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Interview: Tom Tykwer Talks 3, Cloud Atlas, and More

Interview: Tom Tykwer Talks 3, Cloud Atlas, and More


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Tom Tykwer has made some interesting films since he skyrocketed to fame on the international film scene in 1998 with his kinetic Run Lola Run. His latest film, 3, is a mature work centered on a fortysomething longtime couple, Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), who fall for the same man, Adam (Devid Striesow). While Hanna becomes empowered by her affair, finding a new sense of confidence, Simon finds comfort with Adam. Tykwer employs his trademark visual flair throughout, using overlapping images to reflect his characters’ interlocked lives. But 3 isn’t interested in addressing the nature of sexuality, focusing instead on the rhythms of life; Tykwer addresses issues of home and family, choice and regret, birth, death, and ghosts. From beginning to end, viewers come to understand and participate in the characters’ routines. On the day before his film’s New York release, and the day before he started shooting his most ambitious effort yet, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with the Wachowski brothers, Tykwer spoke to Slant from Glasgow about 3.

3 opens with a monologue about “harmony, friction, and symmetry.” These themes/ideas represent the characters at various times. How did you conceive the three protagonists and their identities/relationships in this love triangle?

Initially, the story was not a love triangle. In development, it was about a couple. For a long time it was a movie that should have been called 2. For me, what was interesting was not that Hanna and Simon met/fell in love. I made a film about the other end of the rope—what are relationships like when they are lasting very long and are not a mess. [laughs] When we hold on to each other and try to make it work, and all the difficulties of being together for 10-to-15 years. I collected scenes and ideas and snippets of experiences. But what among all those things is going to create the energy for a movie? The movie happened when the third person came into the “boxing ring.” So the symmetry/harmony/friction idea is what keeps relationships alive. [Adam] provides diversions, distractions, and collisions. So there is a certain kind of balance. The friction is what drives the couple toward other people and other objects of desire. I explain how this relationship works. There’s an idea that a couple that lives together for a long time become less like partners, and more like siblings. They can even look alike. They develop more similar interests, they are each others’ major influences, so their object of desire could be the same person.

How do you relate to the characters? What elements in your life became part of their experiences?

A lot of it is about the way people of my generation, who call themselves adults, middle-class Western adults today, are a funny species. The film is about anyone who knows about this crisis we run into because we feel life is static and we long for transition. Once we find something that we are happy with—a profession, a place, a relationship—even though it might be great, we look for reinvention; it’s like a genetic thing—an urge. If people are too much the same, they become mundane and boring. Even as a filmmaker, you can’t escape the fact that it’s you making a film, so you may think it’s the same thing, but you are attracted to new and different challenges. You get super excited to conquer new territories, and once they are conquered you set out for new ones. Or this desire to rely on someone who we can trust and is faithful, yet also have desires totally opposed to this expectation from our partners.

As you often do, you use a complex visual scheme to tell your story—from the overlapping images and dialogue. How did you conceive of your film visually?

It’s hard to put the finger on it. I’m not saying I don’t know, but it’s difficult to describe because it’s very much a step-by-step process. Usually it’s guided by my affection for the potential of cinema to represent the subjective and subjectivity—how film can capture an experience from simultaneously an objective and subjective perspective. You can cut from the point of view of a character to an outside narrator. I conceive of a scene from the perspective of how things feel for the characters, and how are they seen/felt from the character’s interior perspective. That’s not a visual point of view, but how a person can experience a fragment of time—how seconds can be stretched to a longer time frame in a film even though they are short. Or how time flies by, because so much happened and it was so intense. I’m trying to really relate to our inner experiences when I try to conceive visuals. The multi-screen aspects, when we tried to combine a sense of the multitude of life’s experiences and the mess/chaos that we live in everyday. But at the same time, how we put this puzzle together in a seemingly fit and coherent order…I’m really fascinated by that. The day I just had was emotionally and visually overcrowded by experiences. Now I can tell you what I lived through in a way that make senses. I personally organize the images and connect them in my head. I follow the train of thought over action. I don’t care for the objective much.

Why did you select Hanna’s character and not Adam’s to be the apex of the triangle?

It’s probably because I’m most attracted to her [laughs] as a protagonist. I feel close to all three, in terms of what they represent as human beings. I have things in common and connect and deeply sympathize with each of them. But with her, there is maybe the greatest sense of being the most searching of the three. She’s constantly hunting for life experiences that are substantial. And she is in constant reflection about it. So stepping into her head was the most joyful and entertaining of the three of them. But at a certain point, we enjoy all three perspectives, but she’s the most unpredictable one. That’s what keeps movies alive.

What prompted you to include the graphic testicular cancer surgery?

[laughs] Did that make you uncomfortable? I have a certain affection for drastic images in films. A movie about life that doesn’t confront us with drastic imagery, doesn’t represent life. It’s a common factor. I integrated it and related it to our lives; I create shocking images that we relate to. It’s an observational comment that we’re so used to drastic imagery all the time. The internet bombards us with intense imagery. But we also look for it. Turn on the computer and it’s a secret, dark, dangerous, dirty, forbidden machine. Two or three clicks away there is disturbing, confusing imagery and we’re weirdly excited about it. It’s so unlimited it exceeds our fantasies. That makes life so different from previous times. Even watching the news—which you can’t escape—you are used to seeing dead bodies in war, tsunamis, etc. While you eat your cheeseburger!

Simon, has the curious storyline because he suddenly begins a same-sex affair.

All three characters have their own particular, specific arc. I think it is interesting/important that no matter how much 3 races through the narrative and storytelling, they are all grounded in a believable, psychological setting. But I’m not into going for deep motivations here. I am not into psychology. Simon discovers or rediscovers a [sexual] interest he has/did not have for a while. He’s doing this because his life is so shaken up/turned upside down by his disease and death of his mother; these incredible, intense, unexpected things leave him shattered. He looks at his life and wonders, “How much am I living the life I want to? Or doing what I want to do?” It’s not just sexual desire/interest, but that is a part of it. Life can end tomorrow, so what does that mean? “Have I done what I want to do?” It’s not his coming out, but maybe he’s been there, or he was missing it, or he’s got a more open sexual orientation. He loves Hanna and is committed to her. But he follows additional desires he’s ignored for quite a while. They all let things happen because they are in this phase: Is this the rest of my life? The next 20/30 years? And sometimes you try something else—a different partner, profession, or country.

There is a real sensory quality to 3 that I admire—the silence during the sex scenes, the question “What do you smell like?”—a nod to Perfume, perhaps?—and the taste and feel of skin. Can you discuss why you made this film so wonderfully tactile?

A great quality of cinema is that we can be so physically erect. And that it can be a space where you recreate an intensity that is close to experiences. There is no other medium that compares. There is a drastic quality to cinema that I’m interested in investigating. There are different languages in cinema—with physicality and sex. I feel disconnected to films when it comes to sex. The actors aren’t comfortable with each other, or they push so much it looks fake. The reality is beautifully awkward. Before it takes off and gets into a rhythm. When people don’t know each other, well, they are shy, insecure, complicated. You have to understand how the body of the other person’s body functions. The discovery of the body of the other person was something the actors and I talked about. Sex with a new partner versus with someone you know well. The flow of it—new is exciting, but old is comforting. The qualities of sex specifically that are not explored in detail. It’s not often explored that the first kiss of a couple that just got to know each other is an incredibly challenging moment. To get this tension into these moments was a long, winding investigation with the actors. We agreed on what we didn’t want to see, so we developed what we wanted to see—a real experience in our lives in sexual encounters.

You started making small films, and have since made more big budget films, culminating in Cloud Atlas right now. How do you think 3 stands in your career?

I love it. I don’t care what a film costs, as long as the money is appropriate to the picture we’re making. It’s the story, the script, and the characters that excite me. 3 wasn’t expensive because it was about contemporary people in Berlin. Each film is a bit different.