The Fall: Tarsem Singh interview
Best known for the Jennifer Lopez sci-fi experiment The Cell, Indian director Tarsem Singh has made a triumphant comeback with The Fall, which gets a release on DVD and Blu-ray 26th January. Half period Hollywood drama and half epic fantasy filmed in 24 different countries, The Fall stars Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) as a stuntman who breaks both his legs when a stunt goes wrong. In hospital the stuntman strikes up a friendship with a young girl (Catinca Untaru) who has also injured herself in a fall and begins to tell her a story of lost love and revenge. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that the stuntman’s motivation for telling the story is far from innocent. We caught up with Tarsem and asked him about the extraordinary lengths he went to, both geographically and psychologically, to get the performances he wanted.
LOVEFiLM: Catinca is just amazing! It looks like she’s not acting. What was the process of working with her like?
Tarsem Singh: Quite complicated actually. I never knew if it was going to be a boy or a girl for that part, I just knew that the person couldn’t be older than four. At about four and a half I found that they became actors or actresses and began to figure out what was going on, and I was looking for this quality where there is a miscommunication between what you are saying and what the child is perceiving.
So I was looking for this person all over the world for about seven years and finally I got this tape of a girl from Romania and she was amazing. She was actually six and I thought, “Well that’s kind of past my age.” The thing was though, she didn’t speak English. I realised that if the child didn’t speak the language, the miscommunication bought me the extra year and a half. So I said, “This girl is a different person in four months, I need to make the movie now! It can’t be in the studio, it has to be on location and everything has to be shot in sequence.” She knew of course that there was something going on, but there was such an amount of falsehood in there, like I decided I’d better look for an actor who nobody would recognise. Nobody on set knew that Lee could walk.
The first day on the set is the first day she saw him and exactly how she sees him in the film is exactly how she saw him. One of the things I had allowed for was that in the first couple of weeks of shooting the camera wouldn’t be doing any movement.
So most of the time we could sit down, the camera would be static and the camera crew were covered with sheets. They would hold a curtain open and they were mic’d. So it wasn’t, “Take one” [Makes the sound of a clapperboard], like that - that was what we started doing once she became comfortable with the whole process - we were very much just letting them hang out.
It was the best case scenario because there was no man in her family. The mother was separated from the husband, so I knew that as this plays out, she would completely go for him. And she’s completely in love with him by the end.
LF: Was that static style of camerawork the reason you decided to set the “real” parts of the film in that particular time period?
TS: That’s a very good question. In fact, it happened the other way around. I decided that the fantasy was going to be a style that, right now, doesn’t really exist. It’s very much like paintings from Rajasthan or Iran, which are very tableau-y.
When I started with that I realised that the child’s imagination has to come from somewhere. It has to come from photographs and paintings from a particular time. And then I realised that I was basically asking a kid to have not been exposed to cinema. I was looking for a particular place that I could make the story work and I couldn’t find it because there isn’t a place on the globe where people aren’t familiar with cinema. So I had to go to a time when people hadn’t seen cinema and their imagination would be a blank slate. So that just forced the period element into it and once that came, then I just decided, “Why don’t we go back to the birth of cinema?”
LF: The birth of cinema concept ties in nicely with your own emphasis on the visual. Your films are known for the striking use of colour against epic backdrops. Where does that come from?
TS: I travelled a lot as a child. My father was an aircraft maintenance engineer, so we had free tickets. And I just love landscapes. If you make something with a landscape in it, it will never date. I’d decided to do a piece that would not involve any CGI, so I just went to places that I thought aren’t going to exist like that for too long. Everybody keeps talking about the special effects, but there aren’t any! That is exactly how it is. And Indians love colour. What can I tell you?
LF: The film reminded me of The Princess Bride. Was that something you had in mind when you were making it?
TS: No. I’d seen that film, but this film I based on a movie that I haven’t actually seen for about 25 years called Yo Ho Ho, which dealt with the same theme, which is the idea of using another person’s body language to tell the story you want to tell. I like Princess Bride a lot, but I think it’s a lot more acceptable than my film! Alexander Pashby
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