Director Tarsem Singh is on a roll. With his international box office triumph Immortals still collecting receipts, and his newest picture, Mirror Mirror (“The Untold Adventures of Snow White”) being prepped for a March release, it’s fair to say that something is afoot in a directing career that has been “on the verge” for quite some time. Once the promising visual stylist who came out with a movie only now and then, Singh has set his sights on becoming a more constant force in moviemaking… and maybe a force to be reckoned with.
A graduate of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Singh spent the first decade of his career making commercials and the occasional (brilliant) music video, all the while mastering the tools and techniques of the film craft. Describing his college film portfolio as “the best thing I ever did,” Singh quickly found success.
“The first thing I did out of school was REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ video,” says the 50-year-old director. “People said, ‘You’re really lucky.’ But the people who hired me weren’t fools; they weren’t just going to give the job to anybody. They saw my portfolio.” Singh soon amassed an award-winning body of work and Hollywood took notice. The expansive, ambitious visual reach of his work was screaming out for a larger canvas.
Singh’s feature debut, The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D’Onofrio, did not fail to impress: Box office was decent, but the universe he created for the picture left a more indelible mark. His second, more personal project, The Fall—while not catching fire with general audiences—remains a beautiful, if somewhat uncelebrated gem. Both were solid outings that solidified Singh’s reputation as a gifted visionary.
But the pace of his feature output has been slow, and Singh has yet to land a script to match his stylistic prowess. Confessing to a longtime preference for working with rough, unfinished material, Singh says he’s ready to put a little more care into the front end. “I’d like to choose more polished scripts,” he says, “because what I do tends to take a long time, and I’d like to start making a film a year if I can.” If his dance with Snow White proves as winning as his choreography of the gods in Immortals, there is little doubt that Singh will get that chance.
MM sat down with the India native during a recent stopover in Los Angeles during his promotional tour for Immortals. A one-time car salesman and self-confessed “talker,” Singh was relaxed, animated and ready to take questions.
Phillip Williams (MM): Can you reflect on the value of your experience making commercials and music videos?
Tarsem Singh (TS): It’s everything. I was looking at it as a visual medium, and I think—unless you are coming at it as a writer, which I am not—you need time to learn how the tools work. It just takes about that long to learn. Unless you are going to let your DP do it for you, which I don’t like to do, then you need to learn the craft. I’ve worked with three different DPs on three different films; I think everybody can see me in the movies that I do. I have a very strong point of view in terms of how my films look and how they are shot.
MM: Can you talk a little bit about your work with writers? Certainly many fantastic directors don’t write. I mean, I don’t think William Wyler ever wrote a script…
TS: I made a very conscious decision early on not to have finished material, to read stuff that was very roughly laid out and then just say, ‘If you want me, I will tell you how I’m going to do it. Give me the basic outline; I will write all the rest.’
I usually ask the writer to give me something very simple—there is an obstacle here and an obstacle here—then I work with those beats. In the future I would like to start reading more finished material, but I’ve typically felt that if the script is perfect, release it as a book. You don’t need me. You don’t need some pain-in-the-ass Indian telling you what to do! So that’s where I was, but now I’m looking for better material.
MM: Can you talk about your approach to images? How do you begin to construct a series of images in order to tell a story?
TS: The truth of the matter is that there is always a structure to begin with, but I don’t want pre-viz artists or whoever to work it out for me. That bores me to tears, because then they are the directors! So if, as with Immortals, you tell me we are going to shoot a war, I will say, ‘Okay, give me a couple weeks and I will come back and tell you how a war can look interesting.’ I’m thinking, ‘Is it a visceral war or is it a hardcore war?’ And I thought, ‘No, it’s a war seen from a distance…’ So I start with some idea, some premise, and I work from there.
MM: With Mirror Mirror, since you are dealing with a story that we all know, how did you set out to distinguish your interpretation of the story?
TS: It’s one of those things that everyone knows as a two-page short story. If you are going to expand that into two hours, something has to expand. But the basic DNA of the story remains. You up the ante in some places, you pull it back in others. Mirror Mirror is not an edgy film, but hopefully it’s an enjoyable family movie. The original animated version is all about vanity and who is the fairest of them all. With this version, I thought, ‘Let’s make it about someone who actually wants to stay in power.’ Vanity is part of it, because the Evil Queen has bankrupted the empire. So she wants the young prince, who has money, and she wants to look pretty for him. Since Snow White is young and pretty, there is conflict there. But it’s not just about vanity. You have to up the ante.
MM: Where did you go for visual inspiration for Mirror Mirror?
TS: On this one it actually came quite quickly. The big problem I immediately pointed out was the forest: How do I do a forest? I think Tim Burton kind of completely owns what the forest looks like, with the gnarly trees, etc. So at first I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this movie because I don’t know how to do the forest.’ I was going to put it aside when a reference from a different area came to me while I was researching with my production designer. I thought of a Tarkovsky film that I love where there is a love scene in the snow, [and the couple is] surrounded by silver birch trees. It’s completely graphic—just black and white strips, no leaves, no nothing. Just snow. I felt that if you put colorful people in that dire space—where, with the Queen in power, nothing is pleasant—then we’d have a look I liked. A graphic forest as opposed to dark woods.
Then we had to ask, ‘What does the castle look like?’ And I thought, go Gaudí. We started with the cathedral in [Barcelona]. And somewhere between that and the onion domes of the Eastern Bloc, we found our look. The moment I had those two things, I felt like I knew how to do it visually. Then I had to see if I liked the script.
The studio wanted something edgy but I felt, ‘No, not edgy at all. I would like to do a family film.’ And [Disney] said, “Great. We just thought edgy would tempt you more.” (laughs) I’d rather not be in a situation where I’m pushing the envelope and they are pulling me back. So I just said, ‘Go family.’ I don’t mind dealing in extremes; it’s the middle ground that terrifies me.
MM: How does working with a powerful star like Julia Roberts help you as a director?
TS: Well, phenomenally. If it was a personal film, it might have been something else. But here Julia came on and said, “I’m on Planet Tarsem.” It was such an incredible compliment to get. She said, “I have no interest in Snow White, no interest in the studio, I just want to see what film you want to make.” That’s like going into a boxing match with an 800-pound gorilla on your side. She was so supportive that all the fights that are part and parcel of making a film with a big studio did not exist. They would ask, “What does Julia want?” And as she was on my side, all the power shifted toward me. That’s a brilliant position to be in.
MM: How would you define the director’s job?
TS: Well, I think the whole material of the film, the DNA, has to belong to one person: The director. If he can’t reflect himself in the script, it’s pointless for him to make the movie.
On the other hand, I feel that a director’s job on the set—apart from choosing the material—is only one thing: Blocking. What is the coverage of the scene? And for me, the Polish directors are the greatest in the world with that. From Polanski to Kieslowski, they just naturally have it. I think that’s the greatest thing that a director physically does on the set. That’s what David Fincher and I call the difference between a shooter and a director: You can put up a bunch of cameras, shoot the hell out of the scene and then give it to the editor to define it. Or you can put it together yourself. MM
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