LOS ANGELES - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck spent five years making his first film, "The Lives of Others," a dark, independently financed, German-language political thriller with no instantly recognizable stars that he wrote, directed and produced and went on to win the foreign film Oscar.
For his follow-up, he chose "The Tourist," a romantic caper from Sony Pictures pairing two of Hollywood's most famous faces: Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. The film, which opens today, was shot in glamorous locales including Paris and Venice, but to accommodate Depp's busy filming schedule, Von Donnersmarck had to complete the movie in less than a year.
At least no one can accuse him of repeating himself.
If the scramble to finish his first studio feature has worn on the filmmaker, though, he's hiding it well. Sitting in the back-yard garden of his Pacific Palisades home, Von Donnersmarck is relaxed, although it's been a busy day of interviews - German Playboy is just leaving as his next visitor arrives.
"I thought this would be a good way for me to explore something completely different, the lighter, more romantic side that I feel is somewhere in me too," Von Donnersmarck, 37, said of why he chose to direct "The Tourist." "I thought it would be a liberating experience to see it can be done in 11 months, and also I thought that if I did another dark thriller, then I'd be that guy."
"The Tourist" is adapted from a 2005 French feature, "Anthony Zimmer," which starred Sophie Marceau as the girlfriend of a money launderer who involves an unsuspecting traveler in a web of international intrigue. Here, Jolie takes the lead playing Elise, an elegant English temptress who meets an American named Frank (Depp) on a train and travels with him from France to Italy, where the pair are sought out by the police and criminals who mistake Frank for Elise's lost, law-breaking love.
Von Donnersmarck said he very much wanted to recall sophisticated, adult-oriented films of a bygone era, movies like Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" or "North by Northwest," although he intentionally avoided watching "Anthony Zimmer" to make "The Tourist" more purely his own vision. He also sought to suffuse his film with as much beauty as he possibly could.
"I just wanted the film to feel like something that you'd want to live in," he said. "Every single extra that we have in the film I cast with incredible care, even if they're somewhere way in the distance. Everyone was dressed with the same care as our actors. Just like that would be the case visually, that you just had beauty everywhere, I didn't want it to be just a thriller, I find that a little limiting."
He said his stars were game for breaking out of the boundaries of a traditional genre film, bringing a spry, seductive energy to the suspense and action. The towering German filmmaker (he stands well over 6 feet) said it was exciting to watch the interplay between Jolie and Depp during filming; the actors have radically diverging approaches to their craft, with Depp's, as one might expect, tending to be somewhat more off the cuff and improvisational than Jolie's.
"I learned quickly that no matter what stage directions I wrote into the script, he doesn't even read them," Von Donnersmarck said of Depp with a laugh. "He will always do something phenomenally unexpected. Angelina, she's someone who prepares so very much and will in a way surprise you with her level of preparedness. It was interesting throwing those two styles together."
Of course, when two of the biggest movie stars in the world are the leads in your film, that can lead to certain complications. Von Donnersmarck said the production was doggedly pursued by paparazzi who aggressively tried to snap photos of Jolie and Depp. But the director and his cinematographer took an interesting approach to the problem: When they knew they wouldn't be able to block shots, they actually attempted to make the unauthorized images better.
"The kind of light that John Seale created for me works for several simultaneous cameras, which was really good because that meant that if the paparazzi did get some pictures, they were really good," Von Donnersmarck said.
With the release of "The Tourist" looming, the writer-director is pondering what he'll do next.
For now, it looks to be an original script he's penned that will feature an ensemble of actors and likely would require a hard-R rating. But that doesn't mean he's soured against lighter fare; in fact, just the opposite - Von Donnersmarck is simply always up for a challenge.
"I would like to try out a completely, totally genre film," he said. "That would also be very interesting.
"How about a musical?"