Almost more adventurous than the film plot itself is the story of the shooting. "A Hologram for the King" was filmed mainly in Morocco, but many scenes were shot in Saudi Arabia, a country that is less known to the Western cinema culture.
Some scenes were even shot in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. The city is actually forbidden for nonbelievers of the Muslim faith - especially when it comes to shooting a film. Tom Tykwer helped himself with a trick.
"We had a general filming permit, but we were not allowed to film acted scenes," the German director explained. They adhered to this by having a Muslim crew film in Jeddah and Mecca. The movie scenes were shot in Morocco, for example, sequences in which lead actor Tom Hanks is seen in a moving car.
Tom Hanks 'drives' through Mecca
"We took the shots of Hanks in the car and what was happening outside and merged them." In the film it seems as if Tom Hanks is actually driving through Mecca. The viewer doesn't even notice the special effects in the movie. On the contrary, "A Hologram for the King" looks like it was all shot in same place where the story unfolds - in Saudi Arabia.
Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is an American sales representative who used to sell steel and is now trying to sell highly complex communications software. Clay is one of the losers of the finance crisis and lost a lot of money in the 2008 Wall Street crash. He also lost his job at the steel company and his new one is something like his last chance. Clay is 54 and starting a new career is tough at that age.
A hologram for the king
For his new job, his employer literally sends Clay to the desert. He is supposed to sell a hologram - a piece of cutting-edge technology - to Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia. The device allows conference participants from anywhere in the world to be connected not only via a computer screen, but as holograms.
Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia, Clay only finds a large black tent in front of a deserted town in the desert. Three American co-workers from his company have been working on site for several weeks. Clay is supposed to demonstrate the new software to the king under live conditions.
But it quickly turns out that the job is a Sisyphean task. There is no air conditioning in the tent, the wireless internet system is not working, and the monarch of Saudi Arabia keeps delaying his arrival time again and again.
Even Clay's local contacts put him off continuously. While he is treated kindly and even has a chauffeur and other amenities, he just can't seem to move on. His mid-life crisis seems to be getting worse: His wife has moved out, his daughter wants more financial support, and there seems to be no prospect of improvement in his new job. To make matters worse, the businessman also notices a strange, thick boil on his back.
Clash of cultures
"A Hologram for the King" is a comedy about the clash of two very different cultures: the North American-Western on the one hand, and a country caught between hyper-modernity and conservative tradition on the other. The basis for the film is the novel by American author Dave Eggers, which immediately impressed German director.
"The novel describes our Western society with a special trick: It talks about the society without ever being in the Western world; it portrays the Western world through a man who is somewhere else, and examines the fears of those in their mid-50s in the white middle class," says Tykwer.
The plot had seemed very unusual to Tykwer when he first considered it. A country like Saudia Arabia, he said, "is viewed from the outside as both unsettling and romanticized, a place we associate with fairytales and in which totally unrealistic dreams can come true." According to Tykwer, Alan Clay was seeking a way out of his current situation in the foreign country - maybe even redemption.
More wit, less drama
Eggers' novel emphasizes the dramatic moments of the story, whereas Tykwer says he tried to emphasize the comedy aspects of the story. "Alan Clay is a failed man who stands before the ruins of his life and believes he can be resurrected with the help of the Saudi king. This is so grotesque and ludicrous, sometimes so meaningless that you have to tell it with humor."
Tom Hanks is seen in one of his best career performances as he portrays Alan Clay, a man on the edge of mental and physical collapse. The other actors' performances are also noteworthy. The film has wit and pace, but also slows down for the quiet moments in the desert.
"A Hologram for the King" also convinces with its settings: "We didn't want a film that is mostly shot in the studio under controlled, protected conditions. We didn't want to constantly have to use green screens," says Tykwer.
Tykwer in Mecca
Although Clay is trying to sell a hologram, he himself is more attached to tangible things, says Tykwer. "He once sold steel. He stands for a world that is ceasing to exist the way it was, but has to present something that belongs to the virtual future." Therefore, Clay's way of working reflects his character.
By the way, Tom Tykwer did get to see the holy city of Mecca during his travels to Saudi Arabia: "I actually went to Mecca during my research tour - but not intentionally. My guide had taken a wrong route and couldn't turn back, so we drove through Mecca." This involuntary stay of Tykwer in the holy city is reflected on in the film.
"A Hologram for the King" is a movie about the clash of two cultures that is told with subtle humor - and it is a film that reflects on how people deal with two totally different worlds.