Percy Adlon by Lance Loud

BOMB 32 Summer 1990
032 Summer 1990
Percy Adlon. Photo by Hermann Schulz ©1990.

Percy Adlon. Photo by Hermann Schulz ©1990.

Percy Adlon has what you might call a beatific smile. It comes easily to the lips of the director of Rosalie Goes Shopping and reflects a soul that is sweet, optimistic, and just a little mischievous. Adlon’s films have the same quality. In his trilogy of movies centered around actress Marianne Saegebrecht, blissful fantasy and quirky charm beguile the viewer. At his best, in such films as Sugarbaby and Bagdad Cafe, Adlon creates a world that is both mundanely familiar and yet enchanted. He is a humanist who presents tales in which outcast characters find happy endings by banding together. Now the German-born director is himself enjoying the spoils that those films have so far netted him. Sitting in his spacious office, complete with its expensive blond wood desk, attentive secretary bearing refreshment, and a higher-priced view of Beverly Hills out the window in back of him, the oval faced gentleman has come a long way on the magic he’s made.

Lance Loud Tell me a little about the creative process you go through to tell a story like Rosalie Goes Shopping.

Percy Adlon I start off with a real story or event. Say, a real woman having problems with her financial system. I take that little idea and lift it up and make it fiction. Give it this magical element, what I call “mood lighting.” Mood colors, not real colors, so what you see in Rosalie, or Bagdad Cafe or Sugarbaby is colored by what my main characters imagine. I work very carefully on the actual use of color in my films with this in mind.

For instance, in Rosalie, she’s walking through these silver blues, this guy who she loves so much is a pilot and always in the air. And then, she’s adding all these pinks and all these shopping mall colors. All the kitsch, actually. This is how she gets rid of the problems of the real world and imagines everything as wonderful. We all have that syndrome. We think, “If I clean my desk (or whatever) then everything is fine.”

LL Rosalie Goes Shopping has a darker edge than Bagdad Cafe.

PA Rosalie isn’t a sequel. This subject is very different. In Bagdad, it was sheer hope and positive warm feelings which developed unexpectedly for everybody. In Rosalie, we look into the mirror of one of our contemporary diseases.

LL Credit card-itis?

PA Yeah, exactly. In this film, I’m needling the system, not the characters. I keep the characters out of the satire. I don’t make Rosalie herself mean, if you understand the film right, you’ll go, “Does this talented woman only use her talents for fixing her accounts?” This is everywhere. The seduction coming from the TV set telling you what to buy to be happy.

LL In Rosalie, you manage to twist a fairly sad tale around into an up-tempo film…

PA Yes. For me, the world is always happy and sad—both. It’s always aggressive and soft, laughter and tears, heaven and hell—but it’s never paradise. Only in movies do you get these happy endings.

I gave this film a happy ending that is actually not true. I praise Rosalie and her transactions to death. I am saying, “Do you believe it?” and the audience is saying, “I don’t really believe it!” (laughter) But this is my kind of satire.

LL Where do you find inspiration for your films?

PA Very much from real life, from the time I was a documentary filmmaker. I made close to 150 documentaries for Bavarian TV. They opened so many doors. I watched so many people, talked with so many people. Now, in my feature filmmaking, I use all my experiences. I imagine I know how people are. I know about craziness in all families. The family in Rosalie is not extraordinary; it’s ordinary craziness. Go into any family, go into your own, would you say this is a normal family? No. Everybody is extraordinary. Usually, the people who work in offices, doing numbers and figures and such, they are the craziest. Then you take a filmmaker—Percy Adlon, for instance—and you go home with this man and watch while he’s cooking and cutting his own onions, and he’s sitting in the sun and listening to the birds, you will discover that this man needs a lot of peace to create these weird things. It’s just the opposite. I like to sit and watch and not talk except when someone asks me questions, like you now.

LL Although you’re known in America for Sugarbaby and Bagdad Cafe, you have made more feature films than those.

PA Yes, Sugarbaby was my fifth film, Bagdad Cafe my sixth. Two of my films are not released in America.

LL Will they be?

PA No, I don’t think so, they are just not right for the American market. You can see them in film festivals. They will win awards and everything, but they will never be shown here.

LL Is the American market too specialized, do you think?

PA I wouldn’t say specialized. There is only one industry in the world and that is the Hollywood film industry. There is only one problem, American films are so much bigger and richer, it’s sometimes like ordering a dessert that you get tired of halfway through. Then there is some little film from India which starts so small—there’s almost nothing on the plate—and by and by, you discover all these little spices and all this delicate stuff. You go away from it and you dream for days about it. You feel fortunate that you saw it.

LL How much did Bagdad Cafe cost to make?

PA Less than two million, and in America alone, it made four million. It made 50 million all over the world. It was a real big worldwide success. It was more successful outside of America.

LL How do you handle the expectations for Rosalie generated by your success with Bagdad Cafe?

PA It’s very important for a person in my position to find a certain philosophy to protect himself. You have to tell yourself, “Wouldn’t that be against all the rules if you had another major success next time out? This cannot happen.” It did not happen to Wim Wenders. It did not happen to Jim Jarmusch. The next one after the “big hit” was not a flop, but critics said, “Well, Down by Law is a good film, but it’s not Stranger Than Paradise.” I have to be aware that that happens. Even if I knew the solution how I could make one success after the other—I don’t want that, because that’s just not what our business is. This is gambling. Talk to Joe Roth of Fox. He was so frightened before War of the Roses came out. Because of the big names involved, he couldn’t bring it out on a test run. He had to go immediately to twelve-hundred screens and risk everything. Nobody knew how this extreme picture would work during Christmas. It did fantastically well, but it was a really big risk. I believe the movie industry will only be exciting if there is big risk, constantly. Out of 10 pictures, two or three have to be different. The others can go with their mainstream pattern. But there always has to be an element of controversy in this industry. It creates new chemistry. If you don’t risk, there will be no more audience because they will be so bored with all these “safe bets.” And there is no real safe bet in movie making.

LL What kind of risks did you undertake in making Rosalie?

PA I took the risk that Marianne, in Rosalie, is self-sufficient. Her other characters needed the audience to encourage them. Here, she is saying, “I walk on very very thin ice. Although, I’m pretty heavy I’m light enough that I can make it. The ice may crack everywhere but I’m pretending that nothing is happening.”

I don’t know… I don’t want to know what will happen. (sighs)

Marianne Saegebrecht as Rosalie in Rosalie Goes Shopping. Image courtesy of Four Seasons Ent.

Marianne Saegebrecht as Rosalie in Rosalie Goes Shopping. Image courtesy of Four Seasons Ent.

LL I interviewed Marianne Saegebrect and she said that since the success of Bagdad, she has felt some resentment amongst the intellectual community in Europe who initially championed your movies. Have you felt that?

PA In a way, yes. Maybe she pays more attention. For me, I don’t care, I haven’t got much of a national sense. I never had that. Maybe because my parents traveled so much between Germany and here. I have very strong feelings for this country. Not only for this country, but for this entire small globe.

LL Will your next project be American?

PA Yes. I am in my English phase and I will continue. I would like to improve my vocabulary in English. I like English dialogue very much. It’s not as heavy as German dialogue. Dialogue is such an important part of a film that I like to make it as light as possible, as comfortable as possible. Filmmaking should concentrate much more on body language and on emotion and color and light.

LL I understand that you and Marianne are parting company now, could you tell me about your collaboration over the last three films?

PA We had no plan to create what we did together but I very quickly found out that she is unique. It was a risk, putting a lay person—she was not a formally trained actress—into lead characters.

LL How did you two meet up?

PA When I met her she had a theater company in Munich. She was this kind of patron and mother. They called her the Mother of the Subculture. She did these incredible four-hour-long productions that used 250 people: people from the street, housewives, classical dancers and tap dancers—all the colors, religions, and sexes. She loves everything that is not straightforward, not man or woman, but in between somewhere—she loves. (laughter)

What I liked about her were her stoic qualities. When she was sitting saying nothing. This is what I used for Sugarbaby. Like an artist who discovers a certain model—a certain shape, a certain look, a certain texture of her skin, how her eyes are located on her head, how her fingers move when she talks, how light she is on her feet although she’s so heavy, how she delivers humor without being funny—all that together brought me to write one piece after another for her. I remembered certain images when I was with her. For example, she was floating on her back in a swimming pool at a party one night, and we were feeding her (a similar scene appears in Rosalie) and another night she was dancing on high heels all night long—she’s a very good rock and roll dancer—watching her constantly created images I wanted to film. She is a person who has something very unique. It was not easy in the beginning to get her going, but what was wonderful was that from the beginning on, she never cheated herself through a character. Some actors cheat their way through a problem role or scene. Marianne would stay there stubbornly looking at me, and not move anymore, until we found a solution to why she’s not able to move. Until then, she would stay there and wait. She uses no tricks, no tricks at all. When she cries, she cries.

LL When you go to shoot a film, has it all been put down on paper beforehand?

PA Everything. Not only the lines, but all movement. This is a score where the instruments are very properly defined.

LL Could you tell me a little bit about the collaborative relationship you have with your wife?

PA We do everything together. We run our film company, we produce together, we write together. I even can’t say which ideas are mine and which are hers! It’s like my own blood. We have our offices here, back-to-back. She’s working now on insurance stuff and accounting and I am doing deals, but when it comes to being creative, we do everything together. When we develop a story I sit down and write out a seven or eight-page short story about the subject and then we sit down together and both using handwriting—no computer—we sit together for three weeks starting every morning and write until five and do the script. I would read out my dialogues to her and she would oppose something and tell me, “Well, come on, this goes in a direction we never wanted to.” And she would come up with other ideas. She’s very important. She’s the fourth wheel of the car.

LL How long has this gone on?

PA Since we married. She was a dancer before that but she then stopped dancing and began helping me when I was a TV director.

LL Are you planning anything now?

PA Yes, but I am very cautious. (laughter) For four years, when one of my films was released and I did interviews, I always told reporters about Louis with a Star, that this would be my next film. So I actually protected the one I really did, by talking about this incredibly complicated picture which would cost 50 million dollars. It’s a Hollywood story that’s true, about an uncle of mine who came to Hollywood and married Marian Davies’ sister and became a regular in Hearst’s castle, San Simeon.

But this story’s still waiting, I may realize it or I may not. I’ve told the story so often that I feel as if it’s almost done. There are still some keys missing that I may find, perhaps in San Simeon, if I do, I will finish it. This is the title (drawing on a piece of paper with a fountain tip, he writes the title in beautifully shaped calligraphy, star dotting the “i” of Louis). You see, the design is already there. 

—Lance Loud is a writer living and working in Hollywood, USA, whose beat is the arts and entertainment scene in South California. His work appears regularly in American Film, Exposure, Interview and Fame magazine.

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Originally published in

BOMB 32, Summer 1990

Featuring interviews with Barbet Schroeder, Blue Man Group, Jeanne Silverthorne, Angélica Gorodischer, Richard Nelson, Ed Lachman, Alain Kirili, Griselda Gambaro, and Deb Margolin.

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032 Summer 1990