He could not have made his latest movie happen without Tom Hanks in the leading role, says German director Tom Tykwer. In a DW interview, he speaks about the inspiration for his latest film, "A Hologram for the King."
DW: Rumor has it you stalked author Dave Eggers relentlessly to convince him to let you loose on one of his books - and then you took quite a few liberties. What made you see a potential comedy film in "A Hologram for the King"?
Tom Tykwer: (laughs) Well, I didn't stalk him. There was another book that he wrote called "What Is the What?" - a novel depicting a refugee trek from southern Sudan in the civil war. Because I'm involved in eastern African topics I was really keen on trying to turn it into a TV show. That didn't come together, but that's how we met. I think he really liked the script that I wrote for that project and we became friends and when you're friends you get early access to other books. Or you read stuff from your friends first when they come out.
So I read "A Hologram for the King." And it's not like every book that I read that I'm looking through these glasses to see, "Could this be my next movie?" It has to jump out at you and it did … I felt I know something about his weird, lost-in-spaceness and his sense of "I don't know how I'm going to survive the future because no-one seems to care for me anymore." So I felt his insecurity was something I know about and I loved that Dave put it in a context that had a lot of humor and a lot of sarcasm… or an abstract sense of humor. You see a man who wants to do business in a suit, with his case and his whole business armor. And he's in the desert and there's no-one who wants to meet him. There's nothing to sell and there's nowhere to put it. It's a strong image.
You also changed the ending, which is, without wishing to give too much away, a little more positive about the chances for a cross-cultural relationship. What made you do this?
I think in literature it's very often that things tend to be heavier and in cinema, or let's say my vision of cinema, of the art form that I'm married to, making art is an optimistic act in my opinion. Because we still believe in people going to see something and reflecting on it. And why do you reflect? Because you want to make life worth living. Because it's a productive process.
Seeing this character Alan Clay go through all these miserable situations, and go through hell and then reinvent himself and really take a big leap from the guy he used to be, who was all fake and just a façade, to discovering this other self, this much more vulnerable person, and then really connecting with somebody - and then to tell people that it's still not going to work? That's frustrating and depressing I think.
I felt that this was the way the novel goes actually. We can connect. We can connect once we strip ourselves down to the human beings that we are. Cultural separations, political separations, religious separations won't keep us from connecting because we have grown towards each other through modern media, through the internet, through the way we live today. We have more knowledge of each other than we think, and to portray this in a positive way was for me the only way to do it.
And you got Tom Hanks on board. Was he always the ideal actor to portray the main character Alan Clay?
Yes. I don't think I would have done the film without him. I couldn't really imagine any other actor - which is probably due to the fact that I had just made a film with him, "Cloud Atlas," where he was fantastic to work with. And we already had some sort of connection and then it was very beautiful to imagine having a movie like this and a script like the one that we then had where he was basically in every scene. So we had three months of work everyday with each other, which is always great when you have a director/actor relationship that can grow from day to day,where you have chances to fail here and there because you still have so much time to share. So you go back and forth. You experiment with each other and you grow into it.
And it worked out quite well. Did you know on the very first day in the desert that it was going to work?
Yes. I was really excited when I saw him actually standing there with this suit in the desert - the way he looks lost and still moves you. This is something that only Tom can do, no matter how arrogant the man is that he represents. With this kind of business dude who is not really open-minded. There's something under that surface. There's a sensitivity. There's a twinkle in the eye that makes you like him no matter what he does, and that was perfect for having mean characters turning into really nice people. I think he was born for this kind of thing.
You traveled in Saudi Arabia to prepare for the film. Did you have similar experiences to Clay? Was it as you imagined it would be?
Going to Saudi Arabia, no one can imagine how it is because it is definitely different from all the preoccupations and clichés you carry around. It is definitely much easier to connect with people because they live in a society where the education level is really good. People are allowed to travel and they do. It's cheap enough so that nearly everybody has visited Western countries and other cultures. So they come back and they have a scope of experience and they still decide to live in a place where there are all these restrictions and all these rules and all these problems.
But they say it's going to change. There will be a transition. You learn when you are there that people are really confident about the next generation.
DW broadcasts internationally and we have many viewers in the Arab world. How do you expect the film to go down there? Of course Saudi Arabia has no cinemas. But we know that people there do find ways and means to see films made in the West.
Of course I now have some good Saudi friends, from all the experiences and the many advisors that we had there along the way, and they all expect it to be of course sort of controversial because some things are intense for Saudis to look at. There's the whole idea of the woman in the movie who is so strongly looking for her own interests and really is breaking a lot of rules. That's complex and I think not everyone will agree with it. But the controversy will be, I think, something very productive because everyone will have to admit that the movie doesn't demonize the country at all.
It's a very positive image that you get even though nothing is spared. We touch on all the subjects. We touch on the subject of women's problems in society, and public executions. Everything is sort of present in the film, but at the same time you see and meet beautiful people with sort of a beautiful vision of life - which is the contradictory energy you experience when you go there. And this is, I'm sure, what the Saudi and the whole Arab community will appreciate. They will have to admit that the movie is really trying to wrap both arms around Arab culture.