Crafting a ‘modern movie set in the 18th century’

[10 January 2007]

By Moira Macdonald

The Seattle Times

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” marks the end of a two-decade journey to the screen: German novelist Patrick Suskind’s book, the vivid tale of a murderer obsessed with smell, was first published in 1985. Producer Bernd Eichinger was among those who immediately tried to purchase the film rights - but Suskind, famously reclusive, wasn’t selling.

“He’s a very strange character,” said “Perfume” director/co-screenwriter Tom Tykwer, during a recent interview. Suskind doesn’t do interviews or make public appearances; indeed, Tykwer noted, few photos of him exist. When, after 15 years, Suskind finally agreed to sell the movie rights, Tykwer met with him - “just once. It was very obvious that he didn’t want to be involved. We had a nice dinner, he wished me good luck. I don’t even know if he’s seen the movie.”

Tykwer, the German writer/director of the 1998 art-house hit “Run Lola Run,” joined the creative process after Eichinger and co-writer Andrew Birkin had completed a first draft. “Some of the basics were in place,” said Tykwer of that early version, several years ago. But the three writers would continue to struggle through some 23 rewrites, over more than two years. The problem, said Tykwer, was the rather unusual hero.

“It’s the tension that rules the novel: to make him interesting enough for an audience not to drop when he starts killing,” Tykwer said. He drew a parallel between his film and Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which had to find the same balance. “It really focuses on a guy, you go along on his struggle. (It’s the story of) a nobody trying to be a somebody. It’s absolutely human.”

In translating the novel to the screen, the filmmaker needed to find a way to use cinematic language to express the book’s vivid sense of smell.

“I wasn’t really worried,” said Tykwer. “The book doesn’t smell, and it’s about the description of smell.”

The sense is used as a powerful metaphor: Jean-Baptiste, the murderer, is obsessed by odors, particularly that of young women, but can’t smell himself. (In German, Tykwer said, there’s a phrase that literally translates as “I can’t smell the guy,” which means, “I don’t like him.”)

Working with director of photography Frank Griebe, Tykwer used lavish color to appeal to the senses, using techniques that allowed them to enhance and change hues in post-production (for example, a dead girl’s skin goes from reddish to blue-white). Though the film is lushly beautiful in many scenes, he worked hard at not making it precious.

“Most of the period films present a very pretty surface, but they bathe themselves in aesthetic bravura,” he said, shaking his head. His goal was to create “a very contemporary, modern movie set in the 18th century.”

Now that the film’s long journey has finally ended, Tykwer said he was looking forward to seeing it again, with an audience. “Like a child,” he said, “it’s suddenly on its own.”

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