German director Thomas Tykwer first gained international acclaim in 1998 for Run, Lola, Run—a heart-pounding tale told from multiple perspectives. Nearly a decade later, he has accomplished what many considered all but impossible: making Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The film, in which the hard-to-visualize sense of smell is central to the decidedly kinky plot, is based on the best-selling 1985 novel by reclusive Munich author Patrick SÃƒÂ¼skind.Starring newcomer Ben Whishaw and veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, Perfume is set in 18th century France and tells the tale of an orphan, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with an acute sense of smell. He evolves from a perfume apprentice into a serial killer of young women whose beautiful essence he seeks to distill.The long-awaited film, a box office smash in Europe, was released here in late December. On Perfume, Tykwer was ably assisted by the production keys who have worked with him for many years: director of photography Frank Griebe, production designer Uli Hanisch, editor Alexander Berner and costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud. Tykwer recently talked with Below The Line about his multi-year experience bringing Perfume to full flower.Below the Line: Perfume is based on what’s a very popular book with a cult of devoted readers. How did you approach the challenge of turning this modern classic into a film?Thomas Tykwer: I was very ambitious in trying to get as close to the intensity of the book as possible—the way the color and texture combine. The obvious difficulty was depicting scents, smells and odors—not always pleasant. The novel is one of the first to deal with the crassness and stinkiness of the world of the late 18th century period. So we were all quite determined to recreate that atmosphere of extreme dirt and filth. The fish market where the main character is born at the start of the film is quite a nightmarish setting.BTL: What were some things you did to translate smells into visual terms?Tykwer: I thought we should make the movie as subjective as possible, communicating the experience in this case not so much through the eyes but the greedy nose of the main character. Grenouille has an instinctive approach to his environment. He understand and perceives the world by the different smells around him and creates a composite image of experience.I wanted to do something that picks up on that physical process. He doesn’t really see the world, he smells the world—by dissecting every individual element around him. Then he slowly puts together the various scents; like a musician first finding notes, and then making chords out of those notes and then building the final composition. In terms of shots, one technique we used to convey this sequence was to go for the details first, then to the medium shots, and finally to the wider shots. That’s the reverse of how it’s usually done.BTL: Did you ever consider using any special effects?Tykwer: No, we never thought of going to the visual effects department to capture the smelling experience. That would have taken us into ridiculous territories, like using green fog to represent bad stenches, or building CGI scent molecules that would fly into his nose.BTL: In Perfume, there is an intensity to the imagery that corresponds to the sense of smell. How did you want your cinematographer, Frank Griebe, to visualize this world?Tykwer: The basic goal was to make the film as detail-driven as the original book. There were a number of avenues. One was to think of colors, and how they change and develop. We enhanced them first in the color timing and later in the digital intermediate phase.BTL: When you direct a movie, you like to come with your own posse of regulars.Tykwer: Yes, many on my team I’ve worked with for nearly a decade. It’s like a big family. Most of the people on Perfume worked on Run, Lola, Run, which was eight years ago. With Frank Griebe, my DP, it seems like we’ve collaborated forever. He has been on all of my films, from the very beginning, and we share an aesthetic vision. As a director, I don’t like the usual practice of putting together the artistic elements fresh for each film—picking a cinematographer, a composer, a production designer. I insist that the people I know, and with whom I’ve worked, come along with me on a new project.BTL: Perfume was such an enormous undertaking compared to your previous films. You had 67 principal actors, 520 technicians, more than 100 sets and used some 5,200 extras. How did you pull it off?Tykwer: You just jump into the cold water and try to swim. It’s one of those films that’s all about lots of preparation, and getting a clear idea of how you want to make it work. You have to start early on—talking to as many people as intensely as you can. And not just the main actors but also the extras. BTL: Speaking of extras, the final scene in the town square with hundreds of writhing naked people has already become famous. Describe what was required to get that on film.Tykwer: First we were lucky to find this square in Barcelona, where we filmed much of the movie, because it still had parts that looked like France in the 18th century. The square was on the outer edge of Barcelona city and had the right architecture. Most important, aside from a few stores and restaurants, no one was living there. If the square had been inhabited, how were we going to explain to the people that for 10 days it was going to become a giant nudist camp? With this square, all we had to do was close the doors and it was ours.Then we put out advertisements and people from all over Spain who were generally willing to do what was required responded. The next step was selecting those with faces and bodies and proportions that are completely believable for this period. Many looked too contemporary. Once we cast, it was a question of a kind of emotional choreography. To coach the extras, I hired La Fura dels Baus, located in Barcelona, which is one of Europe’s most famous theater groups known especially for its physical dancing. They formed a core, and then slowly added people around them, showing them how to interact and be intimate.The secret to all of this was to rehearse and rehearse. When the extras were asked to undress, nobody made a big deal of being naked. Touching each other in a convincing way was the problem. That was worked out in collaboration with this theater troupe. When we finally got to the shooting, everyone was ready, saying, “let’s really get it done.” And the results were amazing. At the end, they really didn’t want to stop. Overall, we shot 27 hours of footage, so there will be lots to choose from for the DVD version.BTL: How much research was involved? Tykwer: A lot—three or four years. We researched everything from paintings and scholarly documents to personal accounts. By the time we finally started filming, the screenplay had been revised more than 20 times, and I felt I had gone through every scene in my mind in advance 25 times. But you need that kind of preparation, because there are still 500 surprises that can happen once you actually start shooting.BTL: The budget on the film was also very big for a European production; about 50 million euros, which comes to around $65 million. So you had a lot to play with.Tykwer: Not really. Actually the budget was a little lower—48 million euros. But given the kind of film, it wasn’t enormous. We had a very tight shooting schedule and in terms of costs, we were always on the verge of meltdown. It was like one spoon more for the catering group would ruin the budget.One of the many reasons I love my production designer Uli Hanisch, is he always makes things work within his budget. Another big plus is he builds a set far earlier than you actually need it. BTL: Set decoration contributed immensely to the detailed look you were going for. Hanisch, I understand, worked with one of Europe’s veterans in this specialty.Tykwer: Yes, Uli coordinated with Philippe Turlure, who is
a French legend in art direction and set decor. His work goes back all the way to films like Last Tango in Paris. He also turns out to be this amazing maniac who privately collects items from the 18th century for himself. Not only the wardrobes, the tables and the chairs, but even original walls from the period he’s acquired. They came from a storage room where he put them, and we used some them in our sets.BTL: You spoke earlier in musical terms of the notes and chords that are argot of perfume making. The music in Perfume was itself another important element. And you were the composer as well?Tykwer: One of them. I wrote the music with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil was also involved. What’s proved to be the most effective and inspiring way for me to enter a project is to start composing from day one. I sympathize with directors who suffer from having to work for the most part with a temp mix, and then at the end, hire a composer who gets only four weeks to come up with a score—and is lucky to have even been invited to a rough cut.BTL: When it came to recording the score, you pulled off quite a coup—you somehow managed to get the Berlin Philharmonic and its conductor Sir Simon Rattle into the studio. How did that occur?Tykwer: It was one of the biggest rewards of the whole film. The Berlin Philharmonic is my favorite orchestra in the world. And I decided to take a chance by just asking if they might consider it. I got a message through to Simon Rattle. He called backed and asked to see what we had come up with musically. Then he saw a rough cut of the film and quickly agreed. He had never before recorded a movie score, so this was a new experience.When it came time to do the recording, it was amazing being on the sound stage and hearing Simon Rattle and 90 musical geniuses playing your music. I have to admit I was a million times more nervous than working with Dustin or Ben. In the end, it was wonderful to rediscover the movie again through their instruments and interpretation. What they did with our score was so beautiful, when Johnny and I heard it we didn’t even know we had written it.BTL: What has been the response from fans of the book?Tykwer: Extremely good. One of the most important things to me was to not disappoint readers who so admired the book. Some have spent years reading it again and again. You can’t expect to satisfy each individual’s vision. But you can put the same emphasis that SÃƒÂ¼skind put into the writing, trying to recreate this very unique and very dark 18th-century atmosphere.BTL: Did your thoughts about filmmaking change after you finished Perfume, which was so different from your other films? Tykwer: For me it was a totally new experience. I had never thought of myself as a period filmmaker. I never thought I could do a costume drama. There was a danger I felt in doing a period film—that it would be seen as simply showing off. But in the film I made you accept the world as just there. It was as if we had taken a camera into a secret time machine and somehow found ourselves in the 18th century and could shoot in a free cinema verite style, without showing how much effort was involved.But to achieve the results was amazingly difficult—sometimes horribly difficult—especially for the production designer and the costume designer. To my amazement, every single button on the outfits of the aristocratic characters was painted by hand. There were so many things that I learned from my crew. Now I feel I’ve grown into someone who can actually do period films, but that’s because my crew taught me how.
Written by Jack Egan