The Rise (and The Fall) of Tarsem

The India-born director is most recognized as “the guy who directed The Cell,” a serial killer movie starring Jennifer Lopez, with intimations of Jodorowsky. Few outside the industry recognize Tarsem as an award-winning commercial and music video director, and while The Cell came and went at the box-office, it has since amassed a cult following for its Dali disturbances and hideous theatrics. Now, after a lengthy odyssey that led him across the globe, the nomadic director is finally back with his self-financed passion project, The Fall. The film stars Lee Pace (of ABC’s “Pushing Daisies”) as an injured stuntman, holed up in a hospital, who tells fantastical tales to a little girl. Much like The Cell, the film oscillates between the real world and one of fantasy, evoked by Tarsem through stark, poetic photography and dreamlike images (slow-motion underwater shots of swimming elephants come to mind). It took Tarsem over four years to finish the film. He insisted that Pace lie to the crew, and maintain his paralysis in real life (Pace wheeled around onset and stayed in a different hotel to maintain the illusion). “I got really depressed,” Pace says of his director’s extreme experiment. Screened two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Fall divided audiences and has since found the road to theatrical release an arduous one. In swooped friends Spike Jonze and David Fincher, who branded the film, lending it some much-needed campus legitimacy. We sat down with the director—decked out in traditional Indian garb—at the Regency hotel to discuss the madness of making movies.

BLACKBOOK: I wanted to ask you about the swimming elephants, but the damn press release already answered my questions.

TARSEM: All elephants swim, usually in an ocean. They can smell a female on another island and they’ll swim there.

BB: David Fincher once said that the world is your “back lot.” What do you think he meant by that?

T: That’s a great line, and it’s true. I’ve got to thank him for that! As you can tell from the film, I live in airplanes.

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BB: So you’re anathema to Lars Von Trier, who is terrified of flying.

T: Absolutely. The year before I shot the The Cell, someone took my passport to calculate how many planes I’ve caught. It was more than a pilot can legally fly—six planes per week.

BB: Wow. So where do you live?

T: Any airport you can think of. [Laughs.] I have a place in L.A. and, because of my girlfriend, one in London.

BB: When you’re traveling, are you always scouting locations, thinking, I could shoot something here?

T: Much to my girlfriend’s disappointment, yes. I’m not a guy who can chill and read. I like places that are difficult to access, that you don’t see in Hollywood films, because if they were easy, everyone would go there in a heartbeat. There are no parking lots where I shoot. You shit, and you pick up your own shit.

BB: You shot this film independent of a studio, on your own dollar. How liberating was that?

T: There was no time limit to what I was doing. I told my brother, Before you sell the house, call me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime mad obsession, and I was going to go make this film no matter the risks. Thankfully, the call never came. But in the end, I asked him, How close were we? And he said, “Closer than you think.” I had no money left, but I was fucking happy.

BB: How did David Fincher and Spike Jonze get involved with the project?

T: They were very key in getting me off my ass to make it. We started out in commercials and music videos together. Fincher was already making the films he needed to make, Spike had already made two of them, and I needed to make something too.

BB: How would you compare your directing style to theirs?

T: My work doesn’t look anything like theirs, but I kind of find I’m in between the two. For Spike, it’s all about character. He doesn’t give a shit about what the image looks like. And for Fincher, if someone’s head isn’t cropped right, no matter how good the performance is, he’ll toss it.

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BB: Were you apprehensive about risking everything to make a film without any guarantees?

T: Absolutely not. This is not an old man’s film. If I grew older, I would not have made this film. I either had to make this movie now, or not go there, because I would have sobered down, like most people do. The real “Oh, my God” moment came when I realized how polarizing the movie was. There are people who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and others who think it’s absolute shit. It’s a pill that you give people and they either swallow it or they don’t. They think it’s indulgent, and I keep thinking, It’s my own money, so of course it’s indulgent!

BB: I assume you make a great living from your work on commercials. Do you enjoy making them?

T: I’m a prostitute in love with her profession. That’s the best analogy I can think of. I’d sleep with them for free, but they pay me, so I say thank you.

BB: Both The Cell and The Fall take place in parallel worlds, one being real, the other being the world inside a character’s head. Was that a coincidence?

T: Big coincidence. The Fall was supposed to be made before The Cell. When The Cell came long, however, it was so set up, and they asked if I’d like to do it, and I thought, Why not? I used a completely different visual style for the two. The Cell was all CGI and theater, on a stage, whereas The Fall was all landscapes. The only similarity was that I used the same desert in both films, because I couldn’t find another one quit like it. [Ed. note: The desert is in Namibia.]

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BB: Your brother had a hand in The Fall’s production. Is he your producing partner?

T: My brother is a lawyer with only one client, and that client is me. He came to the country and my dad wouldn’t support his education, so he took a janitor job and put me through college. So when I earned enough money to put him through college to become a lawyer, I did.

BB: How did you develop your visual flair?

T: If I could put a finger on it, I would. I would say that I travel a lot and that my visual references tend to come from all over the place. They’re not so focused. I wouldn’t say I’m original, but the sources that inspire me are alien to everyone else, so I seem original.

BB: Lee Pace plays a crippled stuntman in the film, and you deceived the cast and crew into thinking he was paralyzed in real life. Why put him and the crew through that?

T: It had to be done, less for Lee and more for everyone else. It wasn’t about that cliché for actors, that in order to get into character, they need to live the part. It was more like, no matter how dire a situation, if you play it long enough, it becomes banal. I didn’t want anyone jumping on a cripple’s bed, or telling cripple jokes. And I knew no one would do that if they thought he really was crippled. It was quite a traumatic experience for people at the end.

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