Capone's Long-But-Fascinating Interview With THE FALL Director Tarsem (Part 1)!!
Published at: May 28, 2008, 5:50 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone, Capone in Chicago here.
Even though filmmaker Tarsem has only made one film prior to his latest, THE FALL, simply saying his name evokes a passionate and wide array of responses. Some seem to think that his visuals are second to none, while his ability to articulate anything resembling plot leaves a lot to be desired. I respectfully disagree. When I think of Tarsem, I'm reminded of something I once heard director Peter Greenaway say (I'm paraphrasing, but not much): "Film is the only medium of artistic expression that relies on other medium to exist. It relies on the principles of photography, writing, acting, and in some cases, painting/drawing." Greenaway's belief was that the only way film can distinguish itself from the other mediums was with wholly unique visuals, even at the expense of story.
Tarsem's first film, THE CELL, certainly had a story (but keep in mind that Tarsem did not write THE CELL), but its main objective was to prove to Hollywood that this celebrated commercial and music video director could make a feature film. His objectives with THE FALL are both more and less modest. With it, he is celebrating old-fashioned storytelling. And whereas in THE CELL he wanted us to glimpse inside the mind of pure insanity, with THE FALL he brings us inside the unformed imagination of a child, who is being told a fairly adult story by a suicidal man.
A couple things to know about this interview: First off, it was conducted over two phone conversations that lasted longer than an hour combined. Second, Tarsem talks at a million miles an hour and seems to talk at great lengths without taking a breath; he's remarkable that way, and I love it, but it makes transcription very difficult. Third, the first interview took place shortly after Moriarty ran his glowing (and 100 percent, on-the-money) piece on THE FALL and, in particular, Catinca Untaru's phenomenal performance (more HERE) as the young lead. As a result, Tarsem actually thought I was the author of that piece for the first few minutes of our interview. It took me a little while to realize this, but I confessed my identity to him as soon as I figured out what was going on (these are the perils of using pseudonyms, I suppose).
Anyway, here is the first part of my discussion with the marvelous Tarsem. I should warn you that toward the end of this conversation, there are some SPOILERS, but if you haven't seen the film, they probably won't make much sense to you anyway.
Tarsem: Hello, sir.
Capone: Hello, Tarsem, how are you?
Tarsem: You take however long you want with this interview. You were the one guy who came on board when everybody else was telling me I was full of shit. [At this point, I thought he was referring to my telling a publicist how much I loved the film, and didn't realize yet that he was talking about Moriarty's review.]
Capone: I get the impression that the journey you took to make this film might be as interesting as the journey that's being shown in the film.
Tarsem: More than. It took me 17 years. It was 23 years ago when I originally had the idea, and the base idea was just to use another person's body language to tell the story. So it was basically, like before recorded music and recorded film came along, you had to do what DJs do now. You look at the crowd and you play to them, whether if it's one on one and you're looking at the person in the eyes or it's a crowd of 10 people, 20 people, you always tell a story differently. And if the person is making eye contact, leaning forward, you take your time and tell it story.
But if it's a studio head and he's looking out of the corner of his eye looking at his watch, taking calls he shouldn't be taking, then you introduce a crazy chick walks in a shoots people in a McDonald's to your story. You use their body language to tell them what you want to tell them. That was the base idea I had.
And finally I came to the conclusion that I remembered a film I'd seen when I was in college. I bought the rights to it and then just left it alone and thought, "Alright, I'll never see this film again." But over the years, the fantasy I wanted to go into was something that shouldn't be familiar to anybody and should be before genres existed, but unfortunately that meant it would have a limited audience because it became a period piece.
And the only person who is so transparent that you can read their language so obviously has to be to a child. So I went around everywhere to figure out what would be the age of this child. I saw a French film, the only film that blew me away with a child performing, called PONETTE. I had one look at it, and said, "Okay, the girl has to be four."
So for 16 years I was location scouting for places; I took pictures all over the world, wherever I'd go to do commercials. I kind of used THE GODFATHER line with people I saw, "This is a paid job; one day I'll ask for a favor. That day may never come. [laughs] Please help me make this movie." So I had gone around the world and made contacts everywhere, and it took about 16 years. THE CELL came in between, and they kind of said, "Here's a film; it's all ready." And I said, "The only reason I can make this was because it was very short." I could go in there and do whatever I want. I didn't want to do landscapes, which I was going to save specifically for THE FALL.
So I figured this was good fun to have on stage sets. Unfortunately there was one scene near the beginning [of THE CELL] that I just couldn't solve on a stage, so I moved it to the sand dunes, which ended up me being cannibalistic, ripping off my own ideas for THE FALL, and I couldn't find another location, so I just gave it to them. But after that, I just kept going for this film. Everybody who knew me kept saying this movie was a monkey on my back that would refuse to let me stop. And the reason I refused to stop was because I had this film to make. And some people thought I was going to be one of these old guys talking about a movie they never made.
I had all the pictures from all over the globe, and for seven or eight years, wherever I'd go, I always have casting directors go and take pictures of girls or boys of about the age I was looking for whose body language was correct. And then I got this one tape of this girl [Catinca] who happened to be in Romania, and unfortunately she was the wrong age for me, she was six. But it was so phenomenal what was happening on the tape and I realize something really magical was happening, so I got on a plane and went straight there and asked the casting lady to bring her and try to figure out what was happening.
The location lady had misunderstood the situation. She had told the child and all the kids in her school that the film was going to be a film about a Hollywood actor, like Superman, like Christopher Reeve, who had become handicapped, and it's going to be a documentary about him telling his stories. So they just kind of talked to her, and when I met this girl I thought, "Oh my God. Something really magical is here." And I said, in four months, she's not the same girl, so I called my brother and said, "In four months, this girl is not going to be the same girl. We'll make the movie right now, and the only thing is she's bought the whole thing. We can't do it in stages.
So I found a location in about two weeks down in South Africa, which is actually a lunatic asylum--they gave us a wing. And I said "Take it over," and I decided straight away that if she believes [that the actor she's going to be working with is paralyzed], what can we do to make everybody else believe that they are working opposite and with a handicapped actor.
She didn't know Lee [Pace], she just thought she'd be meeting someone like that, so I thought I'd create that situation. So the people who knew about the project forever--one is my cameraman, who was my college professor who's done a lot of work with me including THE CELL--I couldn't use them. So eight days before we started, I promoted my loader, who had been pulling focus, to shoot the movie; he'd never shot a movie before.
I decided it was going to be with a brand new crowd. So I took the script and changed it to say that in the fantasy scenes that the lead in the film was going to be played the Romanian father. I told everyone I'd found a phenomenal stage actor in New York who is handicapped but he's incredible. I got sent these tapes, and I chose Lee because nobody would recognize him. He's only done one project, and he'd played the role as a woman [SOLDIER'S GIRL].
The agents were going crazy because we only met with one person, which is not how you do things. I went straight to New York; there was no reading. I explained the situation to him and showed him PONETTE. And I said, "You will be the only person kept separate. We're going to shoot the movie in sequence. You won't be able to walk for 12 weeks. I'll get you a nurse, whatever it takes to be convincing. The only question I have is, you were very convincing as a woman. Do you have a penis?" He said, "I have a penis." I said, "Then the part is yours."
He thought I was kidding. I said, "No. Just do me a favor, call the agents, call everybody, and say there is no negotiation. It's a one-off thing; we need to move right now." And he said, "I buy it; I'll do it right now." So basically for the entire 12 weeks, the cameraman, the production designer, nobody knew this guy could walk. And it turned into something really embarrassing in the end, when we had to tell everybody on the last day.
Every problem I thought we were going to have kind of worked in our favor. Catinca didn't speak English when I met her. She could just barely communicate. It took a long time, 5-10 minutes, to understand anything she could say. And I thought that was absolutely fine; it bought me the two years [in her age] that I'd wanted. As much as I love THE LITTLE PRINCESS, I didn't want that style of acting. I wanted PONETTE-style of acting. The acting here had to be Ozu static dead. If you don't buy these two people--the girl bored in the hospital with their relationship--no amount of eye candy is going to make you like the film. So it had to work static.
But her not being able to communicate would have been a nightmare if you were trying to do a studio film, but it completely worked in our favor. She showed up the first day and her front two teeth were missing. You'd die if you were shooting out of sequence, but I said, "No problem." Anything she would come up with I would counter. I made the old mystic have a big teeth problem. And as she goes ahead, her English gets better, her teeth come out slowly. Her acting changes. I'd kind of figured all that out ahead of time. I thought it would take about a month for her to learn English. In 10 days, she could speak quite fluently. Fortunately, she developed a bit of an Indian accent because I was the only one talking to her and telling her what had to happen.
But the first time she sees Lee in the film is the first time she met him; the second time she sees him, is the second time she met him. And a lot of things I didn't bank on, but I let her lead it. I didn't realize how scared kids are of handicaps. She saw him and wouldn't go near him, and I said, it's okay, play the scene by the door. Then slowly, slowly she completely fell in love with him. There's no man in their family, and it's one of the reasons that I picked her. There's her, her mom, her grandmother. There were five women and one old grandfather. So just for her to be near a man.
At certain times I had to stop it because it was getting almost sexual; she kept feeling the hair on his chest, and Lee would say, "Okay, talk to me without touching me." And she was completely taken by him. Most of the shooting we would do, I would make a tent out of the bed sheets and put a hole through the tent where the lens was. And after two seconds, she'd forget. And she was mic'ed, and she's get close to him and whisper. And Lee and her would hear us laughing in the other room, and she would ask, "What are they laughing at?" And as time went, she became incredible, she understood the situation, and gave me everything I wanted. And the shooting style became so much more superior because I could let things play out in two shots, and when the whole thing was finished, I was so tempted to go back and reshoot the beginning. And I thought, No, it has a certain magic. She didn't know how to do it, and I didn't know how to do it. In the end, I said, "No, let's not go back."
I told my brother initially when we went to make the movie, "There are two films here. I might just make this particular sequence the film and, then we're done, and that might be the movie." I just had someone in Belgium say, "That would have been a much better movie." And I kind of agree with him on some level. [laughs] No matter what I put in there, the girl is phenomenal.
So when I did it, I was going through a real personal trauma. My girl had left; I was completely shattered. And I told my brother, "It's an incredible film as it is, but sell everything, I'm going on a magical mystery tour and I have no idea when we'll be back--two month, four months, eight years." It ended up being four years. I know the press says we shot in 18 countries, but the other day a guy from Japan sat down with me and we went through every country I took photos of. And we identified 24 countries just from the photographs, so I know it's more than 24 countries.
But I just said, "There's no stopping us." I've worked in advertising for a while, so I had no need for money, but I told my brother, "If you have to sell the home, call me." So when the movie was just about finished, I called him to see where we were with money, and he said, "We're pretty close to broke." And I said, "Good, we're finished." So I came back home, and that was it.
Capone: You've touched on about 30 things I wanted to talk to you about. Catinca's performance is not only magical, but she's in no way self-aware or aware of the camera.
Tarsem: Thank you. You wrote one of the things that I loved. I'm quite computer illiterate, and I had no idea what you do, but finally somebody printed out some stuff and gave me the things that you had said.
Capone: Oh my goodness. I know what it is you're talking about, but that was someone else [Moriarty] on our staff who wrote that. If it makes any difference, he and I are of a like mind when it comes to Catinca's performance and the film.
Tarsem: He nailed it, on the two scenes he was talking about, that is exactly what happened. This was impossible to get any financing for, because every time I'd go to people they'd say, "Is this the script? This is great, when do you want to do it?"
And I'd say, "No, this isn't the script. It's going to be written by a four year old." Try raising money with that. It's impossible. "Are you mad?" It has to be the four year old who tells me what to do. So every day of shooting, I would give her a situation, she would misunderstand it but come up with her own timing to make things work. None of those lines, you can't write them. "The film was white and black" instead of black and white, you can't write that. So I would just give her the situation, and she would just go ahead and do what she wanted. It was always the third and fourth take that was perfect. The first two she couldn't even understand anything.
By the third and fourth, there would be all the right amount of confusion, and she was completely not aware because we were shooting through holes. I knew I could make this much easier for me if I'd taken today's idea of realism, which is handheld cameras moving around. As much as I love Lars von Trier, I think you can make a cupboard act in that style. But here are two people that were so good that I picked a very static style. I said, we [the crew] need to disappear, no light can be near them, it has to come from outside the window and no guy can hold flags, nobody needs to be near them. Let them be. And as Catinca got more comfortable, we can do master shots with her to come in or out. But for all the other performance stuff, I will do it until there was the right amount of boredom for her--third and fourth take. After that, she's get kind of bored and start acting in a bad way.
My favorite scene is the one where she steals the things from the church. And when I wouldn't get something for a scene, I would always tell Lee change a key word. I had a feeling she hadn't understood the scene, so when she had stolen the Eucharist and come into the room, he had used to word "spirit" a couple of times, and she knew the word but she didn't understand what it meant exactly. So I told him to change the word to "soul."
And she kind of kept faking like she understood what it was, and he kept calling her on it. So I was just crossing my fingers that he wouldn't let it go. And in the scene where he wrote "M-O-R-P-H-I-N-E," the way he writes "E" kind of wraps around, and she thought it was a 3. In the original script, she was supposed to find a bottle with less pills in it and she picks that bottle. The moment I saw that she saw the E as a 3, I thought it would be much more frustrating that she picks up a full bottle and thinks he only needs three pills rather than enough to kill himself. With stuff like that, all I had to do was be completely awake.
The script was a blueprint; we answer to nobody except everybody at this table. I'm sitting there during the script reading and said, "Anybody who wants to have input, you can have it here." But the moment I realized that she was seeing it as 3, I told the art director, fill the bottle up with pills. Everything like that she just so much improved and enhanced, and by the end, she was becoming more and more incredible as an actress.
And just about when we were finishing the hospital sequence, and we had to tell everybody Lee could walk, it was a very traumatic experience for some people. Some people were very angry; the mother was completely in love with Lee--I don't know what scenario she's been drawing in her head with him falling in love with her daughter [laughs]. And from the production designer to the accountant, everyone was saying, "Oh, you know you could have trusted me. I've worked with you for 16 years." It had nothing to do with trust, and it had even less to do with Lee. It had to do with the fact that body language changes no matter how ridiculous or audacious a situation is--whether the person is a concentration camp survivor or a cripple, people act different to someone like that if they think you're the real deal versus if you're acting it.
If you're cripple, people don't jump on your bed or tell you handicapped jokes; they don't cross that like, which they tend to do if they know it's just an actor. So I said it was for that reason, and I think everybody came around and said, Okay, it's fine. But one person, forgiveness was never on the table, and I can understand his point of view. The focus puller, who was South African, showed up one day with his father, who is handicapped, and he went straight to Lee, and he said, "You know what? I hate this Hollywood shit when they have actors who pretend to be handicapped. Here's a guy with balls."
And I could see Lee sweating, and he came over to me and said, "Just tell this one guy." And I said, "No, we don't break the rules. Make me the schmuck, make me the asshole, but you're not going to tell him." And on the last day, when we told everyone the truth, I could see this guy. I took him aside and said, "You're the only person I owe an apology to, not the guys I've been working with for 16-17 years." And I don't think forgiveness was on the table that day. I hope over time, he'll let it go. But he and his father just felt completely betrayed. I'll stop talking about that.
Capone: It sounds to me that as much as you depended on your lead actress to guide the direction of the film, that it was Lee who was guiding her.
Tarsem: Oh my God. That is unfortunately something I don't hear anybody talking about. It's so difficult being the guy who has to act with children. You could give the best performance of your life, but if the child is bored and pulls the bandage off your head, it's done. The kids has to be great too.
And Lee, just yesterday I saw the film for the first time in eight months, I was seeing how much Lee is lighting her. Because what I'd done was throw the light on over his head and I'd tell her to stay in certain places but there are no rules for her. There are rules for you. So when she leans forward, he has to lean out to make sure her light stays on her. And he has to know his lines. And of course, she's completely confused and she changes the order of things completely, so all the time, he's coercing her, lighting her, and being aware of the situations.
It's so difficult because she's in La-La Land. People don't realize how much he has to do with her being as good as she is. He had to give up everything of his to make sure she was corrected. Physically, he can't move; he has to use the top of his body to light her, and then act with her.
Capone: Let's talk about the "fantasy" sequences--I'm not sure that's the proper term to use.
Tarsem: No, that's the right word.
Capone: It tells us a lot about the nature of a child's state of mind--her putting in the faces of those around her. The fact that "Indian" means something different to her than it does to Roy. Why does that intrigue you so much?
Tarsem: I'll tell you three reasons, and I think the third reason I was unsuccessful in getting across, I couldn't make it work. Until cinema came along, the story that I tell and the story that a person hears and the story that they'll remember in two years are three different stories.
What happens is, most people will tell you about the film that they saw years ago, "It's phenomenal, blah, blah, blah" and they'll take you to a screening of it, and they'll turn to you and say, "This is shit." Because over 15-20 years, they themselves have changed and put in things and perceptions in the film that were never there in the first place. That's one kind of storytelling, but once cinema came along, it doesn't happen.
I went to a lecture once by Brian Eno that completely floored me. He was talking about the audio version of exactly this in our school college one day when he came and spoke. He said, 500 years ago people could say, "You know what? In the future, people are going to listen to the same song again and again and again. These same instrumentations." And the response would be, "Why?" I was at that particular time thinking, "This is really terrible, when a song comes out, you don't even know what the original is, there are 20 different versions of it."
Now I realize, that is good, that is what always what was supposed to be." You shouldn't be listening to the same version over and over again, it depends on that persons mood and the deejay's mood. The idea that this is a story being remembered as a person is older. In the very last scene, that is supposed to be the voice of [Alexandria] as an older woman, but I couldn't take the hallmark out of it. Everytime I tried it, I would just cringe. Then I said, in the beginning a line from her as an old woman would work, and it completely threw me out as hallmark-y. And I just left it and said, hopefully people will perceive it that it is her perspective, not particularly that of a child, but as she thinks she perceived it. One of the main things was the Indian.
I had a teacher in the Himalayas, and we used to see one movie per week. And in the winter when the school was closed for three months because of snow; I used to go to where my parents were, which was in Iran. So we had a teacher there that would tell us stories. This is something that somebody pointed out to me just two months ago, so I'm not talking about where a lot of the influence came from.
She would use things around us and mix them up into kind of believable things and the most audacious fantasies that were so moving to us. And she was probably seeing these 20 brown eyes and completely using our body language to tell us this stuff. They were so ridiculous. There would be like an Indian Robin Hood meets James Bond versus Richard Nixon and Watergate, and she would tell us these stories. And the worst thing was she'd come back the next week and say, "Where was I?" And we'd be like "As if she doesn't know."
To us, we thought she's thought out everything in advance, which of course she hadn't. She'd just make it up as she went along, and we couldn't perceive that she was using us to tell her what we wanted and tell her where she left off.
So when Lee says Indian, he obviously means "Red Indian," but she has no frame of reference, so she takes the Indian and makes him someone from India. Then I started putting in the idea of "squaw" and Lee said, "Why don't you put in something about 'wigwam'?"
So I put all that in. But the visuals have nothing to do with the audio. I thought the stuff was quite obvious; I guess internationally, it doesn't translate as much. But even here, I found that people did get it. I thought it was obvious enough that he's talking about a completely different thing and that what we're seeing is her perception.
And Otta Benga [one of the characters in the fantasy story], I don't know if you know his story--I think he's a character in Fincher's movie too [THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON]. He was a pigmy who was brought over for the World's Fair to show everybody how pigmies lived, and after the Fair ended, he couldn't go back and adjust in Africa. He had really sharp teeth and tried to live in America; he couldn't really fit in among the blacks.
Finally, he found a place in a zoo, and he lived in the New York Zoo until somebody wrote and article saying, "What the fuck? You've got a black man living in a zoo?" So they threw him out of the zoo, and he didn't have anywhere else to go. And in the 1920s, he shot himself. It's a really tragic story that Mark Romanek was trying to make a film about. But when she hears Otta Benga, she imagines a really beautiful black god who looks like the guy who delivers ice to the hospital. I guess it's like…and this is a film that I've never seen--I've seen parts of it and I'm very aware of what it is…and yesterday when Fincher was introducing the film he said, "If Tarkovsky has make THE WIZARD OF OZ or PRINCESS BRIDE on acid, this would be the movie." I kind of agree, but I've never seen THE WIZARD OF OZ but I know exactly what it's about. So the ending piece with everybody coming together, my film just kind of fell in like that as well.
Capone: See, I just assumed that that's where you borrowed that from. But it also is something that a child whose imagination isn't fully formed would just substitute familiar faces in for the characters in a story she's being told.
Tarsem: After my film comes out, I'll go an see it.
Capone: In both of your films, you've had to create a visual representation for a state of mind.
Tarsem: Coincidence! [laughs]
Capone: In THE CELL, it's insanity. And for THE FALL, it's for a suicidal, heartbroken man. You said you were in a similar place when you first started working on this film. How do you even begin to come up with a look for a state of mind?
Tarsem: A lot of people think that I must do drugs or drink a lot, but I'm a teetotaler; I've never had a drink in my entire life, not for religious purposes. All my damn friends do every drug possible; I can't ever get along with people who don't drink because that would mean that they're recovering alcoholics or very religious, two things I don't have in common with anybody. I've never tried because I have a very addictive personality. I know that if I like it, I'll have AA on my forehead in about six months [laughs]. So it doesn't come from there.
I've always been interested in visuals, so when I came here, I looked at American advertising, and I knew that it wasn't my cup of tea because I realized that a lot of the stuff was being sold just with dialogue, much like dialogue-based films. And I was in a visual state, so I figured Europe was the answer, because I was seeing incredibly visual commercials happening there, and I figured the reason was that whatever was being made in London also had to run in Germany, France, etc. So visually, you had to sell the idea. I may be over-simplifying, I ended up sharpening my teeth in that background.
So of course, when you spend that much time doing something, it's bound to rub off on you. People always say a director coming from my background--from candy--these guys are shit. But I think, not really, we're just being very true to our background. This is where we sharpened our teeth. Maybe as we get older and grow tired of that, we might change, but trying to do something that we are not would not be auteur.
So for me, Michael Bay is as much of an auteur as the next guy, because he was in school with me, and his taste was shit then. [laughs] And he hated my stuff, and when we were there together, you could use any piece of music you wanted in your student films, possibly for a showreel. He chose Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," while everybody else is putting on Tom Waits. His tastes just happen to be commercial, and he doesn't put on a front to be somebody else.
It's not like Coppola, who is phenomenal, and then you give him something to try and make that doesn't come from him and you get jack. It's just something that comes naturally to Michael Bay; you can spot his films from a billion miles away. You might not agree with it, but a billion other people might agree with it. But that's what it is.
Capone: You can't accuse him of being a phony.
Tarsem: Yes, that's my key word. That's exactly it. He's true to himself.
Capone: I won't argue with you on that. I'm curious why for THE FALL you chose this '20s time period, Hollywood.
Tarsem: Only for one reason. I wish I could have gotten out of it, but I couldn't. I wanted to make it set in contemporary times, but I couldn't.
About five or six years ago, I thought I could make it that the guy is American and the little girl is Indian, so if he's trying to take his story to a cowboy genre, she moving it toward a musical, and there would have been a lot more play toward comedy. But I found it quite manipulative.
But I needed to find someone who would not have seen cinema because I had a very particular style of acting and theatrics in mind, and I can't think of a place on the globe today, unless you are looking for a wolf-child. But I couldn't think of a place today where you might find a child who hadn't been exposed to cinema, not an Eskimo, no one.
I couldn't create a situation where one character is familiar with cinema and the other is not, so that their imagination would be tangent, pure, not tainted at all by any genre yet. So it ended up being a period piece, and the latest I could move it was toward the early '20s.
Capone: Lee plays a swashbuckler quite convincingly. In those scenes, what surprises did he bring to the film?
Tarsem: You know what, that stuff was so ridiculous looking, that he really took to it. If you've ever seen Eiko's [Ishioka] costumes, they look so dreadful on set. If you don't light them correctly, people look beyond gay. They look horrendous. And it was really good for Lee to trust me.
He would say, "We look like clowns." And I would say, "Good, play it for tragedy." "But it seems funny." "No, it's at a tragic point. You're killing her, and you're overdosing. Play it over the top, but don't go broad." And he just completely trusted me. And he only questioned me one time. I'd never in a million years be able to get in front of the camera, so I have big respect for people who can act. I would never throw a line at him; I'd just tell him a situation.
There was one time, in a hospital scene, that he said, "It's too big for me to take pills while she's lying on my shoulder." And I said, "I can't think of another way. As far as you're concerned, she doesn't know; you're going to sleep; she's going to leave. And you're trying to OD." And he thought that was really unforgivable, but he did it.
But in every other place and situation, I think everybody was so out of their element that they completely had to go in saying they had no clue what was happening. "What do you want?" And I think if at any particular point I blinked, everybody would have killed me. So I had to be completely secure and say, "You stand there. I am on another hill, and I'm telephoto shooting you doing this." And he said, "Okay."
I've always hated that word, "swashbuckle"; I've always hated pirate films. And I'm thinking, "Why am I doing this?" And when we did it, I kind of realized it's neither. She doesn't like them either, so I just gave her what I thought I would like to see. So it played off of that. And the ending, the death of the characters was something that was very realism based. For me, all the time the characters are acting like they shit marbles, and then in the third act, I very much wanted it to be like Pasolini's line of being mythical characters. Maybe a better analogy would be Rodney Dangerfield. He used to do his "no respect" routine.
There used to be one line he'd say that when he was young, his father told him that Santa Claus got cancer. I loved that line, because here is a character who's mythical. You tell the kid he fell off his sled, it's understandable; but you say cancer, that's a very tangible, hair-falling-off, dreadful disease to give a mythical character. And I just thought that when these guys die, their deaths have to be tangible. They're trying to be heroic but at the same time, their shit smells. That came from there, and I told that to Lee. But because nobody had been to these parts of the world, and I'd just say "Do this," I think they were very receptive.
Capone: The death scenes bring the two worlds crashing into each other.
Tarsem: Crashing, yes. And at that particular point, she's saying, "I don't like this story." And there's a fight for whose story it is all along, but he lets it go because he needs something from her. When he doesn't need something from her or he's drunk or he's angry, he takes revenge on the characters, he says, "Fuck it. Let's kill the characters." And no matter what she does, he's going to kill them. And he thinks that storytelling is a one-way street, but it's not. She, through her innocence, ends up extracting a promise from him that he might not necessarily keep.
Yesterday I did a survey in the theater, and this is something I tried on Fincher's wife and all the women and the men that I knew who saw the film earlier, and I asked them, "What do you think happens to him at the end?" And about 80 percent of women think he made it, and close to 40 percent of men think he made it. The rest think that he died there as a handicapped.
Some don't think it really matters, could be either, those are the skeptics. It was a very conscious effort. I shot that last scene with him and with another actor, and I will keep fudging the frames in between, and I hope the DVD cut doesn't come out fast enough for people to start freeze-framing and seeing where he is and where he's not.
For me, it's not important. As far as she was concerned, Michael Bay makes great films and so does Jerry Bruckheimer; art house films are shit. All the stunts were done by this guy, and everybody knows that Buster Keaton did his own stunts. But as far as she was concerned, she can see him. So did she see him or no? It's up to you. If you really want a happy ending, yeah. If you want a sad ending, boom, he's still in the hospital. If you're skeptical, it's up to you. Someone asked that question the other day, "What happened to him?" And I said, "You are the guy who's supposed to tell me, not me to you. It's your call."
At this point, Tarsem was told that he had to stop our nearly 40-minute interview (which was only meant to be 15 minutes). He asked if I still had more questions, to which I responded, "I guess so, I'm just free-forming at this point." He replied, "That's perfect. That's what this movie is all about, free forming." So he agreed to call back in 20 minutes, which based on our conversation, I felt sure wouldn't happen (I was right). Still, true to his word, he did arrange to continue our conversation about two weeks later, and I'll have that for you tomorrow.