Director Tarsem Singh’s been known for providing feasts for the eyes. Now he’s about turning a familiar fairy tale on its ear.
Now increasingly referred to by his distinctive first name, Tarsem harnesses his unique visual style to put a “Princess Bride-ian” spin on the classic tale of Snow White, complete with a sword-fighting heroine, a prince who’s charmingly ineffectual and an evil queen whose one-liners are as wicked as her nefarious plots – and did we mention the fighting dwarves on stilts? The cinematic stylist gives PopcornBiz a peek inside his method of re-imagination.
What was the key thing that got you excited about the project to begin with?
The idea that it wasn't conventional magic, that there wasn't a queen walking up to a mirror and saying 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all,’ just about vanity and not wanting the other person to be cuter than you. I just thought that her walking up, looking in the mirror and seeing an idealized version of just herself. Because always people are trying to outsource the evil: they either use sentences like, 'I heard voices, the devil made me do it,' but actually you're just doing what you want to do without having to address, like, 'I'm a bad person.' So literally the idea of the queen was just that she was talking to herself like a shrink and just doing whatever the hell that she wanted to do, that's something that I really liked. And mainly the idea that it was going to be a family movie – I've done three R-rated movies. Everyone thinks that I want to do a gritty action film. I don't. I wanted to do a charming family movie.
Stylistically this is different from your last film, ‘”Immortals.” Were you itching to find something that was a move left of center of what’s become expected of you?
Yes – number one, everyone thinks that I only want to do visual films that have a lot of blood and gore in them, and I'd like to first change that by doing just a family-friendly film that has all the colors that I love. Later on, hopefully, if I get a chance I'll do a completely non-visual film, which is what I'm hopefully going to do next. This turned out to be a visual film, but I didn't want it to be – what do they call it ?– ‘edgy’ and all those words. But, no, this is just a family-friendly, charming movie.
When you work with someone like Julia Roberts, who's been so written about and in the public eye for so long, everyone has their idea who she is. What was the reality of working with her that you discovered?
Well, all I was dealing with was a mom. Literally, nothing else mattered. She had made it very clear to everybody that she was doing the movie because she wanted to work with me, and when we started doing the movie all my problems just went away because everyone was so intimidated by her – like, 'Oh, if that's what Julia Roberts wants then that's what Julia Roberts gets.' And by default that ended up being anything that Tarsem wanted to get, because she wanted to get it filmed. So everything was plainly easy, and the only thing that I had to watch to make sure that she finished on time, that she was home for the kids to tuck them in and all of that stuff. Nothing else! Everything else she was so clear on and prepared for when we started shooting. The conversations had just happened two weeks before, which were, 'This needs to be tweaked a little bit – Let’s tweak this,' and we just read it through. Once that was tweaked, nothing else.
Working with a movie star of that level did you play into or against any of her Julia Roberts-ness in the film, using the fact that she's a known quantity?
I'd like to work with a movie star – that was working with a mom! No, I thought what was more interesting was everyone's perception of Julia Roberts. That was very important to me. If you say ‘Evil Queen’ nobody in their right mind wanted to say 'How about Julia Roberts?' And yet that was the only person that I had in my mind, because she's not the person that you put out and say 'Evil Queen.' We still see her as 'Pretty Woman': a really charming woman that has an amazingly wonderful laugh and all of that. I just thought the idea of her playing the Queen was what was interesting to me, so we just kept her in that, and the only thing that I do remember is that she had to laugh at a particular line and she did it exactly how I thought that Julia Roberts would – but everywhere else, no.
Can you talk about the qualities that you saw in Lily Collins that made her right to play the film’s Snow White, and as an actress to be watched in the years to come?
I'd met her about a year ago for 'Immortals,’ only about five months earlier than the movie. I really remembered her and liked her a lot, so when we were casting for this, the problem is that I knew the Queen and Snow White had to be cast last. My first choice was to get the Queen which was only one person: Julia. Then I wanted a prince, which was only one person: Armie Hammer, because if you draw a prince I think you'd end up drawing Armie Hammer. And so I got those two and then what I had to do was make sure, because the prince is in the middle, that he doesn't look awkward on either side. We can buy Julia trying to seduce him, and him getting seduced by Snow White, so it had to come in between. She was the last person in the whole cast as opposed to what the name says. She was the last person. So she finally came in and did a read. I was driving there and I couldn't make it in time. I turned around and went for a meeting. Someone called me and said that she came in and to please look at the tape right now because she might not be available tomorrow. So, I looked at that tape and her read was fantastic – and of course the eyebrows didn't hurt one bit. I desperately loved that. I said, 'Don't touch a thing there. I love what you look like and love how you read.' I went and had one cup of tea with her, had a conversation with her, and then Julia had the contractual rights to see who Snow White was going to be and I just called Julia and said, 'We're going to lose this girl by the evening.' She said, 'I don't need to see, I don't need to hear anything. If you like her then go for it.' And suddenly everything just happened.
Armie Hammer's got that great princely, leading man look, but he gets to be very silly in this movie. How game was he to get as goofy as you needed him to be to pull off the part?
That's a fantastic question, because that's very, very difficult, and with him, it was the only conversation that I had. I said, 'Armie, there's only person I know that when he does things like this, no matter how off they are, he's always been committed and that's Johnny Depp.' I said, 'I think you have that quality. Don't come off embarrassed. If you commit, commit.' And Armie said, 'I don't know how to do it any other way. If I'm in, 'don't worry, I'll be committed.' Then when he saw the thing he said, 'Oh, my God, I have to be a puppy?' But when he showed up there, there was never a blink. He just delivered.
Do you know what you're going to do next? You said it might NOT be a visual spectacular…
I've just seen something that I really like, because there's a visual film that I'll probably do by the end of the year which requires a lot of prep, but the one that I want to do right now is called "Eye In The Sky." It's a very simple, very emotional about a [wartime] drone missle attack, just how one simply went. It's completely three different things, the people who are sitting and prepping the parts in a little canister in Nevada somewhere, the young guys. Then there is the politics involved and basically, 'Go ahead and strike here or strike there,’ and all the tension that comes with all the politicians involved and then the ground people, the people who it's going to come down on, where they're at. So, it's just the same tale from three different perspectives. It's one of the best things that I've ever read. I just thought that I wanted to go after that right now and see if I could make it happen.