Tarsem Singh on ‘Immortals’ and ‘Mirror, Mirror’

The outspoken atheist explains why he made a movie about faith, gives details about his Snow White movie  Mirror, Mirror, describes his original ending to Immortals and explains all the crazy hats.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Tarsem Singh has a reputation as a formidable visual stylist thanks to movies like The Cell and The Fall, and music videos like R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion. His new film, Immortals, opens November 11th, and continues that tradition. We talked to Mickey Rourke yesterday (boy, was that a doozy), and will unveil our reviews on Friday, but right now we've got an in-depth interview with the director about why a confirmed atheist like himself made a movie that rejects atheism, how to make 3D work for a change, how the film original ended (we'll give out a SPOILER warning, don't worry), what his Snow White movie Mirror, Mirror is really about (more SPOILERS there), and most importantly… What's up with all the crazy hats?


CraveOnline: There’s one thing I want to get out of the way. I want to talk about the religion, I want to talk about some of the 3D you used…

It’s the same thing. [Laughs.]


One of the things that most fascinated me is that, this is a film of many, many hats.



All the hats are very striking and very interesting. I’ve never seen a movie with such a fetish for hats.

[Laughs] That’s okay!


Tell me about the hats. Because you could have given them any hats. Kellan Lutz, for example, has this very distinctive… tiara… war helmet?

[Laughs.] I turned it around one week before we started shooting. It was designed the other way around.


It was just backwards?!

[Laughs.] When I had him diving, I couldn’t see his face! Can you just turn the f***ing thing around? All you have is shells, and I said that’s all you need to know. He’s in the water, and he’s got shells, and that’s enough!


The visual design is so striking. I think we’re used to seeing a classical, almost a minimalist… Everyone had so much relative poverty at the time, and here we have sort of a pageant. A lot of your films are very striking visually… Well, all of them…

Because it’s not true to any period. When I started this movie I was just interested in why superior beings would not interfere in the misery of mankind. If you had to believe in them. So I started with that, so then I just said, does it have to be Greek? I could make it into, it could be like [Baz Luhrmann’s ] movie, Romeo & Juliet in Mexico. I just said this could be kind of like post-apocalypse Greek times, [or] Renaissance times with electricity. We started designing it and then it came back as, you know what? Greek-oriented movies will do really well. So I kept elements into it, but still with a lot of contemporary pieces. Then in the end it turned out we didn’t really need any of them. [Laughs.] One piece that’s still left in there, a mile-high concrete dam. People are telling me, “No, in Theseus’s time…” I said you have a problem with that bloody dam, but you [don’t] have a problem with the Gods? There’s nothing true in it! So I just decided that you don’t have to have Greek helmets. The eye was always with the Greeks, so make the eye above the helmets. We redesigned the helmets. The Gods… Do we need helmets for them or not? No, we need helmets because I wanted to do a lot of fighting with stunt people… When they fight, I didn’t have money to have the level of, the number of stunt people that I needed. Then I just said: everybody wears helmets. We started helmets that covered most of their faces. […] That’s how it evolved.


You had a great story at Comic Con about coming up with this movie after talking with your mother [who took issue with his atheism].

That’s how it all started.


So you yourself, you are more of an atheist.

I always have been. Since I was nine.


This is a movie that is interesting because…

It proves the atheists wrong.


It proves the atheists wrong! Do you think only an atheist could have done this movie without seeming preachy?

No, I just think it proves to me that, when my Mom made that comment, that’s an interesting story because it is how most people are. Most people believe there are gods. And I just think if they’re out there, I just can’t find a reason why they would let us be so miserable. So I said, if I find that reason, then I’ll make this. When I came around to it, they’re reason is that they’re almost like the… The non-interference to let the creature have its own background. Free will is the reason why they don’t interfere. Kind of like when you have a zoo, and you don’t… Really, truly the best zoos are like in 2001. The aliens don’t want you to see them. They don’t want to be feeding the monkey the banana. They want to just watch them. That is what the gods want you to do. They want you to think on your own. If they just showed up on the lawn of the White House and said “Here we are,” you’d have a really big problem doing the private things that most people do on the computer.


That’s very true!

[Laughs.] So I said you have to have it on faith. So I started with that, and that’s what it is. But in the end, Theseus is not a guy who has faith. No faith, and then he unfortunately cheats! He ends up with direct proof that there’s god! If I had direct proof that God existed, and he was… I would do the thing that most guys do, which is blow yourself up! And suddenly, we just thought that the moment you killed anything, God is going to open up the heavens for you…!

There’s a movie that came out last year, infinitely worse than yours, ‘Clash of the Titans.’ It just didn’t make any sense! In that movie the idea is that the prayers feed the gods, but the gods won’t interfere. That’s confusing! You want people to know you’re there! You want people to pray to you!

I always look at that and say, what a conceited bastard! If I made a world of ants, I’d be so happy that those ants were just happy with each other, as opposed to [having] a little place with an altar saying, “You’re so f***ing cool.” I have a problem with that! So I said these guys are up there, they don’t care about anything except “Solve it among yourselves! Solve it among yourselves, because if we showed up…” The only thing, the game changer, is like giving a bazooka to someone in the Middle Ages, to one side, without any background. If that happens, and the guy goes to release the Titans, who are ex-gods, they’ll wipe out mankind. So that’s the game changer. Until that particular point, no interference. That’s what we wanted.


I want to talk about the 3D. A lot of critics, myself included, are not fans of 3D. This, on the other hand, was really interesting.

That’s a great statement to hear! [Laughs.] But I tell you, it was a conscious decision there. When I went and I said, most 3D is trying to come out the screen to you. What I’d like to do is keep the guys where they are, and give a little depth to it. That’s what I was interested in. So when we started with it, I just told them I will need that means, after we finish the movie, just for the conversion of the movie, I will need a year. So it took me, to do that, every time we shot it. And certain people’s styles lend itself to 3D. You know, what I do or [Tim] Burton does, or anyone who sits there with the camera, it tends to… But things like what Paul Greengrass would do…


That would kill you.

You don’t want to go there. You would die. So for me, it’s lends itself to [3D] but at the same time, if you aren’t composing and allowing, from the very beginning, it’s the kiss of death. And Clash of the Titans proved it to everybody that when you hurry that up, the bar went so low that everybody reacted so strongly to it. There was a not a person who… And still, unfortunately, they made money out of it. And then finally [they] realized that you can’t really go to that well too often. They were completely right in taking it away from the last Harry Potter. It’s not ready in time, no amount of money fixes it, walk away.


I was in a theater and they were showing the preview for the second-to-last ‘Harry Potter,’ when it was still going to be in 3D. It said, “Harry Potter!” The audience went, “YAAAAY!!!” Then, “in 3D.” “BOOOOOO!!!”

Booooo!!! Perfect.


You let everything have depth as opposed to foregrounding it…

That’s the point. I want to learn that line. I did not foreground coming into cinema as much as I want it going back past the screen.


But what you did, however… You compose such interesting frames. It reminded me in some ways, and this is going to sound like an extreme analogy, but sort of what Orson Welles was doing in ‘Citizen Kane’ with deep focus. Where the frame can have unexpected depth. We’d be in a scene with Hyperion, and then the camera moves out a little bit, and there’s this unexpected depth that we discover organically, rather than cutting to it and having it be jarring.

Basically, it’s the difference between montage and mis en scène. The thing with Orson Welles is when you had deep focuses, what happened in natural light is… Truly, when I’m watching you, actually that window in the back [of you] is out of focus. But, if this light is more and more [bright], without even noticing it that [window] becomes sharp. When filming, you tend to make that decision for the audience. Look at this window. Look at this guy. With deep focus, you had the set and your eye could wander, so with this depth going backwards and letting it sit there, what happens is your eye is free to go where you want it to. Now, if I could make it all deep focus, I would, I but think my actors would boil. The amount of light that is required to do that…


Very true!

You could do that in an animation film quite easily. But what will happen is it will be such an alien experience, what real life is like. But if you did it fast-cutting-wise, it would kill you. You have to make [3D] do things just in mis en scène, which is a guy just sits while the other guy is terrified of him [in a single frame]. It’s great. But the moment you have to cut to this guy, cut to that guy, you’re dead.


People think of ‘The Cell,’ people think of ‘The Fall,’ and they think of this sort of grandeur, these sorts of extremes, but there’s a lot of temperance involved. You’re restraining a lot of the camerawork so…

I’m with you! [Laughs.] I think most people would disagree with you. I’m with you! Thank you!


I think you’re a particularly strong visual stylist. I like this movie, which had a lot of things on its mind. It ends with a very big sequel tease. Would you be on for that?

Would I be on for the sequel? I have no interest in it unless somebody told me a theme that would interest me.


But you did set it up though.

I did, because I had that [sequel tease] as the ending just because basically… Actually, I wanted a different ending. I wanted one particular time that this world would make sense, if there were people who were trying not to interfere, not to feed the zoo animals, and they died. So now the world would make sense to me.


I like that.

Anybody who saw them for real died. So that means they’re there. We [the audience] know it as an outside entity, but nobody knows for sure that gods came down. That’s how I wanted it. So when you go there the problem is that any sort of vision of the future of a scope of conflict continuing. That was the thing of it. The [sequel tease] is not a literal interpretation. If they came to me and they said they’d be interested in sequels, I don’t think they’d be able to afford the budget I would need for flying guys to fight. [They] looked at that and they said, can’t you make it a war where two enemies come and fight? I said that’s so boring!


It’s been done!

Then I just thought, oh, you know what? You’re talking about a war in the heavens. Let’s start with the Sistine Chapel. I looked at that, and I thought, not everyone in the Sistine Chapel is [portrayed] looking up to… You assume that you’re looking up at their bollocks, at their balls. You’re not! They’re facing you, flat, only a couple people you see past the crotches. So I just said, change it! Let’s say you’re looking up Theseus’s crotch as you pull back, and as you come back you have this feeling that you’re looking at this Fresco because it’s a vision. It’s not a direct interpretation. And I haven’t cracked how I could actually do guys flying and actually make it interesting. It would be very difficult. So I just did that. That used to be in the opening, so when it came to that [sequel tease] I just said, okay, that’s the very ending. Leave it there. Am I interested in a sequel? Unless I find the thing that puts my stamp on it, I wouldn’t. I would just say that whoever [takes over] has a hell of a job coming! [Laughs.]


You talked about how you wanted all the gods to die, and only Zeus really survives…

Yes, and you wouldn’t see him! My thing would be that you never saw Zeus take off. He was almost killed, and then at the end John Hurt is talking to the boy, and you would understand that he actually got away. But people were like, “OH, YOU KILLED THE GODS!!!” I said, “They’re gods you don’t even believe in!” You can’t kill the gods, you can’t. My god, that tells you just how desperately everybody needs these beings. We need them a lot more than I thought we did.


There was a very nice way you did end it, with the big statue telling the story of Theseus, and how less than a generation later it’s already wrong! Now it’s an actual Minotaur!

[Laughs.] I am glad you caught that. Because I made that [based on] what happens in the four Stations of the Cross, mixed with Chinese Whispers. Suddenly it’s a really big guy fighting a Minotaur. All it was, was a guy in a mask, and what Hyperion looks like and the girls in the bull is a stylized interpretation. It’s already exaggerated to the point that [Theseus] is going to be treated like a god. Now it will become that probably, maybe his mom was a virgin! It’s all going to change now because his human form, now, will change for people. I find it really funny, you’re the only person who’s really mentioned it.


Really? I’m so smart.

I just said, you go down there and already it’s exaggerated beyond belief! “Wait a minute…!” That was a guy in the mask!

I thought it was a great ending, and I enjoyed the hell out of the movie. Just the pageantry was so wonderful.  I have to ask. How is Mirror Mirror (aka Snow White) coming?

Awesome.  It was much, much, much, much easier to do, because Julia [Roberts] was so on my side and everyone’s terrified of going against [her]. So all my fights were taken care of. I wanted to make a family film, and they asked me if I wanted to make it edgy, and I said, “No.”

So this is going to be family-oriented all the way.

It is a family film and it is my take on it. That is all I’m interested in.


PG all the way.

I hope so. Because they had a discussion about how they could make [Immortals] PG after we had shot it, and I said “You’ve got a ten minute movie.” [Laughs] I don’t think you can release it as a ten minute movie.


What is your take on that, that’s different from what Disney has done, or the horror version?

What I would say when you look at this particular one [The Immortals], whenever you have gods up there, my take on the gods is different from most ones. Because usually in the other ones the gods are like turning their cauldrons, and like, [taps his fingers together like Montgomery Burns] “What are the humans doing down there?” And I just no, just have them standing on a ledge, you go to the back of a retina and pull out, she can see direct eye-line, that’s how the gods are watching over us. So that was kind of my take on what they do.

In this particular one, it’s like the Queen, who’s looking into the mirror… You know, it’s always like the evil mirror, or she’s evil… She’s not evil; she’s just insecure. I said she’s insecure about beauty, about things that are passing her by, and now she wants to have power. Because the original one is just about vanity. It’s just about “Who’s the fairest?” I just said, so if she looks into the mirror – and I just don’t want her talking to the mirror – so I said she enters the landscape, which is a mindscape, and in there is a house, inside which are many mirrors, and in those mirrors she just talks to herself. So basically, it’s like all those nasty people that’ll always do what they want to do, but they hear voices, or [say] people told them. So it’s actually just her talking to herself. She’s just bad, but wants to outsource the evil and say “That thing told me.”


Oh, that’s really interesting.

So I found that really interesting, so I put one of those in.


I like this vanity aspect, because it always amused me that this woman who’s obsessed with beauty, at the end of the story, turns herself into a hag…

Hag! [Laughs] For me, in this one, she gets turned into a hag.


Okay, so that’s her comeuppance.

Because basically there’s a particular charm that she’s put around something that gets broken, her true age comes out. So it isn’t “I’m melting, I’m melting,” but it’s pretty gross! [Laughs]