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Interview
Director Tarsem Singh Part 2

Max Favetti

01.10.18

¶ Looking at Christopher Nolan’s work, it’s clear he took inspiration from 'The Cell'...

Maybe. I know he's seen 'The Fall', because they filmed the well scene at one of our locations — and realised how impossible it is to film in. I think it’s also where they made the set for the lunatic asylum for the second Batman.

You have to remember, I've never done a movie that has ever been in the 'Tomatometer', that has ever been recommended... no movie of mine! Not a single one! I do like polarising stuff anyway, people will say ‘The Fall’ is either the best thing since sliced bread, or an absolute turd.

And both those are okay for me. Every film I've done has been… what do you call it? Tomatoes? And Rotten? … Rotten! Mine have always been rotten!

¶ And that doesn't upset you?

No, I think it's okay! I watch a lot of films that are ‘down there’ that I think are brilliant.

¶ What are your fears when beginning a project and what are your fears once it's completed?

Beginning? No. I think once the train starts moving, that’s it. It never dawns to me that anything can go wrong, as long as you feel like you're getting your way. If I think people are going to — to quote John Haggerty — 'hire a dog and bark themselves', then you're just… ticking dots. I never wanted to do that, so I've lucked out. The only fear is that in the end, when you're presenting the thing, people find it less commercial than they intended, and they'll take it over. A lot of people will get screwed over by their films. But my films — as much as you would hate them or like them — they are what I intended. That's what I was trying to make. You might not like it… C'est la Vie!

¶ You have a long relationship with the late great costume designer Eiko Ishioka. As someone who's famously not a fan of treatments, I wondered if you could discuss the pre-production process you had with her and how her work affected you creatively?

When we were in school — no internet, no nothing — we used to watch the commercials she directed in Japan. Me and a friend of mine Niko used to watch her stuff amazed. You usually tell people: 'Okay, I want this… and I don't want a regular solution’. So you have to tell people to think outside the box. But Eiko never knew what 'a box' meant. She was already so out there that you had to rein her in — that was easier than telling people so used to ticking boxes to 'think outside them'.

Eiko was the production designer on [Paul Schrader’s 1985 film] ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’, and then she won an Oscar for ‘Dracula’. I remember thinking 'oh, I hope she doesn't get too bored with working in the studio system', but she didn't really because she, as people like to say, can be 'difficult'. She had a vision and that was it. She wanted to know: ‘Who's in charge? Do you like things like this?' and then she would give you so many options — but not the way the studio system would prefer.

¶ Had you worked with her before?

No, but when we met, I said: 'this is the person, she just gets it’. She didn't ever take an easy way out and she just did. Her. Homework. If actors don't learn their lines and approach a project casually I say: ‘No. It's like jazz; you learn to play the right notes properly, and then you're allowed to improvise. You can't just not know what you're doing and improvise, that's just fucking not it’. She knew what the premise was, but would approach it from a lateral angle. It's worth remembering: we didn't speak the same language. She came from a completely different cultural background, so by definition, even when she was trying to restrain herself the work was going to look amazingly different.

At college, my girlfriend at the time said: 'I think your friend and Eiko are lovers, and they're going to live together'. And I said: 'what the hell… no way, wake up, girl...' She was a lot older. Of course, when the movie finished I found out Niko and Eiko were in love and for the last fifteen years of her life, she was with him. Niko was my closest ally; he was a writer for ‘The Fall’ with me. Everything that we did together made me realise that we had unlimited access to a brain power so large that I couldn’t tangibly understand it. It meant I had access to her on ground one. So when I would think of things, I would just bounce them off of her — and the misunderstandings we had were as much a fruitful part of the whole process. You just can't buy that kind of talent.

¶ With so much of your approach to filmmaking, when you're dealing with the studio or with a production company, it feels as though you're very much aware of the nature of transaction. Do you think that you learnt that from your long career in commercials?

I'd say before that, from selling cars. I would sometimes say I was just a glorified account man. Most of it comes down to going into a room and convincing people that they made the right choice. And usually what I want to do is very clear to me. When you ‘get in the room’, you're selling cars. When I went to America I sold cars for three years; I had to sell to put butter on my bread. I met so many filmmakers who were so much better than me in school, but just didn't know how to sell. I sharpened my teeth making commercials and brought that experience into making feature films, because the blueprint should always be selling the script.

I never get sent scripts that read perfectly. They're all over the place. If the script reads great, people say, 'we know what this will become'. And that means: budgets, big stars, or ‘get this element otherwise we don't think it works’. But when it’s purely visual, it’s quite bizarre. People will look at the script and say 'this is shit’. But then they'll say ‘he's a visual guy; he'll fix it’ — and somehow the give-and-take ends up resulting in a movie. I always used to complain about it until recently. I discovered this equation: I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The reason I got to make these movies was that people couldn't understand what was going to happen in a visual sense, and then they get surprised by my outcome. But when you read great scripts, on paper you can see how great they are and people can 'see' them. You’re told to get the three actors that will get the film made and then you realise you're in a rut.

¶ What does directing bring to your life?

Air to breathe. It's the only thing I know. I'm just about the most dysfunctional idiot you could ever meet, there is nothing else I know how to do. Now I have a beautiful baby boy, and my nieces and nephews speak a language that I adore. I love breathing the air around them, as I love the freedom of filmmaking.

Apart from that, any of my ex-girlfriends would tell you I'm just completely the most useless idiot you can meet. But just somehow when I go out to direct, people pay for these toys, and I can make a film out of it.

¶ How have the dynamics of the commercial-client-and-the-studio-director-relationship developed since the start of your career?

In the early years I used to go by the rules. I would work with the creative directors and I would just say, ‘if you're on set with me you can change anything you like, but you're not allowed to get on the phone with the client’. There has been a huge change in advertising. I always thought, I don't want to have a direct relationship with the client, because the buffer between the client and me, the director, always made the work better. For months the clients will be shitting on the agency’s good ideas, and then I, the director, will walk in after four months, and say the same shit, and they'll say 'my god! Genius!' They'll give you all the credit because time is limited, you're charging so much money, and they expect you to have the right answers. But the agency they are happy to bully. Now the agencies have lost so much of their power, the clients sometimes come directly to us, and the work has shifted a lot in their favour. The clients are much mightier than they were.

¶ Does that mean you feel that it might end up diluting the work, so clients can exert more pressure and influence on you?

Yes they can. We used to have this in car sales, a flip system occurs. A guy would walk in and say, 'I want to buy a red car'. And you'd see him looking around and his eyes would fall on a blue car that you can tell he really liked. But he's not going to buy that car from you, he's already defined what he wants, he’s too proud to change his choice. So what you did was flip him and say 'hang on for a second, I have to take a call’. You’d go back and you’d introduce him to a friend and make it look like your friend hasn't got the brief. You'd then find that that person was willing to say 'I like this blue car' to them, and you could take the conversation from there. The client will beat on the agency, but when you walk in and you redefine the parameters, the client will start again with you.

When you remove the buffer between client and director, then you’re working within the square box the client gave you at the very beginning. You'll work only within its definitions and it changes the process. Is it better? I don't know.

¶ How did your relationship with actors on the set change once you progressed from commercials to film? Was it a steep learning curve?

Yes it was. As nice as people like J-Lo were being to me, sometimes you need actors and sometimes you need puppets. Guys like Vincent D’onofrio (‘The Cell’, ‘Emerald City’)— who is always brilliant—understands that, and Sir Ben Kingsley has the same thing. Ultimately most actors, unless they're insecure (which is a lot of them) respect you if they think you know what you want. Then, you can have a brilliant relationship. If they think that you're guessing at what someone else wants or that someone's bullying you, that really can make the relationship a lot more hurtful. I've always been able to walk up to people and say, 'I know what I want, it may be completely different from what you want, and we can discuss that if you like, but this is what I want to do’. 95% of the time they'll ‘go there’, and their ideas will always improve it. I just think that I'm the guy you should make creative suggestions to, and nobody else. I'll fight for you if you can convince me. It's happened maybe once out of 80 where I'm not convinced and I'll fight that person.

I know I can do anybody's job on the set — except the actors. They walk on fucking hallowed ground because I don't know how to act, and I don't know where they get it from. So if there's any group of people that I think are allowed to bully me, it's them. I can only provide them with parameters, props and the situation — they can show me the full vision. I'll then decide how to film it.

¶ I've seen and read and heard a million accounts about your enthusiasm on set and was wondering do you have a playbook for keeping energy up during long days?

Everyone always thinks, even if I'm just in a nightclub dancing, that I’m someone to ask for drugs. I don't know. I do coffee. You get a huge amount of energy from not knowing where the scenes are going, and the actors, coming up with visuals in the moment. It requires a lot of attention, and I have never sat down on set. Someone on my last project calculated that I probably walk around 17-18 miles a day when I'm filming. I'll wear really thick Nike pumps or something, I'll walk constantly. If I sit down, I pass out.

¶ You found success and financial stability quite early in your career, and a position which has afforded you the ability to pick and choose your projects. What challenges, if any, does that freedom impose?

Good question. Fucking hell. You have to understand I was 24 years old the first time I held a still camera in my hands. I remember I couldn't understand why can't you see the other camera when you're filming a person's close-up to a wide shot. And people would say, ‘how do you not know they do the shots separately?’ And I would say, ‘but if you did it that way then you'd be there forever’. I could feel the class’s eyes rolling, but you have to understand that I had come from India and it seemed there was a magic cloth draped over all these things, and I had no idea how they worked. And there I was, this grown-ass man of 24-years-old sitting in a class with these young guys, and a steep learning curve. But once I learnt the basics, I realised those guys were just kids, teenagers, and I was a grown man who understood the principles properly.

When I was making those films, I'd gone to school under a different name, because it was free for Americans. So when I switched to R-Centre I changed my name back to what it was originally, but I couldn't get the credit for all the other classes I'd done, working under a different name. So they put me (and this was the best thing that ever happened in my career) in an accelerator course which was, say, two years in, but my standing was first term. So suddenly in two years I had done all the classes that they could offer, and I just said: ‘let me use all the toys that are available to make a showreel with’, because in the end a degree from film school is worth toilet paper. It means nothing. All that matters is your portfolio, whether you're a scriptwriter, you're writing films, or whatever. So in those two years that I had left, all I did was work on my portfolio — you don't get a chance like that when you're in film school, because you're learning till the very end. It's a grind.

I had this incredible volume of pieces that I made, and I put them all together myself. I thought, if they deported me tomorrow and sent me anywhere in the world, I had still made it. When I came out into the world, that’s how I felt: I felt I had made it, and I felt they can't take this away — because this piece with my name on it will get me the next thing I want, and I loved doing it more than anything.

The first music video I did while I was still in college won the biggest number of MTV awards that any video at that time had won. And that success takes its toll on your choices. I was ready to do more, but I couldn't find any songs that I liked. I stopped loving it. So I stepped out of music videos and the next one I did was out of my own money for Deep Forest ('Sweet Lullaby' (1993)), which was essentially a play-run for ‘The Fall’. We went to eight or nine countries with no money, essentially doing location-scouting.

I find people so much more talented than me, like my nieces and nephews fighting in the mud at a lower level, and it's so very difficult. I remember in my first year I did one commercial for every six or seven that I pitched. But if they didn't go exactly the way I wanted, I used to pick it up like the sulky kid who takes the soccer ball home with him. I would just say 'no, if you don't like it, that's it'. Because I had worked for two years, and even though during that time I was probably doing the biggest commercials, I probably made less money than everybody on my set, maybe except the PAs.

When I see my nephews now, who are just entering advertising, I say: 'the fight you're facing is 20,000 times more ugly than the one I faced, and for 20,000 times less money’. Like literally it's really dirty down at that level. So could I have climbed up that way? I don't think I could've done it. I kind of started at the top. When anyone asks me how I made it, I say I slept my way up to the middle, then I started working. And the truth of the matter is, that I actually started 'up there' and it's been downhill since. My school work was the best stuff I ever did, and the most personal.

¶ What was the scariest moment of your life?

So out of the eight pieces I made at school, I had to present two to a company who were trying to represent me. I took the two that were the weakest and I put them together, but I still think it was pretty great work for a commercial pitch. So I went the next day and I showed it to the producer, and I just remember he looked at it and said: 'What are they selling? I don't understand' — and as he was speaking, I realised how old-school he was compared to what I thought advertising was. At film school they were always telling me 'music videos are one thing, but in advertising nobody's looking for an edgy angle', but I just thought, 'fuck it, I'm going to be the guy who changes everything.' You come with that sensibility. So I listened to what he had to say, then went to the bathroom, and threw up. And I just thought: 'you can look at this as pearls before swine’, as the Bible says, or that my work was simply not this guy's language. This is a producer who needs only to see a finished product. So I put my car salesman shoes back on, and said 'Oh, you're right! They're not done, wait till you see me next week and I'll have more!' I did that dance and went away. And then they didn't see me for four months.

Every night I was re-cutting my work, and when I came back, the guy, of course, was like, 'Now we're talking! You really listened to me!' And I thought: 'You have no idea you're watching exactly the same thing’. This guy had no understanding of the mechanics of making anything. That’s what’s so great about David Fincher’s approach, when he cuts his pieces, they're so finished before anyone else is allowed to comment on them, and no-one would dare change them.

Outside of film it was applying to get admission to America. I realised that a person who didn't know me at all was going to look at me from the other side of the glass and dictate my life to me. I remember thinking: 'I hope this doesn't happen to everyone'. There were fifteen of us who applied to go to film school when we were in India. One of us got a visa, and that was me. Any one of those could have had my life. Just because I travelled earlier and hadn't settled anywhere — these were factors that worked in my favour. If I hadn't gotten that visa, there was nothing. I would have just been competing with another billion people, whose sensibility and way of talking was similar to mine, and my work might not have looked unique to people. There is an experience of personal terror.

¶ What was your happiest experience in life?

I don't know if I have one. Happiest… Up until the age of eleven I cried a lot. I was in a boarding school since I was about four-and-a-half years old, and I hated it when our parents would leave us. But after ten or eleven, you could take me and drop me anywhere in life. And I was like 'okay, what's for lunch? Who can I sleep with?' I was WAY okay.

I really like in the West that you're supposed to have your heart broken at an early age — not that you can ever get used to it, but — they say love is like measles, it's more dangerous the later it comes in life. So the first time I ever had a girlfriend in my life I was 26 years old, I loved her, and the next one was at 40.

My first Italian girlfriend, and the first girl that actually dumped me... I would say for the next two-and-a-half years, if this one hurt 98, the next most painful experience in my life does not even come above a 2 out of 100. It was such a traumatic experience for me that anything else that came along — for instance, my brother told me: 'Hey, nobody wants 'The Fall', all our money's gone, we need to start again because nobody wants to buy the film for a single cinema’ — did not even compute in my head as problem. I thought: 'All the money's gone? That's okay, and the house has to be sold? Okay, let's go and do more ads!' It was literally like: 'get up and move on!'

But when I got dumped and I wanted her back, and she did not, and wouldn't give me the time of day... That broken heart was worse than someone dying. It didn't seem final, I thought I could get her back, but I couldn't. To find that someone you love is functioning without you just fine, and all that... There's nothing that compares to that. The abyss that you felt in your stomach — incomparable. Even my parents' deaths... The reality of that one person going away and being okay with it… it does not compute.

¶ Ooof, far out. Last question, what's next?

Tomorrow I'm going off to work on some stuff for the Pepsi guys. There's a script that I LOVE, but unfortunately it's one of those scripts that reads brilliantly, and the actor that I want isn't really a big name, so nobody thinks that they'll push that much for it; but it's a script that I love, and I'm going to stick with it. It's a non-visual script, so, that's the filmic angle. I hope I can get that off the ground. So, I'm doing commercials, and I adore my day-job. Most people are doing something to be doing something else. But it you love what you're doing and you're fortunate enough to make a living out of it, just know that there is no other thing in the world worth that satisfaction — and there's not too many people like you around.

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