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Interview
Tarsem Singh

Max Favetti

19.09.18

Tarsem: As you can tell I like colourful things, and that just comes from where I grew up. Now people say: ‘Oh, I can see that's your work!' and I think: ‘What do you mean by that?’ It’s what I got from my childhood and my time in school, telling stories to the class.

I'd say everybody that you slept with, everybody that you didn't sleep with, everything that you read, every little thing that you saw, from live sport to porn — anything — affects you in some way or another. I grew up in the Himalayas — there were barely any movies. We used to watch one or two movies per week, and usually we'd already seen them before. So along with that, and, because my Dad was an engineer there, holidays in Iran, this was the only access to the screen I had.

So it was literally always visual gags that appealed to me — in a culture where the movies were usually 90% dubbed into Persian. Unless they were visual they didn't appeal to me. It was in my DNA from an early age — the same brief that you have in silent cinema.

As little cinema as I had seen, I still had more access than all my friends put together. Television in India was a small phenomenon at that time. We had come from Iran and we had seen the Western films, but I had seen them in a language I didn't understand. So the stories and interpretations were always made up. This had the biggest influence on me. All that came out in my film 'The Fall', in one way or another. When people are critical of my work now they’ll say: 'why are your films so visual and why do they have such lame or naive stories?’ And I say: 'That is me!' That is what I loved and still love. I just grew up on that’.

¶ So much of your work alludes to Renaissance Art, was that something that you were exposed to from an early age?

No, I had not been to a museum until literally eight years ago, and I live thirty feet from the National Portrait Gallery. I've never liked the idea that you had to go to one place to look at art. The only reason I started going to museums was because I really loved the architecture of them. I wouldn't go: 'Oh, there's a painting that really speaks to me…’ I had a different relationship with the work from what the artist intended, probably. The Carriavagios, I felt, spoke my language. My exposure to The Classics came much later, when I was about 27, when I ended up in film school in America. That's when I started really engaging with it, and it blew me away. But not from an earlier age.

¶ Do you think that because you had a late exposure ‘the canon’, your early work like the music video for R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’, seems almost desperate to take these works on?

It's so naively loaded with it. If you gave a thirteen or a fourteen-year-old a camera they would make it like that. The references are so blatant. But I was moved by that imagery at a much later age than most people are. By the time you learn your craft all that is in the background, but, for me, there's so much that's on the surface that I find you can see the references very clearly.

¶ It was obviously hugely successful as well, so I'm sure that restraint probably wouldn't have served you very well...

No, you're quite right! There were so many guys in my film school class I felt were more talented than me, but none had come from my background. And so you arrive in their environment so you feel different, because people look at your work and say: ‘this is unique!’ But actually, to use the cliché, I think originality is the art of concealing your source. It's just where I come from, that stuff was blatantly available everywhere. It's just that you take it to a different culture and it works.

Or the Americans, like when you go there to shoot a commercial, it's the English who say 'God this is amazing. Palm trees!' and they look at everything romantically. Then when Americans come to England they say 'Oh my God. Cobbled streets!' In India, all of our pictures we saw were of Milton Keynes, and it was pretty amazing to us, because we were comparing that to where we grew up. People get surprised, you'll see foreigners come out and they'll take pictures of, like, a park. There isn't shit there!

¶ When you went to Georgia to hang out with R.E.M., you weren't sure whether you wanted to record the video for ‘Losing My Religion’, and that blew my mind. As a young and inexperienced filmmaker wouldn't you be shitting your pants and launching at that kind of opportunity?

Well you have to understand the time of the early music video. Everybody was trying to figure out what this thing was. I really liked how Spike Jonze and David Fincher would have people listen to the song and write ideas for it. It was becoming a good factory for them, but they managed to keep their work personal. But for me, music videos were sacrilegious. I thought they were the worst thing for music — I don’t think it needs visuals. When you hear music, depending on your mood, even the least imaginative person will change what they have in mind. That's the great thing about a visual experience like that. But when you put visuals to it — unless it's just a band playing which is fine — you’re saying: 'this is what you should think'. And that will forever alter your interpretation of the song.

When R.E.M. told me I had to come to Athens, I thought I was going to Athens in Greece on a tour, so I could see my sister who I hadn't seen for six years. Then I found out it was fucking Athens, Georgia. When I got there, I didn’t write a video. I never write. I have never written. Recently someone wrote a music video for me to direct, and I hated that experience. It is such an imperious tone to tell someone 'this is what's going to happen'. I actually always wondered how lame the early music videos treatments would have been, so I read some of the scripts. They would be like: 'The band will look cool in this one environment, and then would look cool in this environment'. I just thought: ‘this is not a medium that can be pitched for’.

But then how do you break into that world? The only thing was to do stuff in school that could appeal to people and say: 'this is my track record, could you let me have a go?' Fortunately for me, when I was in school I did a couple of videos, and I did one which aped the work of the photographer Kudalkar, who Michael Stipe [of R.E.M.] happened to be a fan of. He said that my work was as if someone had taken Kudalkar’s stuff, and without being derivative had made it work as a moving image.

So when they asked would I like to write a treatment? I just said: 'I can't'. I was still in college. I said I couldn’t write a treatment, but what I could do, was go hang with them. So they got me a ticket and I hung out with them (two days I think was what it was). I think Michael thought that I was procrastinating. I really didn't think I had come to pitch to him; I just thought we were going to talk about the project. I kind of had a rough idea what I wanted to do, so I said: 'I have this rough idea, but I don't know where the last piece comes from'. I said: 'The thing with commercials is you have to be very clear; but music videos, if you're gonna watch it again and again it needs to be more visceral and abstract’.

Often it's just a band performing, which are the greatest videos because you can imagine whatever you want. But for this particular one, I thought what we should do is take a story: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'A Very Old Man with Wings' — in a nutshell it is about an angel who lands on Earth, and the people who take him in wonder if he is really an angel.

The angel can’t really perform proper real miracles. His wings seem to be infested and stuff like that, and the people don't know what to do with him. His life turns into a kind of circus, and he dies. I said: 'That's the story, now, let's abstract it...'

So what does heaven look like? You have to remember the money was very limited — I came from school where I was paying for everything. Without the budget I found we had to make it stylised, and I told them that Heaven will be these two gay actors who take these photographs of western Gods — very much in the style of Indians depicting their Hindu gods, which look incredibly kitsch and gay, (though they're not intended that way). I thought it would be interesting to have an Indian guy copying a French guy rendering Indian Gods, and I would build heaven and Earth in between. The last night I was there we went dancing, and that’s when I saw Michael Stipe dance.

I've always been for Busby Berkley and the Hindi movies where a thousand people dance incredibly, or, (what I like most), freeform. Like the Sufis, you see an intoxicated person go where they go, and when I saw Stipe dance I just thought, 'the way he uses his body… it's just the kind of dance where people would say: “he's on bad drugs…”.’ But I looked at that and said: 'I know what to do...'

So I said: ‘you dance’. They showed up, and I shot everything; however when shot in that room, it just looked horrible. For the first time, I had cranes, and dollies — and I was so overdoing it. In the middle I stopped and said: 'I think this is incredibly pretentious, but I can fix it if you give me half and hour’, (and it was only a one-day shoot). I said: ‘give me one angle only and we'll shoot this’. Their manager was great to me, he said, ‘if I had a million bucks, you'd be making my movies’, but I had no idea what to do then, because I hadn't written anything for the video. So I was throwing up in the toilet with nerves. I was in and out of the bathroom. The AD thought I was on drugs — though I've never taken a drink in my life.

Finally I fixed it, and funnily enough, though Michael Stipe had a cold, he just came alive that day. I said: ‘this is the third piece we were looking for, that's all we need’. We shot all the other sequences. When we assembled it, we still had no idea what it was. But I thought, 'Ah, okay, this is exactly what I intended...'

I asked them to allow me ten days for editing. We started at nine in the morning, and we were done by 3am the next day. We never got out of the room, me and the editor. In that one day, we just assembled how I thought it should be cut. I thought maybe if we could come to look at it tomorrow it would make sense. So, next day, we looked at it and said: 'We're done. What shall we do? We should call the commissioner over and tell him it's still a work in progress…’ I think her name was Andie.
We said ‘it still needs work; we have another eight or so days of cutting’.
And she said: 'My God! That's great! It's done, isn't it?'
And we said: '... Yeah! … It's done'.
So we sent it to the guys and they asked to change literally one shot, (there was a guy who was turning his backside which didn't look very good, nothing to do with them), but I had no idea how well it would go, and it just kind of exploded.

Still from Tarsem Singh's 'The Cell' (2000). Image copyright of New Line Cinema. Not for commercial reproduction.

¶ From the outset of your career you've had quite a strict adherence to your vision and the integrity of your idea I was wondering how you found that confidence...

I think that's from being a firstborn boy to an Indian mum. Usually you always have to prove your worth to your parents, but when your mere existence means that even your shit smells good — it's how Indian mums raise their first born. People tend to hate it and I think that's a valid point.

Just know that my choices were intended. That's why I really do respect people in my class who everybody used to crap on — like Michael Bay. In school, we never liked each other's work, but I would say he's as much of an auteur as Fincher — because when you see any frame of his: that is what he intended. That's what authored really means. And that's all there is to it. From the beginning I thought what I was doing was the dog’s bollocks, and over time you look back and just go: ‘I was actually really shit back then'. And it dates quite quickly on you, some things do and luckily some things don't. So ultimately my confidence comes not from my Dad — who would ask a lot but I never could do it right — but my Indian mum, in whose eyes I could do no wrong.

¶ I know by all accounts you absolutely loved film school. At film school, did you feel that you were able to experiment? Did you have teachers who were open to ‘far-out’ approaches, or did you feel compelled to conform to an established visual language?

It would have taken a stick and a shovel to throw me out of that school. I was there for five years; everybody else had money and they could pay for it; my brother was working as a janitor. I was working through the summer selling cars and being a busboy to be able to pay to put myself through school, and then realised I just didn't want to get out into the real world. If you’re not going to experiment there, at school, you won’t be allowed to experiment anywhere else. You've got to be your own man, and if your dream does come true, I could think: 'I know how to make something in that particular style, but I hate doing it'. Nobody is going to give you money to change and reinvent yourself later. In school, it's true, I had the greatest teacher in the world — one of the few people whose feet I touch when I meet him.

It was a phenomenal experience, but now it might be different. Most people would say back then: 'you don't need film school, you just pick up a Super-8 camera and blah blah blah...' and I'd say: 'Super-8?... What exactly is that?...' They thought they were talking to someone who had some film knowledge, but I had literally none. I needed that film school. The experience of being forced to take art classes that you didn't want to take, and all that... Through osmosis, something incredible happens.

¶ I was wondering: coming initially from a music video background, where an entire narrative needs to be conveyed in a matter of minutes, how did the medium of the feature film challenge or unlock your storytelling process?

I realised that my strength was actually just in visuals and I didn’t care about anything else. I would say the difference between the two forms would be the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner: you might speak the language of going on your feet, but it's not the same technique. So at that time, for the script I was working towards — The Fall — I was just saying to myself: 'I want a visual blank; I’m not telling a thriller.'

After I came out of school, I actually mainly loved thrillers, or stuff that was more dialogue-driven like Koslowski and Tarantino. But, I like to make visual films. It's like the saying: 'Sometimes the person you want to sleep with and the person you want to marry can be two different people, but if they're the same person, more power to you!’

Still from Tarsem Singh's 'The Cell' (2000). Image copyright of New Line Cinema. Not for commercial reproduction.

¶ Does your success widen your directorial expression, or does the current studio and network model demand that you find means of doing so within an established framework?

It’s probably best to quote Coppola when he was talking about where the next change will be, the next star, the next big break in the filmmaking process. There was a studio system when he was making films, and he said, you can't guess the next big changes because you don't know where the technology's going. The next thing might be this fat girl from Ohio who knows how to make a film with the smallest setup possible. And now I think: 'Everybody is the fat girl from Ohio, anybody with a telephone can make a movie’.

In the time when we first started making films, it was literally an art-form. It was a black box, and nobody outside knew what you were doing. The director knew, but he was behind the curtain, like The Wizard of Oz. You were in your own world. But now it's so different. For instance, the cliché that I always used to hear: the reason why screenwriters get fucked over the most is that everybody thinks they're a writer, because everybody knows how to write. With a pencil. But not everybody knows how to direct.

The main issue seems to be: eyeballs. How do you get to a place where enough people will see your 'me'? What's your DNA, and how do you get that across? That has changed. Now the question is: if everybody can make a movie, do you want more people to see it? Or, do you want to make a personal film that only means something to you and your grandmother? Now, I would advise: do it with your phone. Because, if you want a bigger audience, the studio will want to (for the lack of a better analogy) put more cream in your coffee, get involved in the mixing.

And I think, there are very few people like Christopher Nolan who are in the studio system, with the huge amount of money on the table, but can still get that ‘me’ out and have it emerge at the other side intact, exactly as they wanted it. Most of the people who are making movies and most of the people who are financing them are completely hired guns. But you have to understand that they know what they want now; they're not saying ‘go and experiment for this amount of money’. The tables have turned. If you want to have that many eyeballs on your movie, you should respect that they're putting that much money into it.

In the early days, or even in the 80s and 90s, there was no other way to make a movie than this. But now there are a billion different ways. If you're using the studio system, and you want to make a personal film, you're stepping on your own balls — unless your personal film is actually commercial, like Michael Bay's films. I wish my taste was that commercial, but it isn't. So, then you must put that hat on and say: ‘I'm going to make something commercial!' (and if I needed the paycheck or something, maybe I would). I've been in a fortunate position where I ended up in a job where I make enough money, and I'm happy doing it, so I don’t have to. It’s the C-word: compromise (which isn't necessarily a bad word if that's the only way you can get your name and the ideas in your film out). If you want the bigger screen, just know that you might have to let people put more cream in your coffee.

¶ Was that how you responded when you were confronted with the 'C-word' for the first time?

No, it wasn’t! In commercials, for the first time I had to compromise. In retrospect I looked like I was a lot more unreasonable than I am now — but that's the arrogance of youth. When I did ‘The Cell’ I would be saying: 'Are you crazy? It's a VISUAL FILM! It doesn't work ON PAPER — but when we do it, it will work'. I was probably harder to deal with than I am now, but I was probably a lot more pure. After all that happened and I had pushback for the first time, I decided the system was okay. I could see a lot of people who were more talented than me, that would never get the chance to get into this infrastructure, so why bitch about it? Either step out of it, or if you're in it, work with it and enjoy it.

Still from Tarsem Singh's 'The Cell' (2000). Image copyright of New Line Cinema. Not for commercial reproduction.

¶ Then came 'The Cell'. A huge budget, loads of A-List stars... How did you leap from commercials and music videos to a massive studio production?

Everybody is looking for the new talents, everybody's looking for a ‘virgin’ so they can say they discovered you. You not having done much work isn't a handicap. I lucked out: the first music video I ever did was for R.E.M., and that was so big, but I would always say: 'if you saw my work, even though I was still in school, you'd be crazy not to hire me.' And then the first commercial I did for Levis: Swimmer won lots of awards and became quite prestigious in the industry, but I would always say: 'No. If you saw the music videos I've made, you'd be crazy not to hire me’.

The maximum control you can ever have in a film is as a writer/director. I knew I wasn't going to write and direct (apart from for ‘The Fall’, which I had in the back of my head and I always thought would be my first film), but then 'The Cell' came along to me as a script, and I immediately knew what I wanted to do with it. The idea was the same: the studio wanted to make the film because of x, and I wanted to make it because of y — I think the two can live together. ‘X’ was that they were making the film because any film about a serial killer was going to be seen by people; ‘Y’ was that I was interested in the fact that this was a passed-out serial killer and we get to go into his head! I get to play visuals. So that was a good marriage. If the movie had been made in the 70s when disaster movies were in, the studio would have been interested because the building was on fire, and I was interested because there was a guy on the 18th floor who was sleeping and dreaming about the fire. So it would be situations like that that I was looking for.

¶ Were you actively seeking out feature films?

I would say...no. That one just happened. I still thought I'd wait to do 'The Fall' first. My thinking was that ‘The Cell’ would be about a guy who's incapacitated and has a piece of knowledge that you need, and there are people who will die if you don't wake him up. So my idea was much more like 'Altered States', the Ken Russell film. In it, there's a drug company which isn’t allowed to sell its wares in America. But the company has a sister company in Mexico selling these hallucinogenic drugs which give you a 'coma (common) experience' — but they're only doing it to people who are comatose. So you could be having a big wank, because you can't prove any of it! You're just laying there on the drugs.

I said, if we go that way, it will be much more like what 'La Jetée' is: it's very rudimentary — just people lying down with IVs going into them, doing drugs, and coming back with these stories. So that was the direction I was going to go in, and they said: 'that'll work'. I remember pitching [the part of Dr. Catherine Deane] to Julianne Moore and she loved it.
I went back to studio and they said: 'Great! Then your remaining budget will be $10'.
I said 'wait — if you want to make it cheaply, then you need a Hindi movie answer to the problem: you need a pop diva, like Jennifer Lopez...'
They said: 'great — that's fine!'
I said ‘Wait — I meant somebody LIKE Jennifer Lopez, not the actual Jennifer Lopez…’

I was shooting in Spain and they called me to say she had a day free, and asked if I would come back. I was shooting till that evening, but after I was done, I got in a Concord, and made the meal with her. I pitched it to her and she liked it. So I put together some visuals, and before you knew it, it was there. It came together really quickly — as far as I was concerned, I thought that was normal! Years later you realise there is nothing normal about the industry. You suddenly take something that could take 20-30 years, and then something will happen in a weekend.

¶ Was it scary being on the set of your first feature?

No! The arrogance of youth cannot be underestimated. You just do it. My brother reminds me that we knew nobody in the continent of America, and we were going down there in a bus. But at that age, there's a wolf in your belly. And, as an immigrant, you are like: 'Fucking hell! They give you this card, called “Library Card!” I can go in and pick out any movie I want!' And that was amazing for us. It was a big thing at that age, but only in retrospect do I feel a sense of intimidation. You just forget what hole you crawled out from, and your teeth are so sharp, and you think that the world needs to revolve around YOU. And for a time, it does.

Still from Tarsem Singh's 'The Cell' (2000). Image copyright of New Line Cinema. Not for commercial reproduction.
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