Exclusive: The Wild ‘n’ Wacky World of Tarsem!


The only thing that may be stranger and more amazing than Tarsem (The Cell) Singh’s visually stunning second film The Fall is what it took to make the movie, a 17-year passion project that had the Indian-born director traveling the globe and using unconventional means to get the most out of his actors and crew.

At its heart, the film is about a stuntman from Hollywood’s silent era played by Lee Pace (“Pushing Daisies,” Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), seriously injured in a stunt gone wrong that some feel was a deliberate suicide attempt after being left by his girlfriend for a handsome actor. While bedridden in the hospital, he meets a 6-year-old girl (Romanian newcomer Catinca Untaru) with a broken collarbone who is fascinated by this sullen man and the fantastical stories he tells the girl in order to gain her trust.

It would seem like a simple enough premise, except that Tarsem decided to make everyone else working on the movie think that Lee was actually paralyzed and confined to bed for nearly 12 weeks while they shot his parts, and after telling the six-year-old Catinca the adventure story at the film’s core, he had her help arrange hundreds of photographs Tarsem had taken in his years as a commercial director in order to inform the production crew where the story should take place. It took four more years for Tarsem, Pace and the actors playing the characters in the stories to revisit all sorts of remote locations in order to film that fantasy story, but the results are a fantastic and wonderful visually unforgettable film on par with the best works of Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway, taking the viewer to many places they never could have possibly seen otherwise.

For those unfamiliar with Tarsem’s commercial work, he most famously won an MTV Movie Award for one of his first music videos for R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” followed by him directing the Jennifer Lopez thriller The Cell, released over seven years ago.

ComingSoon.net sat down with the visionary filmmaker and director, now just going by the name Tarsem, to talk about the film and the amazing journey he took to get there. We found him to be a lively man with an infectious amount of energy who was still very excited about what he had accomplished, despite it having taken 17 years to get there.

ComingSoon.net: This is a project that you’ve been working on for more than a decade, your dream project, and probably one of the most unconventional movies ever made… I don’t know if they give Guinness records for that…
Tarsem: (laughs) It will be in there.

CS: Let’s go back to the very beginning. When did you decide “I want to make a movie about this…”?
Tarsem: God, It was long ago. There was a theme I was interested in and then I saw a film called “Yo Ho Ho” that kind of made me think I wanted to go in that direction, so I bought the rights to it and now this film has nothing to do with that film, doesn’t look like it at all. What interested me a lot was the idea—apart from the visual side of it which was almost a separate film and it might not be two films together. For me, it was very much like the idea before cinema or before recorded music, is that you told a story depending on three things for film: The story I want to tell, the story that the person wants to hear and the story that they remember in 20 years. It’s three different films. A lot of times people will say, “Oh, I saw this movie, a masterpiece, you got to see it.” Sit me down with it and see it and they go, “I saw this about ten years ago, it’s sh*t.” And they’ll tell you that before anything. Your experience in the last ten years, you put them in the film, and you’ve got to mean something completely different. Storytelling always worked like that. When you told a person a story, they leaned forward, they made eye contact, they were listening. You kind of played the thing out, to the ten people you told it differently. If you’re telling it to a studio head and he’s kind of looking at his watch out of the corner of his eye or taking a call then you kind of introduce the crazy person who walks in with a machine gun and shoots people, just to pick it up, then a car chase. You pitch accordingly, and I just thought the idea that you were using a person’s body language to tell them the story you want to tell, but you’re still dictating by their body language, and that puts one person in an impotent situation where you need something from this person, not just the studio head, which would be one situation, but here is a person drugged-up wanting to get him pills. I wanted a really transparent subject and that turned out to be a kid. I thought, “Okay where do I go from that?” and I kept trying different children, seeing my sister’s kids and I realized that after four-and-a-half, they were acting, and it became a film that I loved (“Little Princess”) but it wasn’t the style I wanted to go in. I was very much thinking like “Ponette,” which is a very realism-based style, for the hospital. Nothing needed to come out of it. It needed to be as bland as possible, like “Ozu,” if I could lock it and just do nothing, that’s what I wanted to do. I had that style in mind and for the fantasy, I wanted it to be limitless. It had to be something that could happen anytime since photography existed. No special FX, everything had to be as fantastically-made before any genre, thus it became a period piece. Because today, there’s nowhere in the world where you can find a child who hasn’t seen cinema or isn’t familiar with genres. If I could make a contemporary film, which “Yo Ho Ho” is, I also wanted a particular time thinking a person in America and a story from a girl in India and she wanted it to be a musical.

CS: So the movie’s really about the art of storytelling…
Tarsem: Yes, to see how you think it’s a one-way street, it’s not. The person you’re telling it to influenced you as much on the story, unless you just said, “I just want to make it” and that’s what you can do in a film, which is what happens. You make a movie, people come to see it on its terms, but never with storytelling. It was never there before that. You had to take into account the people you were telling it to and they fed you, which is what the studios do now. They preview the film and they tell you, “We don’t like this person and too much blood” and you do exactly that but it was a lot more immediate and textural when you tell it to people directly, when you were doing that, so that is where it started. Over the years for 17 years, I was looking for locations all the time. I would have people go left, right, center everywhere… I kept taking photographs everywhere and I kept using the “Godfather” line, “I’ll be back one day. This is a paid job and that day may never come but I may need a favor if I come back,” so I left that kind of stuff all over the globe. Then I started looking for this girl 7 or 8 years ago. Wherever I went, I would just tell people, “Girl or boy, I didn’t care.” I just said, “I think the person has to be four years old.” So finally I got a tape of this girl, and I was just shell-shocked about what was happening. I thought she was phenomenal and I went out there and tried to figure out in Romania what was happening and I realized that she misunderstood the situation because the casting person told her that the real actor is like Christopher Reeve, that he’s paralyzed, so she believed that. I thought if she believes it, in four months, she’s going to be a different person. At that age, she was 6, she’s going to change very quickly, so I thought we had to make the movie right now or not make it, and it has to be a real place, it can’t be sets. I called my brother and said, “Okay, we’re going to make this movie right now or we’ll never make it, but let’s make the first half first, the hospital scene and see if there’s a movie there.” I told him, “Sell some stuff, let’s go make the movie.” Went down to South Africa and found this hospital that was a lunatic asylum, took over a wing, created it, got the girl in and decided to make the movie. I just decided that if she believes it, more for her or anything else, it’s not like the character actor wanting to be in a wheelchair. It wasn’t for Lee, because Lee is a phenomenal actor. I said, “No, it had to be for the child and the people around, the other actors.” The atmosphere changes when people know, no matter what the subject matter, if they think it’s the real deal or you’re acting. After two weeks, if you’re acting, you still don’t jump on the bed of a cripple and tell handicap jokes. I just said that the crew I talked to originally, I couldn’t use them, so I changed the script and said the fantasy’s main person will be played by her father who’s a Romanian actor. Lee is only in the hospital, we changed his name and I needed somebody that nobody would recognize and said he’s a character actor, a theater actor from New York, who’s lost the use of his legs and he’s playing the hospital part. Nobody, not the cameraman, the production designer, none of the actors, knew he could walk. I got one male nurse for him, a guy name Pierre, who would take him around and set the atmosphere with that and we shot the movie in sequence, so the first day she sees him is the first time she saw him, second day she sees him is the second time she saw him in the film. I laid the structure out with that and then proceeded.

CS: Did you have any kind of script at that point?
Tarsem: I had a structure, and I said, “I need to push it here and push it there” but man, was it a tug of war. If you think it’s difficult pitching to a studio head, try pitching to a six-year-old that wants a happy story. It was very difficult.

CS: Catinca knew that she was in a movie though, right?
Tarsem: She knew she was in a movie but she was thinking that he’s handicapped and why is he trying to tell me a bad story? She was all thoroughly nicely confused and I wanted that. I kept that. The problem was and I realized that it would take about a month for her to speak English because she didn’t speak English, but in about ten days, she had it… and she was speaking with an Indian accent, which turned into a problem. I had to get Romanians in who I would speak to who would then speak to her, just to keep that way because she’d just mime my language.

CS: So you were feeding her lines on set?
Tarsem: No, I would tell her the situation and then certain words she would pick up and then she’d say it in my style and I knew that problem was only getting bigger and bigger. We stopped that and continued with the Romanians telling her what needed to happen. There was nothing like feeding lines with her. You had to explain a situation and man, did she change the script. It was almost always the first two takes, she wouldn’t understand, third and fourth would be phenomenally right with the right amount of confusion, and after that, when she got the thing, she would go into bad la-la land and get bored with it. I had to get it right about there and if I didn’t get it right, I had to introduce new words and new angles or otherwise you couldn’t get her back. That’s what I chose for that.

CS: How did you get Lee involved? He basically had to be in on the ruse, he’d have to travel to all these different locations over the course of four years…
Tarsem: Lee went to six countries because that lead character played there and the other part’s played by the father. I already had that thought out, but Lee, I had only seen him as a woman, because I didn’t want anybody to recognize him. I just said, “That’s the only actor I want,” and everybody said, “Don’t do that because his agent will kill you.” I said, “No, we only have one deal on the table. Everyone’s getting the same money, the focus-puller, camerama, production designer, everybody has the same money.” If that breaks the rules, we can’t make the movie because it’s in everybody’s contract, so when I met Lee I said, “Let me just ask you one question. You were very convincing as a woman. Nothing else is required. If you have a penis, the part’s yours.” He said, “I have a penis,” and I said, “The part’s yours. You’re going to be a cripple for 12 weeks. Do you want it?” and he said, “I’m up for it.” So we just ran along with that sense.

CS: What was involved on Lee’s part in keeping up that ruse?
Tarsem: Very difficult. He came out very depressed at the end of it because we were all staying together, we could all do things. He couldn’t do anything for 12 weeks, because he was the only guy I kept separate because there was a ruling that everybody needed to stay together, so I had to get apartments for everybody, nobody had a better apartment than others, but Lee because he needed medical help (we said), put him in another place and he was in 12 weeks, very depressed. But then the fantasy part, once we told everybody, it was very traumatic because some people freaked out, some people were happy, the mother had completely fallen in love with him at this particular point. It was just a very strange atmosphere. The cameraman was saying, “You could have trusted me. I’ve worked with you for 13 years.” I said, “No, it had nothing to do with trust. Your body language would have changed and the child would have smelled it. There was nothing you could provide extra if you knew.” It was all for the child.

CS: I wanted to ask about the visuals and the locations. You took photographs at a lot of these places but how were you able to film there?
Tarsem: It was very difficult and that’s why you haven’t seen stuff shot there before. It was bloody impossible. We’ve had riots, been stoned out of places, went back to one location three times and everything was difficult. Otherwise, these would be familiar locations to you. They just are very difficult places to go to, because I think they’re the few places on the globe that are still unexplored and unfamiliar to people.

CS: I thought the Blue City was pretty amazing because that looked like something you’d either have to build or add using CG, so it’s surprising that it’s an actual place.
Tarsem: It’s a real place. They only have one rule there, you can only paint your house one color, so what I did is that I arrived there two months before with the art department, and we said, “You know what? For the whole city, which is maybe 40,000 people, we have free paint for whatever color you want to paint your house.” But we knew that they could only paint it blue, so everybody came and of course, there was only blue and they could only paint it blue, and they painted their houses. So that is already a blue city but it never zings like it zings in the film because we just had them paint it whatever color they wanted… which was blue. That kind of stuff we did to work it into the structure.

CS: Did you have any sort of storyboards or did you just have your original photographs to work from?
Tarsem: You know, for the first time, I kind of started with some things because after I shot the girl in the hospital, I just thought that story might be enough, and somebody called me from Belgium, a critic, and said, “You know, that might have been a better film.” And I said, “You might be right” but that particular time, I was separated from my girlfriend and I was in such a traumatic (state) that I thought I was going to go on a “magical mystery tour.” I think this will happen in this particular way. I looked at the assembly in the hospital and I said, “That’s a complete film.” Without any fantasy, I said, “It’s a completely film.” It’s a completely good performance, everything’s fine and that’s the movie it can be, but I feel it can be different. Finally, I said, “No.” I’ve worked 17 years on this and I feel mad enough to take it on, and I don’t know if the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, but we’re going into it. I called him and said, “Sell everything, I have no idea if I’ll be back in 7 months, 3 years, 4 years, 8 years…” It ended up being four and I just left with that in mind.

CS: This story that Lee told to Catinca, that was basically what you set out to recreate, right?
Tarsem: Yes, because what happened was after I was done, I had this room that was full of photographs of 17 years of scouting, then finally when I decided to go around, I took the little girl and I said, “Now tell me where the stories go” and of course, she mixed it up…

CS: So Catinca decided where you were going to go?
Tarsem: Yeah, because she dictated everything. That’s why you could never get financing anywhere, because I just said, “What we have is not a script, it is a structure. The script is going to be written by a six-year-old who doesn’t speak English” so no financer is going to give me any money, so I just said, “It’s fine. I’ll do it on my own.” She came and she just changed EVERYTHING, so I took her to this room and she kind of told me where what goes and what goes and then we turned around and said, “Okay, off we go!” All the background stories of the Indian or Darwin, none of those were written in. Once we had found the structure and laid it out, then I had made Lee tell them a year and a half later because I was going to these places to fit them into characters, so that was done much later. It didn’t require any actors except the actor playing in the backstory, so it was one individual I’d get from South Africa for his story. I’d get one person for the Indian.

CS: Has she asked for a production credit yet?
Tarsem: A production credit? (laughs) Hopefully, she doesn’t belong to the WGA.

CS: After all that, how long did it take you to edit all of the different things you shot together?
Tarsem: It was very difficult, because that was the thing to find its tone and the assembly worked very quickly, and then to finesse it, it just took forever. Every time I would do something, I’d send them to the editor and he’d tweak them and really, I owe him everything because we were working on peanuts, and he has a family and he works in advertising and all of the guys had a life to put on hold. I feel it was one of those projects you only make when you’re stupid and feel immortal at a particular age. Life kicks you in the teeth and you go, “Right!”

CS: Did you edit all the stuff from South Africa first before adding the fantasy parts?
Tarsem: First… that was the pamphlet and then I said, “I feel we can go here. I feel I can do this.” That feeling led me to more than 24 countries.

CS: Can you talk about some of your visual influences? Obviously, you were inspired by the locations, but do other films or paintings inspire you to create those fantastic visuals?
Tarsem: I am and I think of a particular style, like work I was very obsessed by in earlier days; I like Tartosky and there’s a little bit of that. I like photographs a lot. I’m not particularly zapped by paintings unfortunately. Photographs work a lot for me. They carry a lot more emotion, so I just think that to each of these places I was going, what was influencing me, I’m trying to remember it, but never bring it up as source when we’re filming because otherwise, you end up taking it out and what you end up shooting ends up like it. I try to remember what I think it looked like and then I draw derivations from it and then come up with something and then when the project is finished, I go back and look at it. I think in about a year or two, I’ll go back and see “Yo Ho Ho.” Somebody saw it recently and said, “My God, it looks nothing like this movie” but it completely influenced me. I want to leave it there.

CS: The film’s so dreamlike that I wondered if some of the fantasy segments were influenced by your dreams or if it was just from the photographs you’ve taken.
Tarsem: Over 17 years, I’d been looking at these locations and thought it would be great so I knew the way to push the tone, get Lee to push the tone to go here, but it needed to be theatrical and it’s great for somebody like Lee who would trust the situation. If you don’t know the picture, it would look so theatrically dreadful, it just sounds so over the top. I was like, “It’s okay, it’s over the top, it’s not wrong.” The question would be, “Is it comedy or is it tragedy?” and I would be, “It’s the same f*cking thing! Have you seen Chaplin? You can laugh and cry at the same time.” The criticism a lot of people have is they go “I didn’t know if I should be laughing… is it a comedy?” And if you did, what’s wrong with that? Do you have to be told you’re supposed to laugh?

CS: Catinca was great, because she was really natural, and she won over the audience I saw the movie with.
Tarsem: I know, I know… everywhere I go with this girl. The girl, you can’t say anything wrong about her. She was phenomenal.

CS: Also, it was somewhat fortuitous that the movie took so long to make because now Lee is somewhat of a star from his television show “Pushing Daisies” and he was just in “Miss Pettigrew.”
Tarsem: I hope so because he’s been so supportive and so behind us for so long.

CS: Now that you’ve finished this dream project that’s taken up 17 years of your life, where do you go from here?
Tarsem: (laughs) This was stopping me from making any Hollywood film I want to make, because I would keep talking about this thing I wanted to do, so I just needed to make it. It was an artistic child that I had to deliver and that’s done. I love all of it, and I think I’ll probably make those films and maybe I’ll make a passion project again but I’ve no idea. It might be something… that I’ve got a couple of sparks that might take a week or might take 20 to 30 years to turn it into something and by that time, if I feel like making it, I’ll make it. Otherwise, right now I don’t know.

CS: But making a movie every 17 years…
Tarsem: I don’t want to do that! I’m 46 and I thought that this is a mad f*cking project. I was obsessed and this thing needed to be exorcised.

CS: I know this played at a lot of festivals… including Cannes?
Tarsem: No, it wasn’t in Cannes. We won the Sitges one that the year before us “Pan’s Labyrinth” won, so we started from there, we went to Toronto, and now it’s coming out. It was at Toronto the year before last but we just ran it that time and it wasn’t particularly finished.

CS: Has the movie changed a lot since it played at the festivals?
Tarsem: No, very little, just basically tweaked it, finished the scenes and actually made it slightly shorter.

CS: Are you still doing commercial work and music videos?
Tarsem: Music videos, I kind of only did two of them, “Losing My Religion” and Deep Forest. The kind of music I like doesn’t really require music videos. My taste is a lot more folky and classical and that stuff, and hardcore dance, which doesn’t really make music videos. It was a passion at a particular time but for me… I know most people do music videos because they want to do commercials, and most people do commercials because they want to do films. I loved music videos when I was doing them, and it was the only reason I did them. When I did commercials, I still love them, and unfortunately, it’s like I’m a prostitute in love with my profession. I’d sleep with them for free but they give me money, and it’s the only thing I know how to do.

CS: Doesn’t it seem somewhat disparate to do commercials and then do something as artistic as “The Fall”?
Tarsem: Have you seen my commercials?

CS: I’m sure I must have…
Tarsem: No, you haven’t. (Hands me a DVD of his commercial reel.) Don’t see it with children, and you tell me if you think that looks like advertising. You might have seen one and you will remember it.

The Fall opens in select cities on Friday, May 9, and you can check out an exclusive clip here.