Tarsem doesn’t like doing things the easy way. His latest film, The Fall, was filmed in about 24 different countries, under a variety of political regimes, and often with none of the amenities that make filmmaking possible. We talked to him recently, in preparation for the film’s DVD release on January 26, about his inspirations and why he looks like a madman on the ‘making of’.
So what are you working on at the moment?
I’m in LA trying to, hopefully, get the go-ahead for a film, but I was just in Spain shooting a commercial campaign, kind of in the style of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was these athletes now going around looking for the Holy G.
Given that The Fall’s is sort-of a fantasy movie, can you tell us about your favourite fantasy films?
I don’t know if I can say films that specifically influenced it but I can tell you fantasy film that influenced me. There’s a movie called La Jettée – though it’s nothing like the movie. There’s also a film by Sergei Parajanov called The Colour of Pomegranates. And of course the movie I bought the rights to do, a similar movie called Yo Ho Ho.
What’s that one about?
It’s actually a film from Bulgaria. When I was in India I was always obsessed with making a film about using the body language of another person to tell them a tale, and I saw this movie with the same themes, and I bought the rights to it when I had money twenty years later. But it looks nothing like it, so I don’t know if it stands out. It’s one of those things where I remember it as probably a lot better than it was. The funny thing is I tend not to like fantasy movies. I love specifically the work of directors like Polanski, and it doesn’t tend to be that fantastical. I guess the stuff that influenced me in India is probably where this movie came from, you know, Iranian paintings that tend to be very tableau-y or more like hieroglyphics. But I don’t know if I can pick too many films or filmmakers.
A lot of people compared this film to The Princess Bride: probably just because the basic setup is a person telling a fantasy story.
Yeah, exactly. The original film was made long before Princess Bride, though. I saw Princess Bride quite late too: I like it very much but I think it has less to do with that.
In contrast to that film, though, the non-fantasy stuff here is very dark.
It means more to me than the fantasy and I was really, really in a conundrum when I shot the hospital stuff. I thought, you know, maybe there should be no fantasy in it. I had a couple critics tell me that would be a much better film because we hate the fantasy crap. I decided to go and shoot all the fantasy, but it was something I considered quite heavily, just to leave it in the hospital. Even after looking for locations for seventeen years I was ready to give it all up! Then I changed my mind and decided to go shoot it.
The locations are tremendous. There’s a ridiculous number of different places in there.
Yeah, 18 to 24 countries I think we went to. Usually when you’ve got a film production with that many people you first look for a parking lot then you see if you can feed people then you look for a location nearby; that’s how production always works. And I just said no, in this particular case I don’t care when we finish, give me 2 years, 4 years, 10 years whatever, but I’m going to look for a specific location and go and make it work. So all those places exist, but they aren’t shot in because they’re politically problematic or basically problematic. People wouldn’t have actually thought that you could base drama there.
What was the most difficult bit of the shoot?
Too many, too many! We were stormed out of two locations because we weren’t aware of the delicacy of having a Mosque nearby. But you name the problem, we had it. I shot in the Haga Sofia where we made it look like the bandits had been hung. Of course it’s take you billions of bucks to get in there, but we just kind of snuck in and lay in wait.
So there’s a movie to be made about the making of the movie?
Well have you seen the documentary on the DVD yet? It’s probably better than the movie, it’s fucking out there. I look mad! I had nothing to do with it: I told a friend of mine I don’t want to see it because I don’t want it to be a PR thing. And believe me, I don’t come across in a good light! I think he really went for a very expressionistic view: there’s absolutely no explanation and no interviews, there is just what happened. I think it’s fantastic.
It turned out to be a very fortunate piece of casting with Lee Pace, because just as the film was set to come out Pushing Daisies was suddenly on every TV.
I know; that was three and a half years after I made the movie, because of the writer’s strike unfortunately Pushing Daisies got held up by another year. But Catinca (Untaru) was it for me, she was the trigger. I was so ready to give up every visual when I assembled her because she is the best thing in the film. I hope more people see it, that’s all.
Do you think this film will find a bigger audience on DVD?
I had to go for a visual style that is very problematic and not in favour right now, which is tableau-y, a well composed style. Everything today, if anybody wants to be independent looking, they want it to look shitty. What I’m hoping for is that in five or six years, people hopefully will move away from where they are stuck. I think we’re predated out of the box. It’s not a hip look right now but I don’t think it ever will date.
I wanted to ask about the silent movie scenes at the end. Was that inspired by anything particular?
It wasn’t, funny enough. I had that scene long before anything and it’s a homage to cinema. I wanted an opening like that, an ending where you could interpret it how you want it. For her, all stunts ever were done by this guy, all the way. She could be an old woman now and think he did all the stunts, and obviously knows that’s not true, but that’s what makes her love cinema. That piece I had from the very beginning, from like fifteen, sixteen years ago. It’s like, in Cinema Paradiso the kissing scene is very romanticised and I thought that worked, and I wanted an ending like that.
The other thing about the film is that it feels like a reaction against all these CG movies.
Yes it is, and right now I’m going to do a film absolutely the opposite of it, I’m going to do something completely computer generated. It’s not that the technology isn’t amazing, but suddenly it’s dating at a rate that is unfathomable. Stop-motion and all those big 50s monster movies, they were great because it took them thirty years to look dated and then they became Sunday morning movies, but this stuff, literally in three years you say, ‘Looks crap!’ At the rate that the globe is changing, with these such amazing locations still out there, I figured I’d do one where there wouldn’t be any effects. It was a very conscious effort, but it’s not that I’m against CG at all. Now I would like to do one that’s completely against the green screen. I do approach things on extremes, so this was no effects, the next one will be all that, so I’m sure all the people who were bored in this one will see the next one, ‘why the hell didn’t he shoot anything real?’
What’s this potential next project?
It’s called War of the Gods. It’s very interesting; it’s turning into, basically, Caravaggio meets Fight Club. It’s a really hardcore action film done in Renaissance painting style. I want to see how that goes; it’s turned into something really cool. This guy who I really love, who’s the only one person in it right now, is the brother in The Tudors, Henry Cavill. I’m going for a very contemporary look on top of that so I’m kind of going with, you know, Renaissance time with electricity. So it’s a bit like Baz Luhrman doing Romeo + Juliet in Mexico; it’s just talking a particular Greek tale and half contemporising it and telling it