Interview: The International Director Tom Tykwer
by Alex Billington
February 12, 2009
Tom Tykwer is one of those directors where whenever I see or hear his name, I'm immediately interested. Before The International, he directed Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven, and my personal favorite, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. He hails from Germany and is a very visual director with a gritty style that I love seeing on the big screen. So when I was given the chance to talk with him a few weeks ago about The International, I jumped at the opportunity. Here is the result and my lengthy interview with Tom Tykwer that primarily focus on The International and what went into his latest film.
Watch our interview with Tom Tykwer:
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I shot the video portion of the interview using my Flip Mino camera. I've also included the full transcript below for those who wish to read rather than watch. I apologize for the really bad camera angle, as I'm still trying to figure out how to make everything look good on the fly while shooting videos. Hopefully it wasn't too boring or too long or too skewed for you to watch and enjoy anyway. Don't forget, The International is due out in theaters on February 13th, this upcoming weekend. While I didn't exactly love it, it is mildly entertaining due to scenes like the Guggenheim Museum shootout, so check it out if you're interested.
What first interested you in this and how did you first come across the script?
Tom Tykwer: Which one goes first?
Well, let's start with the script, I think that should be more interesting.
Tykwer: Oh the script I think I actually, I mean, we are now here in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles and I think the script was given to me here in this hotel six years ago.
Tykwer: Maybe even a little more, by my agency, and it was at a time when there were quite many scripts scattering about and it seemed quite impossible for me to ever get attached to a script that I had not written myself because I had such a hard time making myself become so substantially a part of it that it could become as personal of a film as I want my films to be. But then I read a very early draft of The International, and interestingly enough it was a movie set in the '70s, so it was a period film. The main character was Belgian, I think, and was a survivor of the holocaust.
It was really, really different, but the villain -- I mean, he was from Interpol, and the villain was a private bank. So that concept was there and I don't remember the details so much anymore, but I remember two big things that struck me about this script in a way that was so different from all of the other stuff that I had read. I thought the dialog was at an amazing level in terms of substance and in terms of individuality of characters in terms of the way -- there was a certain neu vou to the way people were communicating that was so missing in most of the scripts I was reading. I had never heard of this writer, Eric Singer, I thought, "Who is this guy?" And, you Google him, you don't find anything, didn't know where he came from and I thought it was quite incredible how good his writing was and how intense the language was.
And then there was a sequence in the film where those investigators that the film's about -- and particularly the main guy -- where they suddenly run into something like what seems to be a dead end. You know, there's a trace that they're following and then it leads to a moment that they're out on the streets and it seems to be, it's been the wrong address and they were hoping to find him there. And they seem to not [find him], except at that moment, a guy comes out of the door, which is the guy they're hunting, and just accidentally passes their way and that was a very exciting moment to read in the script. This kind of, when luck and chance suddenly, let's say, give these guys, I mean these investigators, a payoff for their incredible attempt to get closer to him. And that whole tailing sequence then lead into a building, which was the Guggenheim Museum, and a quite spectacular, if a little different from what we have now, sequence unfolded there. And that whole segment I really liked about the script.
So I said, "Okay, let's meet and let's talk about it." And then we talked about it for something like five years. And we talked a lot and we worked a lot on the script. Of course, first of all, I feel like I really have to bring it into our time. We have to make it a present-day film because that is the subject of present day, the whole upsettance of people about the way that a system has developed within our system that is basically driving our society, without us ever having elected any of these people, which is what global economy does and what some of these private banking operations actually effectively do. They create conflicts in certain areas in order to profit from the weapon sales that are being generated and they are, of course, infusing our daily life on so many sublevels that we don't know about. We felt it would be very important to make a film that's related to contemporary problems.
How do you feel about its importance to the current time, especially since you weren't thinking about this when you shot it, but now how we're going into the recession here in American and just the idea of banks in general being sort of on the edge and just falling apart sometimes. Is that something you think is important to the situation at the moment and the film coming out at this time?
Tykwer: Well there obviously is. I mean it couldn't be -- in a perverted manner it has become the most -- I mean, for me it's kind of scary how much it has become a subject that's on everybody's radar right now. It is at the same time, probably the only up side of this quite horrendous crisis that the world is going through, because, of course, I can't be happy about the crisis, even though I have a critical perspective on the late development in capitalism, I still see the destruction-- let's say, or the pain that's being evoked through the crisis, so I don't welcome the crisis at all. The only thing that you can say is -- the only upside in this mess is that it has created an incredible increase of knowledge for most people about how the world basically functions now days.
And because we've been thrown into this massive problem, we have been forced into investigating more what is really going on out there and what are these people doing? And I think that's very, very important for us to be able then, in the next step, to create some substantial borders and to create some substantial limitations to this system that has kind of grown its own path into our lives. And the movie very much relates to this, in particular, of course, Clive Owen's character and Naomi Watts' character, they both represent us in our anger and our frustration and in our desire to understand, now, really understand the details of this problem in order to attack it and in order to put something against it that reintroduces a certain set of morals. And I think there's kind of the driven-ness that, particularly of course, Clive's character is related to a sense of a loss of certain morals.
I wanted to jump into this a little bit with your shooting. I love your use of locations in all of your films, where you actually go to the location rather than just something plain and simple. You really use the locations, whether it be the streets of New York or in Milan. Can you talk about -- since you had a lot of involvement in getting the script to where it was in the end -- how much involvement you had in where you wanted to go with the locations at least at the beginning.
Tykwer: Oh, we discussed a lot where the film should be located and one of my initial instinctive reactions was -- because in the first draft, I think Berlin wasn't present at all, was to say, "Let's go to Berlin," for two reasons. It's my city. I know it very well. I also love shooting in my place because I feel like I can get something out of it that probably outsiders can't, but also because I feel like in Berlin, it's a really undiscovered territory for architectural discoveries. There has been a huge amount of new buildings and construction within the last 20 years in Berlin. I mean, basically since the wall went down, the city has changed its shape to an amazing degree. And I'm not saying I'm a fan of everything that happened there, but it is a quite interesting representation of what architecture nowadays is doing, because it's hugely funded by big corporations. It's like Mercedes-Benz and Sony and many larger and more influential private banking companies have their headquarters now there.
The fusion of this money with very modern perspectives on architecture has brought a certain background to Berlin -- it has created in Berlin a certain ambience that has not been brought to film yet. And I wanted that to be part of this film because one central subject of the architecture that you find in the movie all the way through, at least in the modern architecture, is transparency and the whole idea of creating large complexes, building complexes with a lot of glass and steel so there's a lot of reflection and seemingly see-through qualities. And yet, at the same time, they house very often, exactly those corporations or those companies where we have no bloody clue how they actually do and what they do-- what they're doing and who they even are. The scary or the spooky thing about it is actually we seemingly can see through, but the transparency is fake. And the only think that it does is they can see us. We can't see them and we can't see what they do.
So there is always this kind of scary and fascinating element about the architecture because of course there are some really admirable pieces in there and there are some more questionable ones. And, of course, architecture all the way through the film became this kind of path that led us a little bit from what we would call the "new, new world" to the "old, new world" to the "old world," so it's kind of a voyage. The "new, new world" being represented by this very modern European architectures, then the movie turns to Milan, where it's kind of, you feel like you see a little bit of mix of both old and new architecture confronting each other. It seems like we're going back in time. Then, interestingly enough, we go to New York, which used to be, of course, the modern capital of the universe.
Now I must say, for me, experiencing New York, it is starting to feel a bit like a dinosaur, the dinosaur of modern society. But it's questionable whether it represents really the idea of post-modern society or of, let's say, the late modern society because as modern as things look there it's also a city that, really, literally is falling apart in many places. So it's not very robust. If you just remember the drop out of all the electricity just recently, that's something that doesn't feel very modern at times to a city like that. So it's something about, time has worked on the city, which for me, makes it very sympathetic, because it is very much a 20th century city with all the upsides of the 20th century. And that kind of spider web of the 21st century has not completely taken over that city.
So it's kind of in between times and the movie ends then in a city like Istanbul in Turkey where, let's say, modern times are just taking their grips on the city, but you basically feel like you're in ancient history everywhere and that's the -- for me, because there is kind of a struggle that is more universal that is represented in the film and also the fight between Clive Owen's character and the character of the banker is more about some basic forces, in terms of morals. So it seemed to be quite the perfect place to go to a much more ancient and archaic architectural space and have that final confrontation happen then.
You mentioned at the beginning that Berlin, since it's your city, that it's a lot easier to shoot there and you can find a lot there. Do you consider that the opposite challenge when you're shooting in other cities like New York and Milan? Is it something where you challenge yourself to go find something new when you're shooting there?
Tykwer: Yeah, it's, of course, equally fascinating to go to a place that you're not so familiar with and discovering Istanbul, for instance, was really exciting for us because it is also quite unfilmed space. It's yet relatively undiscovered for films and I was really amazed how many places we could go to that I don't think have ever been filmed, particularly not on this kind of scale. And then you go to New York, which is probably the most filmed space ever in the history of cinema, and so, the only thing you can do there is really relay the emotion that you have to the characters and how they could be situated here.
And a little bit about the feel that you wanted to infuse at certain places in the movie relating the film to kind of other films that it's inspired by, and of course, we were very much inspired, obviously by some of the paranoia thrillers from the '70s, like Three Days of the Condor or The Conversation or even Marathon Man. So, Marathon Man being a New York film, but even more a film like French Connection, capturing New York, also in this kind of more gritty mood, for me was quite fascinating coming from Berlin and these kind of really new modern European architectural spaces and then actually at the same time ending in New York, or let's say, leading New York into this representation of 20th century modern architecture -- like the representation of it which is the Guggenheim Museum. So we take the Guggenheim Museum as, let's say, the central architectural space between the old and the new world and something like a sign of inspiration at the center that is then being nearly destroyed by the forces that be at the moment.
Thank you to Tom Tykwer and Bianca at Sony for arranging this interview. As a reminder, The International arrives in theaters everywhere this weekend.