International, The: Interview with Director Tom Tykwer

In the new political thriller “The International,” Interpol Agent Louis Salinger and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman are determined to bring to justice one of the world’s most powerful banks.  Uncovering myriad and reprehensible illegal activities, Salinger and Whitman follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul.  Directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) from an original screenplay written by Eric Warren Singer, The International was shot on location in Germany and throughout Europe.


Relevant Story


If the story seems ripped from the headlines, says director Tom Tykwer, it’s because the headlines have shown that the banks do control all aspects of our lives.  “The mess we’re in now started when the banks took advantage of people and encouraged them to live way beyond their means,” he says.  “The banks’ decisions had far-reaching effects–our houses are at risk, our jobs are at risk, ultimately the entire quality of our lives. Global business has developed into an empire with executives of leading corporations, for whom the public doesn’t vote, exerting an enormous influence over politics, the economy, our everyday lives, everything.”


Ordinary People


And though “The International” is a work of fiction that raises the stakes appropriately for a thriller, Tykwer says that the central issue remains the same.  “At the core there are two ordinary human beings, people like you and me, fighting a cold-blooded corporate beast that appears unstoppable.  I think anyone can relate to their struggle,” he says.


That interest in exploring the heroism of individuals against overpowering forces and overwhelming odds has become a Tykwer trademark.  “Salinger is not only fighting to uncover the bank’s crimes, but he’s fighting an ideological battle,” explains the director. “The executives run the world like a business rather than a place in which humans live and derive meaningful connection.  They are pragmatists first and foremost, and Salinger wants nothing to do with their world view.” 


Quiet Tension


When he first read the script, Tykwer’s interest was piqued by a key scene: the story’s hero, Louis Salinger, encounters the bank’s assassin by chance on a Manhattan street and an unpromising lead turns into a momentous shift in the case.  The quiet tension of that scene, as Salinger and his colleagues follow the assassin, builds to a climax at the Guggenheim Museum.  “That scene left an indelible impression and struck me as a great movie moment,” Tykwer recalls.  “As the Guggenheim museum events unfolded immediately thereafter, I began to think this could become an interesting film.  The last 40 pages of the script made it for me.”


Poetic Licence


Tykwer says that poetic license allowed the filmmakers some freedom in creating a thriller. “We didn't want to hide the thriller behind a curtain of facts and elements to prove how closely related it is to actual events,” says the director. Adds Singer, “We were always aware that we wanted this film to have the engine of a quintessential 70's thriller. We were trying to strike a balance between a film that was weighty enough to feel like an expose but had the velocity and visceral tension of a classic paranoid thriller.”


Casting Clive Owen


Tykwer and the producers had Clive Owen in mind for the role of Salinger from the very beginning, but it was seeing Owen’s praised performance in Children of Men that cemented the idea in the director’s mind.  “When I saw Children of Men, I knew I’d found our leading man,” says Tykwer.  “He was good-looking, but carried a world-weariness.  He infused that character with a loneliness and roughness combined with a sensitivity that I also wanted to see in Salinger.” 


“The contrast between Salinger’s values and those of the criminal network he opposes had to be clearly drawn,” says Tykwer.  “Salinger struggles to stay within the limits of the law when the law seems like a useless weapon or an impediment to justice. So his tactics may sometimes exceed his authority but at the end of the day he is an agent of the law, operating on a razor’s edge between his conscience and his professional limitations. This struggle adds a realism and complexity to his character.”


Owen met with Tykwer over coffee during the film’s development. Together they shared a similar vision of the character and also found they were compatible colleagues. “Clive is extremely focused but very funny.  Our meeting showed me what the production would be like. It was great.  With him you can be extremely focused, but never lose the fun and joy of the work – a rare pleasure.”


Naomi Watts


Equally resolute, but more level in her investigative approach, Eleanor Whitman watches Salinger’s back and keeps him in line when necessary. She leads the investigation and there’s a resilience and power to her character. “She is the balancing second protagonist in the film,” says the director. “Although there is friction between Salinger and Whitman, her energy and emotional power calms and steadies him and she gives him more clarity.” 


Salinger and Whitman subscribe to the same value system and each chose to join the legal profession to effect positive change.  But if Salinger walks the line between what is legal and what is not, Whitman is determined to prove that the good guys play by the rules. 


“I really had to talk Naomi into it,” admits Tykwer.  “Not because she didn’t want to do the movie, but because her baby was due just before our shoot.  I had to convince her because I thought she was perfect for this character.” 


The filmmakers arranged for Watts’ scenes to be backed up at the end of the schedule to allow the actress time at home. Joining the production in Berlin, two months after principal photography began, Watts adeptly juggled the needs of an infant with the rigorous demands of a movie.  As a real-life example of a woman balancing career and family, Watts offered the director insight and first-hand knowledge into Whitman’s character.


Stars Chemistry

The chemistry between Owen and Watts was palpable from the beginning.  “It wasn’t surprising to me they were so immediately perfect. They’re a very easy and energetic match,” says Tykwer. “It was a perfect dream come true: Clive and Naomi, whom I consider two of the most interesting contemporary actors of their generation, working together for the first time in a film and both wanting to be involved in the development of the story and methodology of the characters.  I felt quite blessed.”


At the head of the bank Salinger and Whitman so doggedly pursue is Jonas Skarssen, played by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen. Skarssen has risen to the top of his game to run a vast banking organization with a few close associates. Impervious to the immorality of their actions, this elite group of financial wizards move money, people and governments around from the IBBC’s modern glass boardroom as though strategizing their next chess move. 


“They’re not the super-enigmatic superstars of corporate bosses in previous eras,” says Tykwer.  “They have slick appearances, but they’re rather normal, well educated rich neighbors one might encounter.” Nonetheless, they are cunning and dangerous tacticians, coolly detached from the repercussions of his bank’s operations.


The Villains


“He’s a ruthless killer, organizes assassinations, and, quite frankly, he’s a monster,” says Tykwer.  “But at the same time, he’s the most fascinating monster in the film because there’s so much we like about him and sympathize with.”


Actor Armin Mueller-Stahl shrouds this character in mystery.  “I think the secret, and one of the most important things in films, is not to open the door too early on a character,” the Oscar-nominated star (Shine) suggests.  “A monster is deep inside and you can never tell if he’s a good guy or a bad guy.”


His character’s roots are all too familiar to the actor who lived in East Berlin for many years. A Renaissance man the world knows primarily through his films, Mueller-Stahl was once a concert pianist who also writes, paints, directs, sketches and draws.


The director believed Mueller-Stahl was one of his key castings because he brought a gravitas to the role, as someone in whom you inherently trust and believe.  As with Skarssen, the director was not looking to depict Wexler as a one dimensional villain, but rather as a real person whom audiences could easily place in today’s world. 


Brían F. O’Byrne rounds out the cast as the film’s mysterious assassin.  Referred to only as The Consultant in the screenplay, he works alone, unnamed and physically unremarkable.  O’Byrne struck a balance between inconspicuous and utterly unforgettable.  “We wanted this guy to be an invisible man who completely blends into his surroundings,” says Tykwer.  “Someone you don’t notice, but who is still menacing and leaves a powerful impression behind.  We stay curious about him, but we never understand who he is.  He’s enigmatic throughout the movie.”