Tarsem Singh Talks About ‘Self/Less’ and How His Stylistic Departure Isn’t Really a Departure

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Since making his feature film debut in 2000 with The Cell, Tarsem Singh has built a reputation as an extremely visual filmmaker. With his latest film Self/Less, the Indian director has made a departure from his typical style. But Singh would be the first to tell you that Self/Less isn’t so much a departure, just a conscious decision to avoid being pigeonholed. I recently got to sit down at a roundtable interview with Singh to discuss Self/Less, working with Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley, as well as other aspects of filmmaking.

On what attracted him to Self/Less:

Two things: One, because I always wanted to do one visual film and then it ended up being two, and it ended up being three, and it ended up being four, and then suddenly all that anybody knew was that I wanted to do fantastical stuff. And I said after that, ‘That’s 5% of my work.’ Mostly when I work in advertising. I’ve been saying I wanted to do a thriller or something interesting. Suddenly I was thinking, if I don’t make the change now, best case scenario, 10 years from now, 5 years from now, if I’m still working in town, I’ll just get the rejects of people like Tim Burton. So I said, ‘No, I want to make this choice now.’ I was looking for a thriller and a non-fantastical thriller – I know that this is slightly sci-fi, but not really, it’s just a McGuffin for me in this particular one – and thematically I was a very interested in it.

Did he want include any surrealism in Self/Less:

Bloody hell! I did. And you know what happened? It actually stuck out a little bit. And then they asked me to remove it, and I was at first fighting them at the studio, and then I thought, ‘No, it slows it down.’ It had one surreal section and it needed, just for today’s audiences it is a relatively slower moving film, and I just thought that it shouldn’t slow down anymore. So there was one and I just thought, ‘No, the effects was not what this film is about.’ And neither was it about how believable is it, but you can show a machine that – as I said, in an independent film the answer would’ve been totally different, the two of us would just put our thumbs on our phones and DING! we are each other. Or you go there and it’s believable, or the more money people pay, more production money, the bigger machine they want and bigger aliens have to come down. So for me, that’s the least interesting thing to me. So just with as many of today’s things that I can find from MRI machines and all that, just adapt them in a way that people have seen the stuff around. And they think like, ‘Yeah, if you switch that stuff around that’s what would happen.’ I didn’t want somebody to sit down and start talking about quantum physics in there. Just go in there and – it’s a McGuffin.

On piecing together a complex sci-fi narrative:

When you show it to people – if this was India, I wouldn’t have to do any of that. I’d buy that and a dollar. Here people need different answers. For me, you show it to the audiences, and they go like, ‘not buying that’ or ‘too tacky’ and you find a mix. For me, I thought the bullet thing was too obvious. When you talk to the audience, there was a light amount of ‘I’m lost,’ ‘I got it.’ Then you find that mixture later. I don’t believe in finding a movie in the edit. The movie is 23 seconds shorter than what I showed them. When I finished it, the director’s cut was 23 seconds longer. All that’s shifted is making certain things clearer, certain things not that clear. Just we needed something that makes him outdo the other guys. He could’ve had a banana in his ear for all I cared.

On the ever-elusive final cut:

Final cut is given to very few people. And also when you get it, it’s not the best thing to have because suddenly if they don’t agree with you, they might take it out in much smaller cinemas. This particular one, they looked at that and they saw that the audience completely loved it. That’s why it waited for this long because they decided it would come out in the summer. And I thought, ‘Oh, it’ll get lost in the summer movies.’ They said, ‘Yes, we’ll go with the counterprogramming, but we believe in it so we’re going to put our money into it.’ This is supposed to be a much smaller film, but the audience went for it. For me, I don’t know if I want it. Most of the time you’re dealing with people who are asking those questions, they’re very intelligent people. They’re just trying to, you know, invest – make sure their investment is safe. For me, it’s a question of when somebody puts that much money in it, how much milk will I allow them to put into my coffee and still think it’s good enough? I wish the music was a little more different, but most of the New Orleans music I got, that’s alive in the movie. That made it good for me.

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On filming an extensive car chase:

You actually haven’t seen my commercials. My commercials used to be – they’re very action-oriented. It’s just I haven’t done those films. I’ve done a kiddie movie, and I’ve done surreal films, and I ended up with those. For this particular one, I just thought, like, go much more [John] Frankenheimer style so you can feel the weight of the car. Obey the rules of physics. It’s that kind of chase. That you spend more time investing people into a grounded character. So when he goes and gets hurt, you want it to feel real. It was more a question of let’s make sure that the car chase is believable and real, not Fast & Furious. As much as those effects are incredible and wonderful, this film didn’t warrant it.

On being perceived as simply a visual director:

With The Fall, I got to do whatever I wanted and I just made the movie I wanted. This particular way, I think in the end – like, I’m getting the script from somebody else because I’m really lazy. It took me 17 years to get The Fall written down the way I wanted and it was also still only 10-20 pages. I don’t have another one in that style that I want to do. So with thrillers, it would take me too long to write and there are certain people who can write them. If you show me something that works on paper, I can hit it out of the ballpark. On the other hand, visual films somehow are badly perceived. A lot of people think like, ‘Eh, it’s crap but he can fix it because he’s visual.’ And I go like, I just don’t want to go there anymore. So this was a fight for a while.

The writers did a really good job, and I read it, and I said, ‘I can see what this is.’ I’ll tell you the reason my DNA will be in it is because just where I’ll put the camera. I’m not going to shoot it with my telephone. It’s not going to be shaky cam – certain things I love that in, but this is not that type of film. It can be grounded and cinematic without being shaky cam and shitty. And I just went for that. Most people who haven’t seen my backside of my work, always look at it like, ‘This is a complete shift for you.’ And I’ll say, ‘Movies? Yeah.’ But I shoot 300 days in a year. And most of the stuff is not fantastical at all.

What it was like working with the cast of Self/Less:

Great. I was only afraid of Ben Kingsley. But he was phenomenal. He got along like – I just love him. Still in touch all the time, have dinners and everything. That was the only person where I was thinking, ‘Where can it go?’ Because I didn’t know if I’d get Gandhi or Sexy Beast. I think he’s amazing. If he feels that you know what you’re doing, it turned out great.

[Derek] Luke was fantastic. When I saw Luke’s previous stuff, the only thing of Luke I asked him was, ‘Take a look at a movie and I don’t want you to do it in that style.’ It was [David] Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. I said, ‘Look at Ed Harris.’ That when he gives that information about the guy who cut his eye open with this thing – just the way he delivers it in a mall. Luke took this in and completely made it his own. I just looked at him and I said, ‘You don’t have to go over the top with it. We don’t have to do the whole black thing and all that.’ By the same token, the movie is a little stylized. I just said, ‘Take that, that’ll come from me but don’t take the acting there.’ And he was there in two seconds.

On fears that the marketing department might give away too much of the film:

Always. Have you ever met a director who thought that they made the right trailer? No. For me, this is one of the best ones I’ve ever had because I think my previous trailers were horrendous. The bar was set really low. For this particular one, the question becomes about how much you give away. I think I see that a lot. People say, ‘You gave it away.’ And I say, ‘I’ll agree.’ The thing of it is when you look at [laughs] – it literally goes like this: people want to see a movie that they feel they know what’s going to happen and then they get double-crossed. One movie that completely fooled me and I now agree with where the marketing department went with it is Side Effects. I could not bring myself to go see that movie. Then one day, a Saturday night, I was so pleasantly shocked. I said, ‘My god, if I had any inkling where this was going…’ Then I realized – you know what, they couldn’t. Because if you told me that this was a set-up I wouldn’t have bought any of that, but at the same time, you couldn’t get anybody into the theater because that’s what they thought it was. So when people spend money, and they say, ‘That’s what marketing tells us.’ I go, ‘Alright, I hope you’re right.’ Because I’ve always lost on the trailer fights. I just kind of go, ‘I do this for a living. I cut movies. I cut commercials.’ They just go, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ So I just go away before I make more enemies.

I come back and look at it, I think there’s something good in our trailer. It goes to the set-up of the second act. It makes you think something is happening that is not. So I looked to the trailer and said, ‘Ah, people think that they’ve actually got the story out of the trailer, they haven’t.’ But there’s something in the second act where you watch it with an audience that haven’t seen the trailer, there was incredible shock. That was brilliant. And I think a bit of that is gone, but there’s still enough to go on. That and hopefully between them and people that’ll just say, ‘Hated that movie, but I’m gonna go see it. I know it’s going to be terrible, but I’m gonna go see it.’ And then there’s people who say, ‘Lovely movie, I don’t want to see it.’

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On directing two different actors playing the same character:

If I get to do the movie my way, like I did The Fall, that’s exactly what would’ve happened. Of course, they said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I said, ‘First I’ll shoot Ben Kingsley, then I’ll shoot Ryan.’ They go, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.’ And we’re about to shoot the movie, ‘You get Ryan Reynolds for 3 months and the last two weeks Ben Kingsley will show up.’ And I went, ‘What?!?’ Then you turn around and say, ‘Okay, how do I adapt?’ I said, ‘Leave it for me because I don’t think the movie is about that.’

And it’s a question that nobody really knows what happens when you go into another body. It’s just whatever rules you make. People will really have a hiccup about, you know, like accents. You know, like what’ll happen to a particular accent once he goes in. And I say, well, if you had a lisp in one body, and you go to the other one and the teeth are together, would you still have a lisp? Is it just muscle memory with your tongue and your mouth or whatever? But certain habits that you have could transfer. So I actually took seven or eight of them and only one of them survived. He used to have this little sarcastic laugh and smile that I had from both characters. So only one survived. That way he walks in and has that habit of throwing his keys over from the back. So I just – I took a couple of those and glasses with the other guy, which transfers. Between Luke and the other guy, it’s just a slip of the tongue. It’s just a McGuffin, a rule that we make up. For me, accents is where I always lose. I had no problem with Alexander, and everybody gave such a lot of shit to Oliver Stone. For me, all white people sound the same.

I didn’t want Anton to start doing bro stuff. You know, the white Anton to start acting like the black guy or the black guy to act differently. I didn’t want that. But there’s one that I feel really bad about, and I don’t know whose little bonnet it got into, and they cut it out was the – I’ll say black and white Anton —  the black Anton, when he’s underneath shooting at the guys and he says like, ‘I’m gonna burn you. I’m gonna cook you up.’ And I had him say a line that I loved, because this was a guy they got from Russia, and I had put the line in and made him say, ‘I’m gonna make goulash out of you!’ Most black people, or anyone who would watch this, would say like, ‘What the fuck?’ That’s true. But later on when you find out that guy is actually from Russia, it would make more sense. And I tried to fight for it, and you kind of pick your fights. Some can’t get into a room without having an issue, asking why is the black guy saying, you know, like ‘goulash.’ I’m thinking, ‘Because he’s not black! He’s a Russian guy in that body.’ I lost that fight, but I wish I had it in because later on when you see him sitting in the car, I had his radio tuned to Russian economics. I really thought it played well. But when you can’t see the people you’re trying to fight, it’s better to just say let me pick them.

On working with Victor Garber:

He’s such a sympathetic characters. There’s certain people that if you want to fool people into thinking ‘Are they creepy? Are they a villain?’ you kind of don’t want them to be. Lee Pace would be one of those. It’s like that with Victor. So Victor, he’s made this decision out of very correct choices. It’s like, this guy helped me through my whole life. And he had a son who was dying, and somebody comes to you says like, you know, ‘Hey, we built this thing out of a lab.’  None of us in this room, I hope, have had that issue with a child, but when that happens you grab at straws. And he’s made that decision. He’s not a bad guy. Every decision is made right. He did not have a bee in his bonnet at all. He tried to pass something altruistic to his friend. He didn’t do it to himself. He just thought that this guy could do more for the world than go out now.

It’s strange we had Garber on the first day of the shoot and the last day of the shoot. I literally had him on the first day in the house – I think we shot that for two days – and then one day in New York. He was literally the bookends. If you want to put somebody on a table with Ben Kingsley and they can’t act – you gotta make sure. Garber is so great. And that young guy who only had that scene [Sam Page], we cast him literally three days before. I had to stand and give him applause because he did not lose his balls. I was just thinking you have Garber and Kingsley and you have all those lines and you’ve just been cast coming in on the table and deliver. And he was great.

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