After only three films, director Tom Tykwer is already being hailed as German cinema's bright new hope. His debut Die Tödliche Maria made people in his native country sit up and take notice, but now with the intriguing Winterschläfer (English title: Wintersleepers) and especially the high-speed, high-style Lola Rennt (English title: Run Lola Run), which already won the best foreign film award at Sundance, Tykwer is gearing up for an international breakthrough.
A man with a distinct style, who combines a fresh look at genre conventions with more personal cinema, his films leave an audience (and journalists) with lots to talk about. For some strange reason, though, we started talking about Hong Kong films...
Tom Tykwer: It's fascinating what they're doing in Hong Kong. I mean, there's also a lot of trash coming from there, it's not easy to separate, you can really get buried. There's one hundred films and ninety are not so interesting. But still there's a pretty high amount of very well done films. It's not that I see Hong Kong films every week, but I like them. The good ones.
JV: You're not influenced by them?
Tom Tykwer: I don't know, I feel more influenced by the films they were influenced by, to be honest. In a way they're very much people who learned to quote other films very well and to overdo it in a completely crazy way. So it becomes something with a quality of its own. I like that. If you're still aware of where you come from and what your influences were, but you make something of it your own, something that is special and has a unique quality and doesn't feel like a rip-off. Of course that's what I meant about trash, you know, there's a lot of just rip-off Hong Kong movies, or even Hong Kong movies that rip off other Hong Kong movies.
I think they are very strongly influenced by the American action films of the seventies, of the earlier seventies. Like the good Clint Eastwood films. And the only opposite is that they turn it absolutely around - of course this is also through comic strips - but American films of the seventies had one big difference: they were very slow. That's amazing you know, all these films we like very much, like Bullit with Steve McQueen, that's even from '68, or films from that era from John Boorman, people like that. It's amazing to see those films now, because they're so slow. But still, the effects they use and what we really like about them is exactly what Hong Kong directors took over, and even today they take over in America, and just speed it up. They speed it up extremely so you don't recognise it anymore.
JV: And the action scenes are more important than the rest of the film.
TT: In Bullit the action scenes were the central thing too, or The French Connection and all that. Of course what you remember about The French Connection seems to be the action. But I believe, and that's why I feel very close to these films, that they have this strength and they are classics because they have very fascinating characters. They have a realism in the characterisation which you rarely find today. For example The French Connection as an action film, it's amazing when you look at it and see Gene Hackman portraying this really horrible, ugly guy who's really a crazy character. But you care for someone who is so horrible. That's amazing. You kind of get into his frantic attitude about following this other guy. I really like very much that they were able to make us follow persons who, if you met them on the streets you'd hate them but through the films you get into their minds and you get very subjective in these kinds of films and through the subjectivity you care for them.
I mean, the most famous example is of course Taxi Driver, a film where you identify with a really fascist guy in a way. He's not ideological, he's just somebody who... It's interesting to see someone who, just because of his loneliness, turns into kind of a radical person. You follow him up to a very high degree of unpleasant ideas. Which is the alarming idea about this film, that you can identify with someone who is so strange and so cruel also. But that's the fascinating aspect of it, because you really get tempted by the things he's following and that makes you think for yourself how big that part in yourself is. So I think characters are very important to films generally. Of course I love watching Hong Kong movies, but in most of them I miss this personal aspect.
JV: The first film of yours I saw was Winterschläfer. It was a complete eye-opener. In that film there are also very strong characters and personalities who grow in the movie, while you're watching.
TT: Sometimes a movie doesn't offer you this opportunity, you can't change opinions about characters several times in a film like Lola Rennt, you know. You have to be clear about the characters in the beginning and then you just go for it, but in Wintersleepers it was really a different approach. You get to know somebody, then maybe at first sight you don't like him. In real life that very often happens, where you realise "Oh, he's not so bad, he's really a nice guy". And that's what I like, if you can manage to do this in films. It's really not very popular anymore to do this. Usually a film will give you a quick idea how someone will be and then the story continues and in the end you don't have any surprise about that.
An exception for example that I liked a lot was LA Confidential. I thought it was a good film. The amazing thing about the film was that you realise you weren't used at all to having characters develop during the film, always in different areas. The three main guys, you always switch your opinion about them during the film. In the beginning you think "Okay, it's the tough guy who's the hero" and then he turns out to be really horrible in a way and you really turn away from him and go with the other guy, the newcomer, and then he turns out to be really pushy against the others and then it's Kevin Spacey you really like very much. You start to really like him and then he gets shot (laughs).
I loved it. Of course I hated that he got shot, because you started to really like him and the movie was about him at that point, and then, bang, he gets shot. And that's great because the movie took some decisions that really have more to do with real life. Because real life doesn't always have this clear line that movies have to follow sometimes. It just goes like that. You get to know somebody, you lose them and you find them again. I liked it a lot. I wanted to do it in Wintersleepers. The guy who has the accident, who loses his memory. In the beginning I always realise the public dislikes him.
JV: Yes, because he looks kind of creepy. He's almost like Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
TT: Yes, and the more you get to know him, the more you realise he's quite a nice guy and he's desperate, he's a lost person in a way. And in the end you really care about him more than the four other guys in the film.
JV: I thought he was a very fascinating character, because he lost part of his brain and can't remember anything for more than a few hours.
TT: Yes, he's lost his short-term memory. There are different parts in the brain, there's long-term memory and short-term memory. It's also a sickness.
JV: That seems to be a theme in your films. It's all about perception of the way time evolves. Is that something you consciously put in?
TT: Yes, it seems so. The other film which was also released here, Die Tödliche Maria, also deals with this subject of time ruling not only our perception, but really our daily life. Film of course is very much centered on the idea of time generally, because film itself is a way to... what's the word - die Zeit anhalten, die Zeit festhalten - you put it in a box and it stays still. We can still see Clark Gable, although he's already a rotting pile of ashes, you know (laughs). But we can look at him and he looks great. For us, that is one of the most fascinating things about why we go to see films. Because it seems like you've frozen time, you keep the beauty of people for example, they don't age.
On the other hand, I believe that time itself can be ruled in films generally. You can just do everything you like. You can stretch time. Usually what film does is to tell a whole life in ninety minutes, or one week in ninety minutes. Events that take a much longer time you squeeze into ninety minutes.
So I thought it would be interesting, especially in Lola, to stretch time out and tell twenty minutes in one and a half hours and see what happens then. You stretch it out and suddenly you see all these little spaces in between, you can look into small channels in this stretched time period. Which allowed me to follow different lines of the story, to say "What's this person doing by the way?" or "What's happening to that one?". And then you just follow this life for a moment. I love the contradiction. You're only able to do this in movies because in real life it always has the same rhythm, a second stays a second, a minute stays a minute. We can't help it, we can't go back in time, unless we have the machine that Michael J. Fox has (laughs).
And that's amazing. We can't do it, but in film we can do it just like that, because editing allows us to. So we can decide to tell twenty minutes in one and a half hours but a whole life in three seconds. I really wanted to take this idea to the absolute max. Lola is also very much a film about the possibilities of time manipulations and speed changes in film generally. I think you can't tell a life faster than we did. That's even faster than any Hong Kong film (laughs).
JV: And you take it in so fast too, because in five seconds you know about this person's whole life.
TT: Of course we had to think about it a lot, how we were going to tell this. The images had to be very clear, you cannot use abstract images. You have to be really clear, like if somebody dies you just show the cross on the grave. Then you really understand he's dead (laughs). Or if you have an accident, you really show the blood, or with an operation, you really show the operation up close. It has to be explicit. That's obvious, but it was still a big task. In the editing I loved it, to find out how fast you can go and how short can you make it and still have people follow it. That's also an experience that I realised. Everybody told me if this had been done in the sixties, nobody would have followed.
It just has to do with the fact that our experience and the we way take in images is much faster. Due to Hong Kong films, due to MTV of course. But the speed of films generally, the editing is speeded up incredibly. Sometimes in a very interesting way, sometimes in a very stupid way, I feel. My favourite anti-example is Armageddon. The film is completely destroyed by editing. They always cut, all the time. People are just talking like we are and still it's cut, cut, cut. And you think "Why the editing, they're just talking? Why can't I see a face just for a while?". It's horrible. They just feel that it's modern, but they don't understand what the idea behind editing is. You can focus on things, but they don't focus. They just adapt this idea of MTV, of these video clips.
There are good videos and bad videos and the good videos really care for the song they are about and they really try to find the right images and the right expression of the song. They go to create a small piece of art for themselves. Then the bad ones, and there are of course much more of them, they're just commercials to make the viewer buy the record. They could just show a sign saying "Buy the record" all the time, because the idea is just to keep your eyes' attention there, so they just show exploding bombs, bananas, tits, everything behind each other. In a very fast sequence so you can't move your eyes away from it. That's why you stick to the music and then the next day you hear it in the record store and you say "Oh, somehow I'm supposed to buy this". I hate that because there is no inspiring interaction between me and the product, it's just intelligent commercial work.
I think Armageddon and films like that just adapt this attitude and do not understand that we don't really care for seeing this kind of stuff. We go to see it again because it has this event structure, this rollercoaster feeling. I love rollercoaster movies, but for me that's the difference between people who go for it really out of passion, like Jackie Chan is doing - with Jackie Chan you always feel the passion in the films, that's making them so sympathetic, that's why you like watching it - and these technical, incredible films where you don't feel any joy behind it. Where you just feel they had the money and just wanted to blow your mind and afterwards you feel exhausted, you feel empty. When I see Jackie Chan, I feel really delighted, because I feel this kind of energy, this kind of positive energy. It says yes to very positive elements in life, although it's very violent. He's not into killing people. There's never any blood in it.
That's the difference between these rollercoaster movies of today and the good films from Spielberg for instance. You go to see the good Spielberg action films, he's done better and worse, but in the good action films you can see he really likes them himself and he really goes for his personal anxieties and fears and that's why they're really suspenseful. He's afraid of what he's showing himself. You always realise whether the maker behind a film is involved in this kind of manner or not. Or whether someone is just going through the recipe of "Oh, the kids like this" or "The kids will be afraid of it". You can feel that they're lying.
Of course in Armageddon you get to see some amazing effects and so on, but imagine seeing Armageddon every week, you'd get really frustrated. Still, it frustrated me that it went so well, that it was such a big success. I understand why it did so well, it had an all-star cast, the effects were really amazing. Like with Independence Day, it was amazing how it looked although it was really stupid. You didn't care, it was so amazing so you go to see it. I really don't know anyone who saw Independence Day for example and thought it was really a good film. Everybody said it was crazy or exciting and nobody really talked about it. Everybody just went to see it.
JV: Are those the kind of movies that are remembered in two years time?
TT: I don't think so. Maybe the very big ones. Independence Day left some kind of impact, just because of the size of the spaceships. You'd never seen those kinds of big spaceships before. Twelve year old kids are going to see this now, for them it's the first time seeing films like that on a big screen, because they only saw Star Wars on video. For me, I was never so infected by Star Wars. When it came out I was twelve. I went there and I remember I saw it once and two months later Close Encounters came out - which I personally think is a much better film - and I saw that one about fifteen times in that period when it came out.
Of course it was great because it has interesting characters, Richard Dreyfuss' character is so amazing, but I remember I was very impressed by this big ship which comes from behind the mountain and the size. Size mattered at that moment (laughs). I was really impressed. It was the same effect with Independence Day. Kids, twelve year olds, will remember it as being very important to them in their youth because it was so enormously big.
JV: But Star Wars had some big ships.
TT: Yes, but you didn't see them in comparison to anything. They were only in space. You knew it was big, but it didn't feel so big. Just the idea of a ship as big as Los Angeles, that's very frightening. I don't know why we're talking about American films.
We're in Europe, we're in Rotterdam, we're having a talk about a European film, a German movie (laughs).
JV: But you use special effects in your films.
TT: I like special effects.
JV: In Winterschläfer the end shot of the guy falling down, that was pretty amazing.
TT: What special effect do you mean?
JV: That you are flying over with a plane while the guy is falling down and down.
TT: That was no special effect. That was real, the guy was jumping. Lots of people thought it was done with blue screen or some type of trick. It was real. And he had to jump thirteen times, the poor guy. It's really a difficult thing he did. It's amazing to do, fun to do.
JV: It seems like you had a pretty big budget to do that movie.
TT: Action is not that expensive, really, unless you do big explosions or something. Because you have a small unit usually, a second unit that goes without sound, you have no expensive actors, you just go with stunt people and some technicians. It's a really nice way of working, because you're a really concentrated, small crew. So it's not so expensive doing action. It's much more expensive to do big shots with actors and lots of extras and everything like that.
Wintersleepers was much more expensive than Lola was. Lola was like three million marks, which is about three million guilders. Wintersleepers was more like five million, 4.8 or something. Because it was shot in snow. It was horrible to shoot. Being on a mountain with sixty people waiting for you to say something and you don't even know where the wind is blowing.
JV: But it looks very beautiful because of the snow.
TT: Of course, but it was horrible to shoot. The snow is never where you want it to be. It's always like - you want to shoot in that direction, but it's all green there and the snow is behind you. And then you say "Let's put the snow from there to there" and you take one hundred trucks, take the snow, put it over there (laughs). That's really true, you can go crazy about it.
And then when you really need some bad weather, you just have bright sun. When you really need the sun, you have snowstorms. We even had a production manager being hit by lightning. But he survived.
The shoot was more exhausting than Lola, although Lola really looked much more exhausting to shoot. The main technical problem with Lola was how to keep up with her running. Because she was so fast and it's really not easy to run after a person who is really running, to keep up with the camera. You have to have all this technical stuff and sometimes even light and put it on a small vehicle that's really fast. If you want to stay close with the character, stay in focus and keep up with the camera.
The main thing you have to solve is to get the characters across. Once the character is established and you really believe it and you follow her and you like her and you identify with her as a person, then the technical stuff is minor. Because if you don't care for her, all the technical stuff doesn't matter. Nobody will be interested in her.
The reason why the film works is only due to the acting of the two persons in the beginning. That phone conversation works so well. For an actor, that's pretty hard because they have so little time to establish their character, to get emotionalised about them, because you just have one phone call and then it goes off, and you have no time to lose. Other films take half an hour to establish characters and everything, so I wanted them to be really strong in this scene. So what we did was we shot a whole day only on her on the telephone and a whole day only on him. We really took time for it, rehearsed it a lot. We also had the other actor actually on the phone. We didn't just have somebody read out the lines, it was really the actors, acting, on the phone.
JV: The guy looks like he's really panicking.
TT: Yeah. He was, he's a good actor.
TM: This scene ties in with what you said earlier about seventies action films. Lola is a very likable character, but just like that she'll commit a crime or help her boyfriend rob a supermarket.
TT: She wants him not to do it, of course. She says "Don't do it", but when she arrives, she's too late. So then she helps him, because it's out of emergency. It's not like she wants him to do it. She loves him. The idea of the film is of course that for the sake of love she does everything. I wanted it to have a purely passionate, instinctive structure, the whole film. That someone who's so much driven by his passion and his instincts can go beyond any border.
For me that was really important. The way she acts makes clear to us that she's not used to this. She's not used to handling a gun, not at all. She says "How does this work?" and then it goes off. It's not like she's cool and just holds the gun out. It hate this. I hate it when films show people like us, we've never held a gun in our lives, and they suddenly start shooting. I hate this. You always see these nineteen year olds running around with big guns and acting like everybody has it at home and it's your favourite toy. It's not true and it's still not true, even in America. Okay, maybe they have seen a gun and seen a dead body, but people see dead bodies in films all the time, everybody gets shot all the time. I didn't like this and although this film really gets around with these modern phenomena, I didn't like it to be like that, because I didn't think it was believable and I want people to always stay believable.
The character of Manni, he has a gun, but we were very much careful about what kind of gun this guy had. Always they have these huge guns, with revolvers and really cool looking, but he has this tiny, stupid gun that you get from your boss, when he says "Okay, you need a gun, take this shitty thing". It's a shitty, small thing and he really doesn't look cool with it. He wants to be cool, he's a wannabe. I think that's all parts that make this character believable.
So the bad things she's doing, she's forced to do and I think the way she acts makes clear to us that this could happen to us in exactly the same way. If it would happen and if we were so much in love with someone, we might dare to do all these things she's doing. But still always with this desperate pressure inside of her. I think she also plays it something like "What am I doing here?" It's not "Okay I'm cool enough to do all this".
TM: What about the use of the cartoon sequences?
TT: Do you like them?
TM: I do like them. Because they really speed up the film and they allow you to do things you wouldn't be able to do, as easily, in live action.
TT: Yes, that's one reason. When you use animation, you get the audience more into the feeling that this film is ready for anything. The movie anyhow uses more or less most of the possibilities you have in filmmaking. In narrative filmmaking. There's video, there's black and white, there's colour, there's slow motion, all the elements are there. I didn't just use those in a way that we just spoke about, like some of the bad videoclips are done, just to throw as much effect as possible at the audience just to blow their minds, just to make them feel it's exciting. It's a film that handles the subject of 'what chances and possibilities do you have in life'. Of course I thought the visual answer to do this must exactly be 'what chances and possibilities do you have in cinema' and how can you use them?
So I really cared a lot about how any visual decision and also any decision to do with sound was related to the level of the film. I'm not using video because it looks good now, but I'm using video for example for a certain level of the film, which means the whole world around Lola and Manni is always shot in 35 millimeter, because for me, that's the only real world in this film. Their love makes it become true. Anything else which is parallel, like the father with his girlfriend and all the elements that are happening while Manni and Lola are not present, they are all shot in video because that's a kind of synthetic reality, a parallel reality to theirs. Flashbacks are in black and white, flash forwards are photographed. But we sticked to this zuordnung.
JV: And that makes it very clear for the viewer.
TT: Exactly. Because I didn't want the audience to be confused by watching. Although you see so many elements, I always wanted it to feel comfortable, and be easy to follow. The animation is just one part of it and the animation is also very strictly related to the moment in the staircase where she runs down, which is always where she meets this boy with the dog and so is the first moment when fate turns into a new direction. Of course, because that's the idea that now anything can happen and anything new can happen, and this is very much related to the ideology of animation and of cartoons, because cartoons give you the impression of 'anything goes'. There's no budget in cartoons. You have just the painter who has to paint it and it's just relating to the fantasy of the painter and not so much to budget or whatever.
JV: We were wondering about the soundtrack. Was it released in Germany?
TT: In Germany it was really a big success, the soundtrack record. With the single we even made gold.
JV: Are you a musician in any way?
JV: Were you a musician before you started making movies?
TT: No. I'm a film musician. It's one thing for me. Music and film, I can't distract those from each other.
JV: But so many movies have such horrible soundtracks.
TT: I agree. That's always because they handle it so stupidly. They do it like "Let's shoot the film and then we'll put some music on top of it". Which is stupid, it's a process that grows really together. Like we did. There's three of us, it's done by three musicians, not just me.
JV: Are you guys like a band?
TT: In a way we work like a band, but we're not a band because we're studio musicians and we just do midi-stuff, we're midi crazies (laughs). I think we couldn't do a live performance really (laughs).
JV: You could try it.
TT: Well, I don't care so much. What we did was speak about the process really early on, on the basis of the script. I usually have a lot of music in mind when I'm writing and I already listen to a special kind of music while I'm writing, trying to sort out which direction it's going. With Lola it was always a very strange combination of very classical, orchestral stuff and very modern stuff. When I was writing it, the latest album from Underworld was out, Second Toughest, which I think is pretty strong, I like it.
JV: It's got that same drive.
TT: Yeah, a bit more cold, I think. That's what I mean. I always want a soundtrack to sound very much like... It's not score music they're doing, of course, and it's not meant to be score music. Score for me means to get close to the image and become one with the image. That means you have to have a strong emotional line in it. Which comes through voice very much and through strings. We combined strings with techno beats and stuff like that and it worked very well.
JV: In some dialogue parts in the film, the music is almost turned down, through a filter, but still there in the background. Then we she starts running it picks up again.
TT: Yes. We worked on the first edit of the film, which was more like a rough cut. We took it to the music studio and also made the first lay-outs of the music. Then we could also react already on where it goes up and down. Of course I wanted it to feel like one whole thing, you know, that you don't have the feeling - which is really often happening - that you have five different kinds of music in one film. They just thought "Okay this is a nice song to put here, and that one there". It doesn't feel like one thing.
JV: And it's usually the record company's fault. They say: "You have to put this song in, because we have to sell it".
TT: Yeah, they want to promote certain bands. It's stupid. What we did then, we went back with the lay-out of the music, into the editing room and then made the editing come closer to the music. And then we brought it back into the music studio and made the music come closer to the editing and so on. Back and forth. Because I really believe it has to be one unit in the end. I don't think this film can be watched without music. Not at all. It's very much one thing. The music is the soul and the basic rhythm of the movie.
JV: In Winterschläfer that was the case as well.
TT: Yes, I believe so. It's of course a slow film and the music is slow and it's maybe not so obvious, but it's also very present and there's a lot of music in it.
JV: The first part, where the train is running off the tracks, we hear a sort of Autechre-like techno in the background.
TT: A little bit. That's mainly just a bass drum there. But it's also influenced by stuff that Massive Attack did and some minimalists that I very much like. I really like a Belgian musician called Wim Mertens.
JV: Do you know the Sähkö label, a Finnish label? I think you'd like their music.
TT: There's a lot of Finnish guys I like a lot.
JV: Mika Vainio, Panasonic. Do you know them?
TT: Yes, that's really minimalistic stuff.
JV: Really minimalistic. There are a lot of German guys making excellent music these days, too. Have you heard of people like Mouse On Mars, Kreitler, Funkstörung?
TT: Do you know Notwist? I love them very much. I think they're one of the best bands at the moment. They're these strange South Bavarian guys (laughs). You don't believe when you hear this music, it's completely international, beautiful music and they're from this small part of the South of Munich. Very strange (laughs).
JV: They also do a lot of visual stuff. This is one band that could also do film music easily.
TT: Guess what they're doing now? I produced a new film together with Stefan, our producer, and Notwist is doing the soundtrack. It's really a film that fits very much to it. It's called Absolute Giganten and of course it's about three guys who are the complete opposite (laughs). They spend one last night together before one of them leaves the country, so it's their last farewell night. It's really amazing, because Notwist have this really good horn section and I really think they handle them very well, it's really big music.
JV: Almost like an orchestra.
TT: It's great, they really have a huge sound. It's nice because it still stays intimate. I like that combination of big and intimate. It's what I wanted to do with Lola and Wintersleepers. I like films that give the impression of something big, you know, that it's a big subject and there's really a lot in it, but still you feel in way that it's very personal and intimate and you stay close with one person and really get into it. You have this contradiction in a way.