Interview: Tarsem Talks Media Training, Rourke, and Being The Film School Reject

By  · Published on November 12th, 2011

One of my favorite experiences at Comic-Con this year was interviewing Tarsem. I was never scheduled to speak with the man one-on-one, and was only meant to participate in the roundtables for Immortals. Luckily, after the roundtables were coming to an end, I noticed Tarsem standing alone by himself. He mentioned how most people find The Fall to be the biggest piece of shit or the best thing ever made, and I fall heavily in the latter, so I decided to tell him that.

Tarsem was so receptive to a basic compliment, he gave me an interview on the spot. Whenever a publicist tried to drag him away, he’d basically tell them to buzz off since I said I love The Fall. I left that encounter with a big grin on my face, to say the least.

This time around, my chat with Tarsem started off on the same fun note as our previous encounter, but ended on a more disappointing note. Last week when we spoke, I had not seen Immortals. That type of interview is never ideal, but I didn’t want to miss the chance to speak with Tarsem again, who I guessed was knee-deep in Mirror, Mirror. Once he found at I hadn’t seen the film, he demanded the publicist to reschedule… which, unfortunately, didn’t happen, for one reason or another. Currently, I’m left with another hundred questions left I wanted to ask Tarsem. Then again, any amount of time with the fast-talking director is more than appreciated.

Here’s what Tarsem had to say about being the ultimate film school reject, Mickey Rourke’s distinct acting style, and making Immortals personal.

How you doing, Tarsem?

Hangin’ in there. Film School Rejects? I am the original one for that film!

[Laughs] Why’s that?

I tried so many film schools. I could not get in anywhere. I tried everyone, even the small one when I was in Vancouver behind my uncle’s house. They had 18, because I had just come abroad to study film. I was applying everywhere in Canada. They wouldn’t take me. I was turning down Harvard to change my medium and go to film. Finally my uncle said, “Around the corner there is a school. Go and check it out.” It wasn’t even the main one; it wasn’t UVC. It was called Simon Fraser and they had, I think, like 20 students, and like 20 seats they had. 29 people applied and I didn’t get in. They said, “But don’t worry. This is such a bad school, half the people don’t show up.”

I waited for two weeks and they said eight people did not show up. And I still didn’t get in. So my uncle sat me down, he said, “You’re turning down Havard to go to the small school around the corner from me. There are 29 people. You are the 29th choice? Maybe there’s just something wrong.” And I said, “OK, wrong city.” Then he get me a $64 greyhound ticket and said, “Go where you want.” I came down to the only person I knew in America, which was down here in LA. He was selling cars. Came down here, got this book that said “Guide to Film School”, went to every school. Could not get into any school. I tried every one of them. The first guy, a friend that I met out here on a bus, of all things, Randy Marsh. Met him and he actually was going to city college. I found out what that was. He applied to city college. It was actually free for Americans, but I think it was like $3,000 for foreigners.

So he just registered and I showed up the first day of school and changed my name on my ID’s to Randy Marsh, and that’s how I got my degree. If you talk about film school rejects, that’d be me. Then finally, when I switched to our center, I had to change my name back. But they wouldn’t give me credit for any of the stuff that I had done in city college because they were under a different name. Anyway, I just like your name. [Laughs] I like the company name, or the blog’s name, or whatever it’s called, Film School Rejects. That’d be me.

[Laughs] That’s great. Well actually, I gotta thank you. After the Immortals roundtables at Comic-Con, I went up to just tell you how much I loved The Fall, and you gave me a really…

I remember you. I know! How are you doing?

[Laughs] I’m doing good.

I said you can talk all you want. Anybody that says The Fall, you can say whatever the fuck you want and go on forever.

But I guess the one thing that really surprised me is I remember at WonderCon you wore a Media Trained t-shirt. And then for San Diego, you were pretty candid about how crazy Mickey Rourke is.

No, but when I was wearing the Media Trained t-shirt, I told everybody the same thing. I said they asked me if I would go for media training. I said only if I can wear a t-shirt that says I have been media trained, and on the back of it, it said, “Fuck off.” Funny enough, no reporter asked me to… Because I was wearing a coat, I just thought somebody would ask and say something about it and I would show them that it says “Fuck off.” But I told them, I said, “An idiot like me, you can’t really train. I’m too old a dog to teach new tricks.” But they just said go ahead. So I went for the media training and wore that t-shirt. You should have asked me to turn around! It says “Fuck Off” in the back.

[Laughs] I should have. You mentioned how on every film you kinda like to have wildcard like Mickey Rourke. You also said you don’t do too much planning for a film, so having an actor like Mickey Rourke, does that bring a spontaneity to set and to the film?

No! Actually, you know what’s funny? I don’t think it’s always necessary. I think that’s kind of unfortunately what’s happened in a couple of tough ones, because I think Terry Gilliam has taken the same…he himself is a wildcard. So when things are going really smoothly, you just throw a monkey wrench in it for no reason for it to go a particular way. I think the last couple of films, unfortunately the films are barely holding together. And he threw a monkey wrench in and they kind fall apart. For me, in this particular case of Immortals, it was just statically correct in coming in. There’s always one person that’s allowed to play that. In The Fall it’s the Romanian girl. It’s not necessary, because very rarely are films…I’ve just been lucky that the films came together quite nicely, the ones that I’ve done. I don’t mind one wildcard. You just can’t have two.

With an actor like Rourke, he seems to put a lot of thought into his characters. When working with actors like him and Vincent D’Onofrio, how does that change the atmosphere of the set, having guys who really just kind of go that deep into their characters?

It’s really strange. D’Onofrio is a different take altogether than Mickey is. D’Onofrio was incredibly, incredibly, incredibly professional. Mickey, on the other hand, I didn’t want him to be that professional. It’s just like trying to corral a cat. With all the actors I rehearsed with, we talked about what’s going to happen until we did that, then we did the shot, we shot it conventionally.

With Mickey, I wouldn’t rehearse with the other actors. I would go only alone with him. I would just say, “Let’s break the scene down. What do you think happens?” I didn’t want to waste too much of the intimation factor that a guy like this brings in.

We would go into a place, I would give him the places where we had broken down, like, “This happens here, this happens here, this happens here.” Within that, you can change what you want. But don’t say the greatest line that you have to and think that you really improv something nice when you’re off camera. I’m not going to plan. It’s not one of those films that whatever the actor says we will capture it. You have to say it in the right place or the best performances will end up on the floor. He understood that. So when he would come in, I would always go in and rehearse with him alone. Then, you get a guy like that in and he you’ve got three girls kind of tied up sitting down, and you give a guy like this, who he’s never repeating the same performance, just getting the essence of it every time, but never repeating it. Then you give him something like a spear and he’s saying all sorts of things and putting a spear next to a girl’s eye. That nervousness is real. There’s no acting in it.

You mentioned at Comic-Con to me that you had one more fight left. Did you win?

I won 90% of it. And in the last 10% there was one thing left that I just thought I would like to put in there. It just turned out that it wasn’t really necessary. I wish I had gotten it in, but I think on all the other fight pieces that I wanted I got them in.

The big scare was at a particular point when everybody sat down and said, “OK, how do we turn this into a PG movie?” I just thought, “OK, here’s where I roll up my sleeves and decide do they want a 10 minute film or what do they want?” Fortunately, they talked themselves out of it. That would have been the fight that would have been very ugly. It went away and they just said, “This is a film we kind of commissioned. This is the film we signed up on. Why are we getting scared of the R?” And then finally when the film was finished and we screened it, the people, the audience it was made for, was so all embracing and so thankful that that it was neither fish nor fowl. They wanted the hardcore action film, and that’s what this is.

How was that collaboration process? I’m guessing on The Fall you got to do whatever you wanted.

I certainly did. There’s nothing like doing whatever you want with a 7-year-old Romanian girl that doesn’t speak your language. It’s difficult. The executives might be easier to deal with than her. I did get pretty much a lot that I wanted. In the end, when you go in for a film that there’s an investment of close to $100 million of somebody into it, you kind of go into the film thinking, “I want enough of me in this.” But when somebody says, “Now let’s take this film we asked him to do and renew this hardcore film and turn it to PG,” there’s not going to be anything left of me in there.

The big question is to figure out, “This is black coffee. How much milk or cream am I going to let the studio put in to still think it’s my coffee?” That battle is delicate. And the end of it, I just think like, “Have I thought enough? Have I forgotten what film I set out to make?” I sat down and looked at it and said, “No. There’s enough of me in the film.” I take it you’ve seen the movie?

I have not, actually.

Oh, you terrible person! [Laughs] You’re not going to be on the phone with me!

[Laughs] I’m sorry! I’m not seeing it till next Thursday….

Oh, no, no. There’ll be no talking anymore. You have to see the movie before we talk!

[Laughs] I usually don’t like talking to a director if I haven’t seen the film, but I wanted this interview to happen, so…

No, no, no. I’ll reframe this and we will re-question this and we will talk again. You have to see the movie.

OK. So do you want to reschedule for next week then?

I will reschedule for next week. I’ll do it whenever you want. You have to see the movie. Where are you based right now?

I’m in Washington D.C. I’m seeing it next Thursday night.

Bloody hell! There must be a responsible person around here, let’s see if they can do the screening earlier for you. I’m available to talk to you anytime you want, because you brought up The Fall.

I really appreciate that.

Not a problem. I’ll talk to you next time.

Immortals is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.