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The Tourist Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on How Johnny Depp Is Like a Serial Killer

When Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film after directing 2006’s The Lives of Others, he was expected to make the jump to Hollywood right away. He may have taken his time flirting with different projects, but they don’t come much more Hollywood than the one von Donnersmarck eventually settled on: The Tourist, an expensive caper starring the two biggest stars in town, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. Yesterday afternoon, Vulture talked to the German-born director about how he paired those two actors and the sympathy he feels for the director who almost replaced him.

Have you read the reviews that have been coming out?
I try to look at all those with a little distance, after a few weeks, so I’m not on the Internet watching every little thing. I’ll get the news after the first weekend to see how well it was accepted.

When I talked to you last November, there were rumors that Alfonso Cuaron was about to replace you on the project, that the deal for you to direct was shaky. You said that wasn’t quite the case — and indeed, you ended up helming the movie. What happened?
I think it was less dramatic than it was made out to be, but before you have so many complicated contracts done and signed, it leaves a lot of space for many rumors to be flying around town. In interviews, too, I get asked that Tom Cruise or Sam Worthington was supposed to play the male part, but I don’t know anything about that. The only actor I ever talked to about the part was Johnny Depp, and luckily he wanted to do it, so we did it.

That’s the new reality of Hollywood: We know countless things about a movie’s pre-production history before it even starts shooting.
It felt like there was more of it on this picture than others, but I’m sure it’s happened on other pictures too, right?

It happens a lot. A casting shortlist seems to leak for every big role these days.
Yeah, I know. I mean, poor Alfonso Cuaron with his Gravity, right? That’s a very public casting carousel, too.

You were mentioned for several projects after The Lives of Others was a success. What made you pull the trigger on this one?
I had just finished writing a screenplay for a dark, dramatic thriller, and when I heard about The Tourist, I thought, “Maybe I’ll do this one first.” There was a very specific time frame we needed to do it — eleven months — and I thought it would do me and viewers good to do something light and not something very heavy. Of course, now I am going to go back and do something heavy, a [political action movie].

Just because a film is intended to be light doesn’t mean that shooting it is a light experience, though.
It does a little bit, actually. A film always feels a little bit like its content. It’s a little menacing to do something about the Stasi, for example — as I did with The Lives of Others — and you do end up laughing a lot more on a set where Angelina and Johnny just exchange banter.

Americans tend to like escapist movies like this because of the exotic locations, but for someone who’s grown up so intercontinentally, does Venice have the same kind of allure for you?
It didn’t feel so exotic, but it still feels incredibly beautiful. The two most beautiful places in the world that I can think of are Paris — or at least certain parts of Paris — and Venice. Living in Venice for almost half a year was something quite extraordinary. And with the Venetians themselves … that place never loses its beauty.

Yes, but with all those canals, the transpo budget must have been insane.
Absolutely. [Laughs.] That’s very right. We had to transport everything in small boats that were tiny enough to fit under those small bridges, so that was quite a logistical challenge. In a way, though, it also made things easier. You never ran into traffic jams, and everything is twenty minutes away. It’s a great experience to not have to sit in a car for half a year.

What does Johnny Depp pull out of Angelina that you wouldn’t normally see?
They’re always pretty great, I find. I will go and see any Angelina Jolie film whether the topic interests me or not, and I will go see every Johnny Depp film whether he plays Ed Wood or the Mad Hatter or even a writer in a horror film, like Secret Window. I find that every great actor does better opposite another great actor, and they’re not solipsistic actors who just play for themselves and do their part — they both play off the other person a lot. One thing I noticed that was interesting is that they both listen to each other so much while they’re acting, which is quite unusual. Johnny, for example, is so in character that if something unexpected happens across the set, like someone shouts on a bridge, he reacts in character. It’s really quite fascinating.

Johnny’s fairly well known for having strong opinions on the looks of his characters. Was it like that here? There’s a lot less visual embellishment than we’ve seen from him in other movies.
True, but if you look at the styling, it’s quite unusual in a way. Okay, he’s a math teacher and he has long hair? That’s weird. One thing we felt was interesting and Johnny thought was interesting was to try to explore the so-called “everyman.” What does that mean? Does that exist, even? He wanted to show the bizarre side of normalcy, and that’s what we were going for with his character. We know that from reading about serial killers, what do their neighbors say? “Oh, he was such an average guy.” And then he turns out to be not-so-average after all. I think we explore that here as a positive.

You don’t find many directors who will compare the romantic lead of their drama to a serial killer.
[Laughs.] But it’s that thing, where normal characters can be both the scariest and the funniest. In this case, it’s not going to be the scariest, so I hope it’s the funniest.

On another note, let me take your temperature. You were made a member of the Academy a few years ago. Where do you stand on The Social Network versus The King’s Speech?
I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet, but I saw The Social Network and thought it was incredible. So compelling and so beautifully directed. It’s true that I haven’t seen enough to compare it to, but just in absolute, I think it’s going to be hard for anything to come along and beat that.

The Tourist Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on How Johnny Depp Is Like a Serial Killer