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April 2014
Issue: January 1, 2007

'PERFUME' DIRECTOR TOM TYKWER TALKS SOUND

By: Peter Cowie
Tom Tykwer made his first feature, Deadly Maria, in 1993, but his breakthrough on the international scene came with Run Lola Run in 1998, which stunned audiences with its roller-coaster pace and its perceptive characterizations. The Princess and the Warrior followed two years later, and Heaven (starring Cate Blanchett) was based on a screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) has taken almost 20 years to bring to the screen, ever since Patrick Süskind's novel became an international bestseller in the 1980s, and it marks Tykwer's most expensive and ambitious project to date.

I ask Tykwer, who invariably composes the music for his own films, about the relationship of sound and music in Perfume. "The musical aspect of film in general," he explains, "is of course something that relates much more to the abstract relationship leading us to emotional perception. We were trying to establish a movie that somehow, not only through the sound but through the way that sound and image are intertwined, gives us a certain feeling: it's how the person the film is describing actually experiences the world.

"So it was always clear to me that the way Grenouille, the hero of the film, actually knows and recognizes the world more or less only through the nose, and through smelling it. I was really into trying to find the sound language for what one could call the 'experience-world' of Grenouille."

Although Tykwer is a past master of synthesized music for movies, "On The Princess and the Warrior, " he says, "we also worked with an orchestra. All the strings there were really strings! And the music on Perfume was one of the biggest challenges of my life, because it's an enormously complex score. It was a lot of work. We started the score very early on, and we were so lucky to get Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to play it."

When talking about sound, Tykwer always reverts to the musical element. "For us, the music has to start first. I'm already starting to compose while I'm working on the script. The three of us — Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, and I — we sit down and we start composing alongside the script, so we find the sound in terms of the music of the film while we're in the writing process. When we arrive on set, we already have a substantial part of the music composed, and we've hired a small orchestra to play it for us, so we can really play it to the actors and get it 'into the scenery' of the actual shooting, as it were. So people could already explore the atmosphere and the acoustic world of the film while they were acting in it. I've done that before, but not to the extent that I did for Perfume."

Did he use Dolby technology from the outset? "No, no," he laughs, "Deadly Maria was mono, very low budget! Winter Sleepers (1997) was the first film where I used Dolby. Since then I have never stopped working with Dolby. I've collaborated with more or less exactly the same crew on the sound-designing level. Dirk Jacob was one of the sound designers on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and he was with me on Run Lola Run, Heaven, and nearly all my other films. Matthias Lampert, who was the rerecording mixer, has mixed almost everything I've ever done."

Does he consider DVD and the home audience when shooting and mixing a film? "Basically, for sound it's not really an issue, because I think nowadays people have really interesting sound systems at home, so you can dare to have quite complex sound layers also on DVDs, and people can actually hear it! I also know a lot of people who watch movies with digital headphones at home, which is great. In the mixing process, a rerecording mixer always does a mix for theatre and one for TV or for DVD — a completely different mix, with different compressions and stuff like that. And we do that DVD mix to a very high level, so you need good equipment to listen to it. And the encouraging thing is that more and more people do have good processors and speakers at home."

What does he think the move to digital cameras will do to mainstream movies? "I don't really see right now that it's much easier, except if you shoot on DV or one of the cheaper systems. But if you want to take one of the systems that is more or less identical to 35mm film in terms of focus, I don't think it's quite there yet. It will still take a little while, but of course at a certain point we will all do it, and more and more people will do it as it gets cheaper and cheaper. It's rather like the change we had to live through when the era of Technicolor was ending in the mid-1970s, and of course there was a different feel, but ultimately people accepted it, and then we learned how to get more intense colors again within our limited systems. I think we will find interesting ways to treat digital material. I'm not really afraid of it. I just want it to look as good as possible before I really change!"

Asked if he likes spectacular-sound movies such as Apocalypse Now, Tykwer comments, "Sound design is often appreciated in films that create a lot of noise, but I'm a big admirer of the quiet movies. I know since I made Heaven in 2001 how difficult it is to mix a convincingly quiet film, because quietness has so many levels. It's much easier to produce a very loud, effects-driven and music-overloaded movie. I remain a fan of films that were made in the very early days of sound design and that can still deliver interesting results. The Exorcist, for example, has an amazing soundtrack, and in more modern times, what David Fincher does is really impressive. The entire suspense of his film Seven is really built through the soundtrack, with music and sound so well intertwined."

Peter Cowie is an independent author and a consultant for Dolby.