If he wanted to, Tarsem Singh could make an Internet cat video into an explosion of visual ecstasy. It would take place at a gorgeous outpost somewhere deep in the Gobi Desert, just as the sun starts to kiss the horizon. Enter a Siberian tiger adorned in an ornate golden harness and trailing yards of purple-and-silver rayon. Snarling, it threads between crumbling columns until it discovers a boulder of multicolored silk yarn, which it plays with in slow motion until the final bit of light leaves the sky. End scene.
Tarsem makes movies for the eyes. Audiences are guaranteed that if they see one of his films, it will at least look spectacular — and be packed with expansive tableaux, lush exoticism, meticulous staging, and outrageous costumes. His natural instincts and well-honed style are adaptable to a number of genres, just as long as he can envision the finished product in his head. ”Tell me the story,” he says, ”and I’ll see if I have a style for it.”
He has made only two films over the past 11 years, but the 50-year-old director is about to double his filmography in just four months with a pair of high-profile studio titles. Neither screams originality in its pitch-room précis: Immortals, an R-rated guilty pleasure out Nov. 11, rides high on the tide of Greek-geek cinema with a marketing campaign dedicated primarily to letting potential audiences know that the movie shares producers with 300. Then there’s the family-friendly Snow White project due in March. It stars Julia Roberts as the evil queen, and will compete for attention with Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman (out June 1).
Despite its Hollywood-zeitgeist premise, Immortals is instantly recognizable as a Tarsem film, with pitch-black seas, jagged towers, and Minotaurs in barbed-wire helmets. Visually, it draws less inspiration from Frank Miller than from Renaissance artists like Caravaggio. ”But we can’t go around saying, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who wants to teach you about Caravaggio!”’ says Tarsem. ”Who will come see that? It has to be ‘From the producers of 300.”’ He calls the film a ”Trojan horse.” In other words, come for the slow-motion sword fights, stay for the chiaroscuro. The same holds true for his Snow White movie, which he is currently editing: The project may have been produced because fairy tales are the new vampires, but this is Tarsem’s blank canvas, and he’s filling it with stark, snowbound forests and Gaudí-inspired sets.
With his avant-garde style, preference for the mononym Tarsem, and penchant for colorful scarves, you’d assume he would be the consummate artiste. And yet a conversation with Tarsem is funny, genial, never too self-serious, and fast — his words speeding over the slopes of his Indian lilt at 100 mph. It’s less like talking with an artiste than, say, a used-car salesman. Which makes sense, because he used to be one. ”That’s actually the experience that helped me the most,” he says. ”Any abuse that I’ve ever gotten from studios hasn’t been anything near what I got selling cars.”
Growing up with a father in the airline industry, Tarsem traveled frequently, which helped him develop an eclectic taste that would eventually become obvious in his work. ”I’d spend nine months out of the year in the Himalayas in a school that showed one movie maybe every two months,” he says. ”Then the other three months in another country where all the movies and television were in a language that I couldn’t understand, which made me completely appreciate visual things.” He later moved to Los Angeles — where he is still based — and enrolled in film school, going on to helm the then-controversial, now-iconic video for R.E.M.’s ”Losing My Religion” before diving headlong into commercials for everything from Nike to Pepsi.
In the early ’90s, Tarsem became close to another director on the advertising circuit, David Fincher. ”With his films, you know nothing is there by mistake,” says Fincher. ”It’s like watching somebody who says, ‘No, no, sit back, I’m going to take care of this.”’ (Tarsem actually shot a lot of the international scenes of Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button while Fincher himself was prepping other sequences in Montreal.) Luke Evans, who plays Zeus in Immortals, confirms that Tarsem knows what he wants: ”He created the entire film in his head before we even started. There were no questions that he hadn’t already asked and answered.”
Tarsem’s first feature, The Cell, was a psychological phantasmagoria that had Jennifer Lopez spelunking through the vividly curated mind of a madman, but even that film was originally a product of Hollywood’s post-Se7en serial-killer obsession. It was only with his sophomore effort, The Fall, that he allowed his ambition to spread to all aspects of the production. That movie was a tough one to find financing for, as it concerned a paralyzed man in a hospital in 1915 Los Angeles fabricating a fantastical story for a young girl as he battles depression and morphine addiction. No one wanted to risk the money unless he made significant creative changes, so Tarsem paid for it himself. ”I tried to talk him out of it 50 times,” remembers Fincher. ”Finally he called me from South Africa and just said, ‘Hey, I start in three weeks.’ I said, ‘Great! Who’s putting up the money?’ He said he was, and I’m like, ‘Stop, dude, what are you doing?’ But he had been wanting to make this movie forever and nothing I could say would stop him, and there’s nothing I respect more than that.” Tarsem says he has no regrets, though the film never came close to recouping its cost, taking in far less than its budget with just $2.3 million. ”I don’t have many films in me like that, but at the same time I actually enjoy crash-and-burn films as much as I do serious films,” he says.
Recently, when former film-school classmate Zack Snyder and his 300 producers first approached him with the idea of making a CGI-heavy movie about Greek gods, Tarsem was hesitant. ”At first I just couldn’t find the style I would want to use,” he says. He did not want to make another comic-book film and the script failed to interest him, but eventually he ”cracked its back,” as he calls it. ”I think you can still get your philosophy, your DNA, out there,” he says. ”As long as I can keep making movies, and as long as my DNA is in the movies I’m making, I’ll be happy. Otherwise, I think I’ll go back to car sales.”
Up Next: Tarsem tackles Snow White
For his follow-up to the gritty Immortals, Tarsem wanted to try something a little different. ”Everybody thought I would just want to do an ‘edgier’ version” of the classic fairy tale, he says of his Snow White project (due March 16 and starring Julia Roberts, left, as the evil queen). ”But I had no interest in that. If it’s going to be sweet, I want it to be sweet.”