The Tourist director set the world on fire with his debut film, The Lives of Others, which Tourist co-star Paul Bettany called "a masterpiece."
Henckel von Donnersmarck could have taken any number of paths in life. The man is an expert on Russian philosophy and has even taught the field to Russians in Russia in Russian! But, it was an internship with legendary filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough that changed his life forever.
After witnessing the power of creating film, Henckel von Donnersmarck was hooked and never looked back. He is back in the director's chair for the second time after The Lives of Others, with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in tow, to bring audiences the thrill of The Tourist.
SheKnows: After talking to Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and Paul Bettany, one thing struck me: Working with you, they all have never felt so free. Where does that acting freedom come from where you're standing?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I only will move on until I know I have what I need for the scene. That is tremendously important to me. I'm in this field of directing because there's the hope that you can create two hours of an experience where everything is right and nothing bothers you.
SheKnows: How did that method of working come about?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I learned many things making my short films in film school. I made some big mistakes and by the time we were editing, it was too late. I will never move on if I don't have what I need. That's how I direct. I don't divide scripts into A scenes, B scenes or C scenes in terms of their importance. For me, there's just one measure: Is it right or not?
SheKnows: Reading about your background, there's an infinite number of avenues you could have gone down. Did you see filmmaking as a way to do it all?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: If I really think about what is important to me in life, leaving aside matters of family and peace, what of the worldly things are important -- it really is art, what art can make us feel. Everything else to me seems like a means to an end. With everything that people do, the only place the buck stops is with art. It's not a means to an end. It's an end to itself. That made it feel very important to me. I realized that it's what touched me most strongly in my life. For a long time, I felt that I wanted to become a novelist. As time passed and I moved into my early twenties, I do find myself watching more movies than reading books now. I realize for most people, it is also like that. It seemed that movies were the art of our times. Let me see if I can somehow succeed by giving people the same intense experience that they have from a novel, in a film. That was my ambition with The Lives of Others. It was so hard to find a financing. I thought maybe novels are the way to go [laughs]. I'm just going to write this as a novel. And then, finally it came together because of actors who said they want to play those parts.
SheKnows: Is film today's premier art form, in your mind?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: It is. I feel film is the most complete art. You can tell a story on so many different levels. You tell it once through the script -- once again, completely through the images, once again through the music, again through the costumes and set design. Every single element is telling a full story that makes it such a dense and rich experience. As in the case in The Tourist, in 103 minutes, you get the impression that you have lived through something huge yourself. It's because of all those different elements.
SheKnows: What was it about To Catch a Thief that you had your actors watch before tackling The Tourist?
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Maybe it was to justify all the humor I wanted to put into the film. People don't usually remember how, in what they think of as thrillers, how actually, they are as much comedy as thriller. I remember in the first meeting I had with Angelina about this, I said, "If we do this, I want to really torture you about costumes. They are going to be totally central." If you watch something like To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock must have done the same thing. The costumes do tell so much of the story. It's so true, in a way, in films as a viewer where we open our senses so much, the costumes say so much about who a person is. It's almost the strongest way to convey information. I felt To Catch a Thief would help them get that feel.
SheKnows: I heard Johnny gave you a film too…
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: He did! He gave me The Thin Man series. I hadn't known them. He said, "These films are my pacifier." I see exactly what he meant. They are so soothing in their beautiful simplicity.
SheKnows: I just think the world of Richard Attenborough. He's a Renaissance man way ahead of his time. Tell me about your internship with Richard.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I wouldn't be who I am today as a filmmaker without him. When I arrived on his set for In Love and War, it was the first time I was on a film set. He really gave me my first insight, he was such a generous teacher. I looked at that and I thought, "If this is filmmaking, I will never accept a lesser standard. This will be my standard." I remember Attenborough, he would sit down with me, he would put his hand on my shoulder. He is such a warm person, there is almost this warm energy coming through his hands into your body like an ancient healer. He would talk to me about filmmaking. It was a priceless experience. He said to me, "It's wonderful you are so interested in filmmaking. Never forget, never forget, it is the actors who create the emotion. They are what it is really about." He is so right about that. The longer I am working in films, I understand that. And on The Tourist, that is clearly the case.
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