Sure, The Cell made its 2000 debut in 2,411 theaters and Tarsem Singh himself made waves when his epic of a passion project, The Fall, finally hit theaters after years of development and production (including 17 years of location scouting and a four-and-a-half-year shoot in 24 countries), but it wasn’t until Immortals arrived back in November of 2011 that Singh finally earned more widespread clout for his mesmerizing visuals.
Even as Immortals was still in post-production, Singh was hard at work on what’s bound to be his next visual romp: his take on Snow White, Mirror Mirror.
Why Snow White?
Considering Singh’s resume, a family-friendly fairytale seems like a bit of an unusual choice, and his producer even thought so himself. Singh recalled, “I remember when they gave this to my producer, he said, ‘You’ll never get Tarsem to do a Snow White,’ and it was the only thing that I reacted to.” He added, “I just think that if I can look at something and I believe I can put my DNA on it, it’s usually what interests me.” While the Mirror Mirror script did catch Singh’s eye, he admits, “There’s nothing from the original script that I read that’s in it except for maybe one name. I tend to change a lot of these things and we did.”
As much as Mirror Mirror is a very unique spin on the beloved fairytale, Singh strove to maintain Snow White’s purity. “If you had to think of a fairytale and the person doesn’t have a bad bone in them, you start with that,” he explained. "But then, of course, there’s the question of which version of Snow White would Singh work from?" He joked, “Ideally, I would have liked to have gone much more back, but if you look at even the Grimms’ one, Snow White’s age when she gets married and runs off with the Prince, you know the age? Nine! Don't think that's acceptable in today’s thing, so you have to evolve with the fairytales and go on with that.”
Tarsem’s Top Challenge: Tone
“I think for me, a director has only two jobs on film - one is tone, which I think nobody usually has on a script, unless you’re reading a Coen Brothers script or something where it by itself reads like literature,” Singh told us. He explained that even if a script doesn’t clearly discern a particular sensation, that it's okay because that’s what the director is for. Using the Frank Booth “Baby wants to f***” scene in Blue Velvet as an example, Singh asked, “Is that funny? Is that supposed to be scary? You don't know, but the director has a tone on it, so for me, tone is the biggest job that I try to keep.”
As for that second job of a director, Singh pinpoints blocking and how to cover a scene. He joked, “For an actor who’s bad, you do the Michael Bay style, just keep moving around and I can make this thing act very well; he'll probably win an award.” In all seriousness, he added, “When you stay static and try to shoot it just for performance, you end up having a real problem. It separates the boys from men in two seconds. You don't really have the luxury of adapting all the time.” Singh sings Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski’s praises, highlighting their understanding of exactly what it takes to put their films together, canceling the need for multiple cameras. “Of course, corporations and studios would love that, which is have many cameras, have many different impressions and we’ll figure it out later, but I don’t particularly like that; I like to figure out what the tone is and work just with that.”
The Visual Inspiration
For Immortals, Singh named the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio as his visual inspiration, but here, he admitted, “It wasn't so simple because I wanted it specifically to be a family movie.” He added, “When you go for four quadrants, the edgy word, you can just get rid of it.” However, that doesn’t mean Singh had to do without a source of reference at all. In fact, Singh’s visual styling for Mirror Mirror comes from multiple places.
“I started looking at forests and architecture to find a backdrop for the story.” On top of that, Singh also set out to redefine the rules of magic and all of those rules would fall right into place once he settled on a definition for his locations. “We ended up much more, I would say Gaudi-esque in the architecture and much more Ivan the Terrible, much more turn-of-the-century Russian cinema than anything else.” He continued, “Once the woods came in, that dictated the Russian style and the colors just come to me naturally, so this was much more of a hodgepodge.”
As for the camerawork and, more specifically, the camera movements, Singh explained, “I tend not to do the shaky cam stuff that tends to be chic.” In Singh’s opinion, that actually makes his work ripe for 3D. “I do do moves, but they are thought out moves; they're not what I call ‘rock 'n' roll,’ which is keep going left and right, let the actors act and in the end just find which little bits are best.” However, on occasion, action scenes can call for a different shooting style. “On certain action scenes, I'll go there, but I tend not even to do that in action, which looks very stinted and, to a certain extent, staged and not that cool at a particular time, but I’m hoping in time they’ll recognize it as a stamp.”
To 3D Or Not To 3D?
Mirror Mirror was originally set to go through post conversion, but when Snow White and the Huntsman came along, having the earlier release date became the priority. “We were prepping months before they had announced anything,” Singh recalled. “I just only told them, when we find the Queen and design it, I could shoot it for you and in about four months you could release the movie. I know the movie I want to make.” However, the timeframe didn’t include the time it’d take to successfully post convert a 2D film to 3D. “If it’s 3D, I need a year,” Singh said. “When the competing one came in, I just said kill 3D because there’s no way I will compromise what it looks like,’ so when they took the 3D away, there was no competition.”
While Singh did recognize that Mirror Mirror could have been done in 3D, he also noted that the quality of post conversions are usually “disastrous,” but also mentioned, “I think hopefully I’ll change your mind when you see what Immortals looks like.”
In Good Company
After taking part in two set visits for films directed by Singh, I can confirm that the man is a visual genius, talks incredibly fast and prefers to jest and call us the “naughty journalists." But how about the folks who are by his side throughout the duration of a film shoot?
Producer Bernie Goldmann noted that the hope was to make Mirror Mirror “a live-action movie that had the feel of an animated movie, so it has the sense of magic, the sense of grandeur, the sense of almost anything can happen in the world.” And who better to bring that concept to life than Singh? “He is a world creator. He really creates something special that is a world you haven’t seen before, which is what made him the right director for the movie.” (While Mirror Mirror is not an animated take on Snow White, the film will feature a two-minute animated opening done by Ben Hibon.)
Part of the reason Singh’s able to bring these worlds to life so fluidly is his close connection with his production designer, Tom Foden, and the art department. Goldmann explained, “Tarsem takes them through it.” Rather than come up with the characters and the story and then head over to the art department, “The characters are developed with the art, with the look of the movie, so that it’s all a part of one piece.”
Then, of course, you must add the Mirror Mirror stars to the equation, and getting the chance to work with Singh was one of the reasons Lily Collins signed on to play Snow White in the first place. “Tarsem’s a very visual director and he knows exactly what he wants in terms of the overall picture and when it comes to acting, he’s very much about collaborating with the individual actors.” She added, “So it’s where do you see your character going?” Collins also described Singh as a very positive and energetic director and joked, “He’s always on the go. He goes from a long day of shooting to go play squash. He’s got such energy; I don’t know how he does it!”
The Prince, Armie Hammer, expressed a similar sentiment for the man in charge. “He’s infectious and he’s like effervescent and he’s non-stop, he’s always going, he’s always in a great mood, he’s always making jokes.” While Singh certainly likes to maintain a fun and light atmosphere, Hammer noted, “He’s also serious about what he does and this is his craft and he knows it and takes it very seriously. You can have fun, but you can also, when you want to, buckle down and work.”
Perhaps it’s costume designer, the late Eiko Ishioka, who’s familiar with Singh’s methods more than anyone because Mirror Mirror marks their fourth collaboration. And it’s really no wonder the two struck up this longstanding relationship; both have such a keen eye for striking visuals and detail. Ishioka called Singh her “dream director” and attributed their successful working relationship to Singh’s ability to “really understand what I want to do,” and in the case of a fairytale, the possibilities really were endless. What the duo settled on was a “historical costume, but not necessarily a specific time.” Ishioka kidded, “I could use 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Eiko century!”
That’s a tough question to answer in Singh’s case. He admits, “The kind of movies I like to see, aren’t the movies that I’d like to make. I like thrillers a lot and I haven’t made a thriller yet.” Surprisingly, Singh revealed, “I don’t particularly like to see too many visual films in the style that I make and I’m much less a fan of Fellini and a much bigger Pasolini fan, yet I think the kind of theatrical stuff I do tends much more towards Parajanov and Fellini than it does towards Pasolini.”
“I kind of just read [a script] and every now and then when I’m ready, something attracts me to it. I usually go off to the material; it isn’t usually the material that comes to me and I say, ‘That’s great.’” Whether the time comes and that something is another big budget studio production or a lengthier process like The Fall, having just turned 50, Singh is ready to go. “You are as old as you feel, right?” Singh joked, “Physically if I'm fine, I will be okay because I think my mind is just always been a bit wonky.” If “wonky” produces feature films with his visual flair, I’ll take it.
Mirror Mirror hits theaters on March 30th.