Tarsem Singh on how he made Greek gods hip in Immortals.
Tarsem Singh,who till recently had two films and several award-winning videos to his credit (REM’s Losing My Religion),is a bit of a maverick in Hollywood. His debut as director (The Cell) didn’t do much for his career but it was The Fall in 2008,shot over four years in 28 countries,that established him as a filmmaker with a sumptuous and quirky visual sense. Here,he speaks about contemporising a Greek myth in his new film Immortals,and how India figures among his inspirations.
You are among the most famous music video and ad directors,who also makes movies occasionally. Which do you enjoy more?
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. 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 who 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. When that passion dies,maybe I’ll do more films,but I just love being on the set,and films dont allow that as much.
When did you realise that film direction was for you?
I saw a book in India titled Guide to Film Schools in America,and it changed my life. Earlier,I thought you went to college to study something your father loved and you hated. I told my father that I wanted to study filmmaking and he said there was no way he was going to let me do that. I made my way to Los Angeles,made a film that helped me win a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design,Pasadena,California. My father thought I was headed for Harvard. I called him and said,’I want to study film’,and he said,’You dont exist anymore’.
Your films are mostly fantasies. What do you like about the genre?
I just look at it and think how I can put my DNA into a film that is the pulse of pop culture now. My style of filmmaking is inspired by a lot of things Ive seen growing up. It will always rely on those influences,like the books you read,the porn you watch,movies youve seen,everything mixed up in your head. Most artists cant sue me,they are already dead,so art school,bad TV my style is a synthesis of all that.
Why did you choose an adaption of a Greek myth for Immortals?
I wasnt particularly interested in Greek mythology. It just happens to be the thing that fit the $100-million budget. I was told Immortals would be an action film. But everybody was pulling comic strips,and I wasnt interested in that. I thought if I looked at something in the Renaissance style,already I was in a different area. Then I picked,sort of out-of-the-blue,Caravaggio. The myth of Theseus is loosely taken. We started with that,then I thought any ancient world would do. It ended up being Greek.
You have also modernised the myth…
The idea that all wise gods had to be old,and fight,works in paintings. But on film that just looks contrived. So I made them obey the laws of physics. They are more like Batman than Superman. They can dive down and not get hurt,they can kick people’s asses in a physical sense,but not in a supernatural sense. If a deity could look 80 or 20,what would he choose? The answer is 20. So they can be as old as they want to be,but they look young. The film is actually like Greek mythology with electricity.
How much research went into the making of the movie?
Its always good to start with the books and know what you are screwing up. The truth is,its a contemporary Hollywood film.
Did Immortals have a working script?
There was no real script. I had a thing that I was interested in. I wanted to do a story on,If Gods exist,why is the world as miserable as it is’? But youre in trouble if you deal with any modern religion. Youll get stoned in some countries and killed in others. If you pick a dead religion like that of the Greeks,all youll get is people bitching about you on the internet. I was fine with that.
Did you cast Freida Pinto in the film because she is considered exotic?
The story of Immortals is driven by three larger-than-life figures: King Hyperion,a half-mad warrior bent on conquering the world; Theseus,a young adventurer set on destroying Hyperion; and Zeus,the ruler of Mount Olympus and ultimate authority among the ancient Greek gods. Theseus has several companions,including Phaedra. People might expect her to be Greek,given the setting,but thats not what I envisioned. She needed to be exotic. When I met Freida I said,shes it. Shes phenomenal looking,dedicated and a real professional. She felt like the most natural part of the movie for us.
You spent your formative years in India before moving to Iran and then to the US. Do those few years bear any influence on your work?
Your roots stay with you always. India has always been a part of me. In fact,I even incorporated elements of the Indian Ramlila and the way it is executed in rural India. (Actor) Mickey Rourke was made to execute elements of his role in that style in the film.
Do you view India as exotic or do you shoot here because it is a space you are intimate with?
Most Indians think India doesn’t look appealing enough. But in reality,it could look like an artwork by MC Escher labyrinthine and mad. Usually in the wide shots,there are about 2,000 Indians on trees watching the shoot and wondering why its happening in a crappy well. When you see them,you realise they’re not what Im making them out to be. What matters is how Im framing them. I feel it is exotic.
Bollywood films and actors are becoming more popular in Hollywood. Would you be tempted to do something more Bollywood-ish?
Ive only seen one Bollywood film in the last 25 years Aamir Khan’s Lagaan. I loved it. I have very little to do with Bollywood. I think the person who made the best Bollywood films in Hollywood was Douglas Sirk. Id rather do one here. If I go back,I dont know if Id fit in.
Your next,Mirror Mirror,is an adaptation of Snow White. How do you view your career at this point?
I like extremes. If its a movie for adults,I like to make it quite violent. If its for children,I like no violence in it. Usually,everyones palate is somewhere in the middle. I get singled out because it looks like I am poking holes. Its too cheesy on one side and too cheesy on the other. After having a body of work,I look at it and say,thats me.