Interview with Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente

The coolest couple in movies, Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente, have ordered iced coffees from room service. After talking to interviewers all day, they need a boost. When the drinks arrive in tall glasses, topped with whipped cream, we all three ooh and ahh. They still take delight in small pleasures.

Both filmmaker and actress grew up in small German towns, the 36-year-old Tykwer in Wuppertal, the 27-year-old Potente in Munster (so small that there were no movie theaters). She became interested in acting on stage from an early age, and she attended New York's Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, before she became a professional actress in 1996. Since that time, she has made thirteen German films and tv movies, and then, in 1997-98, Run, Lola, Run changed her life -- not only did she meet Tykwer, but she also became suddenly recognized around the globe and opened the door to big US-made movies. Earlier this year, Potente appeared in Blow, as Johnny Depp's dead girlfriend, and will be seen this fall in The Bourne Identity opposite Matt Damon. But she's not interested in moving completely into the Hollywood mainstream, and it's clear why: mainstream: Potente and Tykwer share a sincere intimacy and mutual appreciation, not to mention a visible passion for what they do together.

For their new movie, The Princess and the Warrior, Tykwer and Potente worked together on the script, developing the complicated relationship between her character, the psychiatric nurse Sissi, and an emotionally damaged ex-soldier named Bodo (Benno Furmann). They fall into a peculiar romance, initiated when he performs an emergency tracheotomy on her, on the pavement under the truck that has just run her down. Though he takes off after performing this miracle, Sissi becomes determined to find him, to embrace what she sees as their shared fate.

PopMatters: The two movies that you've made together are very different romances, from each other, but also from the usual movie romances.

Franka Potente: I'm so uncomfortable, especially in emotional situations, having to say sentences that don't feel right. As an actor -- or really, as any kind of person sensitive to it -- we know how [romantic] situations feel, because they affect us so much. When the writing is not good, I feel almost raped. With Tom, there was never a problem because he's not asking that from you: his writing always feels right. Of course, that can make it harder too, because you have to be very true to it. With this movie, once the train was set on the rails, there was no way back. Once we established that it was going to be intense, honest, and real -- and therefore painful -- then you can't go back, you have to stretch for every scene. And to do that, you have to have someone, a partner and a director, who is with you. If the writing is not like that, then it doesn't matter how you stretch, and you can actually do wrong by stretching. You can't turn it into something highly intellectual if it's meant to be Scream.

PM: Tom, you seem to have an affinity for characters who are complex but who don't say much. How do they come to you?

Tom Tykwer: It's not verbal. For instance, Sissi and Bodo have an extraordinary body language, that screams the contradictions and different energies they represent, how difficult it will be for them to get together, but also how great it will be if they do. They're absolutely complementary, and that's why they're good for each other. They're like twins or mirrors of each other, but have a hard time finding out about that aspect of each other. That was something we constructed in the writing, because Franka was there when I was writing it.

FP: Also, we were translating it, to understand ourselves what it means.

TT: I was typing and she was walking up and down, like, "You think this way?"

FP: It works in this absurd way. I think if somebody watched all of us on set, it would be hard. Because as Tom says, the characters are not "out-spoken," and that makes it harder to communicate what they want to express. It's more about suggesting.

TT: I think it's also about getting a collective understanding of the film's mood. The basic thing that transports you, or asks you to join, in a movie, is an atmosphere. Here, it's strange, the combination of the fairy-tale-ish part and the reality-based part; it's so much about the toughness and sadness of real life. And you have this character, Sissi, being this totally weird mixture, half naive and half extremely experienced. She has a specific experience, with strange and special people [her patients], but she has no idea what the rest of reality actually is. When [viewers] relate to the film in a strong sense, they don't point to a certain idea. They more often point to the ambience, the general approach of the film, which takes you on a voyage.

PM: On that point, can you talk about the hospital scenes, which have a more intense "feeling" than many psychiatric ward scenes in movies.

TT: This intensity is what we both experienced, because we both spent time in psychiatric wards for research, and my impression was that so few films represent the normality of that. People live there and use rituals, like any family has its rituals. Most of the time during the day at the hospital, not very much happens, but there is a potential that everybody carries around inside of themselves, a potential that anything can happen. There's a low-key high tension, and you have no idea what's going to happen next. I think there's a strong connection between the asylum and the film's structure that I subconsciously conceived.

PM: One of the more startling moments comes when Werner [one of Sissi's patients] comes out of the dark and hits her, and she handles it without missing much of a beat, just asking, "What is it this time?"

TT: And you know, this is how it is. You have to be prepared all the time, and the people there sense that. Boom. There's a high energy, and doubt, about everything.

FP: For the first two days I was working at the asylum, I was so exhausted. I was working as a "nurse": they slipped me in with glasses and a new name. Soon I started feeling a little more comfortable, because I saw what the other nurses did. Then I decided to sit in the patients' seating area, to expose myself toward them, just a little chitchat here and there. And all of a sudden this guy turns toward me and starts telling that he just ate yogurt, and it's diffusing in his blood right NOW. I was taken aback, like, "Really!?" Then he said, "You have cameras behind your eyes." And I didn't know what to say: it didn't match, what he was saying, and I was trying to make sense of it. Was it because I was wearing glasses? That sort of thing was constant, you have to have all these reflexes: Get up NOW. Turn around NOW. Don't say anything NOW. I was so exhausted.

PM: It is like there's a continuous present, no past, no future.

FP: And no borders. It can be like, you're far away from someone, then the next minute, it's vhhooop -- you're right next to one another.

PM: Some of the sets in the film also seem to externalize that kind of speed and immediacy, like that super-sleek bank.

TT: [Laughs.] That bank is like science fiction from the seventies, like The Omega Man or something. It's actually a building from the seventies, and it's the biggest bank in that town. I used to go there when I was a boy; it's my hometown [Wuppertal].

PM: So this film involved digging through memories for you?

TT: In a way, yes. But not so much being nostalgic about the place, but about what you do to a place when you look at it in a certain way. We were trying hard to get a strong subjectivity into the movie, for both characters. Sissi walks through this city with these children's eyes that transform it into a fairy tale forest, where everything is to be discovered, and there's no prejudgment about everything. She meets Bodo, a guy with guns who's obviously not a nice guy, but she doesn't think he's worse than all the other guys she already knows, so why should she be afraid of him? It's something I admire, an ability that you have when you're a child, because you're under-experienced. Of course, it has dangers, but it has something that is amazing, this power of ...

FP: ... disarming.

TT: Yes, it is a disarming power. And, it is a strong connection to your fantasy, and your beautiful picture that you make yourself from the world, related to your dreams. The most stupid streets that you walk on your way to school, when you were 7 or 8 or 12, as you walk, half-asleep, the trees can turn into wonderful forest and dangers waiting for you: it can be a mythical, mystical place. But everybody who came with me [to Wuppertal], the crew, they said, "What? We're going to stay 16 weeks here!? Hell!" And then, with [working on] the film, they slowly started to be taken into Sissi's perspective, transforming the town into something more magical and beautiful. That's like the characters, who aren't the great guys on first sight. It was an issue for the film, to get the audience to take time to get to know somebody, and not make them be shiny super-heroes on first sight. I think it takes three-quarters of an hour to see them. I feel like the breakthrough scene, when I see it with an audience, is when Sissi goes to the gun shop and makes the blind guy fall down and pretend to have a fit, and suddenly, people are thinking, "Wow, she's amazing!" For the first time they really enjoy her. And it's wonderful to enjoy someone that you've had time to get to know. You know, because in a regular drama, you have to love somebody before you know him: "This is the hero, so shut the fuck up and love him!"

FP: [Laughs.] Because of a certain outfit, or hair color.

TT: Exactly. Let's dress her in a way that you have to care for her. So we didn't do that with the make-up and the hair. [Laughs.] It wasn't washed very often.

PM: Your career choice seems like a way of revisiting that sense of wonder. Did you both know early what you wanted to do?

TT: I did. Mine is one of those ridiculous careers where I didn't seem to have a choice. The only things that I learned were about films. I'm a specialized person, and luckily, fate welcomed me and said, "There is a path for you to go to become a filmmaker." That's what's similar with us; she was a clown early on.

FP: I always performed when I was a child. My parents got very annoyed, because my brother and I had our little bedrooms upstairs, and I would plaster the house with posters with arrows pointing upstairs: if it was Easter, the signs said, "Easter Show!" Or for Christmas, "Santa Claus Show!" We'd put up dances and performances. Without being conscious about it, I had to do it. It wasn't a choice.

PM: How do you like doing the behind the scenes production and writing now too, with Tom?

FP: I love it. He's really the only director with whom I've enjoyed it. Usually I'm just the actress. I don't think of myself with being a writer, I'm so concerned with my own shit, concerning my job, I don't want to take away somebody else's. I think make-up should do make-up, costumes should do costumes. I really respect all of the departments. So this turned out to be luxurious, and really important for the character. Sissi was the hardest character to get to know, of all the characters I've played so far. And I needed that extra time to get into her shoes, for preparation. Other roles, you can learn tae-kwon-do or visit an asylum for a week, I've done that. But she needed special treatment. And I couldn't have done it without Tom, or Benno, really. The character is not like other characters, where I can base them on a friend, or a smell, whatever. For this one I didn't really have anything on my mind. You had to be brave enough to do these weird things, and you can't watch yourself at the same time. You need a third eye, a partner like Benno, to give you room but also to stand up as support.

PM: It's a complicated structure in the film too, because both characters are equally important, equally subjective.

TT: The balance was an issue for me. I didn't want the film to become [tilted] to one character, though I do think that the whole film is influenced by Sissi. She's pursuing Bodo, so we wait for him to open up to her. Even though she is very close to me, he is the male part of me. I know about his obvious problems, this whole anxiety to open your wounds again, these walls you build when you've been hurt once and don't want to repeat that. This whole idea of not showing emotions, I understand this. That's a very common male attitude, by nature.

PM: But you seem open to the "female" part too.

TT: Absolutely, I'm not trying to say what people should be like, but to observe how people are. I'm trying to show male and female behavior and how they struggle with each other.

PM: Franka, how are you feeling about your career now, after becoming so visible with Lola?

FP: I've done this job now for six years, and I'm getting closer to finding what I want or don't want, which is always influenced by what I just did. But my longings don't change because the American market is opened up now for me. I've done two movies in America now, but I still did what I know how to do. I didn't change anything, attitude-wise or work-wise. It sometimes collides with your partners, because they do it differently. But you have to have a thick skin. You have to say, "Look guys, there's something else that I know and that works for me." It's like being an exchange student. But I couldn't handle it in any other way.

by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor

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