If Tarsem Singh's imagination could escape his head and become real, it'd be bigger than a blue whale. The former art student forged his reputation straight out of college when he directed the music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," and eventually he even convinced Hollywood to take a chance on his odd, evocative and incredibly visual films like The Cell and The Fall. He put his career on pause for five years to return to videos and commercials—fast-paced fun for a director whose brain is always on the go—and then surprised everyone by releasing two very different flicks in the space of five months: first, the Greek epic Immortals, and now Mirror Mirror, a fanciful kids' film with a surrealist bent. We asked Tarsem about seeing the evil in Julia Roberts, his fight to cast actual little people for the seven dwarfs, why the Brothers Grimm were the original movie studio heads, and why every young actor should get a cool scar.
This is the first time I've seen Julia Roberts play truly wicked. What made you think to cast her?
She's wicked! She's perfect for it! I just thought: everybody knows this tale. The original is a 10-minute tale—wonderful for its time, and the Disney version is wonderful, but nobody wants to sit through all that singing right now. But I couldn't better that, so I thought that everyone knows it's much more fun having fun with an evil person, because if you have an evil person playing an evil thing, where do we go from there? It was just the idea of making this evil person accessible.
You've mentioned feeling torn about making her an evil step-mother since today's step-mothers aren't so evil.
Yes! I would have liked to have her be her mother. In the original Snow White tale, it was her mother. Only when the Brothers Grimm came along—the original studio heads—they just said, "Wait a minute, a mother can't be that cruel. Let's make it a step-mother." But now, I think the tables have turned. There's so many decent step-mothers, but two women in a house can still be like cats in a bag. There is going to be friction, and for me it would have been fine if it was her mother, but it would have opened a can of worms that we just didn't want to think about, so we just said, "Step-mother it is."
The most interesting part about retelling a classic story must be deciding which parts to change.
Absolutely. The same stories are always being told again and again and again, and it all depends on who you're telling it to. Before writing came along, there were three stories you told when you told someone a story: the story you were telling, what the person heard, and third, what did it matter? And even when you have a story on film, that doesn't change. It's like when someone sees a movie and they're like, "You have to see it," and then when you go with them and they see it again, they're like, "This is s--t," because in their head, they turned it into a different film. What is wonderful is when you go to Morocco and see the storytellers telling a tale in the middle of a square, every time they're telling a different story—they're looking at your body language to decide what story to tell you. A story is never complete, the person who is hearing the story makes the story change. In Hollywood, the thing that most directors hate is focus groups because they are the ones who now react the way a live audience did to tales before. And when they say, "You can't do that in the middle of a movie!" you say, "Okay, I didn't have the license for this culture. In India, it wouldn't have been a problem." You interact with the audience and then you make a different film.
So in adapting Immortals and Snow White for a modern audience, what did you learn about the people of today?
I tend to be a bit polarizing. Even my idea of R, to most people they think there shouldn't be that much blood. I just think that when you're killing somebody, there should be blood. I'm not a vegetarian, but I hate it when people who eat lamb all the time won't see a lamb die. I think that's as bad as drone warfare. This meat did not grow on a supermarket, it did not grow on a tree. It bled, it died, and you're eating it. And I'm not saying don't eat meat, because I do. In Immortals, I wasn't thinking it was a particularly Greek tale, but people said if you want that kind of budget, right now you make it Greek. So you change the names and you make it work, but it didn't have to be a Greek tale at all. But when a Greek movie does well and you have all these guys who are half-clothed, suddenly your budget is approved and a guy like me goes, "Okay." I'm practical, so I'm just trying to hear from the studios what there's an appetite for. Also, some stuff that you think in your culture will look alright can become really kitsch. You figure that out after you talk to the audience. "This guy looked so hammy," and you have to interact with them and figure out the one thing that's throwing them off.
Was making your first family-friendly film like turning a switch in your mind? It's so different than your other movies.
Not at all. The thing is, most people think I'm all visual, but if you see the ads I've done, they're some of the most conservative, straight-away, cookie cutter commercials. I love it all. I wanted to do some thrillers and then I realized that Eiko [Ishioka, his long-time costume designer] wasn't going to be around forever, and Mirror Mirror was coming together rather fast so I said, "Okay, let's make another visual film."
I was sad to hear that Eiko passed away after Mirror Mirror. She didn't do costumes for many movies, but she did them for all four of yours. [She did win an Oscar for 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula]
She was my hero since we were in school. Me and my classmate Nico [Soultanakis], who married her the last week of her life, we were both in love with her work because she used to direct commercials in Japan in the late '70s and we would look at them and idolize her. And then I pushed and pushed and pushed to have her for The Cell. My girlfriend at the time said, "I think Nico and Eiko are going out," and I said, "You're crazy, chick—never." But when the movie ended, they were, and they were together for the last 10 years. It was just wonderful access at a ground level to her, so that whenever I started a new project, from the beginning I always saw it with her.
Together, you've created some iconic images. What's one of your favorites?
I'm most film critics' nightmare because I put, as far as they're concerned, the cart before the horse. But for me, it's true that I take the story very loosely and as much as screenwriters hate me, the production designers and costume people know that I'm their poster child. So with Eiko, we barely understood each other in the beginning but I never had to tell her to think outside the box because she barely understood what the box was. You have to conform Eiko—with most people, you have to tell them to let loose. One of the best things she ever made was in The Cell when the guy walks down the steps. She just said, "What if the steps was him, that he was connected to the steps in some way?" So there's a fabric that goes into his back and it wraps around the walls, so when he walks, it snaps and comes down. We just started to write things like that into it. You have a lot more license when you're doing a visual film—you can pretend that the visuals are coming from someone's head—but a more straight drama doesn't allow it. But if I had done a straight drama, I might have done it with her just because I loved Eiko.
Is there a reason why for your next movie, you're stepping away from visual films to make a straight drama?
No, no. I just ended up doing more visual films than I intended—I said I would only do three. At the beginning, people always want to put you in a box and everyone said I was into hardcore stuff, which is why I wanted to do a kiddie movie. And because Eiko wasn't going to be around much longer, I did a visual film for her. But if I kept doing these, I would end up with Tim Burton's rejects and I don't want to end up just doing weird stuff. It's not a bad place to be, but right now I want to change it.
I keep hearing how in love you were with Lily Collins' eyebrows.
Oh, I was, I was. I was looking for something iconic and the moment I saw her, I thought she looked like a young Liv Taylor-slash-Audrey Hepburn. And that's somebody who if you catch them at the right time, it doesn't seem like they'd be trimming them into really thin eyebrows. Just leave them natural. When I saw Lily, I said, "We're not touching those eyebrows," and she said, "Nobody is." Good girl.
The eyebrows made me realize that even though we have a lot of pretty and talented young actresses, few of them have a trademark.
I agree. They can always start with a scar.
That makes everyone look cool.
If you're a guy, it works!
Tell me about the decision to cast actual little people as the seven dwarfs. Did that make anyone on the production team nervous that there might be blowback?
In the beginning, everybody balked at it. But I just did not rewrite it because that was the only thing that I wanted to do. And once we found out that our schedule for the finish of the film was so short, I just said there was no choice. When everybody finally jumped on, it was great. But I was surprised how many times that question was asked. "Why real dwarfs?"" "Uh, why not?" I would say, "Little people are wonderful and we're going to make it work like that," and they'd say, "Oh, no—you'll have such a limited selection of actors." But these are seven iconic people and it has to be real people. Already, the tone is so animated that I didn't want to end up in cartoon territory. Unless you've got the money—and more importantly, the time—of Lord of the Rings.
I'm glad you cast Jordan Prentiss from In Bruges—he's the greatest and I'd love to see him get more work.
These guys are hilarious. When we brought them together, they didn't have their names. They were written as "Stinky" and all that and I thought it was rubbish. I just said, "Get me the seven people that I like," and once we had them, I said, "Now we hang out." After two months, we came up with their names. Chuckles only got his name two or three days before shooting. But we got them together and then we came up with their names and their character traits. The guys helped so much in making that. If they had been cartoon or CGI, we would have had to have the script so much more buttoned down than we did, and I was wanting the flexibility to play with it.
What was it about Armie Hammer that made you pick him for Prince Charming?
When you do an iconic thing, you can have more fun and run wild with it. It always helps casting off-center, like with Julia. But you don't have to redefine the wheel every time. If you had to draw the ideal prince today, I think you'd draw Armie Hammer. He just is it. His face, his teeth, his hair—every time he opens his mouth, he is Prince Charming. The problem is, he wants to do—and correctly so—parts with flexibility. To play a bad guy, do different things. Every time we would do a take, I would bust out laughing and just think, "How else can that be said? Let's just move on." He just is a bloody prince.