A unique filmmaking talent arrived to mainstream audiences with 2000’s The Cell, with Vince Vaughan as a detective who has to literally travel into and throughout the mind of a killer to discover the location of his latest victim.
54-year-old Tarsem Singh had come from the world of music videos and TV commercials, and audiences everywhere responded to the whacked out visuals of The Cell. But the best was yet to come, with his 2006 magnum opus The Fall – a passion project that took 12 years to bring to the screen – delighting people everywhere and showing other so-called visual directors how it’s done.
From there Tarsem seemed to enter the fold of the studio system to some extent, bringing us Mirror, Mirror and Immortals, and as he explained to Moviehole.net in Los Angeles, more mainstream fare was an effort to prove he could do more than just astounding pictures.
How did you come by the script and what did you like about it?
Most people know my work only from films, which is about five percent of what I do. I did The Fall, then I thought I wanted to do a studio film but I ended up with a third visual film and a fourth one. Then suddenly everybody put me into this pigeonhole thinking ‘He’s the visual guy’.
The thing is 80 percent of my work is not so visual, commercials etc. I’ve just ended up with four films back to back that are like this.
So I realised if I don’t change it now, everyone will just think that’s what I want to do. I adore filmmakers like Michael Haneke, I usually don’t like watching visual films at all. I just didn’t want to keep going into this, I want to be able to mix it up. I knew it would be cinematic but I didn’t want anything fantastical.
So it was frustrating to become known as a visualist?
I won’t deny that I’m a visual guy, but I just think people haven’t seen the rest of the body of work that I’ve done. I grew up on visual cinema, nine months out of the year our school use to be snowed in and we watched a lot of TV that was in a language that I never understood.
That’s what The Fall came out of, that I completely misunderstood what those films of my childhood were about, so I won’t deny that my background was visual.
Then over the years it really shifted. In the world of advertising the visual stuff really paid off, it was easier to step into music videos and commercials. I didn’t think that when you did movies people think you can do one thing but not the other. Everybody loves to pigeonhole.
Look at Polanski. If he does the devil or a thriller or anything, you can just see his DNA all over it. I had ended up with four of these and I just thought it’s too much, I have to change it now.
So it was a very, very strong push to say ‘I would like to do a thriller that is grounded, please’. I got lucky when this thing came along. I saw this potential a lot more than everybody else, because we screened it for people, everybody was in shock about how accessible and how much more commercial the movie was.
So are you happy to think people won’t recognise this as a Tarsem Singh movie?
Yes, I’d say ‘thank God’, because you really thought that you knew what I do. Unfortunately I have given everyone much more ammo by giving them four films that are all visual. I’d just say, ‘Did you enjoy the movie?’ If they do, let me make another one. That’s all I’d ask.
It’s surprising how few effects shots there are even in the mind transfer scene.
Yeah, for me I didn’t even care that much about it. I said ‘just have them lying on hammocks and doing drugs together’ and that’d be fine.
What you came up with looked pretty good though.
People visualise that stuff differently in different cultures. I’m more interested in the perception of it than the reality of it. What most audiences think is an acceptable amount of [sci-fi] – that was the answer. Otherwise, I would have just gone to something very simple.
I didn’t want the money not to be spent in New Orleans [where Self/less was shot], I wanted it to look like today, not ten years from now. If that happens all the money goes onto art direction that I can’t afford. I just wanted it to be contemporary, so we took an MRI machine, broke it apart and came up with the same rules about what you do when you go into an MRI machine.
It was just like Monty Python saying ‘it’s a machine that goes ping’.
So is a film like Self/less much easier than something like The Fall because there aren’t so many fantastical visual elements?
It’s like most of my commercials, you literally just get out of people’s way. You’re just traffic cop. You let it happen, unless you get the casting wrong.
What did you like about Ryan Reynolds for the part of the young Damian?
Imagine you’re a dying old guy and the clock is ticking on you and you get to design a body. I don’t think you could better than Ryan Reynolds. You’d go, ‘Yeah, I’d buy that for a fucking dollar.’
No woman’s going to turn him down, he’s going to party like hell, doesn’t need Viagra. A guy who gets laid at parties all the time. Yes, I’ll take that.