Rendezvous in Venice: Johnny Depp meets Angelina Jolie in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's romantic thriller

What do you do for a second act when your first feature opens to overwhelming critical acclaim and is showered with awards in Europe, South America, Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States? Well, you could do worse than take a call from Angelina Jolie.

Which is not to say that writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose The Lives of Others (2006), a political thriller set in pre-unification East Berlin, was moping by the telephone. Born in Cologne in 1973 and raised in Brussels, New York, Frankfurt and West Berlin, Henckel von Donnersmarck studied Russian in Leningrad and politics, economics and philosophy at Oxford, won a directing internship with Richard Attenborough and then, on Attenborough’s advice, earned a degree from Munich’s School of Television and Film.

A lifelong horror enthusiast—“Even when I was studying philosophy, I was also studying the aesthetics of horror and reading Freud’s The Uncanny”—Henckel von Donnersmarck cut his teeth on a series of macabre shorts. But his first feature-length screenplay was firmly rooted in the grim realities of constant government surveillance and the knowledge that a single ill-considered remark could irrevocably alter one’s future.

When German film-industry executives passed on The Lives of Others, claiming that no one wanted to see a dark drama about moral compromise and the psychological toll of totalitarianism, Henckel von Donnersmarck found independent financing and watched moviegoers prove them wrong. His movie’s Academy Award win (in the Best Foreign Language Film category) put the multilingual filmmaker on Hollywood’s radar, but after a round of meetings with studio executives, he realized he’d done little except turn down projects. Eventually, he says, “I stopped reading the scripts that were being sent my way. It takes time to read and digest a script; it takes you away from writing and I didn’t feel that the superhero stories were my kind of material anyway.” Henckel von Donnersmarck instead devoted himself to working on a new political thriller, and had just about finished writing when Jolie called.

Jolie was tentatively attached to the U.S. remake of the 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, in which an unwary everyman vacationing in Nice is unwittingly drawn into a high stakes cat-and-mouse game involving a mysterious money launderer, an enigmatic femme fatale and an international police investigation. But she had reservations about the screenplay and, impressed by The Lives of Others, reached out to Henckel von Donnersmarck. “Angelina said she knew I would hate the script,” he recalls, “but thought that maybe I could rework it into something I would want to direct and we could work on together.”

The project, now called The Tourist and relocated to Venice, had been around the block enough times to be looking a little down at the heels. A string of screenwriters had taken a shot at transforming it into a big-budget Hollywood action picture, stars Charlize Theron, Tom Cruise and Sam Worthington had come and gone, and names as diverse as Alfonso Cuarón and Bharat Nalluri (who created the slippery U.K. con-man series “Hustle”) had been run up the directing flagpole.

“It had been developed to death,” says Henckel von Donnersmarck. “So many people had been involved and had left their imprint on it.” But like Jolie, he saw potential in The Tourist. It could be a glossy, sophisticated throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Technicolor baubles,” sleek, sophisticated entertainments like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief in which hairpin plot twists, glittering locations, movie-star glamour, technical precision and a soupcon of emotional truth all come together in perfect balance.

“It had also occurred to me,” he confesses, “that if I went directly into doing my screenplay, I would be typecast as ‘political thriller guy,’ which I would find very limiting.”

So they began brainstorming, with the first order of business being coming up with a male lead. “The name that seemed right was Johnny Depp, an actor I had admired for a long time. His card was pretty full for the next five years, but he said that if we could shoot by February—this was December—he could do it and then go to the Caribbean in mid-May for the new Pirates movie.

“That seemed like a crazy schedule: From the time I started to rewrite the screenplay until the release of the film would only be about 11 months. But I went to Venice on December 27 to begin writing and finished two days before we started shooting. It was a little hair-raising, but it’s kind of a fun challenge to do something that’s way outside your comfort zone.”

Hollywood is outside—make that way outside—the comfort zone of many European filmmakers, and The Tourist’s budget was exponentially larger than that of The Lives of Others. But Henckel von Donnersmarck focused on the familiar. “It was a different kind of film for me in that it wasn’t something that emerged from somewhere deep in my subconscious and, yes, Hollywood is a system. But at the end of the day, any film is such a chaotic endeavor that it’s hard enough for the director to control it—so imagine how hard it would be for anybody to take control of the director. How much a film costs makes no difference to the way you work with actors. Their fame goes away, the screaming fans go away and all that’s left is you and an actor, working on a scene.”

And while he emphasizes that The Tourist is “a celebration of beauty and glamour,” Henckel von Donnersmarck is aware of the haunted quality beneath Venice’s dreamlike beauty—it is, after all, a city being slowly reclaimed by the water on which it was built. “Over all, The Tourist is about being in the most glamorous, scintillating city on Earth, but in one sequence we definitely show the shadowy, mysterious side. We get the impression that you could just be walking down the street and vanish. No one would hear of you again. No one would have seen you going. No one would have heard a thing.”

“You think ‘haunted’ because of Don’t Look Now,” says Henckel von Donnesmarck, with a nod to his inner horror buff. “But in The Tourist we didn’t have any dwarves in red plastic coats running around. When I was young, my ambition in life was to invent a great monster like Freddy or Frankenstein or Pinhead or a vampire or something like that. But I really don’t have that passion anymore. Now I’m so much more interested in seeing acting and drama and the horror of human relations.”