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30 Things We Learned From Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Cell’ Commentary

“The thing about this film is it’s an opera, and there is no such thing as a subtle opera.”
The Cell Vincent D'Onofrio
By  · Published on July 6th, 2015

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter listens to the commentary for the gorgeous, brutal, and twisted The Cell.

Tarsem Singh’s latest film, Self/less, opens in theaters this Friday, and while it offers some generic thrills it’s missing his usual visual flourishes. The rest of his filmography is overflowing with color, style and stunning displays of imagination, and while The Fall (2006) remains his best feature, The Cell (2000) will always be his first.

Warner Bros. is finally bringing The Cell to Blu-ray complete with all of the special features that originally appeared on the DVD. The Blu-ray hits shelves tomorrow and is available from Amazon. Keep reading to see what I heard on The Cell commentary!

The Cell (2000)

Commentator: Tarsem Singh (director)

1. The score in his head was always going to be “so, so, so slow,” but the temp track felt disjointed. Howard Shore’s score brought it all together for him. “It made the whole thing cohesive. Right from off the bat you said this is a movie not for my mother.”

2. The opening dream scene, filmed in Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia, is one of Tarsem’s favorite locations — he also filmed parts of The Fall there. “Everything looks artificial about it, but that’s exactly what it looks like. It’s just there, it’s a different planet all together.” He insisted the opening be done on location because he knew so much of the movie is set-heavy, and he “didn’t want to make the statement that if you go inside a person’s mind the thing is limited to sound stages.” He wanted to ensure viewers understand the mind is infinite even if their budget wasn’t.

3. Regarding costume designer Eiko Ishioka, he says “in her vocabulary, the word ‘subtle’ does not exist.” She also worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula as well as Tarsem’s The Fall, Immortals, and Mirror Mirror before passing away in 2012.

4. “The thing that’s on their faces,” he says, referring to those illuminated cloths masking the people in the dream state, “the c-word crept into my vocabulary when I made this film… compromise.” His design was a simple cloth with artwork woven into it, but his “ethereal” choice was overruled in favor of the more elaborate ones seen in the film. Tarsem still used his though in the later scene when we see Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) looking up as she heads into the dream world and the pattern is reflected on her eyes.

5. Tarsem recalls when Vincent D’Onofrio arrived for lighting tests, “and he came in and he just got into character and he came out with that look, and mmm, just how he moved, how he breathed, his base, just so so perfect throughout.”

6. Carl Stargher’s (D’Onofrio) first scene originally featured him whimpering, but Tarsem wanted to ensure that he was terrifying early on before the elaborate wardrobe designs came into play later “because most Americans will look at it as ridiculous and laugh.” Early test screenings including the whimpering, “and people would laugh, hahaha here’s a serial killer.”

7. He said he had no idea how funny Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies, Takers) is. “She is hilarious and so good at improvisation. She needs to be doing comedies, I swear.”

8. Tarsem refused to back down from his desire to film elements in Africa even as executives asked him “Are you telling us America doesn’t have deserts?!” He agreed the U.S. did but felt he had no time to go look for them when he already knew exactly where he could get it.

9. “Unfortunately everybody’s favorite shot in the film,” he says when Lopez appears in her underwear in front of the fridge. He also realized after the fact that it wasn’t smart to try and impart narrative notes while your lead actress is walking around half-clothed.

10. Deane’s choice of bed type — a waterbed — is an intentional one as it follows the theme of characters being suspended including the experimental dream process, Stargher’s chain and hook contraption, etc.

11. D’Onofrio passed out while shooting Stargher’s chain, hook and masturbation scene. “Just about when he’s supposed to come, he let out a big scream and had a blackout, and I was terrified.” They called someone in, but he was fine. Just pulling a D’Onofrio.

12. One of his big questions was how to play the Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) character. “The whole film was getting so so so so so dark,” he says, and they ended up having to find it in the editing. He was originally more of an “asshole” throughout, but test screenings left people confused as to which planet he was from.

13. He recalls a problem with actress Tara Subkoff that bled into her appearance in the film. She was asked if she could swim, and after stumbling briefly she said yes adding “I’m a lifeguard.” Tarsem had already lost the actress he had wanted for the role, and they were nearing the shooting date, so he hired her. “You can lie to a certain extent when somebody says ‘are you a horse rider’ and say yes and then go learn it, but you don’t say you’re a jockey!” He says it ended up being a disaster because he ended up having to do long shots. “I feel no sympathy for the girl when she gets saved in the end, and you can tell because of how I covered her. I just could not get near her.” She couldn’t go in the water without holding her nose, and it resulted in time lost and mounting frustrations. By contrast, the girl playing the bleached corpse, Catherine Sutherland, was great, and he wishes he had switched the two.

14. Tarsem prefers to look at a monitor as opposed to looking through the actual camera. “Whenever I’m shooting something I always think it’s shit. And then sometimes I look and other people’s stuff is shittier than mine so my stuff looks okay to me.”

15. Peter Sarsgaard makes an uncredited appearance in the film, and Tarsem says he wishes he had more for him to do. “That guy is a great actor.”

16. He brings up Subkoff’s lifeguard lie again fifteen minutes after railing against it earlier. I suspect he has not forgiven her.

17. Tarsem hired Pruitt Taylor Vince based on his performance in Jacob’s Ladder with the intention of capturing his infamous rapid eye shifts. Studio notes complained that it looked “funny” and he was forced to trim the scene.

18. He’s no fan of serial killer films in part because they’re so damn ubiquitous, and while he wasn’t interested in spoofing the genre he did want to see how far he could push the various elements.

19. The slow-motion shot of the wet dog shaking while the bloody tub sloshes beside it was tried with all manner of sounds accompanying it, but the visual itself was so “loud” that it worked best in silence.

20. His favorite set is the mechanical body basement that Deane explores and credits the stop-motion work of the Brothers Quay with inspiration.

21. The character of the dream-world female body builder was originally listed in the script simply as “helper,” so Tarsem asked the production designer what disturbs him. “Those women that work out,” was the reply, so they added her in. They soon realized that female body builders have tiny breasts though, and he was concerned viewers might think she was a man in drag so they gave her prosthetics.

22. Twenty minutes after last mentioning and griping about Subkoff he’s at it again.

23. The scene where Deane wakes up in her fancy body suit and walks toward the wall only to reveal that she’s shrunk and in the middle of an out of body experience was inspired by a scene from Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. He’s not happy with his take on it though and complains that he never quite got the angle/shot he wanted.

24. The three woman who meet Novak in Stargher’s subconscious were played by triplets because they didn’t have the budget to digitally replicate the actress. Ultimately it was for little effect though. “The amount of makeup and wardrobe we ended up with you didn’t really need to, they could have been anybody, no one even notices they’re triplets.”

25. Tarsem wasn’t sure how to stage the scene where Stargher attacks Novak on the bed. “Everyone was like ‘he can catch him, throw him up into those things and break that,’ and everything was such a fight sequence!” None of that was what he was after though, and thankfully D’Onofrio offered the perfect suggestion of “I can put a red sack on him.” Tarsem loved it.

26. He regrets chickening out over the scene where Stargher is disemboweling Novak who’s trying desperately to wake up Deane. They originally had a line where he reminds her that she had an abortion when she was in college and hasn’t had a steady relationship since. That’s the background that led to her being obsessed with children and also adds depth to her killing the child (Stargher) at the end of the film. “Nobody would let me do it, so I shot it anyway and had him scream it. He really fought me on it, but after he did it he loved it.” Too many folks in power were offended by it so they changed it.

27. “He came up with that run, it was so beautiful!” he says about D’Onofrio’s playful run through the water before grabbing his child self. “He understood when I said this is not a movie about a serial killer. This is opera.”

28. His cameramen fought him on the inclusion of the glittery, flowery framing that grows on screen during the calm third act discussion between Deane and Stargher. “I think everyone’s reaction at this point is ‘you’re fucking killing me.’”

29. He was told repeatedly not to have Deane yank on Stargher’s nipple piercings during their end battle, “and I said okay and then we pulled his tits out.”

30. Tarsem admits to a big fight with his assistant over shooting behind the scenes footage — because the assistant wanted him to appear on camera, and that’s one thing that Tarsem hates to do.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Tarsem is a fast talker at times on The Cell commentary, and his excitement can make for some difficult to understand comments. He’s never a dull speaker, though, and the bulk of it is clear enough to deliver plenty of entertainment. He’s clear about his intentions with the film, both those he succeeded at and those he failed, and he offers insights that some viewers may have missed while watching the film.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.