Tarsemspeaksreallybloodyfastandmaybeneitherofyouaresurewhathemeansbuthehasavision. How does he breathe? “Very quickly,” says the Indian director, his rat-tat-tat words enlivening a soul-free trailer outside a Montreal soundstage.
It’s June 2010, the final week of production on Immortals, aka War Of Gods, aka Anything But Clash Of The Titans. Ask anyone about that other duelling deity 3D flick — damned for its post-production 3D conversion process — and floors are eyed while pauses lengthen. Producer Mark Canton speaks out: Immortals is different. “We’ve planned for 3D, from day one. The thing is that Clash didn’t plan for 3D. They decided: let’s just throw it against a wall and see how it looks. Jeff Katzenberg kind of answered that for all of us.” [3D champion Katzenberg called the Titans conversion “the lowest end” of the technique].
I’ve been an atheist since I was nine years old. If you name a religion, I crap on it. - - - - - -
Like Tarsem could give a shit. He’s slagging off his own movie. What attracted him to it? “Very little.” Eh? “Nothing interested me about it.” He expands: “Everybody was just thinking, ‘We want to see a number close to 300’ [Canton and his partner Gianni Nunnari also produced that picture]. I read the script and it was nothing like what it ended up as. I said, ‘It’s got Gods, it’s got Greeks: none of that interests me’.”His conversion — appropriately enough, almost Damascene — came about when chatting to his mum (Mrs Singh Dhandwar, to you). “I’ve been an atheist since I was nine years old,” says Tarsem, “I’ve been a blasphemer. If you name a religion, I crap on it. But my mom is really religious. So we have a strange relationship. And she said something recently I thought was interesting. I thought: that can be the theme of the film. She was coming back from Temple, I was crapping on the religious stuff and she turned to me and said, ‘How do you think you’re as successful as you are if it wasn’t for my praying?’ I thought, ‘Hmm.’ You know the worst thing that could happen is a guy like me dies and there’s a God up there who goes, ‘You fuck, I’ve been dying to screw you up but because of this woman I give you all that shit!’ I thought that would be really interesting.”
So the notion took root in Tarsem’s fecund mind: to use this expensive spectacle to explore the idea of faith and free will, of why the divine does and doesn’t interfere. “I spent two, three months finding a reason, that if my mother’s side was right, why would gods let concentration camps or anything bad happen in the world? I thought, ‘If there is a God or gods, what they would value more than anything is free will...’ It has to be on faith, not on proof. The reason the gods do not interfere is that once you see a god, people fall down like grovelling dogs. Free will would be compromised if they showed up on the White House and said, ‘Take us to your leader’.”
'I’m like a prostitute in love with her profession'
And, you know, there will be big fights and shit. Tarsem splashes spectacle like Spielberg does sentiment or Cameron carnage. In 2000, his love/hate Hollywood debut The Cell jettisoned reality and played out in the twisted mind of a serial killer, and while the story was swiss-cheesed, the surreal visuals were hard to erase. Then, he returned to commercials — his day job, which he adores. “I’m like a prostitute in love with her profession; I’d fuck ‘em for free, but they give me money, and I’m very happy to do it.” Shooting 300 days a year, he’s always on a plane, set or location. For him, cinema was slumming it, not vice versa: in commercials he had variety, vision and control.
Then, The Fall. His passion project, self-funded: a bizarre, brilliant fable whose narrative is as charmingly ramshackle as its visuals are pristine. Really, see it. With his personal story spent, he was happy to consider returning to big-budget movies. The offers never went away; it was about his desire. Film has been a passion since school — boarding school, in the Himalayas, where they would be shown a film a week and, if no new print appeared, well, they’d just watch Get Carter again (the theme is now his phone ringtone).
Film. I just want to fucking figure out how this thing works... - - - - - -
Home was in Iran, where his dad worked as an engineer, and his cultural education came from American Forces Television, watching US movies dubbed into Persian. “I couldn’t speak it back then and the laugh track would be taken out. We never knew Get Smart was a comedy.” This — and his exposure to Bollywood cinema — may go some way to explaining his favouring sumptuous style over strict story. “If you’ve seen Hindi cinema, right in the middle of a very serious movie a dog can have a fucking flashback, and that’s not a comedy.” After stumbling across a book on American film schools, he decided that was his future. His dad disagreed. Strongly.“If you’ve ever seen Indians, they’re like, ‘You’re a lawyer, engineer, doctor or asshole’. There aren’t too many other categories,” says Tarsem, who eventually resorted to visiting his cousin in Canada and then running away to LA, enrolling in a Film 101 course under someone else’s name and finally making it into the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena (Michael Bay also attended). He worked various part-time jobs to fund his education — “I was driving rickshaws, which was a bit fucking sad: an Indian coming all the way to study film and driving rickshaws in Westwood” — until his brother joined him, to fund the final year. “I just said: Film. I just want to fucking figure out how this thing works and I’ve just been obsessed by it since then: absolutely love it.”
So he is now ready for Hollywood. But is Hollywood ready for him? Immortals has to dodge those Clash comparisons and the inevitable marketing as heir to 300. But he’s not worried. “All I can say is, I think my DNA is different enough. And if it gets more butts on seats for people to come and see what I do, putting ‘From the producers of 300’ as opposed to ‘For the three people who saw The Fall’, I’m okay with that!”
Immortals now has another draw: Superman. Henry Cavill was once dubbed by Empire as the unluckiest man in Hollywood. He was desperately close to playing Batman, James Bond and Clark Kent (in McG’s aborted version). Then, he finally landed the part of the Last Son of Krypton when 300 director Zack Snyder (another classmate of Tarsem’s) took the megaphone. Though he’s been a regular in TV series The Tudors and worked with Matthew Vaughn (Stardust) and Woody Allen (Whatever Works) on the big screen, Immortals will be the film most people see him in for the first time. Man Of Steel. Abs of steel. The 27-year-old Brit endured a gruelling regime to prepare to play warrior Theseus — up at 4am in pre-production to carve out a killer physique — and continued the work-outs throughout. “It was non-stop brutal.”
Damn if he doesn't look like a movie star though; the sort of bloke you would consider following into a battle. Perhaps it’s breeding: his dad served in the Navy, he was one brother who is ex-Army, another in the Royal Marines, he was going to join up himself, but acting proved a stronger appeal. They mock him for it, of course, “saying that I’m a soft actor who’s never worked a day in his life. That kind of thing. Then they come to the set and see the kind of work I do and change their mind...”
Tarsem describes Rourke, with affection, as a “pain in the ass” and “fucking brilliant”. - - - - - -
Now, not only is he Superman, but here playing a man who is pretty much an original superhero. “Superheroes came from people having difficult times and needing an imaginary hero to fix their problems,” he says. “This is exactly where mythology came from: people going through hardship and having these imaginary heroes who would defeat the big bad guy. I believe the original Superman is him flying around and picking up Hitler and bringing him back to the UN, and it’s the same thing with mythology: some bastard king, who is killing everyone and raping all the women, and then they have this imaginary demi-god hero who goes and fights him and his beastie in a labyrinth... It’s all the same thing, just in a different era.”The “bastard king” is Mickey Rourke, who isn’t on set when we visit. Tarsem describes him, with affection, as a “pain in the ass” and “fucking brilliant”.
Cavill doesn’t give much away about working with the sometimes prickly Wrestler star. “It was good. Working with all the actors on the show has been an experience in one way or another.” You can call it evasive or polite. “I understand he has a very busy schedule and it’s... he brings something to each character that is unique, I think, that only Mickey can do. So I’m glad he’s been around.”
Just not around much, it seems. Still, looking at the concept art of his scar-faced, sometimes-masked monarch, it’s not hard to imagine he will be a worthy adversary, raising the trapped Titans to fight Zeus (Luke Evans — Tarsem’s casting his Olympus young) and the other gods, who must rely on Theseus’ to save, well, everything. One way or another, it’s about eternity.
'You just have to be who you are'
“The hero,” says Tarsem, “is basically a nobody who, through his deeds, will be known forever. His immortality is thorough his deeds. And then there’s Mickey, who has an Attila the Hun policy: to knock everything up that you can, have many, many children, and 20 generations down, you might recognise your eyes and you’re immortal. And then there are the gods who, by definition, are immortal, but they fight with each other and they can lose that too...”
I do what comes naturally to me. If it stops working and they stop paying me then maybe I’ll start doing some other shit. - - - - - -
Today, the gods are sprayed gold and look like customers of an outré Soho club night. Evans is preparing for god-bothering action, Freida Pinto (seer Phaedra) and Stephen Dorff (the warrior Stavros) are in the art-heavy production offices, both talking fondly of the diminutive Indian director limping around (after busting his calf muscle, dancing at the early wrap party).“He said, ‘I envisage you as an exotic Virgin Mary’,” says Pinto. “Coming to set every day with Tarsem directing is like having a work out — he’s so charged up.”
“I think he’s a great director,” says Dorff, “An artist in his own right. I’ve liked his other films. I’ve loved his commercials.”
The possessive film credit ‘A Film By’ is often justly resented by writers and crew, but if it’s used here you get the sense it will be justified. This is definitely a film by Tarsem — for good and / or ill.
Back at film school, he realised something. “I was more interested in the physics of things than I was interested in stories — which was the big handicap. Everybody said, ‘He just cares about the picture, he doesn’t care about anything else.’ Well, it’s what moves you!”
He’s off again, talking at top speed of other directors — and friends. “It’s like, Fincher and Spike Jonze get pissed when I say Michael Bay is as much an auteur as all of us put together. It just might not be our cup of shit, but it’s what he does naturally and he loves it. He is true to himself. When we were in school, you could cut your demo to anything that you wanted, so usually you went with Tom Waits or some musician you could never afford. Michael Bay cut his montage to ‘Take My Breath Away’! [by Berlin, from Top Gun]. And it was fucking shit! But it was his thing. You can’t fault him: what he loves is successful. I think you can recognise a Michael Bay film from a trillion miles — I think that’s what an auteur means. So for me when I do my stuff it’s what comes naturally to me. If it stops working and they stop paying me then maybe I’ll start doing some other shit. But right now, I just do what comes naturally to me.” And breathe...
“You just have to be who you are.”