When you watch a Tarsem Singh film, you figure out pretty damn quickly that you’re watching a Tarsem Singh film. The auteur filmmaker isn’t the type to play it safe, and he’s clearly not afraid of polarizing an audience. Even with his modern take on the classic Snow White fairy tale, Mirror Mirror, he goes for an unabashedly childlike and wacky tone – which may not be for everyone. Tarsem’s films are rather similar to his persona: unfiltered, without any hint of compromise.
This is the third time I have spoken with Tarsem in the past year, and although heaps of ground can be covered with him in mere minutes, courtesy of his rapid conversational style, it was a real treat to finally have an actual conversation with the filmmaker. Tarsem is one of a kind in terms of his filmmaking and demeanor. Whether you love or despise his films, the man is certainly an original.
Here’s what Tarsem Singh had to say about polarization, the goal of not being different for the sake of being different, and the glory days of hanging with the college versions of Michael Bay and Zack Snyder:
I’d say all your films have a very singular voice where you don’t get a sense of interference or a lot of outside influence. When you make a film, do you think of the audience or just set out to make it for yourself?
Not particularly. I think when I make it, I just do it if there’s enough of me in it, unless I really need the money or something, which I don’t. I make it and say, “No, this is the movie I want to make. Will these people let me make it?” When I’m making it, I don’t think of what the crowd is going to think. I think, if they’re going to make a film, there’s a million other people they could make it with. They came to me for a reason. It’s like, if you hire me and tell me what to do, it’s like hiring a dog and banging a bell. I don’t think when the studios hire me they want that; they want the right movie, and everybody wants that. I just hang in there and make the film I want to make, keeping in mind that you could bore an audience and don’t go too wild for the kids, this is just one-on-one body language kind of stuff.
The people aren’t there when you’re making the movie, so you keep them in the back of your mind and make the movie you want to make. And you’re right, that’s possibly the best compliment I could have, what you just said. It comes down to if I can see me in my films, and I can. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t support the movie. I see myself in the movies I make, and that’s the only intention I have. When you make a movie, people think they know you after one movie. It’s like, by the third movie, “No, you cannot change!” You know, it’s so strange that if you look at the Tomatometers [on Rotten Tomatoes]. Now people are coming out of the woodwork saying, “He’s making shit after The Fall! What happened?” I mean, I’m like, really? Go look at the reviews for The Fall, which were rotten. You think you know me after one movie? I’m like, come on!
Do you enjoy that polarizing reaction on some level, knowing there’s no real middle-ground response to your work?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely a good thing. I mean, there would be no need to hire me. Who would want to be abused by an Indian all the fucking time? They could get some servant. For me, when I’m working, I think they hired me for a reason. They didn’t hire me to be a nice guy, they got better people who could be nice to them. I tend to be polarizing. It’s like, with Immortals, people said sword and sandals films are a dime a dozen, so don’t make one of those! I said, “Nah, it’ll be different and my film.” It’s the same thing with my fairy tale. Polarizing comes with the territory for me.
I’m sure you don’t go in for a big studio gig and say, “This is going to be polarizing,” though.
No, when you work for that big of a budget, you don’t want to. When you’re making a movie for children and families, you don’t want to alienate who you’re making it for. I mean, what exactly would you prove? For me, I wanted to tell a tale to these guys that would be different. Most people will try to make their stuff look different. Making something transform is the difficult part, and something unique will come out of it. When you’re making it for a family audience, you don’t want it to look like everything else, and I would have no intention in doing that. When people don’t like it and think I was trying something completely different, that’s when I think, “Really? No, this is exactly what I was trying.”
You mentioned filmmakers trying to be different. When you’re making a film does your style evolve out of straying away from the norm or is your aesthetic just the way you naturally see things?
I would say yes. When I arrive at something, I just solve things in the particular way I think I would. You know, an auteur is not a person who thinks like a film critic, which is what everyone keeps thinking they should do; it’s not like the 60s with critics becoming filmmakers. An auteur is someone just being true to their nature and you can recognize their work from a mile away. I think Michael Bay is as much as an auteur as my friends [David] Fincher and Spike [Jonze]. I happen to adore Fincher, Spike, and Michael’s films, who’s a classmate, but he’s as much an auteur. You can see him in his work. When I say I look at these things, I don’t just say, “What is the story? Nah, let’s just do it visually.” It needs to be in my DNA. I grew up on television and film, the language of it I could not understand. When I look at in retrospect, it had a big impact on me and how I see things visually. The kind of films I like tend not to be visual, it’s just a thing I like, like Polanski. I’m trying to now look at scripts, right now, not visually.
There is always that negative criticism, “He’s just all about the visuals.” Do you see yourself as a storyteller first, and the visuals are secondary?
I’m a storyteller who wants to tell a story visually [Laughs]. Hey, if there’s some dialog in it, okay! That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m not saying that’ll always be the case, but that’s what I’ve done so far.
I’m glad you mentioned Michael Bay. I briefly had an exchange with [DP] Larry Fong once, who mentioned that you, Bay, and Zack Snyder were all classmates and worked together.
[Laughs] We were so desperate for actors that I was a Nazi once in one of Zack’s films, which tells you how desperate we were. I was basically a brown Nazi! I think in one of Michael Bay’s films I was a camel salesman in the desert. We did whatever it took.
[Laughs] Fong mentioned even in college Bay was shooting films with girls under waterfalls.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, it was wonderful! Looking back, when we did school projects with a montage, everyone would use a song you couldn’t get the rights for. People would use Tom Waits‘s songs or personal songs… Michael Bay’s montage was cut to “Take My Breath Away”! For everybody to say he sold out is full of shit, that’s what he’s made of. He loves it, so why criticize him for it? That’s what he likes. There was no money involved. Now that there’s money involved, his style happens to be there, and good on him.
Yeah, and he’s finally taking on a big passion project.
Good for him! The thing is, when you do something like this, you don’t do it for money. Every time I do a movie it is a major, major pay cut for me. I just feel passionate about a project. I might lose all my money on The Fall, but suddenly two years later I make it back. For me, I wouldn’t make a movie I had to make for money, and I’ve never had to. It might change if I have children and had no money, because that’s the only type of work I know how to do. I might do it [then], but right now I don’t feel the need to. What you see has to be criticized knowing it’s exactly how I made it.
Early on when you were in college with Zack and Michael, were your films very visual?
Actually, yes! [Laughs] When we were in school, our projects were pretty similar to what we’re doing now.
So even then you were polarizing?
Oh, yeah. I remember I did a project I got a scholarship for that I got F’s and A+’s on, and I’ll tell you what it was [Laughs]. Basically I remember everyone’s projects in school dealt with four or five themes, every student film. One of them was it’s all just a dream, so people could throw their crap in, without it having to make any sense. Another one was someone making a film about how difficult it is for a filmmaker, because that’s probably what everyone’s perspective is when you’re in school. Another one was suicide, having someone kill themselves in the movie. Another one was finding out that you’re gay.
The final film I made was about this guy who goes to the mirror, starts cutting himself, begins to think he’s gay, is making a movie about him cutting himself and then commits suicide, and then he wakes up and realizes it’s all a dream! I put in everyone of those themes as a joke. I remember my cinematographer giving me an A+, because he thought it was hilarious! I got some F’s because they would say, “There’s just so many cliches!” Every other film shown had one of those four things. I told them to take it as a joke. I guess it was a polarizing… I spoke to a friend about this two weeks ago while trying to find it. I would love to see where that bloody thing is [Laughs]. Again, yes, I got an F and an A+, but I got a scholarship on that film.
[Laughs] I would love to see you make a feature like that, just tackle every convention for two hours.
I think I’ve done them! [Laughs] “You got a take on a serial killer?” Yeah, I got a take on a serial killer! Look, I don’t care so much about the serial killer, I care about going in his head and him having a really bad dream.
I revisited The Cell the other day and I kept thinking about how the studio must have been reacting to those dailies [Laughs].
You know what? I’ve always been lucky on one thing: no one ever comments on my dailies, because they look so good. When they get the whole thing, they say, “We thought this was going to be a different film!” [Laughs] For me, on The Cell, they would say, “What if we took all this out?” I’d say don’t. I initially wanted to do action inside the head, but the kind of action I had in mind… when The Matrix came out, it was too similar. I said, “No, I don’t want to do that now. I want to do opera in the head.” They said, “No, you can’t do opera, because the last person who did opera in the head was Francis Ford Coppola, and it was a real disaster. Americans don’t like opera.”
We came up with him having a problem with the character masturbating over dead bodies while suspending himself on chains. By the time I finished shooting that, I said we could have him come out in the third act wearing a tutu, and people would feel sorry [for him] and nobody would laugh. When we showed it to the studio, they said the scene was too much. When they cut the scene, people started laughing during the third act. The scene was there to tell them to be scared of this guy! Every time we tried something theatrical and operatic, in a serious movie, people started laughing and pointing fingers. I said, “Okay, let him do something nasty, so people will shut up.”
I’m guessing it was a relief not having to deal with that on The Fall.
Actually, no. It sounds like I’m complaining, but I love it [Laughs]. You have to understand I sold cars to put myself through school, so I’m very easy… I’m just telling you what the process was. When they’d say something is different and I would fight for it, it’d be a healthy fight. They would realize I’m a right. It’s a rarity, but of course I can be wrong on things… I like to think rarely, and the studio would like to think otherwise. I embrace that. I say the same thing about the studio system that Winston Churchill said about democracy, “It’s a terrible system, but it’s the best one we have right now!” Want to talk about sleaze? Try doing something independent stuff, and you’ll find how many sleazy characters there are. At least with a studio, the money you’re talking about isn’t real money, it’s casino money. They think rationally. Two to three million, to them, is a statistic.
Usually with a studio, it’s all a statistic. When you go to real people for money and ask for 500,000 or 100,000, that’s a lot of money, because they’re thinking it’s money. It’s not like when you enter a studio system or a casino, where everything is a number. I embrace it because it’s very rational. Everybody tries to make money for their shareholders and I like to go in there and say, “How can I make money for shareholders, while still making the movie I want to make?”
Is that ever a tough balance?
No, not at all; it’s a fair balance [Laughs]. I look at it and think there hasn’t really been a tough fight, except for one particular thing on Immortals, which was for a little something. In the end, it’s a fair fight.
You mentioned the rarity of being wrong. Can you look at your work pretty objectively, knowing when something isn’t working?
Yeah, I don’t think I’m too precious. You know one person who was always the best at that? Zack Snyder. When we were in school he would give everything to something, and when he’d finish it and got shit, he’d say, “Right, okay, next project!” Right now, if I make a film that turns out to be not what I intended and wanted, then I will scream and shout, and I’m pretty sure you’ll hear me in the press. Right now I’ll look at something and say, “Okay, let’s learn from that,” and it’s usually got to do with the politics of stuff. I always had a not-so-good relationship before, but now it’s changed with producers. Apart from the producer I’ve worked with for 19 years now when I do my commercials, I look at them and say, “Nah, the relationship with a producer is always a dog and postman. You’re a postman, I’m a dog, and I’m going to bark at you, and something good will come from that.” On Mirror Mirror, they were great. They all aren’t watch-dogs for the studio and they have opinions.
To wrap up, I know you did second-unit work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, showing Benjamin in India. I’m a big fan of that film, but I was always disappointed you didn’t get to see much of that specific portion of his life.
[Laughs] I know. You know what? I shot that before David did his film. Fincher likes all control. Fincher asked me, knowing it was a big thing to ask, if I could shoot this for him. Fincher doesn’t like doing second-unit and does everything, but now he’s slowly evolving to that, so he asked me to do it for him. I said, “Well, the problem is, in India, you need complete control or no control. With a person like Brad, it could be difficult. I really need only him and a backpack,” which Fincher said he would come like that, and I thought that would never happen. Funny enough, I was in India and Brad came with a backpack and asked what I wanted.
The strange thing about it was that he hadn’t shot the film and wasn’t very clear about what he was going to do, so I overshot a bit. I told him it would never make it in the movie, but funnily enough, some of it did. I remember Fincher telling me when they were watching some of the stuff at the studio and that he got these notes from the studio saying it was some of the best stuff they’ve seen, and I was thinking it was bloody rubbish! I watched the dailies and thought, “Why would they think this is special?” I realized, basically, you got Brad Pitt walking in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of people, and not a single person turns to look at him [Laughs]. We had a little jet, so we’d fly to a city, find a particular market, and then do really long takes following him with the camera, and no one was interested in him. They might look at the camera, but that was it. I think they were reacting to that, since there was nothing amazing about the footage. It was just nobody looking at Brad Pitt.
Did you keep any of that footage?
No, I’m not really a memorabilia guy. Yesterday, for the first time, I opened up this box because I’m changing houses and I found all of this stuff from The Fall, and I had no respect or interest in going through it. I thought one day I might feel bad about it, so I chucked it into a box. So when I’m old, have Alzheimer’s, and I’m all screwed up, I may go through it and see what the hell that movie was about.
Mirror Mirror is now in theaters.