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- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
The few people who know Tarsem Singh's name at all probably recall him as the director who debuted with The Cell, a bizarro horror-fantasy in which Jennifer Lopez plays a sort of psychic psychiatrist entering the fantastical mind of a serial killer. The movie was largely panned, but praised nonetheless for its amazing visuals—the same sort of glorious images the now-mononymic Tarsem brought to the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," to his extensive body of commercial work, and to his new labor of love, the insanely ambitious arthouse picture The Fall. The film, reportedly shot in 24 countries, centers on a paraplegic, suicidal man (Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) who earns the trust of a hospitalized child (Catinca Untaru) by telling her an improvised fantasy story, which becomes a breathtaking onscreen narrative that parallels events in his own life. Recently, Tarsem spoke at length with The A.V. Club about putting his puke on R.E.M., being a prostitute who loves his work, carrying his own teabags to film school after his father disowned him, and lying to his own film crew for verisimilitude.
The A.V. Club: The Fall screened in Toronto in 2005, but it's only now making it into theaters. Was it difficult getting distribution?
Tarsem: It's been almost exactly a year and a half, true. In Toronto, I ran into—at the time, I hadn't finished all the titles for the film. It made a big difference when those two people's names weren't in front: "Presented by [David] Fincher and Spike [Jonze]." And suddenly, there were a lot of people sharpening knives to say, "The guy who made The Cell is making something like this?" Some people thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and some people thought it was absolute shit. And I thought, "That's great! Exactly what I intended to make." But it's quite a bit more polarizing than I thought it would be. And the stuff from Variety completely killed it. So until a whole bunch of devotees showed up to say "There's something really special here," it wasn't gonna go anywhere.
So it took that much time—apart from in Japan and a whole bunch of countries that just embraced it and took it on. Though their release still happens in about a month and a half, because they take that much time to put a movie out. So I just figure, if an American release was going to happen, it had to happen around this time. Any other option [but theatrical release] wasn't something I was happy with. It's something that I believe really needs to be seen on the screen. I know every director screams for that. And I just thought, "It's okay, we spent that much on it, let's drop some more."
AVC: So how did the overseas shooting work? You reportedly piggybacked your work in various countries on the commercials you were shooting—
T: No, that's the tail end of it. The original start of it was once I found the girl. For about six years, I was looking for a person whom I thought could carry the film. It was very difficult. It was the kind of film I knew would never get financing. I tried a couple of times, but I would never give anybody a script—I had a structure, and people would say, "Is this the film? Because we'll raise the money." And I'd say, "No, it's going to be written by a 4-year-old." I was obsessed with finding a child who could act in the style I liked, not in the style of A Little Princess, but much more Ponette. I figured age 4 was the cutoff point, until someone sent me a tape of this girl who was actually 6, but didn't speak English.
So her part, after I'd put it all together, took only about a year and a half to two years. And then after that, I needed the characters' backstories, so for those, I went around the globe, saying "I need to go to this location, this location," places I'd scouted for 17 years. I would only take ads that went to those regions. So I'd shoot an ad, and then bring my actors over to shoot on location.
AVC: How much control do you have over where a commercial is shot?
T: You probably haven't seen what I do—most people think of commercials as the kind of work that everybody does. There are one or two people like me, who don't do storyboards, don't do anything, but can pretty much pick the places and the kind of subject matter they want to do. I have a lot of control.
AVC: So you could say "I want to shoot this commercial in Fiji, so I can get shots there for my movie?"
T: It was more like this. I usually have a commercial that needs to shoot in water. There's about 10 ads being offered, all by clients I've worked with before. And I'd just pick the one that would take me to Fiji, and would have me shoot by water. Because that one had—I think I was going to shoot something that required David Beckham and seven other soccer players, who could only be available for so long on a runway in Madrid. I said, "Okay. This is the one that will take me closest to where I want to go."
AVC: How do you approach your commercial work? Do you think of it as art, do you find it fulfilling? Or is it what pays the bills so you can make films like this?
T: All I can say—a lot of people do music videos so they can do commercials, they do commercials so they can do films. I happen to be like a prostitute in love with the profession. I keep saying, "I'd fuck 'em for free. But they pay me money, and I'm very grateful." And unfortunately, I think I must not be anywhere near as talented as the people I admire. Because almost everybody I know hates the filming process that I admire. They always like the prefiguring and the editing, and I am the only moron that just loves being on a set. I shoot more than 300 days a year, I'm on the road all the time, and I love it. So I don't know. When that passion dies, maybe I'll do more films, but I just love being on the set, and film doesn't allow that as much.
AVC: This film was self-financed. If you were shipping your cast and crew and equipment around the world, why did it necessarily matter whether you personally were already in Fiji?
T: Because the crew and the equipment were there already.
AVC: So it was all the same crew and equipment on the film that you use for your commercial work?
T: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Originally, my college professor did my last film, and we did a lot of commercials together. But at the last minute, I had to change it and make my loader my cameraman. Because the girl—she had no idea what was happening. She thought we were basically going to be shooting a documentary. Apparently that's the information the casting director had given out. She thought Lee was like Christopher Reeve, and actually was handicapped. An idea dawned, and I told my brother, "We can't do this in a studio. It has to be in a real place." So I found the institution where we shot down in South Africa, and I had to get rid of my main crew, because they knew the plotline I'd had for 23 years. I promoted the camera loader to cameraman—he'd never shot anything before, but I'd known him for 13 years. And I put a crew together that had no idea what the film was going to be about. We changed the script so the lead was not Lee, it was the father of the Romanian girl, and we told everybody "Lee can't walk." We told everybody that he was a theater actor in New York who'd had an accident and was paralyzed.
So the cameraman, the production designer, every actor, everybody isolated where we were shooting did not know that Lee could walk. And I shot the movie in sequence. I just said, "The first time she sees him in the film is really the first time she sees him. The second time she sees him is the second time she sees him." So I couldn't really use the crew I work with most of the time. About three people knew the truth about Lee, but they were never on the set. So we shot their material in sequence, and after 12 weeks, I had to tell everybody the truth about Lee, and it made a lot of people cry and angry and just, you know, feel manipulated.
AVC: Why go to all that trouble to pretend a man playing a handicapped character was actually paralyzed? Did it wind up adding that much verisimilitude?
T: Everything had to happen that way, because the little girl's magic was required. It wasn't the cliché of a Method actor wanting to stay in a wheelchair the whole shoot—it was really depressing for Lee, actually. But here's why—when you're on a film set, no matter how dire a situation you're putting across, from a concentration camp to a handicapped person—when you're on that set for long enough, it gets jokey. And I didn't want to get to a stage where people would walk on Lee's bed, or tell handicap jokes. I knew it would filter down to the girl, even in body language. So nobody knew Lee could walk. In the end, a lot of people said, "You could have trusted me." And I was telling people, "It had nothing to do with trust. It had very much to do with the atmosphere I needed for these 12 weeks."
Once I found the girl, I knew I had to cast somebody for Lee's role within a week or two, because I knew that within four months, the girl was going to be a different person. I originally said she should be 4. After that, child actors turn into A Little Princess. But when I found that she couldn't speak English, I was fine with her being 6. Because the miscommunication—her trying to understand the language made her more natural. But one thing I didn't anticipate was how quickly she'd learn English. Within about 10 days, she was speaking English, and with an Indian accent, because she spent so much time with me. So I had to get Romanians in, and start speaking through them, which made her a little more disinformed, which was better.
AVC: And no one caught on at any point during the shoot, and realized he wasn't paralyzed?
T: Almost. I said that wrongly before, that she thought she was doing a documentary. That's what she thought before she was cast. The casting director thought there was going to be a handicapped person telling kids stories. So once I came into it, I immediately said, "No, it is a feature film, but the guy is handicapped." I thought, "How long can we carry this façade?" And funny enough—it was such a big lie, it was so audaciously big, and we isolated everybody from everything else, and after about a week and a half, it was absolute. Only one person on the set knew, and that was a nurse who would take him to the toilet. Lee would go to the gym, and once, he said, "Today, I almost got caught, because one of the actors walked right past me!" It was just like nobody could see him walking. They were all day working with him in a wheelchair, so they didn't see him when he was standing up. And a lot of times, with men in the gym, you don't want to look at a person. It's like a nightclub, you know? It might be seen as making a pass. So literally, people don't make much eye contact in a gym. So he'd go to the gym, and just he would see these people and say, "Oh my God, I'm caught!" And they'd walk right by him.
With Lee, I just had to make sure that nobody had seen him before, ever, in anything. I thought I might end up going to drama schools to pick the person I wanted. And then the casting agent showed me this movie, Soldier's Girl. And I said, "Who?" He said "Look at the girl." And I said, "Is that a tranny?" He said "It's a guy." I went, "Oh my God." So I went and got him, and he was great—and nobody was familiar with him yet. So we shot for 12 weeks, and then spent about a year filming with the guys in Namibia, India, Bali, Fiji. And then after that were all the character backstories, which I piggybacked on other things.
Somebody told me at one point that it would have been a better film if there was no fantasy in it, if it was just Lee and the girl in the room. And it could have been. When I started shooting, I told my brother, "This here might be the film." I said, "In 12 weeks, I'm going to call you and say 'The movie's done,' or I'll go on what I'm calling a magical mystery tour." He had to call me and tell me "You need to go on this tour." I was a bit screwed up in my life. Somebody I wanted to spend the rest of my life with had just left, and I was completely shaken, and I just said, "Yeah, I'll come out of this tunnel when I come out."
AVC: You've said you couldn't get funding for the film initially, because you wanted it to be written by a 4-year-old. How did Catinca contribute to the plot of the film?
T: After we'd assembled the 12-week shoot [with Pace and Untaru interacting in the real-life segments], I showed it to her and just said, "Okay, explain to me what happened where, in the story he's telling." If you think I was ambitious, you should have heard her pitch. It was out there. So I edited it down and said, "Okay, I can probably do this, her version, but it's kind of limitless, so I don't know when we'll finish." So I went away to do the backstories and all, getting one guy to Argentina, getting one guy to France, getting a guy to Italy, because I worked the back way around. I figured out the arc of where they needed to go, and then worked backward to their origins. The whole thing was about someone telling one story, and someone else perceiving another one. So it's okay for me that [Pace's character] talks about an Indian, and he means a red Indian, and she's perceiving it as an Indian in India. So I knew it was wide open, that I had license to do whatever. As long as a person's arc was correct, I could shoot any visuals for it. It was limitless.
AVC: Catinca does seem tremendously naturalistic, like she's living the role, making it up as she goes along. Was her part mostly ad-libbed?
T: I just told them, "There isn't a script. There is a situation every day." Basically, it was given to her as, "This is what you need to do." But she didn't understand what I was saying. So the first day we shot, I said, "No lights will be inside the room." The lights were outside the window. So like kids, when they go underneath a table, and kind of put a tent up? The room where we shot was like that. It's really difficult to focus the cameras like that, and they screwed up a lot. But in the end, I just said, "It's worth its weight in gold for her not to see the camera and the other stuff, so put a tent in front. You look through a hole." The focus person is looking at them on a monitor, and she was completely unpredictable. There aren't any lights in the room. The sound people, I wouldn't allow them in.
You see this all the time. If somebody told you, "In your lamp, there's a camera right now," you'd be aware of it and act to it. But after some time, you'd forget and be natural. So with her, I didn't give anything away. I said, "No, we don't say 'Turnover,' 'First day,' 'Action,'" and all that. That's not required. Let them be there when the situation is right. We're in another room. Nobody else is allowed in the room where the acting is happening." Sometimes she would go in closer to Lee and whisper, thinking we couldn't hear. And every now and then, she'd say something and we'd laugh in the other room, some idiot would laugh, including me, and she'd say, "What's that about?" Because she would forget that we could still hear her very clearly, and see her! So that atmosphere was very important.
AVC: Was capturing how she changed over time part of why you chose to shoot the film in sequence?
T: That saved our lives. She showed up the first day—you'd be dead if you were in a studio, because she showed up for the first day of shooting, and she had lost her two front teeth! If you weren't shooting in sequence, it'd be like "Go home." So I just thought, "No, put it in the structure." And we made the teeth an issue. As she gets to know Lee better, her English gets better, she falls in love with him more, more teeth come out. And I knew that some magic was happening the moment we set it out there, because when she arrived, she changed everything. One thing I didn't bargain on, I didn't realize, is how scared children are of handicapped people. So of course I had it in the script that from the very beginning, she'd be charmed with him, sit down with him, talk to him. And she comes in, and she wouldn't go near him. So I just said, "Okay, well then, play your scene by his door." She would come near him, then go away, sit on a chair far from his bed. Second, third day, she got closer and closer. And I knew that everything she was doing was right.
AVC: And did she change over time? In three months of dealing with sets and reshoots, did she start to acquire that polished Shirley Temple style of acting you were worried about?
T: When the whole film was over, she had become such a phenomenal actress, she understood exactly what we needed and would give it, that I was very tempted to go back and re-shoot the first scene, second scene, third scene again. I kind of thought, "You know what, no." You can see that they are doing what they're doing naturally. So I left it there. I liked my coverage of the film, which was only two shots. In the beginning, I had to edit to make the conversations happen, to make the magic happen, but it seemed like the right structure because it was based on her being natural.
AVC: So much of your work seems calculated, very thought-through. You create these extremely elaborate, painterly tableaus where every aspect is managed in advance. How do you transition from that kind of structure and planning to a situation where you're letting a 6-year-old child determine how your film will progress?
T: You know what, great question. That was why I knew I wanted to do this movie. I just always had one kernel of an idea, which was about storytelling. You use the other person's body language to tell them the story you want to tell. So if they're leaning forward, you know, they're looking into your eyes and paying attention, you can milk it. If they're kind of looking off into the corner, or at their watch, you introduce a crash-'em-up. That was my interest in it. So when I wanted to make a film in the style of Ponette, knew I couldn't tell the star what to do too much.
So I said that to the actors, the moment I met them on the set. I just said, "Here, I am your puppet. I will create the best atmosphere for you, and you tell me if anything is intrusive. You'll never get a situation like this, except when—" What [David] Fincher calls very lazy filmmaking, and I agree, is when you just put lights out there, go telephoto, shoot 10 cameras, throw it together—actors love that, 'cause they can be natural from far away. I had unfortunately chosen a style in which the camera was in your face. It was very Yasujiro Ozu, it was very static. I just said, "Nothing should move. Nothing should come and save me. If the situation's not working, I want to be screwed."
Unfortunately, the handheld, really gritty-shitty look is perceived as realism. In that style, I find that you can make a cupboard act. You shoot an ad and the actor is dreadful, so you just pick up the camera and shake it around, and then suddenly it looks like the actor can act. It separates boys from men, when people are sitting in the camera stand just observing. Instead, I picked a worst-case scenario by putting the camera up close.
On the other hand, I said "The moment we go on location, you will be my puppets." There were a lot of actors who weren't at the hospital shoot. So as far as they were concerned, I was this guy who always told actors exactly where and how to stand. I said, "There was a leg of this film that you're not familiar with at all, which had to do with me basically getting out of the actors' way. And that was a different film altogether." I just thought the two were so different, it was a very rewarding experience.
At least I hoped it would be for them, in the beginning, at least. At the end of the film, I was afraid all the death would be completely unglorified. I thought it was a very [Pier Paolo] Pasolini approach to mythical characters. He wouldn't think a half-horse, half-man should look beautiful, he'd think, "My God, his house must smell of horseshit, because he probably can't have a toilet." I knew I wanted that approach to the third act. The thing I held like a bible all the time was Rodney Dangerfield's routine, when he used to say, "My father had no respect for me. When I was small, he told me Santa Claus got cancer." I thought it was one of the most disturbing lines to hear, and the most hilarious, because you have a mythical character dying a very tangible death, and it's not something that belongs together. You know, "Santa falls off a sled" is one thing. But to get cancer and suffer and everything, that's not for a Santa Claus. And that, I knew was going to happen in the third act.
So I needed the actors' trust completely, for them to hear the tone from me, even in the hospital scenes. So there was some control there. And that's very difficult, and I really applaud them for it, for the actors to arrive in these kind of places. For me to say, "I know it looks like you're dressed for a gay costume drama, but in this particular situation, it's supposed to be serious." [Laughs.] So that kind of tone, I had prefigured, and they were very trusting.
AVC: The cinematography of your work is very recognizable—The Cell and The Fall and "Losing My Religion" and other videos all have a very striking look. And yet in each case you worked with a different cinematographer, mostly people with very few past credits. What kind of relationships do you have with your cinematographers?
T: Very strong, I would say. Because, the first film, The Cell, and 90 percent of my commercials, were with a college professor of mine. I come from a very visual background. As a boy, I spent a lot of time in Iran. I watched a lot of TV there, but I didn't speak Farsi very well. So I was always watching Get Smart or films or things like that, and judging them just by the visual storytelling. And of course Indians tend to love color, and somehow all that hodgepodge is coming out in my work. So with cameramen, I am quite specific. It's not a very give-and-take relationship for me. I just tend to be very specific: "When you go to fantasy, it has to be like this, but when we do the hospital " No cameraman wants to hear that he can't bring lights in, he has to sit outside the window. He did an incredible job.
In fact, if you watch poor Lee, you'll see he's doing an incredible job too. Every time the girl moves, he's lighting her. The light is behind his head, so he has to make sure, because she's completely unpredictable, that every time she moves, he isn't in the way of her light. She moves to the left, he moves to the right. I had forgotten all about it until, I saw the movie after eight months. And all I could say was, "My God! Lee is amazing!" After I saw it again, I gave him a hug and just I said, "You're the unsung hero here."
AVC: The color is a hugely striking part of the film. Is there any special technique you use to achieve that kind of effect?
T: Well, there's a guy called Lionel Kopp who used to run a lab in France that I absolutely adore. And he has a lot to do with this particular one. Because I went in with specific paintings, pigmented early color photographs from Russia, and blah blah and say "There's an aesthetic and a technique that has to get in here." If it was easy to do this kind of stuff, hey, everyone would hire relatives. It's not. And this guy really has an aesthetic that I absolutely adore and trust. So I was in Paris with him all the time. And when we had to set the look, I would just tell him stuff and he'd achieve it. It was difficult technically sometimes. But aesthetically, you know, I had a look in mind and had to achieve it. And as far as colors—Indians love colors. Especially the poorer you are, the more red and yellow you put in. And let's just say I come from a poor background, and leave it there.
AVC: So what's next? How do you follow up a film like this?
T: I keep saying, probably something like My Dinner With Andre, something small. I don't know. [Laughs.] I don't plan—I never intended to do The Cell before this one, it just came together so quickly. Since it wasn't about locations, since The Fall is so location-specific, and The Cell was all on-set, I said, "Oh, they'll be different enough. Let's do it." Plus, it's a serial-killer pop movie, it's a completely pop thing, I'll go for it. So I just did it. And now, suddenly—two works do not a movement make, I hope. People can't see my body of commercial work—all they see is "Losing My Religion," the other pop thing that was big, and think that's my whole style. I've been saying for a long time, "No, no, I don't think I want to go there." I love big crash-and-burn Hollywood films. I just want to make sure my stamp is on them. I don't want to come in as a hired hand. So after The Cell, everybody asked me "What's next?" And I would think, "Oh, I'm not sure. It might take 10 years, might take two."
Actually, about 72 hours ago, I remembered a story I really wanted to make. I called a friend and said, "We'll write the script in 10 days." And I might go and shoot it in, like, two months. It's such a simple story. It's basically Rambo meets Panic Room, On Golden Pond." It would be like a really hardcore revenge movie, by a really old person in a confined, claustrophobic place. I haven't seen Saw or any of those—I just have a really negative reaction to that torture-porn—but just 72 hours ago, I thought, "This'd be really fun to make." So depending on the lunch today with my friend, I'm gonna leave for two weeks, and if a structure comes out, I think I'll just hit it.
AVC: It sounds like you were drawn to the serial-killer, pop elements of The Cell. But it also seems like those were the aspects people hated about it.
T: [Laughs.] You know, the serial-killer thing didn't interest me at all.
AVC: It seemed like viewers and critics all hated the plot and loved the visuals.
T: At the turn of the century, a studio would make any film that had a serial killer in it. I just said, "Okay, so that's the nutshell I need to put it in? It's fine." In the '70s, everybody was making disaster movies. If I'd made The Cell in the '70s, it would have been about a burning building, with a guy having a dream on the 14th floor. I'd make it because of the dream, the studio would make it because of the building burning. Same thing here—I looked at the script, said "Oh, serial-killer thing—I don't give anything about that. Okay. Put that on the side. And inside his head wow, clean palette." Because it was written, initially, with stuff in his head with zombies coming out, saying, [Adopts zombie voice.] "Have you seen my son?" That kind of stuff. I said, "As long as I can throw all this out " They said, "No problem." I just said, "Oh yeah, then it's fine." I wanted to do a really hardcore action film inside. But they couldn't understand all the effects I was talking about.
And years go by. Then the day The Matrix came out, I was told, "Yeah, your movie's green-lit now, because we can finally understand all the effects that you've been talking about for three years now." And I said, "I don't want to do it now." They thought I was kidding, but I just left. So they said, "Okay, what do you want to do?" I said, "Anybody with 10 bucks now is doing those effects. I don't want to do action. If you're still on, let's do opera." And they said, "You can't do opera! American audiences hate theater. The last time somebody said that, they made Dracula"—a movie that I adore—"and it's the only film in America that opened above $30 million and didn't make $100 million."
But I said, "Dracula has a literary structure. The structure you've given me is so popcorn, you'll get those guys in and we'll introduce opera. It'll be a Trojan horse. I won't change the structure of the serial-killer stuff, you can have that." I knew the kind of costume and theater I was interested in, most people would just laugh at it, but I said, "That's not a problem. What I need to do in the first act is introduce something that ups the ante so much that in the third act, if he shows up in a tutu and a sari, they won't laugh at him."
Then I came up with all this shit which was called overindulgent, masturbating on dead bodies or whatever. I just said, "All I'm saying with this is, don't laugh at this character, okay?" [Laughs.] And that's it. That's what it took. Because people in Dracula laugh at the wrong bits, and the studio was worried. And I said "No, no, I can fix that." In different countries, the appetite for The Cell was different. In Germany, they wanted a lot more of [the graphic, grotesque material]. Here, they wanted a lot less. I just said "Don't take it all out, or people will laugh in the third act."
When it came out, the studio thought it was the worst kind of pop thing. The guy who sent me the first copy said, "It reminds me of another film we did," and he sent me a copy of A Nightmare On Elm Street 4. And I just went, "Oh, really? That's what they think of it? Okay." And they decided nothing was going to happen with it, so they screened the film to critics, to test audiences, unfinished, without a score or anything. I finished it four days before taking it to festivals, and Roger Ebert saw it and wrote "Did everybody see the same movie?" [Ebert gave it a four-star review, while acknowledging with surprise and confusion all the negative pre-release buzz. —ed.] I wanted to tell him, "Actually, no! 'Cause the studio so wanted to bury it, they sent out the rough cut a week before the movie was supposed to come out!" But, anyway, I knew it was going to be polarizing. Still, it was the biggest hit of the studio for the year.
AVC: You said you were happy over how polarizing The Fall is. Do you set out to be controversial, or hard to swallow?
T: Not with The Fall as much. Because I thought The Fall really—it is polarizing, and I can see that. I keep thinking, I wish I had more of a background in pandering, with films in festivals and all that. If I'd gone through that and then put out The Fall, I think it would have had a completely different reception. If I'd had the right kind of career, would I have been able to sell it to the system? Maybe.
AVC: So with The Cell, there were parts you felt you had to do for the studio, which were poorly received. And then there were the parts you did for yourself, which were pretty universally praised—the visuals, the cinematography, the fantasy. Are you satisfied with that as a legacy for that film? If people got the half of it you cared about, is that enough?
T: Yes. The only reason I would say, "Oh, I'm absolutely fine with that" is that it's a $40 million first film, and you can see my style in it. Very rarely can anybody on a first studio film say "Yeah, I can see enough of me reflected in there to say it's fine." This is not a poem that you can write on a piece of paper. It is not a piece of art that people can discover later, because you made it in a basement. It requires so much financing and planning.
AVC: There are a lot of news stories out there about films you were reportedly attached to direct—Nautica, The Unforgettable, apparently Constantine at one point?
T: Yes, Constantine would have been a good fun one, I think. I'm not allowed to talk about that. It just was one of those things that I was saying, I'd like to do, and we came close, but this autistic child of mine, The Fall, had a lot to do with me not doing Constantine. The Fall was a little piece of cork that was stopping me from doing other movies. Finally, my brother sat me down and said, "We're going to be two old guys who forever are talking about movies that they never made." He said, "You like Hollywood schlop, you like all that stuff, and you're refusing to make it because of this film you keep talking about. So do you wanna make it?"
AVC: Is that also what happened to your take on Westworld and Unthinkable?
T: Yes. Unthinkable, actually, is a different story. But yes, Westworld and everything, I thought I couldn't bring enough of myself to it. When I realized I couldn't, I couldn't see the point of it. I do something that I absolutely love, film, 300 days a year, but if I can't put enough of myself into it, there isn't a point in it. Whereas with Unthinkable, I saw people blinking at the wrong times. I wanted to make a film about torture, to take where all this stuff like Saw and 24 is going, to a very obviously dreadful conclusion. To say, "Is this really where you want to go?" It was so hardcore, I thought, even something like Irreversible, it would be beyond even them. And I knew this was not something anybody could take sitting down, and I would get crucified for it. But I really felt close to it. I tried to proceed, but people were blinking at it, at the at wrong times. And I said, "This is not subject matter that people can take lightly. There is nothing romanticizing about torture. I do not want a redeeming torturer. It has to be much colder. Like, maybe if [Krzysztof] Kieslowski made one of the Saw movies, I might be interested. But people wanted to take it into different territory, and I could see there wouldn't be so much point. I'd have to fight for what I wanted. And I just said, "You know what? For a hardcore, small movie, it isn't worth a fight if everybody's not on the same page."
AVC: You've mentioned your brother several times. You work closely with him?
T: We are very close. I came to America to study film, and my dad cut me off financially. I had three, four jobs and I was going to school, but no matter what, I couldn't make it happen. So my brother came over to America, and my dad cut him off, cause he didn't want to study what my dad wanted him to study. And he took a janitor job for two years, and put me through college.
So when I graduated, fortunately, the first video I did was "Losing My Religion," so I kind of hit it off right from the beginning, and asked I him what he wanted to study. He said law. So I put him through college, and then he got married and had babies, and then just as the line in The Godfather says, he's a lawyer who has only one client—it's me.
AVC: And he's your executive producer as well?
T: He takes care of me. He makes me complete. I'm quite all over the place. Money's never meant anything to me, and I don't know how to deal with it. And he's completely a different person. He's a lot more composed, watches what he says, has a check system between his mouth and brain, which I don't, and that kind of stuff. So he is my love.
AVC: How did "Losing My Religion" happen? How did you get that gig straight out of school?
T: I did stuff in school that was pretty amazing-looking. I realized when I went to college that a degree in film is worth about toilet paper, and the portfolio is everything. I had no connections in college, I knew nobody. When I was there, I was the uncool person, 'cause I was the only guy who went to college with my own teabag, 'cause it was 10 cents for hot water and 27 cents for tea, and I had no money. So nobody sat at my table, nobody knew anything about me.
At the end when I had to finish projects, I had to go and find another person to work with, because film is so expensive to finance. There was only one person who would work with me—Larry [Fong, director of photography for 300 and Watchmen]—he actually now is doing very well. He did R.E.M. with me, then he and Zack [Snyder], who directed 300, they shot all my second-unit stuff in school. I wrote nine ads, and one of them, Larry was interested in lighting. Unfortunately, he was the only other person in school who didn't have money. He was American, and he said "When you graduate, Americans are allowed a loan " At that time, I think it was $7,000, maybe $8,000. I said, "We'll have a producer relationship. You give me that money, and I'll make these ads and then make our future." And he said "Okay," and he stuck to his word. The moment he graduated, one term before me, he gave me the money, and I shot these nine ads for a portfolio, and those are probably one of the strongest things ever to come out of film school, and definitely out of my career. 'Cause everything since has been downhill.
AVC: You're prouder of the ads you shot in film school than of The Fall?
T: They were completely, like, really aggressively, unadulterated student ambition. [Laughs.] The record label saw them and said "Will you do our video?" And I just said—I'm one of those people who says it out loud on purpose, just to make a reaction—"I hate rock 'n' roll!" Because for me, the problem was, when I came to America, I had come from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin kind of stuff, which we loved it in India. And when I came out here, suddenly the only stuff MTV was promoting was Winger and Def Leppard kind of stuff. I couldn't relate to it. And then they sent me this song, and I just went, "Oh! I really love this song. I would love to do something with it." And they said, "Well, can you write a treatment?" I said, "No, that's not me." They said, "Okay, well these guys are equally unconventional. If you want to go hang out with them " I said, "That'd be good." They said "They're in Athens." I misunderstood and got my passport ready, and they turned out to be in Athens, Georgia. I flew out there and hung out with Michael Stipe for about two days. And he thought I was going to pitch him something, and I said, "I can't! I've just come to see what you do, and I'll structure something around it." They were, at that time, in a tough position of having said all the time how much they hated music videos, and suddenly they were going to make one. And Stipe said, "You can do whatever you want." And they really stuck to their words, and let me do pretty much anything that I wanted. So that madness ultimately came out from somebody's first project out of school.
AVC: How does that compare to other musicians you've worked with? Like your Suzanne Vega video?
T: That one, I did when I was still in college. When I was in college, someone saw rough cuts of my stuff and asked me if I would do the video. And I said "Great." That video is in honor of a photographer called [Josef] Koudelka that I really loved. I wanted to see where he had done his photographs—he's out of the Czech Republic, which was just opening up at that time. I said, "This is what I'd like to do," and they said, "Go ahead." The videos I've done, the musicians haven't had anything to do with the video, just like I've had nothing to do with the music. Their music spoke to me, and I thought, "The visuals need to come from me. These are completely, dreadfully two different mediums." I wish musicians didn't have to make music videos. The British term is a lot more correct—they're called "promos." It's an ad for the music. And all I can think is, the music is inspiring a certain mood, and if I can capture a particular mood, there it is. I remember making "Losing My Religion." I made that video—again, I had the same thing with The Fall, thinking, "My God, maybe I should have just shot them by themselves in a room. I shouldn't have cut to anything." 'Cause about eight months after the video, they did an unplugged version, and I saw them perform, and I just said, "My God, they didn't need any of my crap. They just needed to sit on a stool and sing that song, it's fuckin' brilliant." But lo and behold, by that time, I'd already put my puke on it, and it was out and into pop culture.
AVC: That's a pretty harsh assessment of such a popular video.
T: I don't know how it stands up. I mean, I haven't seen it for a long time. For me, something like that is always strange. Things date so dreadfully—when something enters the pop culture like that, it is going to get ripped off so badly. Invariably, some people will rip it off well, and people who haven't seen it before will watch it and go, "My God, it's full of clichés!" "Yeah, but they weren't clichés back then!" Whereas if it's a complete bomb, and nobody sees it, then it kind of becomes a critics' baby, and it's never copied, and will stand the test of time. I did a Deep Forest video—well, that's my baby. I love that. And that's the kind of thing nobody can rip off or copy. I think The Fall will be the same. Nobody's going to be nuts enough to rip it off, because it's an uninsurable movie that went all over the world. Those locations will change, and you'll never be able to completely recreate them.
AVC: Do you think your commercials and the early projects you loved so much will ever see the light of day? Maybe via something like the Directors' Series DVDs of video and ad work by Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze?
T: They've asked me a couple of times if I'd do that, and I—mm, maybe. Like, I like it. I think there's a body of work out there, and so much of it is in the ether. I finally talked to somebody about it a week ago, actually. I just said "You know, organize it. Maybe there is a body of work that's worth visiting."
AVC: Your bios all say you came over here to study business at Harvard, but presumably you didn't actually get a business degree.
T: No, no, I didn't even go to Harvard! Basically, I told my dad that I wanted to study film when I saw a book in India. It said, Guide To Film Schools In America, and it changed my world. If you come from a culture like Japan's or India's, you think you just go to college to study something that you hate and your parents love. And for me to see a book called Guide To Film Schools, it was like a book called How To Sleep With Blondes 101. I said, "I'm fuckin' there!" They teach this in school?
So I told my dad, and he said no way. Every year, we'd go to England, because my dad was in the airlines and he got free tickets, and at that point, he just stopped it. He said, "No, you're gonna jump ship." He wouldn't let me come abroad with him unless I graduated in business. I love science, but business was absolutely something I dreaded. So I barely went to college, I lied and cheated like mad, I had other people sit for my exams, everything possible. And then I got a 99 percentile on the GMAT, which got me—I could pretty much go to Harvard. So we applied out there, and my dad said, "Okay, now it's done. He's settled down, calmed down." And he sent me on my way there. He sent me to visit my cousin in Vancouver, and I called from Canada and said "I'm going to go study film." And he said, "Get to the other coast and go straight away to Harvard! Ninety-ninth percentile, you should be able to get in wherever you want!" I said "no," and he said, "Okay, then you don't exist any more."
I had $1,800, and my uncle gave me a $64 ticket down to L.A., the only place I knew an Indian friend from. If he was in Dallas, Texas, I would have gone there. So I went down there, went to every college to try to get in, and couldn't get an admission anywhere. The only place that finally took me was City College, because my background was so non-artistic. And everywhere I'd go, they'd say, "You don't need to go to film school. Just pick up a camera." And "Blah blah blah, Super-8." I knew I was in a retarded state, because I was 24, I'd never held a still camera in my hand. I knew all the theory, but I just didn't know how to approach it, and couldn't get into anyplace. And then the first guy that tried to pick me up on Santa Monica Blvd. was going to City College. And I went out there and realized how great it was, and I got admission straight away. After one term, I realized didn't have any money, so I had a friend register whose name was Randy Marsh, and I got my education under his name. Just made a fake ID, and then I used that to basically make a film that got me a scholarship at the Art Center, changed my name back to the same, and said, "Here I is! Let me fuckin' shoot!"
AVC: Given your successes at this point, did you ever reconcile with your father?
T: A little late, I think. He passed away three years ago. But with my mom, it never made a difference. I mean, first-born Indian son—as far as she's concerned, I've shat marbles since I was 2 years old. My dad, no. I hear that when he retired, they moved to Canada and opened a Laundromat, and he'd tell people about his sons, and what they did for a living. I hear it from other people, but I think he was too much in a position where he couldn't say it out loud, to me. In the last couple years, every year, I take a couple of weeks off to go try to bury as many hatchets as possible, and try to get along. And with our family—you know, a small, immediate Indian family is 21 people. So we just get together wherever we can, in Spain or wherever. I did that at least twice before he passed away, so I think he turned. It was just hard for him to take, that the crazy one was the one who was actually making it.
AVC: Given the power of the Indian film industry, why did you have to come to America to study film?
T: Well, when I was there, it was the biggest film industry in the world, and not a single film school existed. And I think if you look at a lot of those films, you can see why. It's a very nepotistic thing. And their films are lovely—I could relate to them when I was like, 10, 11, 12, 14. But after that, it wasn't something I was very interested in. I had a passion for a more Polish kind of cinema. And I thought, "Well, what can I do?" You couldn't study film anywhere, except apparently, from that book that I'd seen, in America.
AVC: What did you personally get from film school?
T: Everything! Everything, everything. You know, they had to use a shovel and an ax to get me out of school. It took me four and a half years, I would keep taking classes. I didn't want to leave, and I would go back in there in a heartbeat. I just absolutely adored and loved it. Everybody thinks I had a tough journey. Oh my God. If you think I have energy now, you should have seen me then. I was bouncing off the fuckin' walls. I absolutely loved it. You have to understand, I'd never held a still camera in my hand! They taught me how the damn thing works, where to put the—everything! Everything, I owe. And I had the greatest—Indians do this a lot, they say, "Oh, here's an older person. Touch his feet," something I've always hated. And there's a teacher from City College that whenever I see—I know it probably still embarrasses him—I just go straight to him and touch his feet. I think he just formed my life. Everything aesthetic, everything literary, and everything that I read—if I hadn't met anyone else, he would have introduced me to it. And it just—I met amazing teachers that taught amazing classes that were just amazing people.
AVC: Given the visual tableaux you lay out in your films, it almost seems like you have more of a photographic sensibility than a cinematic one. Did you have any interest in photography, or go out of your way to get an education in photography?
T: I don't. My dad took lots of photographs when we were kids, and they were all in negatives, just sitting around. My mom gave them to me, and as a present to all my siblings, I made an album. It's shocking, it just looks like a time capsule. It's like seeing Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now—you think, "Oh my God, he's so old now, and he looks so young and beautiful in the film, and he looks exactly like he could walk out of there." For me, those photographs did that. And a friend of mine recently said, "My God! Look at your dad's tableaux!" As kids, he'd take us places and line us up height-wise, or have us make a pyramid. We'd be like, "Why doesn't dad do pictures like normal people, just throwaway, people-having-fun photos?" [Laughs.] So I looked at those, and I thought, "My God! There is a gene for this!"
But no, I didn't have any photographic background, even though one of my biggest influences was my second girlfriend in college, who was a photographer. The people in the photo department were 20 million times harder-working than the people in the film department. You know, it was just really, really thought about, what they put in front of the camera, which sometimes you have to do and sometimes you don't, when you're doing film. A lot of times, you just have to get out of the way of people doing a good performance. And sometimes you actually need to put what you are thinking, what's is in your head, in front of the camera. You know, like I said, there's absolutely nothing special about me. There's genotype plus environment makes phenotype. My genes, there's about another billion of me in India. I think my environment was very interesting, growing up in the Himalayas, and going to Iran—exposure to just different things at an early life just have made me the person I am. There's nothing else special there at all.