The German filmmaker lived for fifty-eight days in Venice with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Remember that name because he'll be around for a while. The German filmmaker studied under Richard Attenborough and spent years teaching Russian philosophy before making his lauded debut, The Lives of Others. After getting every offer imaginable from Hollywood, he chooses The Tourist, a sexy remake evocative of classic Hollywood, as his follow up. There's no shortage of star power with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in the lead. Florian is an intense guy that places most of his emphasis on getting the right performance out of every actor:
Here's a film about glamour and a bit of fun, nothing like your first film. Did you make this as a departure in tone?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I am normally into more dark subject matter, but I think it's important that we make light of things. The darker things come so much more naturally to me. I wanted to do something to bring me to a light place.
Johnny Depp is such a versatile actor, but he's never really played this kind of Cary Grant-esque role. What made you think of him for this film?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: If I had gone for a clean cut, elegant, suit-wearing waspy kind of guy, this film would have been borderline offensive. He brings that element of anarchy to everything. It's all very unexpected and we ran with that. He's a math teacher from Wisconsin, but he's got the beard, the cool hairdo. He's a slightly eccentric individual and is highly believable. The average guy is really not so average. There's no such thing. It doesn't exist. That's what someone like Johnny Depp can do. He adds the individual to the average.
That's an interesting way to describe him...
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: It's his personality. He openly lives in the freedom that we all feel we could live. That's why we're all such fans of his.
This is your second feature. You have this hugely famous cast. Graham King is your producer. How did you make this film in 58 days, in Venice of all places?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: It was tough. The paparazzi, the fan control, and then you're in Venice where everything has to be transported by boat. And I finished the script two days before we started shooting. There were many, many challenges. If I hadn't been German-trained on making films on such a tight schedule, it would have been tough to do. But that's also part of the fun. Can I make an entire film, including the script, in eleven months and sixteen days (laughs)? It was an experience.
Angelina's performance is so subtle, a smirk, a glance here and there. She masks her character well. Are those all reaction shots? How do you get that performance on film?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I believed if we found the right tempo, the right walk, the right kind of movement for this character, everything would flow naturally from that. So we rehearse her walking for several hours. How exactly does this woman sway her hips? Experiment with that, see where it takes you. I also encouraged Angelina to be herself. In real life, she's much more like this character than she'd like to admit (laughs). She's not Salt, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or the character in Gone in 60 Seconds. She's is delicate, very intelligent, feminine, and yet very strong. I wanted her to show that here. Allow her to slow down, be herself, radiate.
So how did you come to this film following your initial success from The Lives of Others?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: The emotion of a film is transported by actors in the right parts. As a director, I'm just the facilitator, the guide. I saw in this film I could create two really terrific parts for actors. I wanted a great experience to watch. I wanted to create a film that reminded me of what I liked about Hollywood.
So you were evoking that To Catch a Thief kind of style?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Not consciously, but I must have been influenced by that. I hear people say that we don't have people like Grace Kelly or Cary Grant these days, of course we do. I think Johnny Depp is just as fascinating as Humphrey Bogart. I think Angelina Jolie is greater than Rita Hayworth. They just haven't been seen in the same glory as those other actors were. There's more of a tendency to throw them in big effects and those types of films. So I thought let's showcase the talent of these two great actors. I get greedy when I know there's so much there talent. I want it all to become visible.
What's your method of bringing out that talent?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Well, in film school, you start to think in camera moves and shots. It can be a selfish thing when a director just concentrates on how the look of a film is. I think that can be poor direction because you might stand in the way of a great performance by the actor. That is what truly makes a film emotional. I'm happiest when people say the acting was incredible. I really pay the same attention to the acting of tiny supporting characters. For instance, the concierge that takes them up to the hotel room. Or the undercover cop that falls in the water. All of these are accomplished actors, we put a lot of effort in to get just right.
Everyone gets attention?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Yes, I never want a character to be just a function or serve a purpose. I want some dimensionality, even if it's only there for a second. When I see a film where care hasn't been put into all the parts, I find that very arrogant. I feel at the end of the day all people are the same, and need to each extent, be painted with their own precision. Because we can spend our time with leads, but if you do it right, then the other characters can be just as compelling if we were following their story.
You have a tremendous bio and life experience. What influences you? What filmmaker do you enjoy watching?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I'll tell you who I think is the best... David Fincher. He's someone I admire. Back in film school I would watch his films three times in a row. I could stay in the cinema all day. I mean the title sequence from Panic Room. His sound work, the way he treats voices, taking the reverb out of sequences, it gives every vocal track such clear sound. The way he shoots close-ups, never changing the light, to add realism. He's deeply personal, and that is what always makes great filmmaking.