Tarsem first grabbed my attention with his music video for R.E.M.'s smash hit "Losing My Religion", which won Best Video of the Year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards. Tarsem's feature film directorial debut was The Cell (2000), starring Jennifer Lopez, which I found visually fascinating, if not distractingly so. Its sumptuous surface belied depth. Some reviewers agreed with me, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote at the Chicago Reader: "There's almost no plot here and even less character—just a lot of pretexts for S&M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia." Others, like Roger Ebert, disagreed, writing: "For all of its visual pyrotechnics, it's also a story where we care about the characters; there's a lot at stake at the end, and we're involved. I know people who hate it, finding it pretentious or unrestrained; I think it's one of the best films of the year." Ebert walked his talk and slotted The Cell in his top ten for 2000.
Tarsem's sophomore effort was The Fall (2006), whose debut I caught at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Once again the critical response was divided, with Nathan Lee of The New York Times describing it as "a genuine labor of love—and a real bore" and Ebert remaining consistent in his praise: "You might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it." This time I was won over to Ebert's side of the fence, appreciative of Lee Pace's attractive chops (which I grew to further admire in the following year's television series Pushing Daisies).
Immortals promises the same sensorial visuals that have become Tarsem's signature and might prove that the third time is the charm, especially given its A-list cast. With Henry Cavill's handsome good looks yoked to this mythic tale loosely adapted from the Theseus legend, and riding the groundswell of his upcoming turn as Superman in Man of Steel, hearts are bound to throb. Add the ever-fascinating Mickey Rourke as the villainous King Hyperion, Luke Evans as Zeus, Isabel Lucas as Athena, and several of movieland's hottest and youngest (including Robert Maillet as the Minotaur), and I anticipate a speed ramp straight to entertainment.
On What Immortals Is About
The idea of immortality. Every culture has a different idea about it. You have gods who—by definition—are immortal, unless they fight and kill each other. Then you have humans—that's what I was interested in—where you see how far mortality can go. You either have people like King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) who believes seeds are immortality: Attila the Hun, rape and plunder, how many children you make, your genes pass on, you're immortal. Then there's Theseus (Henry Cavill) who believes deeds make you immortal: you do great things and you're known forever.
On Directing Mickey Rourke
You don't direct Mickey! It doesn't particularly keep me on my toes as a filmmaker to not know exactly what I'll get each take from him. When I make a film, there are very few areas where an actor can improvise. I probably keep the actors on their toes because I've cast Mickey—a loose cannon with a spear who believes in physical contact—so you can't be closer than two feet. When he's doing things like that to you, you wake up!
On How Immortals Differs From His Earlier Films
My earlier film The Fall was a very personal film. It was like my way or no other way. A film like Immortals, on the other hand, is a much more acceptable film, but I still wanted to make it in such a way that my DNA would be in the movie. I came into preproduction meetings with very dark coffee and then there was Mark Canton and the other producers with their glasses of milk. Somewhere inbetween we found the right mixture for a lot of people. I was aware there was going to be a bigger tug-of-war than on The Fall but, in the end, I felt Immortals ended up with enough of my DNA that was highly acceptable to people. But, it's a different animal.
On Working in 3D
3D is a tool. It's only a tool. If you try to put the cart in front of the donkey, then I think you have a problem. I didn't want to poke your eye with it. If I did, I probably would have made Piranha in 3D and have it eat whatever I wanted. I do enjoy those films, but in this film 3D is just a tool. I looked at working in 3D as a continuation of my style because I tend to shoot tableaux and not fast-cutting stuff. If I tried to film the Jason Bourne movies in 3D, I would be in trouble: handycam and shakycam and Paul Greengrass are not meant for the 3D format. What I tend to shoot naturally tends to 3D. I embrace it and I love it.
On Filming Battle Sequences
I dig fight sequences. Generally, anything that requires shouting and actors threatening to destroy each other tends to be easy when you're doing green screen, though it tends to be physically hard for the actors. But when it comes to smaller intimate scenes against green screen, the details nearly kill you. Intimate scenes require intimate objects at closer spaces and the technicians did an incredible job there. For the battle sequences, I started with Caravaggio meets Fight Club. I laid down the rules of physics in this film so that the physical was not really involved. They can jump from 10,000 feet down and not get hurt. They're not going to fly up. Batman I can do. Superman, I don't know. I don't know how you break those laws of physics; but—once I lay those rules down in the action sequences—the film became much more visceral.
On What Proved Difficult
The moment I had my vision and started to put the film together, it all fell into place. The most difficult thing in making a film like Immortals is getting the chance to make a film like this in the first place. Once you get there, it's much easier than all those little projects you might want to do. With those, you have no money, no support, whereas with a film like Immortals half the trouble is getting the producers to agree with your vision. If they agree, most of the battles are done, unless they're lying.
On What Has Influenced His Visual Style
Everything you grow up with influences you. The books you read. The porn you watch. The Tarkovsky movies you watch. Everything gets mixed up in your head, the Discovery Channel, animals eating each other, I don't know. I look at all that stuff; but, when a script comes to me I ask, "Do I have a take on it?"
I started with Caravaggio, but by the end of the film if you say, "That looks nothing like Caravaggio, that looks nothing like Fight Club", well, if it does, I will have failed. I look at something and I tell myself, "This is where I start." Caravaggio and his finger of God lighting, early Ridley Scott films, staying far away from sunlight composes the image in a particular way. Then you start working and suddenly Henry Cavill's best shot looks like this and Luke Evans' is like that. Caravaggio would never do that shot. Do you want action? Or do you want to stick to tableaux? Everything changes. When I say that the film is a mixture of Caravaggio and Fight Club, I'm telling you where I started. Were there other influences? Yes. Everything I learned in art school and from the Discovery Channel has showed up there.
On Whether Immortals Is Mythologically Accurate
Unfortunately (or fortunately), not too much. As any mythology buff knows, Greek mythology is never consistent. Sometimes somebody was a son, sometimes they ate them, sometimes they had incest with them, they would do different things on different days from different stories. I had to take the story of Theseus and see what I wanted to do with the Gods. Doing a Gods movie with Theseus is like doing a dinosaur movie with cavemen: they did not exist together, in Greek literature or anywhere. Once we cast Henry, I decided the Gods were going to be fighting. Once I decided they were going to be fighting, I wanted to change the laws of physics like I said earlier, and I didn't want them to be fighting like in a Chinese martial arts movie. I decided that if they were going to be fighting, the Gods had to be young. That's when I asked myself the question: if you were 80,000,000 years old and could live forever, would you want to look like someone in their forties or their fifties or their sixties, like me? Or would you want to look like Henry Cavill? If you have to be immortal, you would want to be youthfully immortal. You can still be wise. All the jokes about how a 20-year-old can be wise doesn't matter. For me the idea is that the Gods have been around forever and have chosen to look young. If anyone thinks that they should look like an 80-year-old rather than a 20-year-old, I'm sorry, I won't see your pictures.
As to how familiar I am with Greek mythology, I wouldn't particularly make a movie in limbo. You can never make a film from mythology or literature without pissing off a lot of people. You have to figure out how many you want to piss off and how you can still end up getting a good story. To look at someone young like Luke and think how he's going to play Zeus, I would be terrified if I was him. I can do shop talk. I can do anything practical on a set there is to do. It's very easy for me. But I cannot do what these actors do. I don't know where they get it. But did I do my homework? Yes. Did I want to change it up? Yes. Should I have changed it up? I think so. Even to Caravaggio, anyone from the Renaissance period is completely different from the Greek period. Apart from the stories, artistry is a rendition. Artists have license. If they want to paint Zeus, they can paint a really white man in his sixties, take his face and put their boyfriend's body underneath so that he looks amazing. But I would look at that and say, "I don't want a face replacement." How do you find an actor who can be young but act wise? That's Luke Evans. He's sitting right there.
On Whether He Has Any Interest In Filming Folk Mythology From India
Yes. But, unfortunately, what I tend to shoot requires a lot of money. If I were writing films, I might write there. Right now usually the films that I end up doing look like the tail end of a dying genre. When everyone said serial killer films were dead, I filmed The Cell. And now they say there are too many sword and sandal films, so I do Immortals. But I ask myself, "How can I put my DNA into a film that has its finger on the pulse of pop culture?" I don't think right now Mahabharata is going to be on that pop culture hit list. It's unfortunate. But I might.
On What's Next
I'm about to do Mirror Mirror (2012), my take on Snow White. Everyone asks me why. I guess it's because I don't have any children and the only way I can pass my genes on right now is through my films.
On Whether Reinterpreting Cultural Legacies Has Been Intentional
I would have to say that working first with The Fall, and then moving into Greek mythology with Immortals, and then on to a Grimm Brothers fairytale with Mirror Mirror has been ... accidental. The Fall was all about what not to do with story writing. Everyone kept telling me that a story had to move forward, but for me The Fall was about reading another person's body language to tell the tale. It was about storytelling. Immortals is not that. It addresses a much larger audience with a Greek tale, so it's less calculated.
On What It Was Like Learning His Skills Through Advertising
I was actually in school when filmmakers like David Fincher were doing their best work making commercial videos. I was in class with Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. All that visual form that you see in my films came out of these classes where we were taught about pictures as storytelling. When I came out of school, I met Fincher afterwards. He came up to me and he said, "What do you think? We're the next generation. Should we do something together?" I said, "I don't think I'm ready. I don't feel like making films. I love advertising. I love music videos. I could do this for another decade and a half and—when I come out of that—I'll make movies if I can." At that time David Fincher and others like him were making commercials and music videos as a stepping stone. I, on the other hand, was a prostitute in love with his profession. I did commercials and I loved them. It just so happened that I came to the gate much much later.