Tarsem talks us through his fantasy world

A lot of people get out of film school full of ideas, but when faced with the reality of making a living, they decide to make commercials or a formulaic Hollywood movie or two. Still, they think, “Once I make some money, I’m gonna take my millions and make the films I really want to make.”

In reality, this happens about as often as Amy Winehouse is sober. So give it up for Tarsem Singh, one of the few people who’s actually gone and done it. A director who enjoys making music videos (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) and commercials (Nike, Coke, Levis), and has done one Hollywood serial killer flick (“The Cell,” with J-Lo), Tarsem self-financed “The Fall” with millions of his own money.

In an interview with The Japan Times, the talkative director described how a failed romance set him off on his quest.

“At that time, I was going through a personal crisis,” he said, “and I just felt I had to make the film now. It’s the kind of film you only make when you’re young and stupid and feel immortal.”

Tarsem had bought the rights to an old Hungarian film called “Yo-ho-ho” years before, and had been tossing the film’s ideas around in his head for 17 years before he finally took the plunge, shooting in sequence and on location. A big impetus was seeing an audition tape of Catinca Untaru and realizing he’d found his lead.

“When I saw her tape, I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s amazing.’ But I realized she would be a different girl in four months, so we have to make the movie right now, and it can’t be made on a set. Because she believed the situation to be real.”

Due to a mixup, Untaru thought she would be appearing in a documentary, so Tarsem decided to maintain the illusion. He cast a largely unknown actor — Lee Pace — in the role of Roy, had him come to the set in a wheelchair everyday and shot in an actual clinic. Only two people other than the director knew of the deception.

“A lot of people were traumatized when they found out afterward,” said the director, but he felt it was worth it.

The film’s look came from inspired use of locations, and a certain sense of staging.

“Moghul paintings from Iran, Rajputana paintings (from Rajasthan state in northwest India), they go out of their way to get the perspective — for lack of a better word — wrong, but to make the perspective what they feel the priority of the frame should be,” Tarsem said of his influences. “It’s kind of like Cubism before Cezanne.”

Locations came from places Tarsem discovered while traveling on his many commercial shoots, and, as he put it, “they were unique locations you’d never seen before in a film, because they’re all pretty impossible to get to. If it’s a studio film, the first thing you look for is a parking lot; second thing is where you’ll feed people; then maybe you see if there’s a location nearby where you can film. (Laughs) It’s kind of how you move. But here I just said, ‘No — I know what I want to film. Figure out how to do it.’

“We had one rule which got us through: commoner’s style filming. Everybody, from the sweeper to the cameraman, had the same paycheck. It was per week, everybody had to travel in the same circumstances, no trailers. But it’s amazing, people will lie down in front of a tank for you if they know there’s nobody higher paid than them on the staff.”

One of the film’s most evocative shots, a cubelike maze of stairs that seem to be descending ever downward, is typical of the director’s ingenuity. It looks too fabulously trippy to be real, but it is.

“It’s a 600-year-old-well in India. It was used to figure out how high the water table is, and water taxes were based on that.” said Tarsem. “Usually, the stairs are mostly underwater, but I asked my (location) scout, ‘What happens if there’s a drought?’, and he said, ‘This shit goes down forever.’ So I said, ‘Find me a drought!’ When I saw it, I thought, people are going to say we’re copying Escher — but this was built 300 years before Escher. (Laughs.)

“It had one railing which we removed in postproduction. If you can see where it ends, the effect just dies. It’s just a strange perspective with good framing. Practically all the shots are like that, especially the ones in India. What you can’t see, just off-screen, are all these cops beating back the 200,000 people who’ve shown up to see what’s going on. Most of the locations, it’s a real fight to make it look isolated. But once you remove the poles, and all the modern walls and stuff, you can start to imagine what these places looked like in their glory.”

(Giovanni Fazio)