Three and a half years ago, on the cusp of releasing his long-simmering passion project, his "baby," his positively gorgeous cinematic masterpiece The Fall out into the world, I found Tarsem to be one of the most passionate and fascinating filmmakers I'd ever encountered (and this finding still holds true). At the time — in a conversation slated to last 15 minutes that stretched into an hour-long discussion of his film, his personal life and even his finances — Tarsem (whose only feature film credit at the time was 2000's The Cell) spoke with boundless energy and euphoric abandon about putting everything he had on the line in one of the most inspiring tales of filmmaking I've ever come across.
When The Fall was released it was a film championed by its many devoted fans as one of the very best — the kind of film you don't watch, you experience; the type of movie you don't simply encourage others to see, but instead force them into your car and speed immediately to the theatre (if only for an excuse to go witness it again yourself). But it was also a financial disappointment — a film that too daringly blended genres and proved a difficult conventional sell for the studio. Personally, it was perhaps the best film I saw that year, one that remains very near and dear to my heart. (And I highly recommend a "Tarsem The Fall" search on realdetroitweekly.com in order to read my previous interview with the director, as it's a good companion piece to this follow-up feature.)
Undaunted by what most in Hollywood would deem a "failure," Tarsem continued to advance his career, making all of his money back in only a short time in the field of advertising (a field in which he excels) and pursuing new feature film endeavors. And now we find Tarsem dipping his toes into the cinematic mainstream with his visionary ("That word is attached to every third director!" asserts Tarsem) take on the mythological swords-and-sandals epic with Immortals, a film filled with his surrealistic imagery and jaw-dropping compositions.
Eager as ever to discuss his work, Tarsem and I recently sat down to talk about his continual evolution as an artist — a conversation that once again stretched from its allotted 15 minutes into follow-up emails and telephone conversations. It's difficult to stop asking questions of someone as fired up and intelligent as Tarsem. And this is not a man who talks a mile a minute, mind you; Tarsem's ideas tend to spill out of his mouth at the rate of something like light years a second. Which is appropriate ... because they're damn near always out of this world.
I'd like to talk about the evolution of you, the evolution of your career ...
I'd say just "moving on," I wouldn't say "evolution." Actually, evolution is the right term, yeah, because it doesn't necessarily mean better it just means it's become something else, right ...
Exactly. So can you talk about the difference between traveling around the world on a dream and now shooting a film entirely on green screen?
I think I had a very similar reaction to probably Coppolla doing Apocalypse Now then coming back and saying I wanna do One From the Heart. It was like eeeeeverything on location and then, "Right! I wanna be in a box." So after doing, like, 28 countries on [The Fall] ... on this one I just said, "Not a single shot outside." Everything has to be inside the set — horses running, birds flying, everything inside. So I started with that.
Which is literally the exact opposite principle of The Fall. Are you just an extreme kind of dude?
I am! I am ... When I make a kiddie movie it just tends to ultra sweet, and when I make a violent movie it tends to be ... disturbing. Comme ci Comme ca is terrifying to me; I don't mind people saying, "I just hate your shit!" That's absolutely OK. Obviously if they love it that's OK. When they kind of go, "Oh, it's OK," those are the people I wanna hit.
As such a particular director, how do you mix your passion with the patience required of a studio project?
I'd say that the biggest advantage I have is that while going to school I sold cars in Torrance for three years.
And you became a good pitchman?
I'd say that's 95 percent of the battle, especially when you're doing something visual — to make the other people feel that you've got it under control. And that can be frustrating. A person like [David] Fincher could never deal with it. What he says when I see him is that he cannot suffer fools. My only advantage in life is that I can. (laughs)
Did you have to fight for Immortals' R rating?
That was the most terrifying conversation. When we sat down after we were done with everything —after everything was agreed on — they said, "How do we make it PG-13?" And I said, "Do you want a 10 minute movie?" And the moment they got the target audience in everybody reacted to what they wanted to take out, and they said, "Leave the fucker alone." You don't piss off the people you're trying to get in!
Did you feel in any way like you had something to prove with this film?
No. I was one of those people that thought the moment I had arrived in America I had survived. Everything's just been cream on top of it since and I've had nothing to prove!
When we spoke back in'08, in your own words you had no money, were "happier than a pig in shit," and had told your brother to call if you had to sell the house during production of The Fall.
(laughs) Yes, but you know what? Within about two years I made all the money back.
That's the beautiful thing about working in advertising ...
Exactly! The advantage to being a whore! I didn't sell my house, and absolutely in two seconds I would do it again. It took me 17 years though to put that together and I just don't have that kind of a project right now. But if I get bitten by something like that again ... nothing can stop me.
Was there ever a point during the fallout, so to speak, after The Fall did not succeed, where you had any regret?
Absolutely not! There's never been an ounce of regret. I just loved it. Throwing the money away ... makes no difference to me. I live the way I live and I've always lived like that. I can sleep on a couch for years, and I can live in a palace for years. It doesn't bother me. | RDW
Immortals opens on 11/11