Tom Tykwer Interview, Perfume The Story Of a Murderer


We had a chance to sit down with Director Tom Tykwer and talk to him about his film Perfume The Story Of a Murderer. Based on the bestselling novel by Patrick Süskind, “Perfume” is a story of murder and obsession set in 18th-century France.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has used his unique talent for discerning the scents and smells that swirl around him to create the world’s finest perfumes, but his talent masks his burden. An orphan from birth, Grenouille has always felt alone in the world and different from any other person.  Determined to connect with others, Grenouille tries to capture the irresistible but elusive aroma of young womanhood, traveling far and delving deeper into the intricate science of perfume-making.  As he becomes increasingly – and recklessly – passionate about his art, his obsession to create the world’s most powerful fragrance takes a deadly turn. 

Ben Whishaw, the young British actor who received rave reviews for his performance in “Hamlet” at the Old Vic in London, stars in the central role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the murderer on the hunt for the perfect scent.  The film also stars Emmy and Golden Globe winner Alan Rickman (“Sense & Sensibility,” the “Harry Potter” franchise), Rachel Hurd-Wood (2003’s “Peter Pan”) and two-time Academy Award® winner Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man,” “Kramer vs. Kramer”).

QUESTION: You probably heard that Stanley Kubrick said that this was unfilmable.

TIM TYKWER: First news, I met the producer of Stanley Kubrick two weeks ago, Jan Harlan, the guy who he’s worked with all his life and he said it’s a complete myth. It’s not true. No, because Kubrick – and I even don’t know why – he was reading the book and thought about doing it and then just didn’t want to do it. He said something like, ‘No, it’s not my next film. I’ll do something else.’ And not because it’s unfilmable because why of all people should he say that. He always took quite complicated novels and he was always inspired by – I mean ‘2001’ is, I think, ten times more unfilmable as a novel than “Perfume.” “Perfume” is a perfect film concept. It’s got everything you want in a movie. I mean it’s got a brilliant storyline. It’s got an incredible conclusion, an incredible resolution.

I mean a good ending which is very rare. It’s got a fascinating hero and it’s got an amazing setting that you haven’t seen. I mean I haven’t seen a movie in the 18th century that looks… I mean most films are always [about] the aristocratic world, the upper class life, all that stuff and here we have a film that really goes into street life, into the reality of what it was like living there for 98% of all people. That’s what I found fascinating and then on top of that you have the world of smells to explore. It’s great. It’s full of challenges, of course, and some undone things in there like of course the smelling part but, you know, I always said the book doesn’t smell so there must be something about the language of the book that is successful rather than it being unfilmable because of something abstract. I mean all the films that I’m interested in, they’re actually interesting because they filmed something abstract, you know. It can be an emotion, it can be anything, but I mean if it’s the world of smells, there’s definitely nothing unfilmable about it.

Q: You were very hands on with this. I just came across a line in the production notes about them calling you ‘the lord of the dirt’ where you actually got out there and you were shoveling the dirt around to make it looked like 18th century France. You also did the music for this and you were so involved in every aspect of this, I’m surprised you didn’t just go ahead and be Jean Baptiste yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your hands on approach to every aspect of this film?

TT: You know, hands on always sounds a bit…maybe the wrong description… I’m just very… I love the job that I’m doing because it gives me an opportunity to be involved in so many different levels of artistic and creative processes, but I work with a team which is really important to me and I’ve worked with, for instance, the same D.P., director of photography, all my life. I’ve never had any film meter film process without him so it’s the two of us and then there’s the production designer who’s done most of my films, the costume designer that I’ve worked with for awhile and the make-up designer. I mean all these people and their craft and their crew we are like a family that grows together so it’s that kind of a language that together we’ve established.

You know, most of the people that worked on “Perfume” worked on “Run, Lola, Run” which now is 7 or 8 years ago. For me, it’s much more about being involved in all these levels because I feel that the more you want to hear… I mean the films that I enjoy, they speak, they have a voice and that voice comes from the fact that you feel like the artistic elements that they are put together of are not separated. I don’t believe so much in the system that you pick a composer, you pick a cinematographer, you pick a director, and you take it from the director and give it to this editor, and then you take a composer and he puts the music on top of it, then all the elements are just put on top of each other. But I believe in this intertwined system of artistic creation for film and these are the films that are actually more… I know we all know what I’m talking about because there are some films which, you know, they’re okay to watch because they’ve got all these great production values but you probably watch them once, you forget about them probably by the time you have your shower the next morning. (laughs) So you wash them off and they’re gone. And there are other films that stay with you and you go buy the DVD. You want to watch them again because there’s a character in them and I’m not saying the character is the filmmaker. It’s the filmmakers and it’s the way that they tried to really organize the material in a way that it becomes something like a personality itself. 

I always call…my favorite films are like my… they’re like friends, you know, and I love revisiting them and if they’re really interesting, they have to tell something to me like in even 5 or 10 years. You know, some friends you lose a little bit of a connection with and then you see them again and you feel like that doesn’t really talk to me anymore which is also fine but these are the films too that I care for. I want to make films that people relate to as friends that go through their lives. I mean for me to feel good sometimes when I’m kind of not in place or in shape, it really works on me, you know, as if meeting a good friend to watch a film that you really care for and it can be kind of a disturbing film but you have like a personal relationship to that film. It gives you this pleasure of not being alone on the planet.

Q: I heard at one point that Johnny Depp was very interested in the project. It was his favorite book. He’d read it years ago and somehow wanted to be involved in it. Is that anything that you’re aware of?

TT: I’ve heard about more or less every actor between 20 and 40 was kind of interested which is obvious because it’s a fascinating character and the novel has a really great following, you know. I mean in Europe it’s really something like “The Lord of the Rings.” (laughs) It’s a myth and so I can imagine that Johnny does have affection for this but I don’t know. I never met him about it.

Q: So why Ben [Whishaw] and how many other choices did you have?

TT: We had a lot of choices because we just… I met like just tons of actors in pursuit of the right one and then we always felt like we should not stop until we found the right one – not just someone or, you know, the most beautiful one or the most famous one or anything -- but it seemed to be the film was unfilmable if you don’t feel like you’ve got the actor that can deliver the complexity and, of course, the other contradictory energies of this protagonist. You know, he’s both kind of naïve but very determined and precise.

He’s of course very dark and scary and at the same time, there’s something innocent and boyish about him and that’s all what Ben had. I mean Ben understood so much about this character in the first audition that I immediately knew it after minutes that that was him. I had discovered him actually on stage. I was sent to see a stage production of “Hamlet” in London at the Old Vic Theatre and he was a 23-year-old doing Hamlet in a way that I had never seen Hamlet. It was so different and so wonderfully modern also and peculiar and physically so unusual. There’s something, you know, this feral quality about his acting that I find completely rare to find, actually impossible to find. I never… There was nobody who was even close to his qualities.

Q: Tom said that you were the one who knew all the influences of the literary characters that were mixed to become the main character in “Perfume.” We were talking about Quasimoto or Frankenstein or The Stranger. What influences were you thinking about when you thought of the character?

TT: Well, you know, the problem of the character is you want to have somebody you feel attached with and you want to have a hero but at the same time…and you have to stay with him all the way through the film even though when he starts killing people and there’s not many examples. Of course, there’s many examples in literature, but literature has a different set of rules so for me it was most important to investigate also films that exist and I didn’t find many. There aren’t many films. There’s probably a film like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” You could name that. You could name “Taxi Driver.” Of course, you can always say Hannibal Lector is kind of a hero but a killer but they’re all, especially him, he’s like enjoying killing which Grenouille isn’t. You know, for me, the important thing was that we find somebody who has… and that’s why when you mentioned “The Stranger” or when you mentioned existentialist writers and of course, Sartre being a writer also who wrote this book...what’s it called in English, “Nausea?”

That’s a book, hmmm? “Repulsion.”

Q: La Nausée?

TT: Nausea?

Q: Nausea.

TT: Whatever. You know, the existentialist writers who have developed a way to describe characters both longing for some kind of recognition in the world and at the same time totally being disconnected with it and this contradiction being something that we all secretly know about, that we all know about the fact that we are…we all know about being a nobody as something that is an everyday nightmare and that the only way to overcome it obviously is to find some specific attention and some specific affection. We miscalculate, of course, all the time about it but what we do is we present ourselves by dressing ourselves up or putting on perfume and doing all this stuff that we do because we want to sell something on top of what we probably are and then when people only react to that, we don’t feel understood.

So it obviously means that what we ultimately long for is somebody who looks at us and cares for us and loves us without all the disguises, without any of the perfume, without any of the clothes, without anything, just the naked being that we are. Still it is the disease of our society to try and achieve the opposite, to try to get people seduced by something we wear as a disguise or, you know, something that we invent around ourselves which is the nature of celebrity life and which is also of course the nature of loneliness of any celebrity or any pop star. When you see them in concerts, there’s something amazing about them being so much admired by so many people. At the same time, you always feel a certain strange loneliness about that one person above all the others. And in a strange way they always envy the people down there because those people down there, they’re with each other and the one up there is alone.

Q: I thought you’d created someone that was even less sympathetic to a viewer than “Taxi Driver” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or the other one you named. That was very interesting how you created that character.

TT: But he is still somebody you stay attached to. No? I mean you stay with him. Don’t you?

Q: Yeah, I did, and then during the transition to the second part, you know, after the first time he kills the girl, I thought of “Mice or Men” or something. And then after that, he’s doing it to create this ultimate perfume. But I thought that it was interesting that I lost my sympathy for him, you know. I wasn’t concerned about him anymore as far as what happened to him.

TT: Uh huh.

Q: At the very end, I don’t know if this is my theory or it is what you think too, we see that the perfume blinds everybody, that everybody doesn’t behave as though they know what they are doing. Do you think from the moment he kills the first girl by accident that he’s blinded as well by the human scent and that he doesn’t know what he’s doing?

TT: Well, however you want to put it, obviously this is his traumatic experience. Yes, I would say so. It’s a traumatic way of experiencing loss and it’s also more or less dawning on him that this was his shot, if you want to say so, there was somebody that he might have been able to connect with. You know, she’s not unreachable. Then later, the girl that he then projects all his fantasies on which is Laura, she’s a different class. There’s no way he’s ever going to have anything to do with her. But this is real, this could have been something but because he didn’t have the social skills and he hasn’t learned it which I find so universal.

You know, I mean everybody knows the situation you are confronted with, you know, a girl or a boy, whatever, and you don’t know how to do it. You just don’t know and you might mess it up and then it becomes a trauma because then you feel like you’re not able to do this, you don’t know how to handle it, and that’s how many people stay lonely. Especially today, in the loneliness of society, it’s a big issue and I think it becomes his all over ruling trauma that leads him to become this fanatic… fanatical in pursuit of recognition because he wants to kind of numb that feeling of loss by the amount of recognition that he’s then looking for. So he wants to be totally loved by everybody even though he secretly knows that his desire was only to be loved by this one person maybe. I mean he didn’t even know her, but of course even that is a projection.

Q: The cast is very international from all sorts of different countries. What thought process went into casting Dustin [Hoffman] and Alan [Rickman] in the picture?

TT: Yeah, but the cast is mainly English except Dustin. Yeah, there are some smaller roles with Germans, this is true. It was basically first thoughts… I mean my first instinct went toward Dustin for Baldini because I think Baldini is a fascinating, beautiful, funny, quirky, and quite flamboyant character and I think that’s all what Dustin is. He is very funny, very flamboyant, and very quirky and at the same time there is something about him that knows about the idea of an aging genius, you know, because that’s him. And in the most beautiful way he brought that to the part. What I so much admire about Dustin is that no matter how burlesque a character can potentially be, he always adds a certain amount of life and history to it, that there’s suddenly a gravitas to the personality that’s not just the funny bone of the film.

Suddenly he is someone and I always felt like we needed someone because, you know, someone with a lot of history confronting this person who has this kind of no oneness about him, this Grenouille. And also the whole competitive element that came in through the fact of, you know, the young, up-and-coming super genius meeting the aging genius. I loved all these elements about it and having somebody also very familiar to be Baldini opposed to somebody that supposedly is a nobody in the film and is also still – I mean not much longer any more, but at least for now -- a nobody in the movie business like Ben -- I mean I’m sure this will change – was also adding to it. But I mean I know Dustin. We knew each other for quite a while. He had called me years ago when he saw “Run, Lola, Run.” We always wanted to find material for each other and this was for me…he was born to play this in my opinion. I so much enjoyed this part of the film and he’s in there. There’s also lightness to it that is really helpful for the film.

Q: This is one of his better performances in a long time which reflects really good direction on your part. Was it typical, without giving anything away to the readers, to leave his part when it was time for Dustin Hoffman?

TT: I wanted people to really be sad about it and to be kind of a little shocked but this is, of course, this is the dark humor that the novel has that we wanted to capture in the film too. You smile about it even though it’s really horrible, but you know it’s this kind of doom, the idea of fate that’s haunting Jean Baptiste. I liked that. I liked this whole part about it and of course, it’s good that Dustin was able to pull off this whole irony part about it too. You know, when he’s lying down for his last sleep and he seems to be so satisfied. This is typical Dustin that he pushes a moment like that because he knows that the next scene is going to show that the entire house is collapsing. He’s acting with the knowledge of this even though of course that was shot in a completely different…

Q: Can you talk about touching a book that so many people love and the fans of the book will come to see the movie and judge it?

TT: You know, of all the challenging parts about this production, this was the one thing that I was really very carefully keeping in mind the fact that it’s not only a best seller, like I mean there’s lot of best sellers that people just read away like some blockbuster movies you just watch them and then, as we said, we shower them off, but some books they stay with us and this is one of those books that people so much loved and had a personal and intimate relationship with that it seemed like a very strong responsibility that we are taking over because I really wanted to make it work that people are not disappointed and at the end feel like, you know.

It’s not the book that I’ve read but at the same time I think everybody expects from an adaptation that it both stays as faithful as possible to the material, but it picks up on a very individual and specific and subjective point of view so it is definitely our vision of the novel but I think what we really tried hard, hard, hard to achieve is that it stays very close to the realm that the novel has designed and this whole idea of a quite dark and unusual atmospheric approach to the 18th century. The way that we will let ourselves be influenced by paintings was very much driven by the feeling that we all got from the book which I wanted people to get a color and density and texture quality experience from the film that resembles the one from the book.

Q: A lot of people don’t realize the smells from that time without the modern technology that we have now with sewage.

TT: Yeah, it’s incredible.

Q: What it smelled like then.

TT: Exactly. And it’s something absolutely unexplored, of course, in literature as much as in films. Life, in fact, was a nightmare for 95% of all people because you were literally wading through the mud and filth of the shit that was thrown out of the windows. You know, people were throwing all their garbage through the windows with no sewage system whatsoever so you know this stuff was rotting on the streets.

Q: How tricky was the orgy scene in terms of directing because you have 750 people out there? Was it any different than say directing a fight scene or something to that effect?

TT: It was unlike anything I’ve ever had to do. Yes. I mean everything about it was as complicated as you imagine (laughs) and of course, it’s not like you invite crowds and then tell them, ‘Okay, go for it.’ I mean you have to really make them…

Q: It’s choreographed.

TT: …understand what’s going on. You have to really…yeah, it was a long way to choreograph the entire procedure. But I felt like, okay, I can’t pick up on this material and not take that challenge as seriously as possible. I mean I have to make… we have to make this sequence in particular work and make it work in a believable way, otherwise we should not touch this. And so what came to my mind was the idea that it’s basically…  I considered this to be something like an emotional choreography.

It’s like the way the bodies move is something like a movement also of the senses and of the emotional transition. You know it’s an unbelievable transition. They go from hatred to admiration in a very short period of time and then fall for each other and undress and we always call it ‘the rapture’ sequence. So what helped very much was that I cooperated with the dance theater group from Spain, La Fura dels Baus.

Q: Ahh, I know them.

TT: Yeah, well you should, of course, they’re really famous. They’re great actually.

Q: I went to see them.

TT: Yeah, me too. I knew them from other productions. They’re famous for very physical dance performance theater and they, of course, were also able to help me communicate with most of the extras which were Spanish extras because we shot the film in France and the north of Spain and that was the Spanish part of it and you know the communication process was really important to get them really to understand. Every single one needed to be ready to get a close-up because through their expression and also in the faces the whole transition would have to be told.

So after I think four weeks of rehearsals and we put them in a sports hall and we really slowly got them to learn how to get that emotional transition and then we went for the undressing part and even undressing… To get undressed with a costume of the 18th century is really like a spectacular event because they were so complicated and they were wearing like five things on top of each other and all of it was kind of sewed into each other. They had to learn this already for hours and then, of course, the rest of it and it was a very long process but as always, once you rehearse something to a degree that people really understand what it is, the moment you enter the shooting they were completely ready and not worrying and we shot for more than a week and at the end of that week they didn’t even want to stop.

Q: Was there any one where you guys had to be, ‘Hey, hey, you’re going too far?’ Like any of the extras, did they take it a little too far?

TT: Yeah, you had to sometimes be careful with them, of course, and of course you also had to be careful about the fact that … you know, I always thought it was probably good to have a lot of couples and it turned out to be a totally wrong choice, of course, because the idea was of course that everybody is with everybody so all these couples were getting nervous when their partners were going somewhere else and so it was a big singles convention, a nude camp singles convention. (laughs)

Q: Did you shoot 24 hours of that?

TT: Material, 27 [hours] but yes, 27 hours of material only on that. You can fill up a library of DVD’s with all the cut out moments. (laughs) Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the film.

Q: Were the girls red heads in the book or is that your choice?

TT: No, they were in the book. I mean maybe it’s a reason why I love the book but if so, it’s totally subconscious. I have no knowledge of a very specific obsession about red headed girls.

Thank you very much to Tom Tykwer for taking the time to talk to us about his film. Below is the trailer for this film and a link to where you can watch a whole bunch of clips for the film.

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