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Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer - Tom Tykwer interview

Tom Tykwer, director of Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Tykwer, the German-born director of films such as Run Lola Run and Heaven talks about the challenge of bringing literary phenomenon Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer to the big screen.

Q. Perfume has taken a long time to bring to the big screen. How relieved are you to finally have it out there for audiences to enjoy?
Tom Tykwer: Well, for me it’s closing in on four years of doing nothing but this. So I’m happy because it’s always a wonderful situation where you’re able to realise that there’s something happening without you [with this movie]. This is still the end part of the process, to understand what the film is without me.

Q. But the reaction has been very encouraging so far…
Tom Tykwer: Quite good, yes.

Q. You’re going to surprise a lot of people, especially if they haven’t read the book…
Tom Tykwer: [Laughs] Yeah, for some people it will be quite confusing and surprising – but hopefully in a good way. It is an unexpected tale.

Q. Sometimes with popular novels, the studio can get involved and change the ending. Was there any pressure to do things differently with this?
Tom Tykwer: No, there was no pressure whatsoever. This is exactly the movie that I was dreaming of. Nobody influenced us in the direction we took, or forced us to go somewhere we didn’t want to go. Obviously, it is a movie that goes some ways that aren’t conventional.

Q. What did you find most challenging about bringing it to the big screen?
Tom Tykwer: It’s a difficult question considering the amount of challenges. There were so many things that I had never done before. So, it was the sheer amount of untested things that I had to encounter that really stressed me out sometimes.

I think ultimately one would say that the most difficult part of the movie is the balancing of the main character. To get him being so ambivalent in his whole conception.

Q. But you found an amazing actor in Ben Whishaw…
Tom Tykwer: I was lucky I guess. My main job was done when I finally found him and knew that there was someone who could portray a character who was so ambiguous and multi-faceted. Ben is equally dark and innocent; potentially violent and yet at the same time kind of a boy. He got all that across and still makes audiences root for the guy even though they might be kind of disturbed by that fact.

I saw him playing Hamlet at the Old Vic and straight away had a very strong sense that he might be the end of a very, very long road of searching for the right guy. He did an amazing audition, where it all came across this, instinctive feeling that he obviously had for the character.

Q. I guess the casting of an unknown also helps in terms with enabling the audience to identify with the character straight away? That is to say, if you’d cast someone like Brad Pitt, the audience might take some time being convinced he’s Grenouille…
Tom Tykwer: Well, he’s a character who is a nobody trying to be a somebody. If you then cast a somebody, playing a nobody is always an additional effort. But that was not the reason we cast him. It was because Ben delivered exactly what I was hoping for.

Q. The film does have some big names in Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman. How much of a pleasure for you as a director was working with them?
Tom Tykwer: Oh very much so. I love the idea that this is a mixed cast – some not known, some very well known. They’re both such amazing, even legendary forces of nature. Particularly Alan. He has a huge presence in the film and takes an enormous amount of space with no effort. I wanted somebody to leave behind a strong impact and be a threat for Grenouille. When Alan Rickman takes to the screen, we immediately know there’s an intelligent, instinctive and powerful force, so if he’s pursuing our main guy then our main guy is in trouble.

I also wanted to create a believable feeling for 18th Century reality. I didn’t want this typical film feel of strange people in strange costumes, not really knowing what to do or how to move. If you put an 18th Century costume on Alan Rickman, it looks like he’s been wearing it forever because he inhabits the stuff. He is a character that can really travel in time as an actor and transform into this 18th Century person with seemingly no effort.

With Dustin, I just enjoyed the fact he was this flamboyent and very ironic person that still followed my desire to make Baldini not simply a joke, or the funny guy, but also a personality and a character.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the dirt unit you had on set?
Tom Tykwer: The dirt unit was only there because I was obsessed about not compromising on the idea that we wanted to really experience how dirty those streets were. There was no system to clean the streets, so people were literally shoving their shit out of the window and it was just lying around and rotting away on the streets. People were just wading in that mud and slime. But it was normal and had to look like that. So we employed a unit that had to come in early in the morning when the set was just constructed and take their hose and spray it all with brown, shitty liquid. Then later they’d have to come back and clean it all.

Q. Did that help with how audiences perceive the sense of smell. Just by looking at something so authentic and so dirty, they can almost subconsciously smell it? And, in contrast, then appreciate the lavender fields?
Tom Tykwer: I love that contradiction between the ugly and the nice. It’s shot in a very gourmet way. But then Grenouille doesn’t differentiate between what’s commonly considered to be good smells and bad. He just takes it all, like a true collector does. I know that everyone has collected something in their life. I’ve had a time in my life where it wasn’t always about the quality of the film, I just needed to see everything that was a movie. No matter what. In general, that’s still the same. As a filmmaker I want to see all kinds of filmmaking and understand all the badness of it.

Q. There has been a wonderful list of names associated with this film, from Ridley Scott to Stanley Kubrick. Did you ever ponder what they might have done with the material?
Tom Tykwer: I actually met a producer of Kubrick’s who told me that Kubrick had never even thought about doing this. He just read it and didn’t want to do it – that’s it. There’s a myth around that he said it’s not filmable. But he never wanted to film it.

I could enter the novel on a very personal and subjective level, so when I re-read it for the film it showed me that there was something in it that I knew about. I could construct the film based on this subjective knowledge of the character and the film language. And I felt confident in my own ability as a filmmaker to do so.

Read our review of the film