There aren’t many filmmakers who are consistently perfect for certain material, but if you’re making an opulent period piece that demands a lavish visual style, Tarsem Singh is your director. After The Cell and The Fall, the filmmaker has proven himself a virtuoso visualist, and in Immortals finds a story that fully utilizes his talents. Interestingly, however, those talents don’t just extend to how the images on screen look; as a director who openly celebrates his atheism, he was equally suitable for this odyssey since it combined the divine and the mundane, the existential and the visceral, in a way that has less interest in philosophical agendas than ambitions to purely entertain.
Movies.com sat down with Tarsem at the recent Los Angeles press day for Immortals, where he discussed the process of applying his visual sense to the film’s straightforward hero’s journey. Additionally, he talked about updating and adapting centuries’ worth of mythology into one movie, and examined how much of the film offers insights into his own artistic and spiritual beliefs.
Movies.com: Immortals feels almost like the mythological equivalent of a pop-culture pastiche movie. How well-defined was the story – or how much did it need to be defined – before you applied your vision to it?
Tarsem Singh: The story was just an absolute straight tale, and the only thing I was interested in was superior beings, like if Superman and Batman were here, who just happened to be gods, and I just said, I’d like interaction with these guys, and to see why a nonbeliever turns into a believer and becomes their most ardent supporter.
For the kind of action I had in mind, I didn’t want it to be just like finger-pointing and then big waves of water come out or lightning comes out from their hands; it’s going to be visceral, hardcore fighting, so for that, I need younger guys. So I said, let’s change the rules a little bit; if you are 60- or 70-million-year-old god and you looked 80 or 20, it would make no difference to you. You would want the wisdom of age without particularly wanting to carry a catheter around, so let’s just make them young. All of the action pieces, all of other things, none of them were there, so you would sit down and say, Theseus has a creature here with 25 heads and he kills six of them, and this bird comes down, he gets the bird, now he finally opened the door. So what you’re saying is that it’s a difficult door to get in – yeah, okay, got it.
Movies.com How did you find a cohesive design that would integrate all of those different ideas?
Singh: Funnily enough, I was thinking it might be post-apocalyptic even, and I was almost going to make it a renaissance-style film, but with electricity. But as it was expensive there were these parts that we would need to take out, and some of them would stay. That’s why we have a mile-high concrete wall that doesn’t really adhere to anything else. Or even if you see Theseus’s story, that’s got nothing to do with gods; it’s almost like having a caveman story with dinosaurs in it, and there’s difference between that’s a couple of hundred million years. So we wanted to keep the name, but it’s a different story that we wanted to tell.
Then funnily enough it wasn’t until eight weeks before shooting that my 12-year-old niece asked, me, she said, “Oh, you’re doing Theseus? How are you doing the labyrinth?” And I said “there’s no labyrinth,” and she said, “Really? Where does he fight the minotaur?” And I said there’s no minotaur, and she said, “What kind of Theseus is this?” So I went, okay – let’ see what we can do, and I turned around and said, okay, you see this nasty guy who does all of Hyperion’s [dirty work]? Let’s make his warrior face be a mask that resembles a bull which can be interpreted as a beast that could be the minotaur.
At the same time, I’ve never, ever, ever liked the labyrinth as great literature pieces – all it says is, “you go in and you get lost.” It’s very easy to write on paper. But on film, it’s just a corridor, you go down a corridor, you go left, you go right, and it looks really cheap – and a fight in there is nothing. So I just said, you know where the bow of Epirus is? You could make a labyrinth that leads into it, and you could make the burial area confusing. We just kept adding those things, and none of them were in the original script. At least now for visual films, that’s what I prefer, but when I stop doing visual films, I’d like scripts to sing on their own, but right now, trying to get my DNA in the visuals of these things, I don’t think you can find them on paper or you write them as a writer.
Movies.com: In the film it seems like even more than the humans want to be gods, the gods want to be humans. Did that give you more license to give the gods more humanlike foibles?
Singh: It actually started the other way around for me. I actually started making a movie about gods because after being an atheist since I was nine years old and being really nasty and blasphemous to my mother whenever I can help it, she actually said a statement that made me go for this film. About three years ago, she said something like, “How do you think you are as successful as you are, if it wasn’t for my praying?” And I thought, there’s the movie. A guy dies, goes up there, and God goes, you dog, I was going to kill you, I wasn’t going to give you any success, but because of this woman I had to give you everything. So then I decided, let’s make that movie – a nonbeliever is like a recovering alcoholic or a born-again person, because this guy finds definite proof of God. But my thing was, if they’re gods, what reason can they have for not helping the miserable state that mankind has been in for eons – why would they not interfere?
So when I started to look for those reasons, I found that I really ended up anthropomorphizing gods; they want to interfere, but if they do, if they show up on the White House lawn and say, here we are, our true nature will never come out. We’d never be able to do all of the nasty things we do in private life if you knew there was a god watching you all of the time. So you have to go on faith, and not on proof, so just to give favor to mankind, the gods have put that above everything else. Once I defined that, I started to find that friction, I started to find the story of the gods, who are saying, “Hey, the bad guys are winning! Why aren’t we interfering?” And the one rule that I was trying to have that would be a game-changer was if like there was a bazooka in the Middle Ages. One side would just annihilate the other – it would change the whole balance. So the gods do not want that to happen; even if the wrong side wins, it’s preferable. But if one side does happen to find the bazooka, which is a bow in this case which has been left over from a previous war, when that happens the game is almost decided. Especially when the titans are released, that means those are ex-gods who have been banished. In the script, originally, they would be fighting for man’s free will, and these guys weren’t. I decided that’s enough – that’s the game-changer, and that’s why they interfere.
Movies.com: Do you see this as a personal exploration of your own faith?
Singh: No, not really. I just think there’s no room for a benevolent being up there. If there’s a world up there, we mean less to them than ants mean to us. Personally, I don’t have faith at all, which by definition is belief without proof, and that’s why I think it’s a real downer in the end, because Theseus, the only reason he believes isn’t because he has faith, he actually sees the damn guys! But in the end, nobody exists in the world that has seen the gods, so the world can function how it is. That’s why I wanted the gods to die, but man – people, no matter if they’re mythological, dead gods, they do not want gods to die [laughs]! They want the gods to survive in the end, and I said, okay, I think I’ve set up the reason fine enough up front, that that’s why they won’t interfere. So let them go live in their little platform upstairs. Would I say it was a personal experience? I don’t really think so. I’m just telling you what inspired me, and then in the end, it is what it is, and all I did was try to make sure enough of my DNA was in the movie – and I think there is an ample amount.
Movies.com: How tough is it to make a film that’s a sincere exploration of faith, much less a straightforward hero’s journey in 2011?
Singh: I don’t think I can make a sincere one. I just have no room in my life for faith. This is it – this fantastic, phenomenal world we live in; we’re nice to each other, maggots eat you, and you’re done. The ticket to immortality is that little gene in you that wants to live forever, and that’s Hyperion’s understanding of it: multiply as much as you can, and eons from now your genes will live on and people will look at the face of their children and say, “Oh my God – it looks like Hyperion.” That’s one ticket to immortality, and the other one is what Zeus is preaching for Theseus to go for, which is through your deeds. Basically, it’s a meme in our genes, and Hyperion is just like, it’s in our genes – live with that. But Zeus is saying, your deeds live on after you. But when we turned to the audience, they just did not want Theseus to die, and they did not want the gods to die. So I kind of feel I copped out a little bit, but in the end I feel I got the point I wanted to say across, that our deeds are as important, if not more important than our genes. And of course, religion being the biggest meme of all.