The Fall - Tarsem Singh Interview
The Fall is the latest film from Indian director Tarsem Singh, a fantasy epic over 20 years in the making and filmed across 24 countries. Best known as the director of 2000’s The Cell and REM’s Losing my Religion video, Tarsem tells Jonathan Melville how he’s happy that his film inspires both love and loathing in audiences… just as long as they don’t sit on the fence.
[Warning: contains mild spoilers!]
Where did your inspiration for The Fall come from?
I had the idea close to 24 years ago - to tell a story using a person’s body language. That doesn’t happen in cinema; it doesn’t happen when you write a story; it only happens when you literally tell it to one or 20 people. What you tell, what the person perceives and what the person remembers in twenty years time are three different things.
That’s the idea I had, and when I saw a Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho I thought I’d remake it when I had the money. But it took 15 years to buy the rights.
I saw it again recently, having not intended to see it again because people talk about a film they saw twenty years ago as being so incredible but then halfway through rewatching it say “this is shit,” because they’ve evolved since they first saw it, maybe adding subtleties and scenes in their head that never existed. You can’t beat nostalgia.
I spent 17 years location scouting going around the globe, including Scotland, going here, there and everywhere. I looked at them, wrote about them, wrote the scenes up and then spent seven years looking for the child, not caring if it was a boy or a girl. The moment I found Catinca Untara I told my brother “sell everything, this will be a different person in four months”. So in a four month period we had to shoot in sequence, wanting it to feel as real as possible for her.
Did she know she was going to be in a film?
She thought it was going to be a documentary so I changed the script, and nobody on set knew that [co-star] Lee Pace could walk. I told her that the hero of the fantasy, her father, was the lead and that the handicapped man couldn’t leave his bed. The first time she met him in the film was the first day she had met him in real life, the second day was the second time, and so on. We shot in sequence for about four months then spent four and a half years shooting around the world in 24 countries, wherever I thought the fantasy in her head would take her.
Did you have the cast contracted to do those four and a half years?
No, it was just good will and handshakes! I didn’t know it would take four years – if it had taken ten years or fifteen years then that’s just the way it was going to be. Because the financing never fully fell into place I could never say how many countries I could film or for how long.
Where did you find Catinca?
I found her in Romania. I wanted a child of about four, because after that age it’s more difficult to fool them and they start to act, and I wanted her to be natural. Catinca was six and didn’t understand English, so part of her reactions with Lee come from her wondering if she just doesn’t understand what he’s saying.
There’s a brilliant scene…
…my favourite scene, the Eucharist?
It’s a magical scene, you just know she’s trying desperately to understand him. She can’t hear the cameras, they’re hidden behind curtains, and I just left them to talk about things, and I would turn off and turn over and leave them to wander in their discussions. The scene only took about four minutes to film and it’s a one shot thing, you can’t fake it.
And she didn’t know he wasn’t paralysed during that time?
Not just her. The cameraman didn’t know. The lighting guy didn’t know. The production designer didn’t know. None of the actors knew. He’d been in one film at the time and so we changed his name and told everyone he was a stage actor from New York, keeping it quiet for twelve weeks.
Is it true that Catinca helped write the fantasy sequences?
I had a structure in mind, but in the end I nearly didn’t bother with the locations, deciding to maybe just stay in the hospital. I know some critics think it would have been a much better movie if I’d done that. Then I decided I needed to do the fantasy world and discussed with Catinca what she thought would happen in the sequences. Some of the stuff she came up with was completely impractical and mad but it was driven by her naïveté and I took as much of her input as I could.
There’s a standout scene involving a butterfly island – was that real?
That’s real, but it was an example of putting the cart before the horse. I would try to only shoot commercials where I could also shoot parts of my film, getting the actors to fly in to film their scenes before they went away again. At one point I was filming in Fiji and someone said to me you could film on Butterfly Reef. I asked why it was called that and they said that from the air it looked like a butterfly. So I decided to write another scene involving a butterfly that was filmed in Argentina and just matched it to the helicopter shot. It’s all done in reverse.
Silent films play a big part in the film, especially at the end. Are you a fan of those movies?
Not really, it was a practical approach: a lot of people say it's a real tip of the hat to silent cinema, but to me it isn’t. I had that structure from the very beginning. Originally I wanted to make the film contemporary but I couldn’t because I needed a child who hadn’t seen a film and had no experience of the cinema, but today there’s no child in the world who hasn’t had that experience. So it had to be set before cinema evolved so that she has no reference to John Wayne or anyone like that.
To give herself a happy ending she has to assume that Roy did all the stunts, it had to finish there. If she wants a happy ending then there it is – but is it really a happy ending? What are the chances he made it out of that hospital and what are the chances that she thought she saw him?
You do almost forget at times that this is actually quite a tragic story, with Roy trying to kill himself…
…and he might have succeeded after she left. Or made it out alive. As far as she’s concerned he made it out and did those stunts forever.
All the answers are there and I hope that when the DVD comes out people will freeze the picture to see whether it’s Roy’s face or not.
Is it fair to say the critics have given the film mixed reviews?
I’ve found critics are polarised with the film. The people who can’t get into this film just cannot get into it, they absolutely hate it and think it’s shit, while the next person comes in and thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Both views are OK with me, it’s just the people who are somewhere in the middle that bother me.
So far in the UK the response has been fantastic. In America, the trade press, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, killed it stone dead because we’d screened it in Toronto and missed New York and LA, so they toed the party line and had no interest in it. But the guys from Ain’t It Cool News saw it, and Ebert* saw it in Chicago and suddenly people embraced it and loved it. It’s done brilliantly in the local press around the US who saw it in a vacuum, wondered what it was and suddenly the local markets bought it.
At its centre this is a very accessible story, a very simplistic story and I don’t know what film those people who tried to kill it were seeing but they just couldn’t get into it.
Due to its sheer scale this is a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen.
I agree, but for a while cinema’s wouldn’t even screen it for free in America, so I decided I’d pay to put it in the cinema and had to work for another two years to afford to get it out there.
What sort of reaction do you hope you get from the public?
People like definitive answers and ask me “Well, what happened?” Instead I ask them “What do you think happened?”
If you’re optimistic he made it, if you’re pessimistic he didn’t and if you’re sceptical you’ll be wondering about it. And if you’re a critic you don’t give a fuck!
* Roger Ebert, influential film-reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Fall is released in cinemas on 3 October 2008.