Scent as identity: A conversation with Perfume director Tom Tykwer

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Tom Tykwer's film version of the cult novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer hits screens this week. Sara Schieron recently talked with the director:

Peter Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has inspired a lot of musical adaptations. German band Rammstein and Portugese band Moonspell have both called the book an influence, and Kurt Cobain, who named the book as his favorite, wrote the song "Scentless Apprentice" in reaction to it.

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Tom Tykwer directing Perfume

The novel’s musical associations in mind, it’s not just coincidence that put Tom Tykwer in charge of the film adaptation. A composer as well as a writer/director, Tykwer is most recognized in the US for his techno-paced action drama Run Lola Run. His newest film, which takes place in 18th century France, follows a pace better suited for the Berlin Philharmonic. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a chiaroscuro painting set to music. As much about love and identity as it is about legend and fame, it inspires questions. Tykwer let me ask him a few -- beginning with one that provoked a high-pitched, giddy laugh.

Guardian: I wanted to ask a question that I’m sure has been asked before – a question about your affection for women with fire engine red hair.
Tom Tykwer: (Laughing) It’s sheer coincidence, and of course you know I have a very specific relationship to coincidence, but in fact, the women are described like that in the novel so…what can I do? I couldn’t change that! I’m just thinking that maybe one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel was the fact that the main girls are all red haired, but what do I know? And that’s my answer. For more you’ll have to ask my therapist.

G: There’s a rumor that Stanley Kubrick, of all filmmakers, called the Süskind novel unfilmable –
TT: It’s not true.

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Rachel Hurd-Wood and Ben Whishaw in Perfume

G: It’s not unfilmable or Kubrick didn’t say that?
TT: I spoke to Jan Harlan who was his producer for twenty years. I said “I could never imagine why he should have said that” and Jan said, “No, it’s just a myth that exists, he just read the novel, he didn’t want to make it - that’s it.” That’s the entire story.

G: It’s marvelous there’s a legend about your legend.
TT: I could never imagine why he would say that, because he’s turned much stranger novels into films. And the book is such a completely convincing film concept.

G: The adaptation because it had to be a challenge. The book is so concerned with sensory experiences that aren’t generally part of the cinematic experience. When you worked on the script, what was the first big change you had to make?
TT: Andre Birkin and Bernd Eichinger and me were the writing team on this. Andrew was like a miracle for me as a writer because he was able to capture something I thought was really important: the tone the novel sets. It’s some strange mixture between irony and darkness that is ever-present throughout the read. He was really able to translate that beautifully into the screenwriting.
Whereas structurally, we really had to make some decisions in order to stay truthful to the novel and still make it work for a film. I think the major challenge, of course, was to make the protagonist work because he’s so complex and kind of a daring hero. I felt that to make him work we really have to understand his motivations. We follow his journey because we know what he’s longing for and we understand, so we don’t let go of him until the very end, just as it was in the novel. We didn’t want him to be just a monstrosity because we never wanted to lose him as a human being…and a human being who becomes fanatical about something that makes him ignore moral issues he’s never learned.
He’s incompetent socially and has no ability to judge his deeds and that makes him a very, very different murderer than regular serial killers. He doesn’t enjoy killing, of course, and he doesn’t even realize he’s killing because what he’s thinking he’s doing is for a greater good. He’s creating a work of art so his are all elements of a larger sculpture. We wanted to focus on that and therefore needed to cut away some elements within the book that would have been too distracting.
We also didn’t focus on the fact that he doesn’t have a smell of his own from the beginning because we wanted the audience to discover it along with Grenouille. In the book he’s discovered from the start as someone who doesn’t have a smell and that irritates people and so they keep a distance from him. We wanted the audience to worry with him about what’s wrong and why people don’t react to him and then have an audience realize with him, together in the cave, his most nightmarish discovery, which is that he doesn’t smell. To him of course, this means he doesn’t exist, because in his belief system scent is identity: the soul of every being.

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Ben Whishaw in Perfume

G: Süskind’s Grenoille is a power seeker, who’s disgusted by people, but in the film you don’t explore any of Grenouille’s prejudices, so Grenouille seems innocent and tortured and unlike a character that would get back at others for the harm they may have caused him – rather he leaves that to fate … or coincidence. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to rethink this character for the screen?
TT: It’s quite complex in the novel. Grenoille ultimately turns against humanity and thinks about how much he loathes humanity, if only to protect himself from his massive failure. It’s a way to suppress the idea that he failed to really connect with people: that is ultimately what he longs for. His perfume is a disguise he puts on in order to be loved. At the moment when people show him love, he realizes they’re not doing it towards him. It’s only the drug he produced as a disguise for himself that they’re reacting to and nobody is actually, literally, relating to him as a personality.
That’s a very tragic moment, and in the book there is more focus on how he escapes that situation. He puts himself into remembering how much he hates people and that keeps the suffering from reaching him. I didn’t really care for that aspect. The book is really about that failure and about his desire to be recognized and seen. So I wanted, rather, to point out the idea that there was a moment when he might have had a connection with someone: with the first girl, you know, the one who accidentally dies in his hands? This is another slight change from the novel because it’s not really an accident in the novel when he kills her. He returns to this situation because this was the moment when his path went in the wrong direction. Because he was incompetent socially he didn’t know how to connect with her and that would have been the moment when, if he had succeeded, he would have learned how real emotional response feels.

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Tom Tykwer

G: You had a lot to do with the film score and you used music to evocatively deal with senses that you don’t have access to in a movie theatre: scent being the most obvious example. I think that connotes a unique idea about experience because you’re making a parallel between the experience of music and the experience of scent.
TT: It’s always been an important part of the development of any movie –finding the right score. In this particular case, I was lucky because we - Johnny [Klimek], Reinhold [Heil], and me - could start composing the music parallel to composing the script. Day one, when I joined the writing team with Andrew and Bernd, we started composing the music so over two years we developed all the themes that infused the writing and vice versa. And the great thing, of course, was we had music already at hand when we were shooting the film so the atmosphere of the film was much more advanced in my imagination because I had already discovered all the music.
I always said that it was obvious there was a deep, deep connection between music and smell. I think it is clear to everybody. Music is, as much as smell, an abstract element that is strongly related to our memory system. If memories are what builds our identity, or, you know, if the way we organize our memories is a relevant constituent for our identity, then the theory that Grenoillle follows that says, “I am what I smell like, or smell equals identity” doesn’t make much sense. I feel like music is the only other abstract realm where most of those rules apply. So it was beautiful to have the music actually on set. We were able to play it for the actors while we were shooting because it was pre-recorded before we started shooting. We never had to cut the music based on temp music or any other strange influences; we had our music driving the rhythm of the film.

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Ben Whishaw in Perfume

G: Perfume reminded me very much of Miracle in Milan so when I read your biography and saw that you were a fan of Miracle it seemed an even more likely comparison to Perfume. I see something messianic or Promethean about Grenouille, similar to the protagonist of Miracle in Milan, Grenouille is finding light in the darkness. I’m wondering if the influence was apparent to you while you were working on Perfume.
TT: I can’t tell you much about that because I know the influence of Miracle in Milan must be massive to me. It’s just the one favorite film of all films for me.

G: It’s in your blood?
TT: And an influence on every film I’ve ever made.

G: Renoir said that every filmmaker spends his career remaking one film. When I’ve asked other filmmakers about this, they have suggested or even stated that the films they remake are their influences and not previous films of theirs.
TT: It’s funny, I said that about Truffaut a while ago, that he remade his previous films. When Renoir said that, he meant that he remade his films over again.

G: Yes, but our influences are in our work, don’t you think?
TT: I think that’s true, at least every filmmaker who is an auteur filmmaker does something like that. Someone who tries to find a specifically subjective energy in the material he’s focusing on ends up doing a variation of one and the same theme. To me it’s never boring to follow interesting filmmakers through their repetitious labyrinth, because, of course, they are not aware of it. They always feel like they’re picking up something completely fresh and then the thing about it that stays the same is the person who made it. Or I would say, the group that made it because I’m always working with the same group of people: same production designer, same composer. It’s kind of a family that grows. I can’t really get involved with the movie if I don’t, on a very personal or intimate level, feel for the project and specifically for the main character, psychologically. Even if the film takes place in a different century, somehow can you feel or see the people behind the movie. The soul of the film has to breathe its makers.

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