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Tom Tykwer Stops to Smell the “Perfume”

Tom Tykwer Stops to Smell the “Perfume” (photo)

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Since exploding onto the international film scene with 1998’s beloved techno-beat thriller “Run, Lola, Run,” German writer-composer-director Tom Tykwer has demonstrated a natural flair for the hyperkinetic in such titles as “The Princess and the Warrior” and “Heaven.” Many years in the making, Tykwer’s new hotness is “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” an adaptation of the monstrously popular novel by Patrick Süskind. Set in 18th-century Paris (but surprisingly without the anachronistic flash in which Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” bathed), the film stars Ben Whishaw as a peculiar orphan named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the anti-hero who discovers from an early age that he possesses the most powerful nose in, perhaps, all the world. Bought out of slavery by Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a fading perfumer who recognizes his gift for scent-making, Grenouille’s raw talent is honed to that of a genius craftsman, yet it still can’t satisfy the gaping hole blackening his very soul. Without proper parenting, Grenouille grows up to develop a skewed sense of ethics and morality, and soon begins to leave behind him a trail of destruction as he attempts to capture the greatest smelling perfume… derived from the flesh of freshly killed virgins. Nothing says Christmas like the murder of innocent girls, but even if you think that premise stinks, the film continues to prove Tykwer is one of the most intriguing visualists working in film today.

You’ve said before that you feel a proximity to Grenouille, but I’m guessing you’re not the first to admit that. How does one relate to a serial killer?

I think it must be one of the big secrets of the novel’s success. You feel close to this guy and connected with his problems, desires, and needs because he’s very lonely and not skilled in social terms. He tries to overcome that by putting something on him, which is what we all do; we all choose our shoes, trousers, haircut, anything in order to say something about us. I could completely connect with that, that the more inexperienced you feel in how to behave to other people, the more difficult it gets for you. The only problem is that if you create something that people are really attracted to, they don’t meet you. They just meet the curtain, the disguise, and that’s the ironic tragedy of this entire story. I love that contradiction, that it’s both scary and heartwarming. Very understandable and totally amoral. [laughs]

The film is such a balancing act between the vibrant modernity of your filmmaking and the classicism of the era it takes place. How did you approach this?

We had a very specific idea about how to show and shoot this movie in a way that doesn’t have an attitude of presenting. It’s through our rich art direction, using decorations as backdrops and having a throwaway attitude to make it feel like it has a deep connection to its reality; a film that really tries to recreate a world the way it was, and not the way we imagine or idealize it when we think of paintings. We were influenced most by our research, reading everything by people from the 18th century that actually wrote down street life. We didn’t want to end up with one of those films where you are forced to admire a set decorator’s achievements, totally overproduced. You need to be a master of proportion, and I wanted it to be completely driven by the narration and protagonist.

To me, so much of this adaptation is hinged on conveying the sense of smell in a medium with only sight and sound. How did you approach this task?

My first thoughts were simply, you know, the book doesn’t smell. The book was very successful in describing the olfactory world through the means and potential of literature, so it’s now the challenge for cinematic language to do so with its potential. I thought the solution was lying in many multi-faceted phenomena because you had to approach this problem through the character, experiencing everything the way he experiences it. He’s a compulsive collector, okay, so let’s try to imitate and find a way of representing this physical activity, his greedy picking of singular smells, and see how he adds them up. All these notes become smelling chords, then those chords become a composition, and suddenly you end up with your wide shot after you’ve started with a detail. We wanted to show progressions of intensities of smells by changing the degrees of colors and saturations. And I think my major way in was by writing the music at a very early stage, which helped enormously to understand what the atmosphere would be like. We connect the music to this guy’s emotional reference system, basically triggered by the way he smells the world. If books can do it, films can do it. You still have to translate colors, movements, and images. It’s more concrete in a way, but at the same time, it offers so many more possibilities to become abstract on another level. Kubrick said that if it can be thought of, it can be filmed. I thought it was a wonderful challenge for me to go somewhere not many have been yet.

And you didn’t even have to hand out Smell-O-Vision or Odorama cards to the audience. This may sound strange, but smell is an undervalued sense because it’s so intangible.

Smells are very profound stimulation for connecting us with our past. You enter a room, and there are smells that come from the carpet, the furniture, the wallpaper, and maybe somebody cooking something. All these elements mixed together, and suddenly you’re brought back to standing next to your grandmother cooking, you’re six years old, and you have a three-dimensional memory of that.

What could you sniff right now and instantly be transported to the past?

Not particular smells, but the whole combination of wet asphalt from rain, industrial smells from chemical factories, lots of cars, lots of simple foods, more meat than vegetables… you get a combination of that together and I’m back in childhood, on my way to school, and wandering around the city of Wuppertal, where I come from. My favorite smells are these kinds of compositions of normal daily life that still capture this very secret world that’s deeply rooted in our emotional memory.

When I visited Berlin recently, I noticed the city has a very distinct composition of scents. Having lived there for 20 years, can you identify what that is?

It’s deep, I don’t know myself. I love the smell of Berlin, it’s one of the major reasons why I moved there. I think it’s difficult about cities in general. You could also blindfold me, send me to New York, and I would know immediately I was in New York. It’s a combination of the food, the way cars are built here, and I think the subway has a very particular smell.

You mean body odor and stale urine?

I don’t really judge smells myself. It’s the same in Berlin, which people always forget is the greenest capital in all of Europe. There’s no city that has more vegetation, so you obviously get a lot of photosynthesis, beautiful forests that the winds come through, and there’s a lot of water that people never think about; the Spree river is like the nerve system that the city is laid upon. It moves in little canals, and there are a lot of smells coming from that. And then again, it’s a city with a lot of tiny industrial things, with a subway and a very eccentric kitchen. I can’t identify it, but if you blindfolded me in Berlin, it would take me less than a second to know where I was.

If you were forced to give up one of your senses, which would it be?

That’s a fascist question. I have absolutely no idea, I need them all. That’s why I’m a filmmaker, because I can use them all in film… No, you’re not getting any of them, you’ll have to find someone else to take them from.

“Perfume” opens in limited release December 27th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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