But ''The Cell'''s director says accusations of sacrilege are way off base

By Liane Bonin
August 17, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
L. Sebastian
  • Movie

”The Cell” (in theaters) stars gossip magnet (and Sean ”Puffy” Combs pal) Jennifer Lopez, but the current buzz isn’t about the actress/ singer’s social life. This thriller about a psychologist’s surreal trip through the mind of a serial killer has critics and Catholic groups up in arms. Not only are some condemning the movie as sacrilegious and excessively violent, the MPAA gave it an R rating for ”bizarre, violent, and sexual images.” EW Online talked about the controversial feature with first time feature director Tarsem Singh — an Indian born TV commercial maestro who won six MTV Awards for his 1991 R.E.M. video ”Losing My Religion.”

Not everyone can calmly watch the scene in which a man’s intestines are pulled out of his stomach and played like a harp. How do you respond to those who say ”The Cell” is just too grisly?
Do I need to respond to them? I don’t think I need to. First of all, I don’t think the movie is violent. It’s graphic, and it isn’t for kids. But by the time you’re 18, if you can’t tell the difference between what you’re seeing and real life, I don’t think your genes are going to make it into the next round.

Jennifer Lopez’s character appears in various guises, but the scene in which she seems to be dressed as the Virgin Mary is stirring up a fuss.
It wasn’t the Virgin Mary at all for me! The picture that inspires her [character] to appear in that costume is actually a drawing of a Brazilian water goddess. You need to look at her costume the way Indian truck drivers would. They have drawings of gods and goddesses on the backs of matchboxes, and they really kitsch them up, and that was my model. Someone did say she looks like a nun, and I thought, well, if she does, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not saying anything derogatory in that scene. People are getting upset about my supposedly defiling the Virgin Mary. But the scene in which the intestines are pulled out was inspired by the Catholic Church. It was an Inquisition thing.

Since the icky intestine harp thing made it into the movie, was there anything that was actually too gruesome for the final cut?
The rough cuts were a lot, lot, lot more graphic. The studio [New Line] had to tell me that in different cultures the line of acceptance for something like this was drawn on a totally different level. We had to pull back a lot for American audiences. What the Europeans have is what I originally intended. Eventually you’ll see it on DVD, I think.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a videotape of a young woman slowly drowning and crying for help. How did you elicit such a raw, powerful performance?
There are two girls who go through that in the movie. With the second girl I was very objective in how I filmed her because I had big problems with her. But when the other girl came to the set and did the scene, everybody’s hair stood up on the back of their necks. It was very, very disturbing. The idea to have her regress was based on something Vincent [D’Onofrio] told me, about a tape he saw of a dying person who became almost infanticized, acting like a little child and speaking goo-goo, da-da language. I asked the actress to try it, and it was so powerful. I cried, I know that. If it doesn’t move you, you’re a bloody stone.

How tough is it to keep the cast and crew in good spirits when you’re filming a story about the mind of a serial killer?
Not tough at all. Except for one or two scenes that were very realistic, most of the other scenes looked ridiculous while we were doing them. You just had to hope the CGI would work later. Vincent, Vince [Vaughn], and Jennifer had to be very trusting. With a lot of the costumes Vincent wore, I had to make sure he understood, yes, it looks like shit here, it’s hard to walk in and it feels funny, but you have to trust me.

You’ve been talking to ”Armageddon” producer Jerry Bruckheimer about directing ”Take Down,” an adaptation of the Carsten Stroud book ”Deadly in Force: In the Streets With the U.S. Marshal Service.” How’s that going?
I’ve been talking to Jerry for years, and I’ve always told him I’d never do my first film with him. The one person you could take out of any of his films and it wouldn’t change one iota is the director. I told him you have to know I’m not a shooter who just rushes through and lets the editors cut the movie together really fast. I compose stuff. I think he’s taken that on board, and he’s being very supportive. So if this moves ahead, it will be really cool.

Sounds like you might be ready to leave the world of videos and commercials behind for features.
Oh, no. I can’t do anything without shooting. I drive my family nuts, I drive my friends nuts. Since we wrapped on ”The Cell,” I’ve been doing commercials, and I just finished a Nike ad. I just have to keep shooting.

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  • 107 minutes
  • Tarsem Singh
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