Sand Trap: Tom Hanks meets Saudi Arabia in Tom Tykwer’s ‘A Hologram for the King’

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Editor's Note: An extended online Q&A with director Tom Tykwer follows the profile which appears in our May print edition.

For three decades now—from 1985’s Volunteers as a Peace Corps worker to 2015’s Bridge of Spies as a Cold War negotiator—Tom Hanks has been exporting his far-from-ugly American image, but never before to Saudi Arabia. And A Hologram for the King, opening April 22 from Roadside Attractions, keeps that record intact. Although the film is set in “a rising Saudi Arabian city,” it was photographed in Egypt (Hurghada), Germany (Berlin and Potsdam) and, primarily, Morocco (Ouarzazate), and not a single Saudi sets foot in the picture.

“Here and there, we did get in some establishing shots of the expected sights, but most of our location needs were met in Morocco,” says writer-director Tom Tykwer, who’s not one for traipsing through international trouble-zones with a major movie star for a moving target. Nevertheless, the sites selected do give off a sense of topical danger. Abetted by his camera collaborator since Run Lola Run, DP Frank Griebe, he manages to produce quite a plausible visual approximation of Saudi Arabia.

In his adaptation of Dave Eggers’ applauded 2012 novel, Tykwer elevates the location to a kind of character—an adversarial one that eventually wrestles our hero to the ground. Regardless of where he is positioned in this locale, Hanks looks like the hapless Yank, literally a stranger in a strange land—gray-suited, with briefcase, profoundly lost on the horizon of orange sand. Isolated in the desert with distant tents and camels, he might just as well be on the sunny, sweltering side of the Moon.

This forlorn quality—the detached, dreamlike quality of the locale, when viewed by alien eyes—is what Tykwer said drew him to Hologram. His screenplay moves not in a straight line but at random—like life, as it sees fit. “That’s the path the book took, too,” the 50-year-old German filmmaker points out, “and I wanted my movie to evolve the same way, something like a fairytale. You don’t realize it for a while, but the main character is not on a business trip. He’s on a journey of self-discovery.”

Hanks plays Alan Clay, a beleaguered Boston businessman trying to shore up his sinking career and family life by flailing about in the international marketplace.

Accordingly, he hops a plane to Saudi Arabia to pitch a three-dimensional holographic meeting system to the royal family. Unfortunately, the customer won’t return the pitch—or even take a meeting. No matter how many times the King’s underlings promise that he’ll show up, he doesn’t (thinking he’s King or something). Middle Eastern bureaucracy and the missing monarch keep the project at a total standstill, and Clay takes his share of transatlantic hammering from the home office.

So much of the picture leads to dead ends and business frustrations that both script and character start pondering exit strategy. “Alan begins to realize that his sense of dislocation, which he feels physically, actually goes much deeper than that. The American economy has gone off the tracks, and he was left at the station. He is no longer a player and, by pretending to be, he is participating in his own execution.”

Then, there’s that baby-Quasimodo bump on Clay’s shoulder blade that is also feeding into his anxiety. Unwisely, he operates on himself—to no avail, except that he now bleeds through both his shirt and his coat. It’s bad for business, of course, but it does bring him to the caring arms of a Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury).

In this roundabout fashion, a film that starts as a cautionary comedy on galloping globalization in the face of the shrinking American dream turns into a love story.

The moral in that exercise, in case you missed it, is solemnly intoned under the Hologram trailer: “Sometimes, you have to change your scenery to change your life.”

This is a smooth transition, of course, for the world-traveled Mr. Hanks, and he also has no trouble emotionally hanging a sharp right to make all the pieces fit in place. “English is not my primary language, so I have trouble expressing what a gift Tom Hanks is for me,” Tykwer says. “He’s constantly working on his character, sometimes inventing business that’s exactly right while the cameras are rolling. You can’t ask for a better actor to work with. I was truly amazed by his stamina, style and skill.”

The two met under not overly distinguished circumstances, filming that fanciful 2012 whatzit, Cloud Atlas. Tykwer shared directorial credit with Lilly and Lana Wachowski, and Hanks fielded a half-dozen roles, but they hit it off and, a year later, huddled about turning Eggers’ book into a Hanks vehicle. The actor liked the idea because it gave him a chance to work with more warts that he’s usually allotted. The mainstream Hanks and the idiosyncratic Tykwer didn’t form a partnership made in heaven—or even Hollywood—but it has been a mutually beneficial one.

By age 11, Tykwer was wielding an amateur Super 8 camera around West Germany. When he didn’t make the cut for various film schools in Europe, he stayed in show business as a theatre projectionist and, in time, as a theatre programmer. Turning filmmaker, he racked up two shorts and three features before he hit his winning stride and gave the world the high-speed Franka Potente with Run Lola Run.

That film put them both over the top, was nominated for 41 awards, nabbed 26 of those and became the most successful German film of 1998. They followed that with another German film, The Princess and the Warrior, and then Potente sprinted off to Hollywood via The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy and now busies herself doing television series (“The Bridge,” “American Horror Story”) and feature films.

Tykwer “went Hollywood”in a different way. Because Run Lola Run echoed the work of the late Kryzsztof Kieslowski, he was elected to execute the screenplay that Kieslowski left behind, Heaven, which he filmed in English with Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi in Turin and Tuscany. He also made in Spain the English-language Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by the German novelist Patrick Suskind. His official Hollywood bow was The International with Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

Tykwer believes his career is the kind that drives auteurists crazy simply because he doesn’t stick with a single genre or place or style. There may be a reason for that. In the rarified realm of cinematic hyphenates, he is the only producer-director-writer who has also composed scores for more than half of his films, either by himself or in collaboration with Johnny Klimek or Reinhold Heil. What’s more, he writes film scores counter to the way it is usually done: the music before the movie.

Something like that can keep a filmmaker pretty eclectic, fresh and special.

More with Tom Tykwer:

What was your attraction to the novel? It doesn’t have a straight narrative course.

I admire the book for its seamless way of intertwining epic storytelling with acute contemporary issues and subject matter. It has a sense of urgency, and relevance, but it also reads like a timeless tale which will be fascinating to follow even decades from now.

Did you like the way the plot switched completely from business to romance?

There is a strong sense of unpredictability, which increasingly surrounds Alan Clay and his situation. The way Tom Hanks played with the character’s masks, falling one by one—and how he decides to reinvent himself—led in a kind of conclusive way away from business and towards romance. He wants his life to change, and therefore he has to change himself—connect with otherness, meet people, fall in love again.

Is this a comment on how the U.S. conducts business abroad—that we are too frank and frontal with the people we negotiate with?

We—the people from the "West"—just appear to be used to a particular attitude when visiting other places: We assume everyone wants to be in business with us. Well, not in places like Saudi Arabia—and Alan Clay learns this the hard way. He has to hit this wall that he cannot break with the good old rules of business-making; he has to be inventive.

Did you have a sense of danger making this film?

No. I traveled to Saudi Arabia prior to filming and got a good sense of the situation. It is a complex place, but it is full of great people, and it feels like a matter of time before things will change towards a more liberal concept. People feel it. They seem to know that this is coming.

You get a lot of comic mileage out of the taxi driver who takes Hanks around. Where did you find him?

We found Alexander Black when we started investigating the Arab standup comedy scene. He is a true find, incredibly funny and multifaceted.

Did Tom like the idea of playing a flawed, failed character after the exemplary lawyer he played in Bridge of Spies?

He was excited about the mix of comedic and melancholic aspects of the character. Everyone in the Western world who has been affected by the recent economic turmoil can relate to Alan Clay. There is a profound Everyman-ness in the character, and that Mr. Everybody is thrown into the most impossible situation: “Sell something that's not even real, to someone who isn't there, in a place where there's nothing but sand.”

You’ve said Tom was spontaneously inventive. Was he fun to direct?

For a director, working with Tom is like being in paradise: He never stops exploring, he is infinitely inventive, and he is ready for any experiment you come up with. Once he trusts you, there's no place he wouldn't go. It's all about discovery. How can I ever make a movie without him? I don't know.