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Exclusive: Tom Tykwer Goes International

Edward Douglas had a chance to sit down with Tom Tykwer, director of The International while he was in New York to talk about the movie for this exclusive interview found only on Film School Rejects.
By  · Published on February 11th, 2009

When Tom Tykwer’s third film Run Lola Run hit these shores in the summer of 1999, the German filmmaker caught the attention of film enthusiasts with his innovative use of camerawork, editing and vivid colors. Since then, he has continued to keep people guessing with his film choices including his last movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a period thriller based on a best-selling novel that became a global blockbuster before it bombed in the United States.

After nearly ten years, Tykwer is finally making a Hollywood studio movie and while it might not be the fast-paced action movie everyone might be expecting, it does feature possibly one of the most amazing gunfights ever captured on film, one that literally involved building an amazing realistic replica of the legendary Guggenheim Museum in New York… and then obliterating it.

Otherwise, it’s an intelligent conspiracy thriller starring Clive Owen as Interpol agent Louis Salinger, who discovers that a global bank might be responsible for a series of deaths, and along with Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), he has to get to the bottom of the alleged murders by finding someone who’ll step forward and indict the bank.

Edward Douglas had a chance to sit down with Tykwer while he was in New York to talk about the movie for this exclusive interview found only on Film School Rejects.

Edward Douglas: It’s nice to see that you’ve been keeping busy and it’s not been so long between movies this time.

Thomas Tykwer: I didn’t have much of a break at all, because I stated developing this even before I even knew about “Perfume.” It was six years ago that I read a first draft that Eric Singer had written. That’s 2003, incredibly enough, and it was still quite a construction side, but I was very intrigued by the quality of dialogue, which is so rare. It’s really good to have smart people talk in intelligent and individual language so you can differentiate the characters by the way they speak, and they don’t all speak the same tone, that is the writer’s tone, or these three-word sentences that you very often encounter in scripts. Also, I think the only thing that really made me excited about it was that the villain was a bank, and that there was kind of an interesting sequence in the Guggenheim Museum.

So that was in the original script?

It was. The Guggenheim was in there. It was a bit different, but it was in there, yeah.

Was this just as screenplay from a first-time writer?

He’s written many screenplays that always got to the verge of being produced. As you know, in the industry, you have all these films that very nearly get made. I think some of them got like six weeks before production and they fell apart. In Los Angeles, he’s a known writer, and it’s just that he’s been quite unlucky with his productions and now finally, one of the scripts made it, and I think you can tell that he’s a very particular writer with very particular skills. It’s a grown-up movie and these kinds of films don’t get made that much at the moment.

And it still took six years to get it made.

Which was really about me having to slip under the skin of the script. Being a filmmaker that is actually used to writing and stuff, I need to get into a very close relationship with the writer, and we did. I love him. He’s a good person but also a totally movie maniac, and he’s got all the attributes that people like me and probably you and anybody who’s doing what we’re doing needs to spend months and years and years rewriting one and the same thing. We really rewrote endlessly. Also because I felt this is the first clear straight-forward—okay, maybe it’s not as straightforward as I say—genre movie that I’m doing. It’s a real genre movie, a real thriller, and I’ve been looking for this so long. I said, “Okay, if I’m going to do this. I’m really going to do it right, and I’d only do it in a way that is in these conceptual terms that it’s a film that you really find worth seeing twice.

Was Chuck Roven involved very early on?

Yes, he was the producer of it. I got it through my agent but my first meeting was actually with Chuck, and then I met Eric. I must say, both Chuck and Richard Suckle, those guys from Atlas Entertainment, they’re amazingly creative producers, really amazing in a way they’re like role models for me as producers in terms of being involved. They know the script as well as I do, page by page and dialogue by dialogue, and at the same time, they’re creative forces in the process and they’re good players for spitballing ideas and it kept like that for the whole time. They were super-supportive of my vision for the film. Sony were involved from the start too, and it all came together very luckily. I know there are other stories, but it was heaven for me, the whole production. My first meeting with Sony was with Amy Pascal ten years ago when “Run Lola Run” had just opened, and Michael Barker, who is from Sony Classics, took me to lunch with Amy who was then Head of Production of Columbia. I think then John Callie was still Chairman of Sony/Columbia, and then it all transformed into her becoming Chairwoman, and I remember it was a great lunch meeting, and I felt like she really cared for what I do and my particular style and the individual vision that comes out of it. They kept that alive. Matt Tolmach, Head of Production at Columbia, he was super up to really protect exactly the way I wanted the movie to be. I have no apologies, because this is exactly the movie I wanted to do.

Would you say that this was your first studio movie?

Yeah, the first fully financed studio picture, yeah.

It’s funny because this movie is probably timelier now than it was in 2003 when you got involved, especially with all the talk about the economy and the evil corporations and banks. It’s just perfect time for a movie where the banks are the bad guys. Did you realize that might be the case while you were making it?

No, but we were not thinking about it so much. I mean, a crisis has been predicted for ages actually, since years and years, analysts have been saying there is a bubble, we are in a bubble, and it can implode every day, and then there will be quite a painful chain reactions resulting from it. But we really didn’t think about it that much, because for me, the movie is much more about some criminal amoral characters who take advantage of a system that has developed into a state where it’s actually unprotected against those people. Where those people can just do whatever they want without the system protecting itself, and that’s what the movie is about. The movie is much more about a man’s battle against the downsides of a system that we’ve gotten used to.

Did you or Eric do any kind of research into the corporations and the real consultants and cleaners they used to fix problems? I don’t know if you saw “Michael Clayton” but it’s a very scary thought that these people are out there whose only job is to get rid of loose ends when necessary.

As you can see, we practically have the same theory, that through just one or two steps in between, those corporations or private banking managements, they really do have a cleaning system that doesn’t even step back from killing people if it’s necessary. The way it’s done is so invisible that it feels like you never will be able to point at them. I thought that theory is something people buy because we’ve heard about this before. Eric and I were quite intensely investigating particular cases, and if you really dig yourself deeper into it, it’s quite shocking how many unsolved crimes are out there in the world of private banking and global finance. And how many deaths and disappearances have never been pursued because there’s nowhere to point at.

They make them look like natural accidents.

For instance, like the first killing we have in our movie, it’s not something you can ever detect.

I’m sure a lot of people when talking about this movie will bring up the classic thrillers of the ‘70s because they do that whenever a filmmaker makes a political or corporate thriller. This seems like a different look from your previous movies. You’ve become known for making very stylish and colorful films and this seems shot different, maybe because it’s set more in the modern world.

Well, of course, there’s a lot of work in the color schemes. The film is kind of a voyage in time, and that’s represented by architecture. Architecture represents this idea of a very new-new world, and then the new world, and then the old-new world and then the old-old world, which is the voyage of the film in a way. Most of the stuff was shot in Berlin and Germany, the very stark graphic, extremely precise architecture that uses a lot of glass and steel structures in order to represent this kind of fake idea of transparency. We all know that glassy buildings, they most of all reflect a lot of sunlight, so they’re blinding us, but they always pretend to give us the illusion that “You can see over our shoulders, you can see what they’re doing.”

Practically, we can’t see anything, but everybody can see us from the inside, so that is much more the impression we wanted to give. There’s a perfection to that system and to the structures to the architecture that Clive Owen’s character is in front of, looking very vulnerable, more like a little fly struggling in the spider’s web of that system.

The movie looks more modern, while I think a lot of your movies have looked more like ‘70s than this, which is kind of interesting.

Yeah, we wanted it to feel super-contemporary, because we feel like the subject of course is something that is picking up on something that has a lot of reference to the ‘70s movies that we adore. Frank Griebe, the cinematographer, and Uli Hanisch the production designer, and of course Mathilde the editor, we all love these films that we watched again. Films that are between “Marathon Man”, which people don’t completely count into the paranoia thriller genre, but I do because I think all the unsettling elements about “Marathon Man” are that there’s this company that works next to the CIA, but it’s not the CIA, and it is actually the driving force of most of the films from those days, that there is a system in the system that actually controls not only the politicians but even our daily lives. The truth is that if you transfer this to present day, the system that we feel controls us more than anything else is not a system that we elect or that we vote for. It’s global finance, it’s global economy and its representatives, and we know that we’re very much influenced by decisions that corporation managers make and sometimes even more than our politicians.

Going back to the architecture, I’d imagine one of the things that probably ended up being the biggest challenge was building the Guggenheim. When you see a movie being shot inside the Guggenheim… because you did do some actual shooting in there, right?


But then when you see this shoot-out inside there and things getting destroyed, and it’s shocking because it’s so seamless. I read that you actually built the interiors of Guggenheim in two halves to accomplish this and it’s just an amazing achievement as well as something you wouldn’t expect.

No, it was quite a head-cracking experience (chuckles) because of course, it is one of the most ambitious buildings in the history of architecture in all extents and degrees. I mean, you go and sit down with your production designer and the architects and you ask them to rebuild that building, they’ll say “Yeah, well, okay, but there is not a single element that is prefabricated that we can use. Everything is round and not at a right angle, nothing’s in a way that buildings are roughly built on.” Conceptualizing and building that building took the American architects 16 years, and we had 16 weeks to do it. (laughs) It was quite a task, but it was of course also great fun to then have the set and be there for five and a half weeks and do nothing but shooting and then destroy it. Of course, for a filmmaker, that’s quite a candy store.

I wanted to ask about this other movie you’re developing “Cloud Atlas” and whether you think that’s something you might direct.

Yeah, it looks like it could be an interesting thing to do next. We’re working on the script, the three of us, the Wachowski Brothers and me, writing on it right now, and it’s a film for me to direct but it’s very, very complex.

It seems very ambitious with a lot of different interlocking stories.

It’s such an amazing book. It’s changed my life. It’s one of those few reads that you have in your life where you feel like nothing is the same after you’ve read it, and that was one of those books for me. There’s another project that I’m actually quite deeply involved in, which is based on a book called “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, who you know probably from his first novel, which was called “A Heartbreaking World of Staggering Genius”, that was his first book. He’s a great writer and he did a book called “What is the What” that is based on the story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I’m developing that too right now.

Do you have any inclination to do a franchise picture and have you been approached to do anything like that or is that something you’re not really interested in?

I don’t think I’m the right guy for franchise, no. I think I’m too idiosyncratic. (chuckles) I mean, I’m not saying that franchise can’t turn out to be great films, like as with Nolan’s last film. I really enjoyed “The Dark Knight”, I thought it was quite amazing, but I’m quite attracted to original material. I think I’m the one for that.

I’m really fascinated by the fact you have a DVD collection coming out in Germany the same day as this movie. How did that come about and was it hard getting all the rights back to everything?

Yeah, we had to buy them all back, because of course, in those days, when we started making my first films, DVD was not really an interesting business, so we sold all these rights for nothing and then we had to buy them back for everything. It was really horrible. (laughs) But now we own it all again. I mean, my production company, we’ve got all the rights, so we made new transfers for all the early movies. Many of them haven’t been on DVD ever, like “Deadly Maria” and “Wintersleepers” in Germany have not been released on DVD and the release here in America was a 16:9 transfer that I never really liked so now you have a really beautiful anamorphic 2:35 transfer for those films for the first time. All my short films are on it. It’s fun and it’s nice because it makes me remember how you can develop a style and a language in cinema and how you can relate to the early movies and still find that they kind of have a similarity, that there is something that obviously defines our perspective on cinema.

Do you think they’ll ever release the collection here or would that be harder to accomplish?

I don’t know. Of course, I hope that somebody will pick it up here, but if you’re a fan, you’ll have to order it from Amazon. All the movies are subtitled in English, the entire box. You’ll just need a Region 2 player, I guess.

The International opens across this nation on Friday, February 13.

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