the Guggenheim, “OK, we need to close down your place for two months and then practically tear it apart…” They wouldn’t have enjoyed that. Luckily, they were super inviting and very curious about our film and very open minded about how they could support us. Ultimately, we ended up shooting a few days in the real one and then built an entire set that was a one-to-one reproduction of the interior space and shot there for nearly six weeks for a sequence that is something like 13 minutes. It’s a little outrageous in the proportion, but when you see the sequence you probably know why it took us so long, because there was a lot of logistic demands involved.
Filmmaker: One of the things that intrigued me about that sequence was the art that you have in the Guggenheim. Did you replicate all the pieces from the Guggenheim for your fake Guggenheim?
Tykwer: No, no, this is the fun part about my job: I not only get to behave like an architect and a musician, in this case, one of the biggest fun elements of it was that I could become the curator of the Guggenheim museum. [laughs] So when we investigated the right choice [of art] to put in that museum for our film, the more I thought about it the more I thought about the fact that the movie is very much about a guy trying to hunt down a system that is very much virtual and not really there, that it’s very difficult to get hold of these actual characters that are committing these crimes that they seem to be not really existent. They have a virtual presence. I ended up realizing that it would be really fascinating to work with video art, and also because of our wish to make the film as contemporary as it gets. This created a million new problems because you have light issues – you have to light a place and still be able to have enough light to light your characters but at the same time not too much light to blind all these screens of projections and stuff. So it was insanely complicated, also because shot partly here and had to do the installations here where the video rate is a different one than in Europe: you’ve got 25 to 30 frames difference, which gives a different reaction inside the camera and it’s a flicker problem that you have to solve. It’s been super complex mathematically. Ultimately, I was just insisting because I thought the idea was so good, but it brought some people to the verge of a nervous breakdown …
Filmmaker: Perfume was often described as an unfilmable novel, and your next project, a version of David Mitchell’s structurally complex Cloud Atlas, also seems inherently challenging to adapt for the screen. What attracts you to projects like these?
Tykwer: Just the fact that they are such insane challenges. I can’t really attach myself to a film where I don’t feel it’s got the potential of really bringing cinema’s language forward, and when you really have to confront yourself with questions of style and storytelling that have probably never been touched before. There is something insane about the work that we’re doing: making a movie is such an extreme experience, it just has to be worth it. You sometimes blow your private life and all your social existence so totally to shrapnel, it just needs to be worth it, I guess. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Which phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Tykwer: [laughs] I have no idea. I don’t believe you can sum up my philosophy of life in one phrase. I just don’t want it to be summed up in one phrase. [laughs]
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Tykwer: Luckily, I’ve not run into that situation yet. It’s really true.
Filmmaker: Finally, if you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Tykwer: I had one in my mind recently. Posthumously, Hitchcock. Obviously. [laughs]