Drawing from the Classics: Tarsem Singh’s Immortals

Tarsem Singh is on a roll. With his new film Immortals—in which Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a mortal man chosen by Zeus to lead a war against a power-hungry king (Mickey Rourke)—soon coming out in theaters across the globe and Mirror Mirror—his highly anticipated take on the story of Snow White—making its way through post, the director is picking up the pace.

No more the promising, often brilliant visual stylist who comes out with a rare movie gem every few years, Singh has set his sights on becoming a more constant force in moviemaking, and he certainly has the potential to become one to be reckoned with. A graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Singh spent the first decade of his career making commercials and music videos. His college portfolio, described by Singh as “the best thing I ever did,” quickly helped land him a place in the industry. “The first thing I did out of school was [the music video for REM’s] ‘Losing My Religion,’” recalls Singh. “People said, ‘You’re really lucky.’ But the people who hired me weren’t fools. They weren’t just going to give the job to anybody; they saw my portfolio.” Intending to work in commercials for at least a decade in order to learn the tools of the trade, Tarsem eventually landed his first feature, 2000’s The Cell, which he followed up in 2006 with his personal project, The Fall, both of which revealed the director’s genius for visual storytelling.

Singh recently chatted with MovieMaker about how he constructs the always-striking visuals of his films and the somewhat unlikely inspiration for the overall look of Immortals.

Phillip Williams (MM): Did you have an overall approach to lighting on Immortals? How did you use light to tell the story?

Tarsem Singh (TS): For me, there isn’t a particular painting style or comic strip style that I wanted. The comic strip seems to be the thing that everybody wants to do right now, and I just thought, ‘That’s been done.’ On the other hand, there’s the hand-held, gritty approach, but that’s too lazy, especially when you are doing a 3-D film. It would die. The period that I picked from is closer to when mankind first discovered [and] wanted to depict perspective: Basically, the Renaissance. I just thought, ‘The thing about that time, especially with people like Caravaggio, is lighting.’ It’s infinitely far away, single source lighting. That’s the style I wanted. Then I had this vision of doing the whole movie in medium shots, just like Caravaggio’s paintings. But you realize, no, that cannot have action, it will become too stilted, it won’t move fast enough for a contemporary audience. So you keep that lighting in mind and keep that framing in mind and just say, ‘If Caravaggio or [his contemporaries] had access to film, I don’t know if they would have just painted in that style or if they would have taken that and moved on with it.’ So we just took that as the original inspiration.

MM: Did you have anything in mind overall for the performances in Immortals? What did you tell your actors?

TS: I just told them it would be like Renaissance times… The action would be much more [like] Oldboy or Fight Club, but at the same time, we would not cut that fast. It would be much more painterly than contemporary in the fighting—it’s going to be very personal. And that’s the style that I went for. Then I said, if within this I will tell the tale of the gods, it won’t be people looking into cauldrons—looking in the water and saying, ‘What are the humans up to?’ I told them that I [didn’t exactly] know how we would approach [the relationship between the world of gods and the world of men], but that maybe we’ll just pull back and pull back and then you realize—through line of sight—that the gods can see what’s happening. Then Avatar came out, and I couldn’t do these floating islands up in the sky, where I wanted to put the gods. So I thought, ‘We won’t show it. They are on top of the mountain that you never see the base of.’ I told [the actors], ‘These are the design elements, and you guys should just agree with the story, and we will go from there.’ When I go onto the set, often the first thing I do is clear out everyone but the actors. Then I tell the actors to just do the scene without any particular restraints or preconceptions, to find out what feels right both in terms of action and performance. Once we have blocked it out together, then I choose my shots, which is really—at the end of the day—what the director’s job is.

Photograph Courtesy of Relativity Media

Photograph Courtesy of Relativity Media

MM: How do you work with writers?

TS: I made a very conscious decision early on not to work with [completely] finished material. I would say, ‘If you want me [to direct this], I’ll tell you how I see this working.’ If something really sings on paper, I don’t see any reason to turn it into a movie; just leave it as literature. I like the writers to provide me with a rough layout of the structure, of plot and action. Tell me the main beats. Tell me where the obstacles are: Here he starts out, here he has a problem, here he meets the girl. I’ll write the rest. But now I think I’d like to chose more polished scripts, because what I do tends to take a long time, and I’d like to start making a film a year if I can.

MM: You images are so powerful. What is your approach to constructing the visuals, to choosing the look?

TS: Well, if—as with Immortals—there is a war in the film, my approach is, rather than have a bunch of gamers or previs[ualization] artists work it out (which bores me to tears), I say, ‘Give me a couple weeks and I’ll tell you how to make war look interesting.’ So I start to ask, ‘Is it a visceral war? A bloody war?’ And I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like the Sistine Chapel on film.’ I didn’t want to do a video game or even Lord of the Rings; I wanted to reference this painting. But looking up [at images] in the sky is not the most dynamic angle to film, it’s just the most dynamic angle to paint. So that was part of the evolution of my thinking, but it took a bit to work out how to show the action in that context: Looking up! Then we had to look at how to portray the gods. What does heaven look like? If the gods are on top of the mountain, you should be able to see them from Earth, which I did not like. I thought, ‘We just won’t have a master shot that shows you that.’ So you just define those ideas slowly, slowly—that’s why they take time. MM

Immortals, starring Henry Cavill and Mickey Rourke, comes out in wide release this Friday, November 11th. For more information, visit www.immortalsmovie.com.

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