It's barely past breakfast on a Wednesday morning and Volker Schlondorff's flight has just landed at SFO. Tuesday night he didn't get to bed until 4 a.m. after the Los Angeles premiere of "Palmetto," the German director's first truly Hollywood feature. Yet he's wired and loquacious, not displaying any outward signs of his short night.
This could be the naturally exuberant state for the filmmaker, known for such surreal fare as "The Tin Drum" and "The Handmaid's Tale" -- but I suspect it may be the coffee.
As we enter a conference room at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton Hotel to talk about "Palmetto," a neo-noir botched kidnapping thriller with Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue, he refuels his cup of joe, which was already more than half full.
The heavy, mahogany table is set with leather chairs, desk blotters and pads and pencils at the ready, like place settings for a breakfast of words.
This morning, Schlondorff is the cook, and before we get to the his movie, he serves up an tidbit about how he can't seem to get away from board rooms like this one.
For five years before starting work on "Palmetto," he was the pilot for the ambitious rebuilding of one of Germany's great film studios, Studio Babelsberg.
Responsible for silent-era classics like "Metropolis" and "The Blue Angel," and a major production house for Josef Goebbel's propaganda machine during the Nazi era, the complex had fallen into disarray after years of neglect under East Germany's communist government and the $100 million restoration found Schlondorff in similar board rooms for financial meetings almost every day.
"I can tell you, I prefer making movies," he gibes as he tops off his java.
Proud of getting the studio back on it's feet -- Sony infused another $100 million into the project just last week -- Schlondorff is nonetheless visibly thrilled to be back to his first love.
"I'm happy to be free of all that responsibility," he says, explaining that stepping back behind the camera for "Palmetto" felt like a vacation, especially since it is such a departure from the heady films that earned him a name in the business.
"I thought I deserved a break to do something a bit fun," he says. "Of course, you could say (I did it because) the kind of movies I used to make are just not much in demand anymore with the audience."
Those movies tended to be complex and visionary literary adaptations. "The Tin Drum," the 1979 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, is about a child in Nazi-occupied Poland who stops growing up when he realizes what an ugly world adults live in.
(If the title sounds familiar, it's because that film is currently at the center of a obscenity-and-censorship court battle in Oklahoma City. See story below.)
But Schlondorff says "Palmetto" is closer to the kind of picture he dreamed of making when he started working in film.
"Before I became a serious filmmaker, I was just a boy going to the movies, and those are the movies I went to see," he explains, with only a hint of a German accent. "I love these thrillers of the late '50s and early '60s. You know -- seedy, sex, money, temptation, the good man (in a dilemma). It probably was the true motivation in wanting to become a filmmaker."
After a sip of coffee, he adds with a laugh, "The higher aspirations were added later on."
Clearly a big fan of pulp-style film noir, Schlondorff admits making this kind of movie with a 1990s sensibility is not an easy assignment if one wants to do it well.
"Palmetto" has all the familiar genre hallmarks -- a gritty voice-over, shadowy cinematography, and a oft-twisting story with Harrelson playing the honest man lured into staging a kidnapping by an offer of $50,000 from Shue, a campy femme fatale.
But the story, freely adapted from a 1950s dime novel by James Hadley Chase called "Just Another Sucker," had to be tweaked to fit it's modern Florida setting.
"It's so hard to take these noir elements really seriously now days because they really seem dated," Schlondorff says, noting that in the golden age of noir, morality was much more black and white.
"In the '90s, at least with a hero like Woody Harrelson, you don't think much about good and evil. This kind of temptation is not the same anymore. If there's money, you take it. Period."
Shue might seem an odd choice for the role of the sexpot temptress who offers the dough, but that was part of Schlondorff's plan. He didn't want a Barbara Stanwyck or a Linda Fiorentino because a professional vamp is what movie-goers would expect. "I think that would be boring," he says.
Instead, the character is a woman whose technique of seduction is somewhat amateurish and rabid. "She is not really a vamp but is impersonating a vamp," Schlondorff says, nursing his second cup of coffee. "I told her to play it as you have seen it in the movies, which automatically brought it a bit over the top."
But while the movie's slight humor and last act plot twists detour severely from Hadley Chase's original story, screenwriter E. Max Frye ("Amos and Andrew") is loyal to the spirit of the film's pulp roots.
"The Hadley Chase thing is real pulp. I mean, its the kind of book you write in 10 days. (Frye) brought a whole different layer to it, but (preserved) the very pulpy dialogue." Schlondoff says, adding "My favorite line is 'I'm just a girl with a little ambition.'"
Schlondorff's ambition is to stick with more playful films for the time being. He and Frye are looking for another pulpy project to work on together, even though he acknowledges being a little intimated by the ghost of noir classics.
"They're such masterpieces, like 'Double Indemnity' and 'High Sierra,' and you don't want to be compared to that. These are hard acts to follow," he admits.
"(But) we know these movies. We love them just as much as you do and we don't pretend to be level with them. We just want to have a little fun."
Volker Schlondorff on the Oklahoma City child pornography case against "The Tin Drum"
Last summer in Oklahoma City the district attorney's office, acting on complaints from a local group of conservatives, seized every known copy in the city of the 1979 Oscar-winning German film "The Tin Drum," on the charge that the film is child pornography.
The complaints stemmed from a scene in which the main character, a little boy in Nazi-occupied Poland who has literally refused to grow up, undresses with an older girl and puts his head to her belly in what some have interpreted as a sexual act.
Several court cases are pending stemming from this incident. One case is to hear arguments about the validity of the child pornography claim. The others, lawsuits against the City of Oklahoma City, were filed in the wake of federal judge's ruling that the seizure of the tapes, some of which were taken from video store customer's homes without a warrant, was unconstitutional.
While in San Francisco promoting his new film, "Palmetto," Volker Schlondorff, the director of "The Tin Drum," discussed the confiscation of his film and what some see as the ironic parallels to the authoritarian storyline in the movie.
(This reporter admits to not being neutral on this topic, as you will see from the questions.)
SPLICED: Was this handed out to us so we can skip that question? (Holding up a legal brief press release regarding the Oklahoma City court cases.)
Volker Schlondorff: No, no. It's because I may give the wrong answer to legal matters.
The civil rights suit is kind of difficult to explain. The trial is coming up in the spring, either in April or in June. It's the people who had the cassettes taken from their homes, (and) now are suing the police and whoever was behind that. These guys (are trying) to defend themselves, trying to prove (the film) isn't child pornography.
Even if it was child pornography, they were still not right to go to these people's homes and take the cassettes without a warrant.
S: It's a bit of ironic goose stepping, isn't it?
VS: Yes, it is. But since more likely than not they will not prove this is child pornography -- because it's not -- then they were doubly in the wrong. They went without a warrant and the seizure was unconstitutional. It's ludicrous, but it happened.
S: I think it's interesting what they choose to go after -- a film like this instead of genuine porn...
VS: If they'd go after violence, I'd be with them. I think real obscenity is when I see bodies blown apart, and fingers and heads and limbs going through the air. Sexuality is part of our lives. To be curious about sexuality is a very sane human instinct.
S: And that is, to an extent, what's going on in that scene.
VS: Yes, well it's totally innocent. There's probably something about the picture, like the novel, that always shocks people.
The thing is, what they really are after, which I learned when I met the lawyers, is they want to what they call "clean" the school libraries and the public libraries and all that, not just of "The Tin Drum" -- that just happened to be the unfortunate object they picked -- but what they're really after is to decide what their citizens can read and see, and they really shouldn't.
S: It's interesting the American point of view of violence versus sex, as opposed to the European view...
VS: This (local) judge that ruled "The Tin Drum" is child pornography, probably has in his home a dozen guns. It's extremely shocking. I always had a problem with "The Handmaid's Tale" (his 1990 cautionary film about near-future totalitarianism) and I kind of divorced myself from that movie because I never really bought the premise. I always thought this would never happen, not in this country. Now, Oklahoma.
S: Kind of creepy, isn't it?
VS: Maybe it's "The Handmaid's" revenge because I didn't believe in it enough.