Commentary: Talk about a Bad Bank -- lend an ear

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"International" interview: With all the talk lately about creating a Bad Bank to absorb toxic assets from our failed banking system, it's particularly timely that Sony's thriller "The International" is arriving Friday.

The film's story gives new meaning to the old Jack Benny joke about "Your money or your life?" Benny, famously playing a cheapskate, used to reply, "Well..." in a drawn-out way that always got laughs. There's nothing funny, however, about how that line applies to "The International's" fictional bank, which was inspired not by today's headlines but by the 1970's Bank of Credit and Commercial International in Karachi, Pakistan. BCCI was a massive money laundering enterprise -- the biggest Ponzi scheme ever until the despicable Bernie Madoff came along -- whose enemies were routinely murdered or simply disappeared from the face of the earth.

The Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media is an Atlas Entertainment production directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and written by Eric Warren Singer (his first produced feature). Produced by Charles Roven ("The Dark Knight," "Get Smart"), Richard Suckle ("Scooby-Doo") and Lloyd Phillips ("The Legend of Zorro"), it was executive produced by Alan G. Glazer and Ryan Kavanaugh. Starring are Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Brian F. O'Byrne.

For some insights into the making of "The International," which globe-trotted during production from September 2007 through February 2008 from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul, I was happy to be able to talk recently to Tom Tykwer. We spoke just before the film world premiered as the opening night presentation at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival.

"The first time I connected (with the project) was practically six years ago," Tykwer told me, "when I read an early draft of the script that Eric Singer had written. Even though there were many things that were still looking like a work in progress, I was very impressed by his ability to create. When you're a director reading other people's scripts the one thing that is very annoying most of the time is that the quality of dialogue is relatively poor or it's kind of simple. I was so happy to read a script where elaborate dialogue was (part of) every individual character (and) where you really could identify the characters through their way of language, which I thought was already so beautifully created in this script."

Another thing he liked was that the project was a thriller: "I was particularly keen on it because I was looking for years to develop a thriller project on my own. It seemed like the perfect material because it (was) a real straightforward genre thriller and at the same time having a certain paranoia subtext, a political context that I was very interested in."

There was a problem, however, in that Singer's original script was set in the late '70s. "And the protagonist was a holocaust survivor, which altogether meant it was a period picture," Tykwer recalled. "I said, 'OK, the one big step we need to do is we have to take this into present day. We have to make it a movie about now because now is the time where the global economy and where the system of world finance can much more convincingly be put into the position of the villain.'"

Of course, having the bank serve as the movie's villain does make it appear that Tykwer took the story straight from today's headlines. "Well, never forget we started working on this six years ago," he said. "It was our feeling that it was a subject that was as important and as relevant six years ago as it is today. It has evolved in a quite dramatic way into people's consciousness because of (today's Wall Street and banking) scandal, but we should never forget that the movie's about a system that is working on us and our daily lives for decades already."

As to the film's origins, he explained, "The bank that inspired the story was the BCCI, which was a criminal bank in the late '70s and early '80s that (prompted) Eric Singer to start to investigate their activities. But the funny thing was that as shocking and as blunt as their activities were in those days, the only difference today is that there are some better methods to cover up (such banking fraud). They are not very different and the more you investigate it the more hair raising it becomes when you really get into the details. One could say the only upside of this quite horrifying crisis that we're in right now is that we are just forced to have more knowledge about it. I think knowledge about the whole context of finance in our daily lives and how it influences world politics is really important. We (need) to get to know as much about it as possible in order to be able to control it."

He and Singer worked together over the past five years to contemporize "The International's" screenplay, Tykwer explained: "We had many many sessions on the script. I had a very close and quite mutual (excellent) relationship with Eric, who I really admire for never giving up. He was happy to have me insisting and insisting on optimizing the script. He was somebody who loves to be pushed and then he really brings out the (best) in himself. I must say that we (also) had two producers, Chuck Roven and Richard Suckle, who were quite involved in the development. So over the years we created this group that was developing this film together, which made us strong even before we entered production. We got to know each other very well."

The development period was so extended, in fact, that, he added, "I had to walk away after a year of development because I said, 'This script isn't ready. I'm going to make another film in-between, but then I'm going to come back.' So I went away and made 'Perfume' (the 2007 crime thriller), which took me away for a couple of years because it was also quite a massive undertaking. I remember Charles (Roven) always saying, 'No director ever comes back if he walks away from a project and shoots another movie because when you've done the other movie you already have let go of the project prior to this.' And I proved the opposite because in my mind I never lost contact with it. I kept the dialogue alive with Eric and with everybody else involved because I was so in love with it and because I felt like it's getting more and more important to do this film because it's more and more the time to have a powerful thriller with this particular undertone."

When we talked about shooting "The International," Tykwer noted that production took place not just in two continents, as it appears, but really "in three continents if you count one half of Istanbul to be Asia. (When you go) across the Bosporus, you're in Asia. One of the main decisions we made at an early stage was to say that (we would find) as many of the locations that we wanted to use to represent the very modern city and urban architecture of the (present day) film in Germany and Berlin.

"Also, because most of the creative crew -- like the DP (Frank Griebe), the production designer (Uli Hanisch) and the editor (Mathilde Bonnefoy) -- are all located in Berlin and also because I prefer to work here, we ended up saying, 'Let's put the base of production in Berlin.' So it was basically a Berlin-based production."

It also helped, Tykwer said, that, "We have Studio Babelsberg here, which is a great (production facility). You can do anything on stage here that you want -- up to creating a stage with the proportions of the Guggenheim Museum, which we rebuilt here on stage (because the real museum in New York couldn't be destroyed in shooting the film). To operate from here helped a lot because we could basically cover interiors and exteriors of the movie more than 50% here. About 55 to 60% of the film was shot in Berlin. And then, of course, for all the exteriors we went to travel around the world and had to connect with all these interestingly different crews from other countries, which is one of my favorite processes in filmmaking."

He enjoys working that way because, he explained, "Your own crew and units (are) intertwined with a system of working in another country and another working culture. It can be kind of frightening and it can sometimes also feel like it messes up things, but I always experience it as an infusion of different perspectives on how to approach filmmaking, which it was. For instance, which we didn't know, Turkey is a great place to shoot films. It's one of the perfectly functioning industries (there) and it also showed that their way of approaching a film is quite similar to the way Germans do. They're quite insisting on good preparation and long-running preparation so you know what's going to happen in advance. The creativity comes out of a very particular prep work compared to the Italians. They much more love the idea that you tie up all possibilities and create a certain sense of chaos (and are) inspired by the pressure that the chaos creates and feed your creativity from this situation, which I personally like, too. I was inspired by both ways."

Asked about the challenges of making a movie with so much action in it, he pointed out, "The movie has several quite large set pieces. In particular, two (stand out). One is an assassination of a high ranking politician out in the open at a political rally with thousands of spectators, which was shot in Italy. The other sequence, which was pretty demanding, was the shootout that we did in the Guggenheim Museum. I guess this is probably the scene that demanded the most attention from me as a director in my entire career because we had so much thought to give to it to make (it work and we had) to find the right strategy to divide that scene into all its segments.."

Part of what needed doing, he added, was to talk to officials at "the Guggenheim Museum, itself, to figure out how much time we had to spend in the real museum and when we could go and shoot the rest of the sequence in the stage set (at Babelsberg Studios). We ended up shooting just a couple of days in the original location and then went for five weeks more or less day and night shooting inside the constructed set. If you compare that to the fact that the sequence, itself, is slightly more than 10 minutes (running time) that shows how much detailed work goes into something that then flies away so quickly."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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