The fall


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The fall

  1. 1. The fall<br />
  2. 2. Tarsem<br />The few people who know Tarsem Singh's name at all probably recall him as the director who debuted with The Cell, a bizarro horror-fantasy in which Jennifer Lopez plays a sort of psychic psychiatrist entering the fantastical mind of a serial killer. <br />
  3. 3. The movie was largely panned, but praised nonetheless for its amazing visuals—the same sort of glorious images the now-mononymicTarsem brought to the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," to his extensive body of commercial work, and to his new labor of love, the insanely ambitious art house picture The Fall. The film, reportedly shot in 24 countries, centers on a paraplegic, suicidal man (Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) who earns the trust of a hospitalized child (CatincaUntaru) by telling her an improvised fantasy story, which becomes a breathtaking onscreen narrative that parallels events in his own life. Recently, Tarsem spoke at length with The A.V. Club about putting his puke on R.E.M., being a prostitute who loves his work, carrying his own teabags to film school after his father disowned him, and lying to his own film crew for verisimilitude.<br />
  4. 4. The Fall screened in Toronto in 2005, but it's only now making it into theaters. Was it difficult getting distribution?<br />It's been almost exactly a year and a half, true. In Toronto, I ran into—at the time, I hadn't finished all the titles for the film. It made a big difference when those two people's names weren't in front: "Presented by [David] Fincher and Spike [Jonze]." And suddenly, there were a lot of people sharpening knives to say, "The guy who made The Cell is making something like this?" Some people thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and some people thought it was absolute shit. And I thought, "That's great! Exactly what I intended to make." But it's quite a bit more polarizing than I thought it would be. And the stuff from Variety completely killed it. <br />
  5. 5. how did the overseas shooting work? You reportedly piggybacked your work in various countries on the commercials you were shooting<br />That's the tail end of it. The original start of it was once I found the girl. For about six years, I was looking for a person whom I thought could carry the film. It was very difficult. It was the kind of film I knew would never get financing. I tried a couple of times, but I would never give anybody a script—I had a structure, and people would say, "Is this the film? Because we'll raise the money." And I'd say, "No, it's going to be written by a 4-year-old." I was obsessed with finding a child who could act in the style I liked, not in the style of A Little Princess, but much more Ponette.<br />
  6. 6. I figured age 4 was the cutoff point, until someone sent me a tape of this girl who was actually 6, but didn't speak English.<br />So her part, after I'd put it all together, took only about a year and a half to two years. And then after that, I needed the characters' backstories, so for those, I went around the globe, saying "I need to go to this location, this location," places I'd scouted for 17 years. I would only take ads that went to those regions. So I'd shoot an ad, and then bring my actors over to shoot on location.<br />
  7. 7. How much control do you have over where a commercial is shot?<br />You probably haven't seen what I do—most people think of commercials as the kind of work that everybody does. There are one or two people like me, who don't do storyboards, don't do anything, but can pretty much pick the places and the kind of subject matter they want to do. I have a lot of control.<br />
  8. 8. So you could say "I want to shoot this commercial in Fiji, so I can get shots there for my movie?<br />It was more like this. I usually have a commercial that needs to shoot in water. There's about 10 ads being offered, all by clients I've worked with before. And I'd just pick the one that would take me to Fiji, and would have me shoot by water. Because that one had—I think I was going to shoot something that required David Beckham and seven other soccer players, who could only be available for so long on a runway in Madrid. I said, "Okay. This is the one that will take me closest to where I want to go." <br />
  9. 9. How do you approach your commercial work? Do you think of it as art, do you find it fulfilling? Or is it what pays the bills so you can make films like this?<br />All I can say—a lot of people do music videos so they can do commercials, they do commercials so they can do films. I happen to be like a prostitute in love with the profession. I keep saying, "I'd fuck 'em for free. But they pay me money, and I'm very grateful." And unfortunately, I think I must not be anywhere near as talented as the people I admire. Because almost everybody I know hates the filming process that I admire. They always like the prefiguring and the editing, and I am the only moron that just loves being on a set. I shoot more than 300 days a year, I'm on the road all the time, and I love it. So I don't know. When that passion dies, maybe I'll do more films, but I just love being on the set.<br />
  10. 10. This film was self-financed. If you were shipping your cast and crew and equipment around the world, why did it necessarily matter whether you personally were already in Fiji?<br />Because the crew and the equipment were there already. <br />
  11. 11. So it was all the same crew and equipment on the film that you use for your commercial work?<br />My college professor did my last film, and we did a lot of commercials together. But at the last minute, I had to change it and make my loader my cameraman. Because the girl—she had no idea what was happening. She thought we were basically going to be shooting a documentary. Apparently that's the information the casting director had given out. She thought Lee was like Christopher Reeve, and actually was handicapped. An idea dawned, and I told my brother, "We can't do this in a studio. It has to be in a real place." <br />
  12. 12. So I found the institution where we shot down in South Africa, and I had to get rid of my main crew, because they knew the plotline I'd had for 23 years. I promoted the camera loader to cameraman—he'd never shot anything before, but I'd known him for 13 years. And I put a crew together that had no idea what the film was going to be about. We changed the script so the lead was not Lee, it was the father of the Romanian girl, and we told everybody "Lee can't walk." We told everybody that he was a theater actor in New York who'd had an accident and was paralyzed.<br />So the cameraman, the production designer, every actor, everybody isolated where we were shooting did not know that Lee could walk. And I shot the movie in sequence. I just said, "The first time she sees him in the film is really the first time she sees him. <br />
  13. 13. Why go to all that trouble to pretend a man playing a handicapped character was actually paralyzed? Did it wind up adding that much verisimilitude?<br />Everything had to happen that way, because the little girl's magic was required. It wasn't the cliché of a Method actor wanting to stay in a wheelchair the whole shoot—it was really depressing for Lee, actually. But here's why—when you're on a film set, no matter how dire a situation you're putting across, from a concentration camp to a handicapped person—when you're on that set for long enough, it gets jokey. And I didn't want to get to a stage where people would walk on Lee's bed, or tell handicap jokes. I knew it would filter down to the girl, even in body language. <br />
  14. 14. So nobody knew Lee could walk. In the end, a lot of people said, "You could have trusted me." And I was telling people, "It had nothing to do with trust. It had very much to do with the atmosphere I needed for these 12 weeks."<br />Once I found the girl, I knew I had to cast somebody for Lee's role within a week or two, because I knew that within four months, the girl was going to be a different person. <br />
  15. 15. Catincadoes seem tremendously naturalistic, like she's living the role, making it up as she goes along. Was her part mostly ad-libbed?<br />"There isn't a script. There is a situation every day." Basically, it was given to her as, "This is what you need to do." But she didn't understand what I was saying. So the first day we shot, I said, "No lights will be inside the room." The lights were outside the window. So like kids, when they go underneath a table, and kind of put a tent up? The room where we shot was like that. It's really difficult to focus the cameras like that, and they screwed up a lot. But in the end, I just said, "It's worth its weight in gold for her not to see the camera and the other stuff, so put a tent in front. You look through a hole.<br />
  16. 16. The focus person is looking at them on a monitor, and she was completely unpredictable. There aren't any lights in the room. The sound people, I wouldn't allow them in. <br />You see this all the time. If somebody told you, "In your lamp, there's a camera right now," you'd be aware of it and act to it. But after some time, you'd forget and be natural. So with her, I didn't give anything away. I said, "No, we don't say 'Turnover,' 'First day,' 'Action,'" and all that. That's not required. Let them be there when the situation is right. We're in another room. Nobody else is allowed in the room where the acting is happening." Sometimes she would go in closer to Lee and whisper, thinking we couldn't hear. <br />
  17. 17. Was capturing how she changed over time part of why you chose to shoot the film in sequence?<br />That saved our lives. She showed up the first day—you'd be dead if you were in a studio, because she showed up for the first day of shooting, and she had lost her two front teeth! If you weren't shooting in sequence, it'd be like "Go home." So I just thought, "No, put it in the structure." And we made the teeth an issue. As she gets to know Lee better, her English gets better, she falls in love with him more, more teeth come out. And I knew that some magic was happening the moment we set it out there, because when she arrived, she changed everything. One thing I didn't bargain on, I didn't realize, is how scared children are of handicapped people. <br />
  18. 18. So of course I had it in the script that from the very beginning, she'd be charmed with him, sit down with him, talk to him. And she comes in, and she wouldn't go near him. So I just said, "Okay, well then, play your scene by his door." <br />
  19. 19. Did she change over time? In three months of dealing with sets and reshoots, did she start to acquire that polished Shirley Temple style of acting you were worried about?<br />When the whole film was over, she had become such a phenomenal actress, she understood exactly what we needed and would give it, that I was very tempted to go back and re-shoot the first scene, second scene, third scene again. I kind of thought, "You know what, no." You can see that they are doing what they're doing naturally. So I left it there. I liked my coverage of the film, which was only two shots. In the beginning, I had to edit to make the conversations happen, to make the magic happen, but it seemed like the right structure because it was based on her being natural.<br />
  20. 20. So much of your work seems calculated, very thought-through. You create these extremely elaborate, painterly tableaus where every aspect is managed in advance. How do you transition from that kind of structure and planning to a situation where you're letting a 6-year-old child determine how your film will progress?<br />You know what, great question. That was why I knew I wanted to do this movie. I just always had one kernel of an idea, which was about storytelling. You use the other person's body language to tell them the story you want to tell. So if they're leaning forward, you know, they're looking into your eyes and paying attention, you can milk it. If they're kind of looking off into the corner, or at their watch, you introduce a crash-'em-up. That was my interest in it. <br />
  21. 21. So when I wanted to make a film in the style of Ponette, knew I couldn't tell the star what to do too much. <br />So I said that to the actors, the moment I met them on the set. I just said, "Here, I am your puppet. I will create the best atmosphere for you, and you tell me if anything is intrusive. You'll never get a situation like this, except when—" What [David] Fincher calls very lazy filmmaking, and I agree, is when you just put lights out there, go telephoto, shoot 10 cameras, throw it together—actors love that, 'cause they can be natural from far away. I had unfortunately chosen a style in which the camera was in your face. It was very YasujiroOzu, it was very static. I just said, "Nothing should move. Nothing should come and save me. If the situation's not working, I want to be screwed."<br />
  22. 22. Unfortunately, the handheld, really gritty-shitty look is perceived as realism. In that style, I find that you can make a cupboard act. You shoot an ad and the actor is dreadful, so you just pick up the camera and shake it around, and then suddenly it looks like the actor can act. It separates boys from men, when people are sitting in the camera stand just observing. Instead, I picked a worst-case scenario by putting the camera up close. <br />
  23. 23. The cinematography of your work is very recognizable—The Cell and The Fall and "Losing My Religion" and other videos all have a very striking look. And yet in each case you worked with a different cinematographer, mostly people with very few past credits. What kind of relationships do you have with your cinematographers?<br />Very strong, I would say. Because, the first film, The Cell, and 90 percent of my commercials, were with a college professor of mine. I come from a very visual background. As a boy, I spent a lot of time in Iran. I watched a lot of TV there, but I didn't speak Farsi very well. So I was always watching Get Smart or films or things like that, and judging them just by the visual storytelling. <br />
  24. 24. And of course Indians tend to love color, and somehow all that hodgepodge is coming out in my work. So with cameramen, I am quite specific.<br />It's not a very give-and-take relationship for me. I just tend to be very specific: "When you go to fantasy, it has to be like this, but when we do the hospital…" No cameraman wants to hear that he can't bring lights in, he has to sit outside the window. He did an incredible job.<br />In fact, if you watch poor Lee, you'll see he's doing an incredible job too. Every time the girl moves, he's lighting her. The light is behind his head, so he has to make sure, because she's completely unpredictable, that every time she moves, he isn't in the way of her light. She moves to the left, he moves to the right. <br />
  25. 25. The color is a hugely striking part of the film. Is there any special technique you use to achieve that kind of effect?<br />Well, there's a guy called Lionel Kopp who used to run a lab in France that I absolutely adore. And he has a lot to do with this particular one. Because I went in with specific paintings, pigmented early color photographs from Russia, and blah blah and say "There's an aesthetic and a technique that has to get in here." If it was easy to do this kind of stuff, hey, everyone would hire relatives. It's not. And this guy really has an aesthetic that I absolutely adore and trust. So I was in Paris with him all the time. And when we had to set the look, I would just tell him stuff and he'd achieve it. It was difficult technically sometimes. But aesthetically, you know, I had a look in mind and had to achieve it. <br />
  26. 26. And as far as colors—Indians love colors. Especially the poorer you are, the more red and yellow you put in. And let's just say I come from a poor background, and leave it there. <br />
  27. 27. So what's next? How do you follow up a film like this?<br />I keep saying, probably something like My Dinner With Andre, something small. I don't know. [Laughs.] I don't plan—I never intended to do The Cell before this one, it just came together so quickly. Since it wasn't about locations, since The Fall is so location-specific, and The Cell was all on-set, I said, "Oh, they'll be different enough. Let's do it." Plus, it's a serial-killer pop movie, it's a completely pop thing, I'll go for it. So I just did it. And now, suddenly—two works do not a movement make, I hope. People can't see my body of commercial work—all they see is "Losing My Religion," the other pop thing that was big, and think that's my whole style. I've been saying for a long time, "No, no, I don't think I want to go there." I love big crash-and-burn Hollywood films. I just want to make sure my stamp is on them.<br />
  28. 28. I don't want to come in as a hired hand. So after The Cell, everybody asked me "What's next?" And I would think, "Oh, I'm not sure. It might take 10 years, might take two."<br />Actually, about 72 hours ago, I remembered a story I really wanted to make. I called a friend and said, "We'll write the script in 10 days." And I might go and shoot it in, like, two months. It's such a simple story. It's basically Rambo meets Panic Room, On Golden Pond." It would be like a really hardcore revenge movie, by a really old person in a confined, claustrophobic place. I haven't seen Saw or any of those—I just have a really negative reaction to that torture-porn—but just 72 hours ago, I thought, "This'd be really fun to make." So depending on the lunch today with my friend, I'm gonna leave for two weeks, and if a structure comes out, I think I'll just hit it.<br />
  29. 29. It seemed like viewers and critics all hated the plot and loved the visuals.<br />At the turn of the century, a studio would make any film that had a serial killer in it. I just said, "Okay, so that's the nutshell I need to put it in? It's fine." In the '70s, everybody was making disaster movies. If I'd made The Cell in the '70s, it would have been about a burning building, with a guy having a dream on the 14th floor. I'd make it because of the dream, the studio would make it because of the building burning. Same thing here—I looked at the script, said "Oh, serial-killer thing—I don't give anything about that. Okay. Put that on the side. And inside his head… wow, clean palette." Because it was written, initially, with stuff in his head with zombies coming out, saying, [Adopts zombie voice.] "Have you seen my son?" That kind of stuff. <br />
  30. 30. I said, "As long as I can throw all this out…" They said, "No problem." I just said, "Oh yeah, then it's fine." I wanted to do a really hardcore action film inside. But they couldn't understand all the effects I was talking about. And years go by. Then the day The Matrix came out, I was told, "Yeah, your movie's green-lit now, because we can finally understand all the effects that you've been talking about for three years now." And I said, "I don't want to do it now." They thought I was kidding, but I just left. So they said, "Okay, what do you want to do?" I said, "Anybody with 10 bucks now is doing those effects. I don't want to do action. If you're still on, let's do opera." And they said, "You can't do opera! American audiences hate theater. The last time somebody said that, they made Dracula"—a movie that I adore—"and it's the only film in America that opened above $30 million and didn't make $100 million."<br />
  31. 31. You said you were happy over how polarizing The Fall is. Do you set out to be controversial, or hard to swallow?<br />Not with The Fall as much. Because I thought The Fall really—it is polarizing, and I can see that. I keep thinking, I wish I had more of a background in pandering, with films in festivals and all that. If I'd gone through that and then put out The Fall,I think it would have had a completely different reception. If I'd had the right kind of career, would I have been able to sell it to the system? Maybe. <br />
  32. 32. So with The Cell,there were parts you felt you had to do for the studio, which were poorly received. And then there were the parts you did for yourself, which were pretty universally praised—the visuals, the cinematography, the fantasy. Are you satisfied with that as a legacy for that film? If people got the half of it you cared about, is that enough?<br />Yes. The only reason I would say, "Oh, I'm absolutely fine with that" is that it's a $40 million first film, and you can see my style in it. Very rarely can anybody on a first studio film say "Yeah, I can see enough of me reflected in there to say it's fine." This is not a poem that you can write on a piece of paper. It is not a piece of art that people can discover later, because you made it in a basement. It requires so much financing and planning.<br />
  33. 33. There are a lot of news stories out there about films you were reportedly attached to direct—Nautica, The Unforgettable, apparently Constantine at one point?<br />Yes, Constantine would have been a good fun one, I think. I'm not allowed to talk about that. It just was one of those things that I was saying, I'd like to do, and we came close, but this autistic child of mine, The Fall, had a lot to do with me not doing Constantine. The Fall was a little piece of cork that was stopping me from doing other movies. Finally, my brother sat me down and said, "We're going to be two old guys who forever are talking about movies that they never made." He said, "You like Hollywood schlop, you like all that stuff, and you're refusing to make it because of this film you keep talking about. So… do you wanna make it?" <br />
  34. 34. Is that also what happened to your take on Westworld and Unthinkable?<br />Unthinkable, actually, is a different story. But yes, Westworld and everything, I thought I couldn't bring enough of myself to it. When I realized I couldn't, I couldn't see the point of it. I do something that I absolutely love, film, 300 days a year, but if I can't put enough of myself into it, there isn't a point in it. Whereas with Unthinkable, I saw people blinking at the wrong times. I wanted to make a film about torture, to take where all this stuff like Saw and 24 is going, to a very obviously dreadful conclusion. To say, "Is this really where you want to go?" It was so hardcore, I thought, even something like Irreversible, it would be beyond even them. <br />
  35. 35. You've mentioned your brother several times. You work closely with him? <br />We are very close. I came to America to study film, and my dad cut me off financially. I had three, four jobs and I was going to school, but no matter what, I couldn't make it happen. So my brother came over to America, and my dad cut him off, cause he didn't want to study what my dad wanted him to study. And he took a janitor job for two years, and put me through college.<br />So when I graduated, fortunately, the first video I did was "Losing My Religion," so I kind of hit it off right from the beginning, and asked I him what he wanted to study. He said law. So I put him through college, and then he got married and had babies, and then just as the line in The Godfather says, he's a lawyer who has only one client—it's me. <br />
  36. 36. And he's your executive producer as well?<br />He takes care of me. He makes me complete. I'm quite all over the place. Money's never meant anything to me, and I don't know how to deal with it. And he's completely a different person. He's a lot more composed, watches what he says, has a check system between his mouth and brain, which I don't, and that kind of stuff. So he is my love. <br />
  37. 37. How did "Losing My Religion" happen? How did you get that gig straight out of school?<br />I did stuff in school that was pretty amazing-looking. I realized when I went to college that a degree in film is worth about toilet paper, and the portfolio is everything. I had no connections in college, I knew nobody. When I was there, I was the uncool person, 'cause I was the only guy who went to college with my own teabag, 'cause it was 10 cents for hot water and 27 cents for tea, and I had no money. So nobody sat at my table, nobody knew anything about me.<br />
  38. 38. You're prouder of the ads you shot in film school than of The Fall?<br />They were completely, like, really aggressively, unadulterated student ambition. [Laughs.] The record label saw them and said "Will you do our video?" And I just said—I'm one of those people who says it out loud on purpose, just to make a reaction—"I hate rock 'n' roll!" Because for me, the problem was, when I came to America, I had come from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin kind of stuff, which we loved it in India. And when I came out here, suddenly the only stuff MTV was promoting was Winger and DefLeppard kind of stuff. I couldn't relate to it. And then they sent me this song, and I just went, "Oh! I really love this song. I would love to do something with it." And they said, "Well, can you write a treatment?" I said, "No, that's not me.<br />
  39. 39. How does that compare to other musicians you've worked with? Like your Suzanne Vega video? <br />That one, I did when I was still in college. When I was in college, someone saw rough cuts of my stuff and asked me if I would do the video. And I said "Great." That video is in honor of a photographer called [Josef] Koudelka that I really loved. I wanted to see where he had done his photographs—he's out of the Czech Republic, which was just opening up at that time. I said, "This is what I'd like to do," and they said, "Go ahead." The videos I've done, the musicians haven't had anything to do with the video, just like I've had nothing to do with the music. Their music spoke to me, and I thought, "The visuals need to come from me. These are completely, dreadfully two different mediums."<br />
  40. 40. That's a pretty harsh assessment of such a popular video.<br />I don't know how it stands up. I mean, I haven't seen it for a long time. For me, something like that is always strange. Things date so dreadfully—when something enters the pop culture like that, it is going to get ripped off so badly. Invariably, some people will rip it off well, and people who haven't seen it before will watch it and go, "My God, it's full of clichés!" "Yeah, but they weren't clichés back then!" Whereas if it's a complete bomb, and nobody sees it, then it kind of becomes a critics' baby, and it's never copied, and will stand the test of time. I did a Deep Forest video—well, that's my baby. I love that. And that's the kind of thing nobody can rip off or copy. I think The Fall will be the same.<br />
  41. 41. Do you think your commercials and the early projects you loved so much will ever see the light of day? Maybe via something like the Directors' Series DVDs of video and ad work by Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze?.<br />They've asked me a couple of times if I'd do that, and I—mm, maybe. Like, I like it. I think there's a body of work out there, and so much of it is in the ether. I finally talked to somebody about it a week ago, actually. I just said "You know, organize it. Maybe there is a body of work that's worth visiting."<br />
  42. 42. Given the power of the Indian film industry, why did you have to come to America to study film?<br />Well, when I was there, it was the biggest film industry in the world, and not a single film school existed. And I think if you look at a lot of those films, you can see why. It's a very nepotistic thing. And their films are lovely—I could relate to them when I was like, 10, 11, 12, 14. But after that, it wasn't something I was very interested in. I had a passion for a more Polish kind of cinema. And I thought, "Well, what can I do?" You couldn't study film anywhere, except apparently, from that book that I'd seen, in America. <br />
  43. 43. What did you personally get from film school?<br />Everything! Everything, everything. You know, they had to use a shovel and an ax to get me out of school. It took me four and a half years, I would keep taking classes. I didn't want to leave, and I would go back in there in a heartbeat. I just absolutely adored and loved it. Everybody thinks I had a tough journey. Oh my God. If you think I have energy now, you should have seen me then. I was bouncing off the fuckin' walls. I absolutely loved it. You have to understand, I'd never held a still camera in my hand! They taught me how the damn thing works, where to put the—everything! Everything, I owe. And I had the greatest—Indians do this a lot, they say, "Oh, here's an older person. Touch his feet," something I've always hated. <br />
  44. 44. Given the visual tableaux you lay out in your films, it almost seems like you have more of a photographic sensibility than a cinematic one. Did you have any interest in photography, or go out of your way to get an education in photography?<br />I don't. My dad took lots of photographs when we were kids, and they were all in negatives, just sitting around. My mom gave them to me, and as a present to all my siblings, I made an album. It's shocking, it just looks like a time capsule. It's like seeing Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now—you think, "Oh my God, he's so old now, and he looks so young and beautiful in the film, and he looks exactly like he could walk out of there." For me, those photographs did that. And a friend of mine recently said, "My God! Look at your dad's tableaux!" As kids, he'd take<br />
  45. 45. us places and lineus up height-wise, or have us make a pyramid. We'd be like, "Why doesn't dad do pictures like normal people, just throwaway, people-having-fun photos?" [Laughs.] So I looked at those, and I thought, "My God! There is a gene for this!“But no, I didn't have any photographic background, even though one of my biggest influences was my second girlfriend in college, who was a photographer. The people in the photo department were 20 million times harder-working than the people in the film department. You know, it was just really, really thought about, what they put in front of the camera, which sometimes you have to do and sometimes you don't, when you're doing film. A lot of times, you just have to get out of the way of people doing a good performance. And sometimes you actually need to put what you are thinking, what's is in your head, in front of<br />
  46. 46. the camera. You know, like I said, there's absolutely nothing special about me. There's genotype plus environment makes phenotype. My genes, there's about another billion of me in India. I think my environment was very interesting, growing up in the Himalayas, and going to Iran—exposure to just different things at an early life just have made me the person I am. There's nothing else special there at all.<br />