Immortals: When an atheist made an epic movie on gods
Filmmaker Tarsem Singh's most extravagant film till date, Immortals opens in theatres worldwide tomorrow.
From his early days at the Bishop Cotton School in India, Singh's passion was to make films but his father, an aircraft engineer, was not impressed with his career plans. He was sent to America to study business at Harvard but ended up going to Los Angeles to make a film that won him a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. "My father thought I was headed for Harvard," Tarsem recalled. "I called him and said, 'I want to study film,' and he said, 'You don't exist anymore'."
As he dabbled in directing music videos and commercials before making films, Tarsem knew Hollywood was different than the film industry in Europe or India.
The Cell director talks to Arthur J Pais about Immortals:
What excited you the most about this project?
The idea that super humans or super heroes or gods could see the plight of man but could not help him. That's a very interesting concept. I have not been a believer in God since I was 9 years old but my mother (Harbans Kaur) is a religious person. So taking on a project like that can make you think that there are gods but they can't really do anything because their hands are tied. It was a very interesting project when it started three years ago and now it is ready for the audiences worldwide. It is set in ancient Greece but it is a universal story.
Something my mother said three years ago made me think a lot about this project. She was saying her early morning prayers when I said something blasphemous to her. She turned around and said, 'The only reason you have been successful is not because you're hard working but because of your mother's praying.' I began to think...What would happen if a person like me had a wrong take on the universe? What could make a non-believer start believing in gods? But the gods in the film are very different. They do not land suddenly on the lawns of the White House and start changing the world.
Have you changed your belief in religion or spirituality since this interaction with your mother or as a result of making this film?
Absolutely not. I have been like this since age 9 (chuckles). I believe there is no culture that is completely theistic and there are instances of a nonbeliever becoming an ardent believer. That is what happens in Immortals. But then this is a fantasy action film and I don't want it to be taken too seriously (on the subject of faith)...It is not advocating a return to gods.
Image: Tarsem Singh
'I decided within five minutes of meeting Freida that she was perfect for the role'
How did you zero in on casting Freida Pinto as an oracle?
When I was looking for an oracle, a soothsayer, I knew I had to go outside the (Greek) culture. I was not making this movie for an Indian audience; so the fact that Freida is from India did not impress me. Oracles and soothsayers are expected to be exotic. I said to myself, perhaps a Brazilian artist? Or an Indian? I didn't know any Brazilian artist. I wanted to meet Freida but I had not seen her movies.
When I met her, it took me about five minutes to decide that she was perfect for the role and she could connect with a global audience. I saw her in Slumdog Millionaire only after she was aboard. It is a good thing that I did not see the film before signing her (chuckles). She did not have a big role in it.
You took reproductions of certain paintings to the producers and discussed the look of the film...
Nowadays, there is a lot of interest in comic strips in the movie industry. I have no interest in that. I wondered instead, what it would look like if I took ideas from certain paintings from the Renaissance period and used them as an inspiration. What evolved out of it was a style of Renaissance painting with little lighting in it, a kind of Renaissance world, inspired by a bad boy painter called Caravaggio. Even in the contemporary world you could light things like this; but since it is a Greek world, it is much more fitting.
Image: A Immortals movie poster
'We worked for over six months to get the actors look super fit'
The preview audiences were very excited about the fight sequences. The gods fight at a furious speed, and the humans at a much slower speed. At times two kinds of fighting speeds are found in the same frame. A lot of critics have also spoken about these scenes.
Whenever there are gods fighting with humans, it gets over in a split second. I did not know initially how to make that fight happen. I was thinking if the gods have to kill the humans, they can possibly kill 83,000 people, without even moving an inch.
I wanted to take the superhuman abilities to another level. So during the battle scenes, the gods move much faster than humans. All our fights are quite different. Those that pit humans against humans take place in real time. And when gods go up against gods, they match each other's superior speed. But when gods go up against humans, humans are frozen. It's not a fair fight. And at times, all three types of battles are taking place simultaneously. I think it's pretty magical.
For the stunt guys, it has been quite difficult. They crack one scene, but the next scene does not have the same rules at all. We worked for over six months to get the actors look super fit and devised the fights.
The fight scenes are very intense.
We used computer graphics only when we had to show hundreds of people. Choreography began six months in advance of the shooting so that we could create a gritty, explosive and dangerous looking world. I wanted the fight scenes to have a more realistic, less stylised feel than is typical of many contemporary films. I wanted actual physical fighting with the weapons that they have. Some of it was done with wires, but there's just no substitute for physical combat. You can feel the impact. The climactic scenes are shot in a confined area. I like tighter places, so I created what I would call a bottleneck. We have this tunnel, and outside of it is the bigger army. Inside the tunnel, it becomes a personal fight.
I wanted to make sure that everything physically visible would always be real. The background scenes could be computer generated. The movie thus has a much more visceral feel, not a video feel to it.
Image: A scene from Immortals
'Making your first big budget movie is easier'
What are some of the things you told yourself that you did not want to do for this film?
Good question! I said I did not want to make a comic strip film. I also knew there had to be a woman in it who travels with the guys including a monk and a dishonorable character. There are emotions, action and glamour. In the end, the gods have very little wardrobe. They had to be physically fit. That had to be a factor in casting.
I knew I needed action in the film, but I wanted the serious action only towards the end for I wanted to develop the characters throughout the film.
We had to have the gods putting humans to the test without interfering in their (human) problems but then the gods are also tested. It's like seeing a documentary on a cheetah from a jeep in Africa. You know the cheetah is starving right now, but you cannot interfere. This is the only way these alien forms of gods can observe us. They see our pain but they're cannot interfere. I just thought that was an interesting take.
I also wanted to make the film at my own pace, at least in the scripting stage. There was a suggestion to release the film around the time The Clash of the Titans was released. I did not want to compete with that film.
Right from the start, we knew it was going to be a 3D film and we did not want to come out looking like we have made a cheap 3D film, as is it were an afterthought.
Tell us about the editing process.
It did not take a long time to edit this film. I wanted to make it in 3D, right from the start and I knew exactly how I wanted each frame to look. I told the studio that it is not something that can be hurried.
Making your first big budget film must have been daunting to some extent...
No. This is easier. When you are doing more personal films, when the movie is smaller, it is more difficult. With a larger movie and a bigger budget, all your problems are taken care of. It's a question of how much milk you are willing to let the studio put in your coffee.
Image: A scene from Immortals
'I could only think of Mickey Rourke for the role of the bad guy'
It's not that I do not want stars in my movies. Julia Roberts was so wonderful on my team (the untitled version of Grimm Brothers folk tales).
For the role of the bad guy (the ambitious, evil king Hyperion) there was only one actor I could think of, Mickey Rourke. You won't find a more original bad boy than Mickey. He is an actor, first. He's the real deal and I let him go with it. I had very definite directions for the other actors, but Mickey was allowed to bring whatever he wanted. He took the simplest of lines and added to them....He needs to intimidate everyone in every situation in Immortals. He's intimidating by never physically hitting anybody. If people walk in front of him, they cut out their own tongue. That's the intimidation factor. That's the kind of actor I wanted: the meanest, filthiest, intimidating to play his role.What do you enjoy more, the shooting or the editing process?
I enjoy the shooting process because every time I show up on the set I have no idea what I am filming. I go up there, I know the situation. I walk around and figure out...you do your thing throughout the day but don't know what is coming the next day. To think that you have it completely determined before the shoot is a false lead.
Image: A scene from Immortals