30 minutes with Volker Schlondorff

SPLICED interviewed Volker Schlondorff February 18, 1998 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco

Too much Schlondorff? Link to:
The feature version of this interview
"Palmetto" review

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.

SPLICED:Was it a daunting project?

Volker Schlondorff:Well I can tell you I prefer making movies...

S:Tell me about the organization you were running.

VS:We could have been manufacturing spare car parts, but in fact it was a movie studio. It a former, pre-war studio -- (the one that made) "Metropolis," "The Blue Angel" and all that -- which was on the other side of the wall. It was 12 years a state studio for Goebbels (Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister), and then 40 years socialist studio, and now we inherited it. The West inherited it, with all these people who are third generation or fourth generation working there, everybody on the payroll.

S:Wow. So you got involved in rebuilding it?

VS:Well, first of saving it, maintaining it. (The government) wanted to dismiss it all. But there was invaluable craftsmanship, you know, with the painters and all the set builders. But in the lab their technology was 50 years old. But there were entire families living on it, so I thought "I've got to save this somehow."

I got some French investors involved who bought it. But they needed someone to be in charge, so what started out as a good deed ended up with me signing away five years of my life, 12 hours a day bringing that thing around, investing hundreds of millions, training the people to Western mentality, having to fire half of them, hiring others. It was awesome.

S:So you got be studio management there for a while.

VS:Yes, and this table reminded me of the hours we spend going over figures in a room like this. I didn't even know really how to read those (financial) sheets when I started.

S:So you had to suddenly become one of those studio bean counters.

VS:Yes, but we weren't really producing. That would have been more familiar to me. It's really a service facility -- a lab, post-production. There were 20 acres of backlot, which we developed into real estate to finance the renovation.

I mean, I was out of it, and I'm so happy to be back and free of all that responsibility. It only ended a month ago, even though I took a leave to do this movie. I did the post-production over there because I still was somewhat responsible at least to find the guys who would succeed me.

S:Is this the studio that Sony bought into last week? Yes, Sony got involved last week.

S:It's the studio that Leni Riefenstahl (a trend setting documentary filmmaker during World War II) worked for.

VS:Leni Riefenstahl worked there too, yes.

It was an interesting period in my life because you don't often get to become a manager and an entrepreneur when you are a filmmaker. And I must say, these managers are modern day saints, really. You work so hard and you don't ever see the results. You make a movie and you can. You might have 25 movies lined up after 30 years work and you can run a retrospective. But you run a company for thirty years and nothing. Nothing to show.

S:It's always what's next. You can't sit back and enjoy what's past.

VS:It's always what's next. And the attention span is about 7 minutes. Then it's off to another subject and another subject. You make a movie and you focus for a year and a half on one thing. It's such a privilege. I really appreciate it.

S:This movie is quite a departure from any film you've done before. Was that part of the plan?

VS:Yes. I thought I deserved a break to do something a bit fun. That's the positive side of seeing it. You could paint it the other way around, that the kind of movies I used to make are just not much in demand anymore with the audience. I mean, (Werner) Herzog -- who I'm going to see this afternoon, he's living here in San Francisco -- or Wim (Wenders), who I saw last night, he came to the premiere -- I mean, the movies we used to make are not in demand anymore. Especially in Europe, it's entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.

S:Yeah. "Don't make me think."

VS:So I tried to do entertainment with a sense of humor, with a twist -- and enjoy it.

S:Was this handed out to us so we can skip that question? (Holding up a press release regarding the current Oklahoma City obscenity-and-censorship court battle regarding "The Tin Drum")

VS: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 cassettes taken from their homes, (and ) now are suing the police and whoever was behind that. Whereas these guys to defend themselves, tried to prove that it 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," 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:Kinda creepy, isn't it?

VS:Maybe it's "The Handmaid's" revenge because I didn't believe in it enough.

S:So how was the party? How did the premiere go?

VS:Great, great. It got a lot of laughs. An industry audience is supposed to be a difficult audience because they always know everything better, of course. But I think they enjoyed it. We were rather relieved because we had gotten sort of mixed signals before. That's what's exciting to see, even in commercial movie making you don't know if the audience is going to like it until the moment they go and buy the tickets. We'll have to wait for this weekend. It seems even less predictable than the art house audience that I've been used to all my life.

S:I guess we've already kind of touched on this a little bit, but what drew you to this project?

VS:Well, it's not an accident. That much I can say. Because before I became a serious filmmaker, I was just a boy going to the movies, and those are the movies I went to see. I love these thrillers of the late '50s and early '60s. You know, seedy, sex, money, temptation, the good man (in a dilemma) and evil. It probably was the true motivation in wanting to become a filmmaker. It was more coming from this kind of movie, and the higher aspirations were added later on. (laughs)

So I've always enjoyed them and I've always wanted to come back. Right after "The Young Torless," my very first movie, my second movie was a murder mystery I wrote myself and on top of that kind of a film noir, and it turned out so poor that I quickly returned to (adapting) literature.

So these diversions, there were several of while I was working in Europe, and when I came here for "Death of a Salesman" (the filmed stage version with Dustin Hoffman), I started working with Dustin Hoffman on an Elmore Leonard novel, which then was never made, and as a revenge Leonard wrote "Get Shorty," where he makes fun of Hollywood. Then I wrote with Donald Westlake, who is also a very good mystery writer who wrote the script for "The Grifters" at my recommendation...

So over and over I made the attempt to ease this label, this tag I have, by doing something quite different, which I really enjoy as a member of the audience and never know if I can pull it off, if I can make it. This was the first real attempt, but still keeping it at a distance through a sense of humor and irony, like it's not quite yet film noir. It is just a playful approach.

S:It has many noir elements in it that are just fantastic, but it does have a sense of humor.

VS:Well, because it's so hard to take these noir elements really seriously now days because they really seem dated. But on the other hand 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. You can only lose.

VS:So with (screenwriter) Max Frye, we thought we'd tell people 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.

S:Well, that's a good philosophy for doing something like "Palmetto." I mean, the book ("Just Another Sucker" by James Hadley Chase, on which the screenplay was based) is not a modern setting, it's a real 1950s pulp novel. The way the update worked, the change in setting, was perfect. All the things that needed to be changed were changed just right. Then there were a few nice throwbacks like the typewriter (Woody Harrelson's character doesn't like computers)...

VS:We were discussing that all along. Max Frye writes his screenplays on a typewriter. And probably you could get a typewriter into a jail cell more than a computer.

I think that, as long as we're at it, there's a more profound thing. I think it's really this question of morality and of good and evil. Which in the '50s and '60s was always like a kind of honest man who was desperate who was offered easy money by some beautiful blonde, it was always kind of a moral conflict. Should he take the money or shouldn't he?

Whereas in the '90s, at least with a hero like Woody Harrelson, you don't think much about good and evil. There doesn't seem to be a conflict. If there's money, you take it. Period. (laughs) And that is what I feel is a bit dated with film noir as a genre, that this kind of temptation is not the same anymore.

S:The good and evil is far more gray in today's world.

VS:Absolutely. That occurred to me as we were working along, in certain scenes. I mean had he let himself be seduced by the teenager, that would have been illegal, but it wouldn't have been a moral conflict for him. He would have just done it if it wasn't against the law. So there's really a change of time somehow. We need to invent a different kind of noir plot for the '90s.

S:That's one think I thought you did well, because you can't just make a noir film in the '90s. You have to do something really different. Like, did you see "Bound"?

VS:Sure. That's why I cast Gina Gerson. We needed someone who could handle a blowtorch and I saw that she was pretty good with tools. (laughs)

But I've been debating this with Max Frye, because we know we'd like to do another one together so that this doesn't look like an accident, and we've been going through all kinds of plots, noir-ish plots, but they date because the moral conflict doesn't apply today anymore. So we're still working at what it could be.

S:What kinds of changes did you make from the original story dated in the '50s to what we see on the screen?

VS:The Hadley Chase thing is real pulp. I mean, its the kind of book you write in 10 days. So it starts off quite close, the first scene in the bar, but we started from that sort of opening and the first 30 minutes are pretty (close to the book), but the rest really came from us. Like there was no double identity. (In the film some characters are not who they appear to be.)

S:Really? That was the best part! That totally threw me.

VS:Well, there you are. I totally owe that to Max Frye. We thought we could write (from the book) as far as page 60, but then the story doesn't go anywhere. So he had this idea, which brought a whole different layer to it. But (he preserved) the very pulpy dialogue. My favorite line is "I'm just a girl with a little ambition."

S:And the voice-over was in the same vein. I mean, "I was hoping the rain was gonna wash away the whole dirty business and me along with it." That was beautifully pulp. That line could have been in a Raymond Chandler book.

VS:That wasn't in the script. We made that up in the cutting room because we were a bit too long, so I called Max so we could throw away certain scenes and substitute with narration, which can sometimes just tie it up.

S:Elisabeth Shue kind of surprised me. I didn't really see her as the femme fatale type, but she just took that an ran with it. You must have really loved that.

VS:I thought after the hooker in "Leaving Las Vegas" she was not the cute babysitter anymore (Shue's first starring role was in 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting"). She was good, good, good, and with a big heart.

So when we discussed how she might be a vamp, how she would seduce someone given that she is not really a vamp but is, in the story, impersonating a vamp, I told her to play it as you have seen it in the movies, which automatically brought it a bit over the top. But then her character would start to believe that she is what she appears to be.

She's really very brave and she is a good professional. She likes working, she likes rehearsal. She is steadfast and serious. The scenes in the bungalow, her last try at seducing him -- we enjoyed doing these scenes, in part because they're so melodramatic. We rehearsed them over and over, and each time they got a little further over the top. But it was good work. We were focused on what we were doing.

It started out as a low-budget production. They didn't take their usual salaries, or I could have never taken that cast. And originally it was supposed to be shot in six weeks. We ended up with eight. They do slow down. We meant to have fun, but at the same time we were serious about it.

S:Were Elisabeth Shue and Woody Harrelson people you had in mind or were they suggested by the studio?

VS:No, we had not studio by then. A Berlin producer put up the money for the screenwriter. I worked on spec. Then we cast the movie, and only when it was all packaged and all the deals with the actors were signed, then it was sold to Castle Rock. They probably would not have been able to secure this cast because everybody would have asked for his true salary and it would have ended up an expensive film.

I had kind of medium range, but not stars in mind. Elisabeth, I just liked her because of "Leaving Las Vegas" and was wondering what she had done since, and I saw it was not much. I met with her and there's this Harvard educated girl sitting politely in the tea room of The Four Seasons and it was not yet obvious that she could be the poisonous blonde. But she was curious about it immediately.

It's another part of the film noir problem. I could not go look for a Barbara Stanwyck or a Linda Fiorentino, or people who had done that before. I think that would be boring. So as she was getting very excited about this idea, then we explored who could be her partner. Simultaneously "Larry Flynt" opened up, so all of a sudden we found ourselves talking about Woody, who was then in Kentucky campaigning for hemp agriculture. So I flew to Kentucky and won him over to it.

S:On the topic of Woody and hemp, is the oddball he appears to be?

VS:Yeah, he is a total oddball, but he is really sincere about the things he is doing. One does not exclude the other. I'm a newly converted hemp advocate. I mean, I don't smoke. It's not the point. I speak about paper and fabrics and it used to be the number one crop in Kentucky until the late '20s when the chemical industry appeared and came out with plastic and Nylon and stuff like that.

S:Well, Shelley (the publicist) is hovering so, two quick questions. Do you live in Germany now?

VS:Yes I do. I still live in Berlin.

S:So you were here to do the film, and you're here for the press tour then you're going home.

VS:But I hope to be back soon and hopefully make another thriller of some kind.

S:And I wanted to ask you about the almost sex scenes. It seemed to me from a filmmaking point of view that those scenes were incredibly sensual but never got to the actual sex.

VS:Oh, yeah. Sex was never part of the plan. We didn't shoot one more foot than was in the film. What's erotic is the build up to a sex scene. Once it starts, it becomes acrobatics. Is it her elbow or his knee? (laughs)

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