Exclusive Interview: Immortals Director Tarsem Singh

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It’s been a long road for filmmaker Tarsem Singh (The Fall) to get his Greek war epic Immortals into theaters, but it took that long to add the amount of 3D FX necessary to bring his spectacular vision to life.

The epic tale revolves around future Man of Steel Henry Cavill as Theseus, the legendary hero of yore who has been trained in the art of combat, skills he finds himself using when he encounters Mickey Rourke’s King Hyperion, a powerful and ruthless warrior searching for the magical Bow of Epirus, who kills Theseus’ mother. With the help of the oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), Theseus tries to acquire the magical bow for himself, and he has the Gods on his side, which include Luke Evans as Zeus, Kellan Lutz as Poseidon, Isabel Lucas as Athena and others.

Although there are certainly precursors to the movie in Zack Snyder’s 300 and Clash of the Titans, Tarsem’s dedication to create a movie that’s distinctly his own meant creating a unique look for the film that involved combining practical sets with CG backgrounds. These aren’t necessarily the Greek Gods we remember reading about in primary school as they get their hands dirty and bloody in some of the film’s spectacularly fast-paced battles.

The long post-production phase for Immortals meant Singh had time to prepare and film his next movie, Mirror Mirror, his take on the Snow White mythos, and that’s already scheduled to come out just four months after Immortals.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Tarsem Singh last week to talk to him about both movies.

ComingSoon.net: It’s a pretty amazing looking film, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it even compared to your last film “The Fall,” which was pretty amazing in its own right.
Tarsem Singh:
Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

CS: How long ago did you find out about the project and how long had you been working on it before shooting to get the look?
Tarsem:
I would say about three years ago, maybe, since it was first mentioned it to me, and I just thought the idea of Gods existing in a world of today interested me more than a Greek film or anything, and I just thought, “You know what? An action film would be good to do because right now, everybody’s thinking that I don’t want to do action,” but I said I’d like to. This one didn’t have any guns or bullets, but swords and sandals, right now that’s okay, so I said “Fine.” I wanted to go into a time of Renaissance more than Greek, so I said we had to take some license there for some time ago debating whether this could be post-Apocalyptic and kind of like Renaissance electricity or something, but it turned out that staying in a pseudo-Greek time was enough, because my references, I just took more from Renaissance paintings for the look I was interested in, so I figured something like Caravaggio’s settings are good, if it’s a Greek time it’s fine. Just imagine the Renaissance doing paintings of Greeks, that’s the look I want to go with.

CS: Did you have any connections to Greek mythology yourself? Were you familiar with any of them?
Tarsem:
They’re almost as good as fairy tales. You grew up with them, so of course, Greek mythology is read to you all the time in school, so I was very, very familiar with it, but this has got so little to do with Greek mythology except the universal themes of Gods interfering whenever they want. Gods are as screwed up if not more than humans, that kind of stuff, incest. (laughs) Those universal themes as I was saying.

CS: I was curious about the environments you created. With “The Fall,” you went all over the globe to find these amazing places and I was surprised when I heard you were doing a green-screen movie. Was that your idea to approach it like that?
Tarsem:
I think it was a kind of reaction (Francis Ford) Coppola would have had after doing “Apocalypse Now,” coming back and saying, “Everything in the studio,” you end up with “One from the Heart.” Hopefully, this doesn’t have similar numbers but it’s got the exact same arc that happened to me. I took close to 17 years of location scouting to do something like “The Fall” and when I did it, I just said, “I’d like to do the next film in which not a single shot–birds flying, horses running, anything–but not a single shot is done exterior. Everything is going to be inside a studio,” so I was looking for a project when something like this came along and I said that the problem was that I didn’t want to make it like a comic strip. I don’t want to shoot things just against a green screen. I’d like to build really big sets, have the middle ground and foreground be real, only the background like in a Renaissance painting just to have a different dimension. I shot it like that and it turned out I could do everything in the studio.

CS: So much of the movie does take place outdoors in terms of the setting…
Tarsem:
(laughs) Yeah, but it’s a stylized outdoors.

CS: Did you go to real locations like Greece to find inspiration for how these places would look?
Tarsem:
No, you name the location, I’ve probably been there and probably shot in it. I just thought that the thing is already in the back of your head. I just like I’d pick a style that could stay in the design of… Like when Coppola came back, he wanted to make it look like a 1950s, what the directors were coming from TV from there, but everything just looked staged and interiors and theatrical in that sense. I just thought that if you looked at a Renaissance painting come to life, that’s take that kind of perspective then play. But no, I did not visit a single location but I’ve been to enough locations in my life that I know how to work, just to an aesthetic sense and stay consistent to it.

CS: At the very end of the movie, there’s a statue of Theseus fighting the Minotaur, which is a classic image. Were all those images around the base of the statue real images or things you created to look like classic Greek images?
Tarsem:
No, we made all of them. Those are things that I said, “I like the four stations of the Cross,” which is usually showing the things depicted on them with Jesus’ story or anybody’s story. We just said, “Now he’s dead and within a generation, already exaggeration is getting out of hand so I just took those and then we saw a statue of Theseus fighting a Minotaur somewhere and I said, “Get the rights to scan it” and we just built it in the computer to look like that, but no, we never had one.

CS: It seemed like those images may have been real things you found on Greek statues.
Tarsem:
Oh, it’s a very good compliment but it’s the other way around. I just looked through the movie and I said, “Think a generation later, people have already gotten it exaggerated,” so keep that in mind and put it into like the Four Stations like key things that happened in his life to make him a legend, you do that for the base of the statue put them on.

CS: Did you work with the same DP and production designer that you’ve had for a while?
Tarsem:
No, I’ve done three movies, this is the third DP. I’ve worked with all of them in commercials before, but the production designer is the same one that did “The Cell” with me, not “The Fall.”

CS: So how do you work with them to create the look of the movie? Do just have references pictures or books that you can show them what you want?
Tarsem:
I think I just work on set mainly. I just say, “This is the way I want the set lit.” Even before the cameraman comes in, I start working on the design of it and start thinking, “This is the kind of lighting I want.” In this particular case, the tough thing was that even if the set was small, I wouldn’t let them build on a small stage, but they said the rest of the stage would get wasted and I would say, “No, the problem is I want the lighting to be really big and from far. It’s gotta look like it’s coming from the finger of God like in Caravaggio.” So you can’t really build a small set and say “Let’s light it intimate” unless it’s a closed set, but when you’re talking about landscape, it just has to be on a very big stage. Even the sets were small. So I first worked with sets, then when they get designed, I usually don’t do storyboards until very, very late in the game, so I usually just start to make what I call “closed feet” and say that these are kind of my angles, so this is the direction of the light and that’s what I dial-in to the DP.

CS: How does that work when doing action? Usually with action you need to have some sort of storyboards or pre-vis to make sure it will work.
Tarsem:
No, except for the Gods fighting, there was absolutely no storyboarding, and the Theseus fighting there was no storyboarding. The only one thing I boarded was the God coming down and smashing heads of guys – when we were shooting, I boarded it. I just said I don’t want this to be very dynamic. It just has to look very static, because as far as God is concerned, human beings are too slow, so I don’t want to make it look like all speeded-up and ramped-up. I wanted to make it look like a painting in which he just passes through, while the rest of the guys have barely any time to react. That’s kind of the only thing where I told them, but that’s also after I built the set and started shooting, that’s when I revisited it, but no, none of the other fights were pre-vised.

CS: How did you develop the different fighting styles, particularly the Gods? Obviously it’s very different from how Hyperion’s men fight.
Tarsem:
Actually, doing that very very, very late, because when we started shooting it, I just said I wanted the climax to be a buzz that you watch the first twenty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” which of course took a handheld approach, which I didn’t want since it’s a 3D movie, but there has to be three different styles of fighting involved. Unfortunately, one style wasn’t available until recently because Mickey was injured, so we didn’t have the Theseus and Hyperion fighting and we did that in reshoots much later, because I wanted one style to look like masses fighting masses, which is just what I would call a complete clusterf*ck inside the tunnel with very big numbers being contained. Then there’s the personal fight, Theseus and the bad guy, and the battle with Hyperion has to be like UFC which is so personal, “I will rip your tongue out and bite your ear,” just anything goes, but in a closed claustrophobic fight.

Then I said, there’s a fight that no human can relate to or interfere in, because it would be too difficult to make them fight in there, because the original script was full of Theseus helping the Gods fighting, and I just said, “Nah, I don’t know how to do that. I think he would be about as much help as an ant is in case humans are fighting. He can’t help. He just has to get out of there.” So the Gods fighting was a third style that I picked, and I told them there “Just leave me a budget and I’ll tell you what happens when we get close” and I fought until the very end. I initially would tell the guy to leave ten pages and I stay here and that’s where the stunt guys take over, and of course, they would never leave it. They would say, “What kind of fighting? What kind of fighting?” Then slowly, slowly, it got down to one page and then of course, what the AD (assistant director) does is one page means one day of fighting and finally, I had to go around to the studio and say “Give me ten days and I’ll give you a fight in here you won’t forget.” And they were asking, “What’s that like?” and I said, “I don’t know,” so when we went close I said, “I don’t want to do what usually happens when you run out of time in a place like this, you get those guys, like those gamers?” You get those guys and they design a CGI fight for you and it looks exactly like that, and I said, “No, I want a real place built, I want to go in and walk with real guys and see what the real fight would look like, and then we can go into the computer,” so it’s an expensive way to go, but I just thought I wanted that realism to it that doesn’t come from when you’re just flying all over the place, having people fight each other. It wasn’t that popcorny. I wanted it to be more grounded. We built the set and then I went in there and looked at approximately what they could do. Physically what I wanted done, human beings could not do. You can’t cut a guy in two and then keep fighting with the other people who are attacking while his body is still floating around, so I figured those angles out and I then went into the computer and told the computer “What do I need to do if this guy is fighting like this?” so I shot it three times, and then put it together and then that’s why it’s not that long but you’ve never seen anything like it, so it completely brings a different scale to the personal UFC style fighting and the armies fighting ’cause it’s all intercut.

CS: It’s brilliant casting to have Mickey Rourke playing King Hyperion, so do you collaborate with the actors on their characters to develop them or is it just a matter of getting them to do what you need to fit your vision?
Tarsem:
Well, they kind of had to fit into what I had in mind. Everybody knew that, but Mickey is one of those people that I wanted to come in and throw a little monkeywrench into the system. It’s just that he would do everything I wanted but it would look like there’d be a certain air of unpredictability in that and I very much wanted that because we were so, so set in what we needed and he just needed to be a character, that he didn’t have to do nasty things to people to feel intimidated by him. In the end, we ended up giving him a little action of burning a guy, but I didn’t think any of it was necessary. You’d get a lot more freaked if a guy on his knees in front of him cuts his own tongue out, then you know that this is the guy you don’t mess with. I wanted that character, so somewhere in between you find the balance to make a character that doesn’t have to kill 100 people for you to say, “Get away from this guy.”

CS: Things must have worked out with Relativity because you’re doing another movie with them, so is the Snow White movie something you’ve been working with them on for a long time and developing it while doing post on “Immortals.”
Tarsem:
We finished “Immortals,” we were cutting it, and it needed at least a year of 3D conversion, which I told them, because I have no interest in hurrying this. We took such, such careful measurements and compositions. Everything was styled to work in 3D. It’s not a fast-cutting film. So with all that in mind, I was just fearful that it would get rushed. After I’d finished the movie and had cut it and knew where it was going, that’s when I started working on Snow White. But we needed a year to finish all the FX of this film so it just happens that they come out four months from each other.

CS: Considering how long it took between your other movies, that’s pretty amazing.
Tarsem:
Well, as I told you before, most people think if you’re not making movies and you’re a director, that means you’re not working, and I’m shooting at least 300 days a year, so this is the easiest it’s ever been for me, doing movies back-to-back because I had an injury on my Achilles’ heel, so I was only available for films. Hopefully, I’ll make a movie a year. It just so happened that “The Fall” was one of those projects I knew I would not make in old age, so if I had to make it, it had to happen with my own financing at a relatively young age when you feel stupid and invincible.

CS: I’ve seen some pictures from the Snow White movie and it looks very different and it also looks a lot less serious than “Immortals”…
Tarsem:
I hope so. It’s a family film. (laughs) I think everybody asks the same thing, because my stuff tends to be a little hard on the line, so if you say make it PG or make it R, it’s going to be a little harder there than most people expect R to be. On this one, they asked me if I wanted to make an edgy film, and I just said, “Absolutely not. I just think it’s a family project and I don’t really have an inkling in making it edgy and then trying to pull out the edge. It’s much better to embrace what it is, that it’s a family film and I’d love to do a family film.” When you think of a Polanski or a Scorsese, you just see their DNA in everything they do. You jump genre, but can it be my take on the genre is all I’m interested in, and when I realized it could be my take, I just said, “No problem, let’s do this. I don’t care if it’s a thriller or if it’s a family movie, just embrace the genre and know what the limitations are.”

CS: Will it still feel very familiar to the people who know Snow White? There are elements of Greek mythology in “Immortals” but it’s a very different take on it.
Tarsem:
They’ll know the whole thing about the evil Queen and talking to mirrors. It’s a different take but the DNA is very familiar.

CS: Are you always thinking of other ideas you want to develop or are you finishing one movie at a time and then thinking about the next one afterwards?
Tarsem:
Ahhh… I usually wait until I finish shooting when I’m editing, that’s usually when I say, “Okay what’s next?” So this week, from this Monday, I’m sitting down and reading, there’s about one or two projects that I’m interested in, so within a week or ten days, I’ll decide what goes on in the next year.

CS: How do you feel about franchises, in case “Immortals” or the Snow White movie end up being big hits? Do you feel that you have more to say on either one of those?
Tarsem:
Not that much. I have nothing against them. It just would be, “Do I have a different thing to say on the next one, and then I’ll do it.” I feel the characters are interesting enough, and enough good characters survive that if somebody could pitch me a story that I’d think I’d like or if I find a story I think I’d want to tell with the same characters, no problem, I wouldn’t mind doing 80 of them.

CS: You must like working with Relativity, having done two movies with them, because doing “The Fall” on your own, you really could work in the way you like to work, but working with a studio, you have a lot of producers…
Tarsem:
Very, very good, in the sense that when you’re getting somebody to put in that amount of money on a movie, you just have to see very carefully “Is it still my film?” That’s all I care about. At the same token, I don’t want to make a personal film with somebody with that amount of money. If it’s a personal film, I’ll write the check myself. If it’s not, I just have to make sure how much milk am I allowing them to put in the coffee before I don’t recognize what it is? It’s just a question of that and then if I feel the right people are saying the right things and there’s enough of me in this particular genre or film to do, then I go ahead, and I think there’s enough of me in “Immortals” to say “yeah.”

CS: You already did horror with “The Cell” and you’ve done these epics and a family movie, so is there any genre you still want to tackle?
Tarsem:
No. I kind of liked thrillers. The kind of films that I enjoy seeing aren’t particularly the ones I’m making right now. Maybe in a decade or two, I will. I mean, I like thrillers but I’m not really in any hurry to do them right now, but in time, I’ll just see what comes along.

Immortals opens everywhere on 11-11-11 i.e. November 11.