“Coming this fall: an action event from the director of The Cell and The Fall.” Yeah, it still sounds odd to me, too. Once it was announced that Tarsem would be tackling a big swords and sandals epic, it elicited a feeling of both excitement and confusion. As for the exciting part — wouldn’t it be interesting to see how such a visionary can put a spin on this genre and what he could do with an action beat? As for the confusion — isn’t this a big studio picture? With epics such as this, directors have countless people to answer to.
But Tarsem didn’t seem interested in answering to those people.
This a director that couldn’t have a greater distaste for by-the-numbers filmmaking. As he says below, he’s a polarizing filmmaker. Both The Cell and The Fall received both wild appraise and heaps of venom. Can Tarsem still bring that interesting polarization to a sizable fall release? From the sound of it, yes, he can.
When I approached Tarsem to discuss The Fall and wish him luck on Immortals, the very funny and honest filmmaker ended up giving me a quick and unplanned 1-on-1 about not dealing with studio suits, his work ethic with actors, and the methods of Mickey Rourke.
When I heard you were doing this big studio film, I was worried it may not be what you’re known for and was going to be a “made by committee” type of film. But the trailers have really shown a singular vision.
Thank you so much. It’s pretty hardcore. I only have one fight left.
[Laughs] How do you deal with notes and this type of collaboration?
Do you have final cut?
No. I don’t listen to them, because I think no one can really understand what I’m doing. Things are going great on Snow White, because I have someone like Julia Roberts there, so if she says “yes,” everyone just backs off. On this one you’d hear, “You picked one guy from a TV series and we wished you picked a star, and you haven’t. You’re spending all this money.” So all those pressures came. But I don’t take notes and I don’t listen to them.
The fortunate thing of being a visual director is that they think I know what I’m doing, and no [I don't]. I’m figuring it out as we go along, but I think this is getting better. I had no notes, no nothing. That was the fun thing about doing it with Relativity, which is not really a studio, it’s a fledgling situation.
You mentioned how you figure things out as you go along, so do your films constantly evolve and change through the process?
They do. The Cell was about a 20-page script. It was, “She goes in the mind and saves the guy,” and I said, “Okay, I know what to do.” The Fall was just a situation with the idea about a guy using a little girl to get something, and then I just made it up with them, then took two years to get this world vision that he told her, and all that took me 27 years. We didn’t know the bad guy of the film a month before we started. The bad guy used to be the guy on the opposite bed. Then at the last second [co-writer] Nico Soultanakis came up to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be better if the guy who stole his girlfriend was the bad guy,” and I was like, “Great!”
That’s the kind of stuff that never happens at a studio. And I shot that movie in chronology. The girl showed up her first day and had her front two teeth missing. As we went along her English got better, her teeth grew, so all that kind of magic happened because of it. Fortunately, on this one they let me do a lot.
I’m guessing you didn’t get to shoot chronologically?
That’s a fantasy that will never happen again [Laughs]!
[Laughs] Well, it’s interesting seeing you go from The Fall, where you literally had all the time in the world, to Immortals, where you have deadlines. How was that change?
I did [have deadlines]. That’s why I fought really hard to have a year and a half [to make the film]. That’s why Snow White is fantastic: You have someone like Julia [Roberts], who fights. She’s like my 900-pound gorilla. She’s obsessed by The Fall. When I go over there, she just fixed every problem for me. If I could explain something to her, then it’s done. Usually you have to explain to someone who’s thinking what his boss may think, but no agenda like that.
Last question: Do you have a running time yet?
Yes, it’s just one hour and fifty minutes.
Great. Well, I have to let you go.
No, no. Anyone who says they like The Fall can ask me any questions they want!
[Laughs] Alright. I loved this quote of yours that you “don’t really direct Mickey Rourke.” What was that collaboration like?
[Laughs] It was fantastic for me, because Mickey is different. Every actor I’ve had on every film that I like is a person that breaks the mold. Usually, it’s a child or just a crazy person like Mickey. But I would never use him in any other situations than what we had him for. He was this loose cannon. Of all the time he was doing things near people, they needed to be unnerved. Believe me, Mickey can provide that. When you give a knife to a guy not walking straight, it’s pretty dicey.
The entire situation with Mickey was, no matter how many times you do [a take], it could not be more than one line. You had to tell him what it was and explain the situation to him, and he would forget it in 2 seconds. It was brilliant.
Are you very detail-oriented with actors?
Actors don’t like that I will change lines and change scenes when the boss man isn’t on set. If anybody is on the set, they can fight me on changing this. I was used to coming from The Fall, where I would change anything on the set. With this particular one, I would change it and someone would say, “Oh, but it says this on the page.” I say, “You really shouldn’t be reading the script, because I don’t.” For me, no, I’m not very specific with the actors. If it’s a wide shot, I just tell them to work it out and give me something great, so I can get great coverage from it. If you keep giving me great stuff only in one shot and not the other, then it becomes an editor’s nightmare. I just say, “Let’s find it more like a play. Let’s find it.” Once actors crack it, I can move very fast. I’m not specific at all.
My actual final question: Do you see this as a big emotional journey, like The Fall? Or a big action driven journey?
I think it’s a big journey, but it’s a big epic journey; more than The Fall is a journey in the head and from the perspective of a six-year-old re-imagining it when she’s an old woman, let’s say, what she thinks somebody told her. It’s a mixture of all that: a child’s imagination, but in retrospect. This one is an epic journey that has my DNA all over it. Is it as emotional as The Fall? Well, I find it very strange because people react to The Fall in two ways: They are completely moved by it, or it’s the most coldest piece of shit they ever saw. I think that always happens with personal films.
When you don’t paint by numbers, you get this polarizing reaction. That’s why it’s very strange when you go on IMDb and the most interesting films are always the ones that get polarizing answers. The films that everybody likes are always so painted by numbers. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, that’s what’s more strange about it. Any movie that gets a 6 out of 10 [on IMDB] from people will have a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, because they only give you “yes” or “no.” They look at the “yes” people who say “this was good,” the ones that are great or fantastic they just say are good.
Any movies that are great or fantastic always have people saying, “I think that’s a piece of shit.” Those films on Rotten Tomatoes look strange and kind of end up in the middle. Birth, which I loved, and all those [type] of films are pretty polarizing. My work ends up being polarizing, and I can’t apologize for it.
Immortals opens in theaters on November 11th.