By Iain Blair
Tom Tykwer, the multi-faceted German director/writer/composer/producer, first burst onto the international scene with his 1998 thriller Run Lola Run. Since then he’s directed such diverse films as Heaven, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Princess and the Warrior, Cloud Atlas (with the Wachowskis) and The International. His latest is A Hologram for the King from Roadside Attractions.
Based on Dave Eggers’ novel, A Hologram for the King is set in recession-ravaged 2010. It stars Tom Hanks as Alan Clay, an American businessman who, broke, depressed and freshly divorced, arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to close what he hopes will be the deal of a lifetime: selling a state-of-the-art holographic teleconferencing system to the Saudi government.
But, of course, nothing goes as planned. Adrift and alone in an unfamiliar land, Alan befriends a taxi driver who chauffeurs him through the desert to the “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” a surreal ghost town of vacant skyscrapers and half-completed construction projects. Baffled by the bureaucratic reception he gets at the so-called “Welcome Center,” Alan struggles to figure out why his small IT support team is being forced to spend its days in a sweltering tent as it preps for the big presentation. Worse, because of the Saudi way of doing business, he’s unclear if the king will ever show up for the long-scheduled meeting.
Back in Jeddah, the stressed-out salesman winds up in the hospital, where he is treated by a beautiful and empathetic Muslim doctor (Sarita Choudhury). As Alan gets to know his new Saudi friends better, cultural barriers break down and he begins to contemplate the possibility of a fresh start in a land where tradition and modernity meet in perplexing ways.
I recently caught up with Tykwer to talk about his process on the film.
What do you look for in a project and what was the appeal of making this?
I always look for something different — something that fits my sensibilities. I never want to repeat myself, and that can happen so easily if you’re not careful. I think this was a surprise for me too. I love Dave Eggers’ writing. I actually tried to turn an earlier book of his into a TV show but it didn’t happen. When I read this book I immediately felt I knew how to shoot it, so we met and I told him my ideas. I felt that as bleak and dark as the book is, there’s a lightness and sense of hope and a lot of comedy in the attempts of the characters to bridge two very different cultures. And despite all the cultural and political and religious barriers, there is communication. We can reach out to others.
How did you deal with all the restrictions of shooting in Saudi Arabia?
We shot some stuff there, but we couldn’t take the actors there; we ended up shooting most of it in Morocco. The biggest challenge for me was recreating the abstract “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” this sort of ghost town in the middle of nowhere in Saudi Arabian desert. I went there and to Jeddah and took photos of all the locations, and then we recreated some of it in the Western Sahara, the most southern part of Morocco, where there’s absolutely nothing —no film infrastructure at all. Plenty of films have been shot in Morocco near the cities in the north, but not down there, so we had to ship in everything — the crew, all the equipment and so on. We didn’t have a huge budget, so it was very challenging. We all stayed together in a little hotel, which had power just two hours a day. It was like camping.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, and if you feel confident about the material it’s heaven, since there’s none of the pressure of the shoot, the money worries and so on. But I do feel post isn’t as relaxed as it used to be. In the old days you could spend a year on post and no one would complain, but now everyone wants you to hurry up. I look at post and the editing as very similar to writing. You constantly reshape and re-phrase as you do post.
The film was edited by Alex Berner, whose credits include Jupiter Ascending, and who worked with you on Cloud Atlas. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He wasn’t on the set, although he did visit us a couple of times. We sent him dailies and he would start cutting and assembling and send me stuff to look at. But I’m so busy on a shoot that I barely have time to look at anything, so I rely on him. I shoot a lot — it was anamorphic 35mm, for probably the last time — and he’ll get four to five hours of material and then start boiling it down to three or four minutes.
After the shoot, we spent about three months going though all the material, and then I took a two-month break to work on Sense8, this sci-fi show for Netflix, and that break was a real gift. You step back and see it more objectively. So then we cut for another two or three months and had a two-hour cut. This felt a little slow, so we trimmed it down to under 100 minutes and did some test screenings, which I actually like. It shows you very quickly where the film drags and the bits that only interest you, not the audience.
Obviously, there are a lot of VFX. How many?
Quite a few hundred shots, done by Rise VFX and Arri, who worked together. The big thing was creating the ghost city. The tent was real, and so were various bits of road we put in. But there were no buildings at all, so we took this very modern office building in Rabat and scanned it in. Then we used this big empty construction site we found in Casablanca and scanned that in too. I like working with VFX, and I like it when the VFX and art department collaborate closely. It should always be one vision.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so important to me, especially as I compose with Johnny Klimek prior to shooting. It’s very different from the usual way of doing it as we compose most, if not all, the music before the shoot, and the editor has all that to use as he cuts. We never have to use temp music. As usual, we composed the music at home, and then recorded it in Leipzig, and we did the final sound mix at Arri in Berlin.
I’m doing this big TV series called Babylon Berlin — it’s 16 episodes, all set in the 1920s, which is the equivalent of eight films in terms of running time. I love the details of post, and there’s going to be a lot as there’s nothing left in Berlin from that period now. I want a street movie look, so it’ll be hard to do, but it’s an exciting challenge.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.