Uncommon Scents
An Interview with Tom Tykwer
By James Crawford

The problems of adapting literature to the screen are legion, but few novels are as resistant to cinematic translation as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind’s macabre, serious, sometimes self-consciously ridiculous picaresque about a man born with an extraordinary sense of smell and an absent moral compass. Following the fictional Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from pauper to master perfumer to serial killer, Süskind’s prose is obstinately unfilmable, being intoxicated with the sensory minutiae of 18th -century France—especially its olfactory squalor and splendor. My first question to Tom Tykwer, director of Perfume’s film version—perhaps the holiday season’s least digestible entry as it so faithfully hews to the novel’s heady mix of solemnity, irony, comedy, and corporeal horror—therefore had to do with issues of adaptation.

Reverse Shot: The novel is very concerned with sensory experience, and there are long passages dealing with the feel and smell of the world around the main character; how do you go about transmitting the olfactory experience to film, which is an audiovisual medium?

Tom Tykwer: First of all, the most important part for me in capturing the novel’s essence was not so much this thing about smelling; it was more that I wanted not to lose the tonality of it, the atmospheric style. Andrew Birkin, the screenwriter, who did the script with me and Berd Eichinger, was the major voice in being able to translate this absolutely individual and specific mix of tragedy and irony from the novel into a screenplay. Once I felt like, “Okay, that’s preserved,” I think the next step was to think of a way to approach the whole idea of someone experiencing the world through the nose. For me, it was always the best choice to say, “Let’s stick as close to the character as we can,” and not so much to recreate an olfactory universe in a way that you smell it but in a way that we follow this guy through the world in his mode—and his mode is totally nose-driven. He’s obsessed with his nose, and of course he has an exceptionally good nose, so it’s like an instrument for him that he really plays well. Our idea was not so much about smelling things, but that it’s much more about understanding how somebody encounters the world and taking in his way of picking elements, grabbing them, and being greedy about details, because he’s a collector. He’s a collector in the most classical sense, and the ideology of the collector is not so much a quality distinction but rather to get as many as possible of the unknown—smells or items, and in this case it’s smells. There’s this line, “He doesn’t differentiate between what are commonly considered to be good smells from bad, he just wants them as long as they’re new ones,” and this kind of fanatical collector’s attitude translated well into camera movements and the whole drive in the film.

RS: I’m particularly interested in the film’s visual treatment, particularly in the way you use color. How exactly did you get inside Grenouille’s head, and convey how he experiences the world on-screen?

TT: Of course it worked on several levels. For me, the way into the world of smells, and the specific atmosphere of his film, was definitely the music. Developing the music for this film was particularly important because we started from day one. When I sat down with the writing team, Andrew and Bernd, I also sat down with Reinhold [Heil] and Johnny [Klimek], my two co-composers and we started composing, even more than year before the film was even greenlit. That was quite interesting for me because when you write a screenplay, what you investigate most is the structure and maybe the motivations of the characters, but when you compose the music, and when you do it parallel, even more so, I think you understand much more about how you intend the atmosphere to be—the emotions, the abstract regions. Once we finally got to shooting, after more than two years, the fascinating thing was that I had a very clear vision of this film’s inner life. Still, of course, it needs to be awakened now; it helped very much that we had the music on hand, and sometimes could play it to the actors on set.

I also had decided that, because the film was supposed to be quite a truthful perspective on 18th-century life, I didn’t want to use many visual effects, at least not for the visual representation of smell. I never wanted to have green…fog…shapes going through the room, and then seeing CGI particles of pheromones flying into his nose. Because then it becomes a fantastical tale that’s not really believable—the more reality we could pump into this tale, the more I felt that people would connect, and buy it not only as a period picture but a film that really tries to capture the time through a very specific perspective. You can do a lot with colors of course; with colors we could work endlessly—one example is when he smells this first girl that he kills, and he smells her until she’s “empty.” There’s this whole progression of desaturation in postproduction of her body. In the beginning you still feel like the blood is just pumping through her veins, and a then few minutes later when he smells her and she’s completely empty, she’s totally blue and pale and white..

RS: You talk about how he doesn’t differentiate between bad smells and good smells, and there’s the same lack of differentiation in moral terms too. In Grenouille’s mind, there’s no difference between acts, moral or not. How do you sympathize with—and essay an understanding of—someone with no morality?

TT: First, you need to find the right actor [Ben Whishaw], and that was a long, long voyage. I was never really worried that it would be difficult to make people connect with Grenouille, because what’s driving him is so human. He’s a lonesome man, a nobody who longs to be somebody, unlike anybody else. He doesn’t want to experience too much of the meaninglessness of existence, as we all try to avoid. That’s the very human idea behind it. There’s something about this one thing that we all believe is transcending us from the problem of being just useless in this existence: the fact that we can love and be loved. He longs for recognition, but also for love; on top of all this, he doesn’t have the social skills or competence to encounter people properly and look where there’s love to be found, which is also something we all know about—on different degrees and levels, but we all know how tough it sometimes is to wake up in the morning, to look at yourself in the mirror and see how much more there could be in terms of beauty and intelligence, and you have to live this mediocre existence. Then you put something on yourself, you dress yourself, whatever, you make up yourself, you put, uh, perfume on, and then you try to sell yourself a little bit better.

The ending is very much about how no matter how much you sell yourself as something spectacular, which you probably aren’t, what you’re ultimately looking for is someone who just likes you the way you are without any of these disguises or attempts to heighten your appearance. That’s the tragic revelation for Grenouille at the very end of the film: the more effort you spend in creating a surface for yourself that is attractive to people, the more you will be disconnected with the possibility of receiving truthful love or affection. We all know it from pop stars. Very often they stand there and you see them amongst thousands of people who are screaming at them; at the same moment they’re in ecstasy, you also how they’re in agony because of their loneliness.

RS: It’s a very rock-star moment in the end as Grenouille waves the perfumed handkerchief in front of the people who have come to witness his execution…

TT: It was meant to be. We wanted to shoot it a little bit like a pop concert, with lots of cameras and getting the people really in the mood for taking off on this really extreme experience.

RS: In that sense, there’s a bit of an allegory regarding the cult of the genius…

TT: The cult of the genius is one of the movie’s subjects, but he considers himself to be an artist, and therefore the objects of attraction that become his victims are just elements of a sculpture. In his amoral perspective, he never really considers them to be victims. He doesn’t even understand that he’s a murderer in a way, because he’s so much pursuing this one goal—the artist who destroys his object. I don’t know, I think we all would kill for this.

RS: This film is much bigger, more grandiose than anything you’ve done. Was all this unwieldy machinery, and working with all these period piece accessories and a massive cast, limiting or liberating in trying to tell a very intimate, singular story?

TT: We didn’t really have all this machinery at our disposal. The budget sounds maybe high, but not considering what we had to pull off. Shooting circumstances were sometimes much more intense and complicated than they were on Run Lola Run, so the limitations were equal as they were for little money for intense ambitions. There were 110 locations that all had to be dressed up, thousands and thousands of extras that had to be dressed up, every single person had to have teeth made. It was my happiest shoot, that’s what I do remember. I think the happiness came from the excitement that everyone had on set and that I got along so well with my actors, which for me is always the most important thing. I can prepare myself to death, but if you don’t get along, then it’s stress. If you’re psychologically tense with the work, it can kill you; I don’t think you can survive it.

When you shoot period, you know it’s going to be expensive—a never-ending chain of a million details have to be taken care of. All the props have to be produced: there’s not a single flacon that existed, we did them all. Then you go through all the liquids: Coca-Cola turned out to be one of the good colors for perfume. We had so much stuff to pick up on because Grenouille is so curious with his nose. I love that so often tiny background actions became foreground action, because Grenouille was so greedy and curious.

RS: What about that morbid mystique that surrounds the character? Whenever he moves on from a certain place in the film, someone he leaves behind inevitably dies.

TT: It’s part of this ironic-tragic mix that Süskind invented for this book. I love that you can laugh about the film yet at the same time you can connect with its deeper melancholy. There’s also something extremely romantic about the film, about his desire. Of course it goes a very wicked way. What I also liked about the entire project was that it was an amalgam of all my favorite genres: there’s definitely a horror film in there, but there’s a romantic-classical story hidden in there; it’s a big tragedy, with somebody who goes on a quest, and the moment of his maximum success is also the moment of his maximum failure.

RS: You seem to be a director of dissection—in Run Lola Run, for instance you’re dissecting the medium of cinema and picking apart time. In Perfume, it’s very much about revealing that artistic process, especially about the craft of perfumery. Is that something that interests you?

TT: In this particular case, it was, because Andrew Birkin, the writer, was very much into re-creating all these methods, and getting them really believable. People shouldn’t feel cheated. It’s one of the parts of the novel that I appreciated: you really feel like you’ve acquired some new knowledge. You really should get a sense of how it’s done, at least in general strokes, especially in that sequence with Dustin Hoffman. I love in films where that comes along, because the story keeps going, but you gain some knowledge, too.