Toronto: 'The Tourist' Director on Why It Took 8 Years for Follow-Up 'Never Look Away'

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - Getty - H 2018
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German auteur Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on his TIFF entry, what he shares with James Cameron and why he considers Arnold Schwarzenegger "an inspiration."

Few filmmakers have experienced as rapid a rise as Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2006 debut, The Lives of Others, won every award going, including a Golden Globe, BAFTA, Cesar and, of course, the 2007 Oscar for best foreign-language film. The thriller, set in communist East Germany, launched him in Hollywood, where he directed and adapted, with Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, an English version of the French drama Anthony Zimmer. The Tourist (2010), starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, was panned by critics, but it delivered at the box office, grossing $278.3 million worldwide.

Henckel von Donnersmarck, 45, has taken a long time for his follow-up. Never Look Away, which premiered in competition in Venice and screens as a special presentation in Toronto, sees the filmmaker return to German history, and art, for inspiration. The film’s plot was inspired by the biography of contemporary artist Gerhard Richter and the facts of life under the Nazi and GDR dictatorships. But, as the filmmaker tells THR, he combined the real and the invented for his tale of criminals and victims caught together in the same German family to explore how great art was made against the backdrop of a particularly tumultuous era.

What was the starting point for Never Look Away?

I was looking for some kind of story that allowed me to explore the origin of artistic creativity. There was this line in Elia Kazan’s autobiography where he talked about his work with geniuses — he meant Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Marlon Brando. He said he felt that their artistic genius was merely “the scab that formed on the wounds that life had dealt them.” That was such an interesting concept, and I thought, “Where could I find a story to explore that?” Then I found a story, through a journalist (Jurgen Schrieber), actually, who’d interviewed me about something else, and he told me about a book he had written about the German painter Gerhard Richter. It was a really interesting story of how both war criminals and victims of these crimes were living together within one family. And all this while a young painter tries to find his artistic path. I thought this could be an interesting starting point. Then I looked at the actual story — and there wasn’t quite enough in the true story — so I basically built my fictional story on this true story about modern art and the history of Germany in the 20th century.

What did you learn from the experience of making The Tourist?

For me personally, the main takeaway, apart from the fact that it was lot of fun and I’m happy the film did so well, is that it is more satisfying for me to work off my own stories, because there is something about a self-exploration that takes place when you don’t even know why a story is calling out to you.

It’s been eight years since The Tourist. Are you, like the artist in Never Look Away, an obsessive perfectionist?

There’s this term that James Cameron invented: rightist. I’m not a perfectionist, I’m a rightist. I do things until they’re right. And that can happen on the first take, or sometimes it can take 20 takes. The reason this film took a little longer was also there were a lot of complex elements in it that maybe would have been easier to make within the American system. It’s pretty unusual for a European film to have a visual effect. There is a little attitude of, “Be happy you have a visual effect at all, why does it have to be just right?” But I absolutely have to have it just right, especially in a realistic and historical movie. And those things take time. I think the fact that it did take a little longer had more to do with the some of the practical and budget limitations.

You said recently that your mentor is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is someone from whom I’ve learned a lot, about visualizing goals and making yourself attain them. I often think of his methods that he developed for sports and so on. I unfortunately never had the talent to develop pectorals like his, but I do use those same methods to try to fight through all the impossible obstacles that are always in your way when you try to make a movie that is a little different. He is someone who was always a source of inspiration for me. He somehow embodies the philosophy of not accepting whatever limitations you think your background and nature have imposed on you. He represents to me something limitless. I just want to give him credit where he truly deserves it.

This story also appears in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 9 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.