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Tarsem and the legend of "The Fall"

Tarsem, director of "The Fall," stands before a Gillian Ayres painting of a kite festival in Kashmir.

by Roger Ebert

Tarsem was talking about how he risked almost everything he owned to make a movie that nobody, nobody at all, was willing to finance for years. The movie is "The Fall," which will be on my list of the year's best films, and is setting box office records on the art house circuit. It is almost impossible to describe. You can say what happens, but you can't convey the astonishment of how it happens.

Tarsem made millions as a director of commercials, and gladly spent most of them to make his movie. "Everybody in advertising," he was telling me, "always says one day they’ll make a great movie with their own money, blah, blah, blah. They never do it. David Fincher, one of my producers, told me, 'You happen to be the fool that has done it'."

Tarsem is a thin man of medium height, mercurial in conversation, smiling easily. "Something happened to me that doesn’t happen to most people," he said. "Life happens to them. It was happening to me. But at the particular point when I was ready to settle down with a woman and have the babies, the woman moved and had the babies with somebody else. I was freaked out. What happened next was, I had promised myself I would make this film in a heartbeat if I found the right girl. And suddenly I found the little girl."

How would he finance the movie? "I’ve never known what to do with money. I live quite easily. Ninety-five percent of the time it seems like I'm on airplanes or in airports. I travel making commercials, I have a home that’s all paid for, and I’m a prostitute in love with a profession. I had no idea who my money was for. It wasn’t for the kids that I didn’t have, so I decided to cash in."

"The Fall" is one of the most extraordinary films I've ever seen. Set in Los Angeles in 1915, it involves a paralyzed stunt man (Lee Pace) and a four-year old Romanian girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) who occupy separate wings in a hospital where most of the beds are empty -- waiting, probably, to be filled by victims of the Great War.

The stunt man begins to tell the girl a story. We hear the story in his words, but we see it through her eyes, and she imagines it as a magical vision. After filming all the scenes involving the two characters, Tarsem shot her visions in 28 countries over a period of four years. There are sights in the film you cannot imagine are possible, but Tarsem says he used no computers to create them. They exist.

Who is this Tarsem? Full name, Tarsem Singh Dhabdwar. Last name too hard for Americans to say. Millions of Indians have the middle name "Singh." Therefore, Tarsem. Born in India, his family moved to Iran when he was three, but his father was concerned the mullahs would destroy education there, so he sent his two sons to a boarding school in the Himalayas.

"I saw a book in India titled Guide to Film Schools in America, and it shell-shocked me," he said. "It changed my life, because I thought you went to college to study something that your father loved and you hated. I told my father I wanted to study film and he said there was no way he was gonna let me do that. I made my way to Los Angeles, and made a film that won a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design. My father thought I was headed for Harvard. I called him and said, 'I want to study film,' and he said, 'You don’t exist anymore'."

Tarsem made a music video for Suzanne Vega, another for REM. "The first commercial I did was for Levi's, and was based on the movie 'The Swimmer,' the Burt Lancaster one, where a guy swims from pool to pool in his neighbor's back yards. The tagline was, 'The more you wash them, the better they get.”' That won the Grand Prix in Cannes and so in a way it's been downhill ever since."

The agencies that made commercials, he said, "gave me very good money and I didn't complain about it. I put it aside like a little squirrel and at the end I ended up with a project that I wanted to do very badly and threw it all away, so now I’m penniless but as happy as a pig in poo. I told my brother, sell everything, I’m going on this magical mystery tour. When I finish it, I’ll let you know. I called him when it was almost done. He said the house was almost up for sale. But I was finished." He has a quick smile and makes his struggle sound like a lark.

"If you think it’s hard raising money for a film, try telling people that the script is going to be written by a 4-year old. It’s going to be dictated to me by a child. For seven years wherever I would shoot a commercial I would send people out with a camera to schools, and one day I got a tape of this girl at a school in Romania, in the middle of students talking. I was amazed. She was perfect. She didn't speak English. The penny dropped. She was six, but if she didn’t speak the language she would be using, the misunderstanding would buy me the two years that I needed. Because she had to seem four.

"I found a mental asylum in South Africa that gave me a wing. I figured everything for her had to be visual. I explained to her where she lived, where he lived, where everything was. And we taught her the English of her lines, word by word. She would say them, and if she didn't get it right in three or four takes, we changed her dialog because she needed to sound spontaneous, not rehearsed."

It's true. One of the treasures of the film is the sound of the dialog by Catinca Untaru. We understand every word, but she sounds as if she's inventing them as utters them.

Now what about those miraculous locations? I asked him. No special effects? What about the zig-zagging interlocking black and white staircases reaching down into the earth?

"Its true. Its Ripley’s. What people think is not true in the film is true. The steps that go down, it's a reservoir that has been there for 500 or 600 years. It's used for seeing how low the water level is, to determine how to tax people. If the water level is so high, they charge so much tax from the farmers. The problem is most of the time you never see those steps; they’re underwater. Somebody showed me these steps and said they went really way down. And I said, well, has anybody seen that?

"They said, most Indians think they look cheap. But in fact they look like an inspiration by Escher. So labyrinthine and mad. The problem is, when you see the wide shot, you realize they're not what I’m making them out to be. What matters is how I’m framing it. If you see the wider shots, there are about 2,000 Indians on trees watching and wondering why we’re shooting in a really crappy well. But since I shot those steps, three Hindi movies have gone and shot there because they figure, if its good enough for him, it must be beautiful."

And the Labyrinth With no Escape?

"That is a 400-year-old observatory. The steps line up with one star, the arc lines up with another star, and if you look around the location it's really chaotic and haywire. All I had to do was choose my angle so I could use their shapes without showing their surroundings. I thought, I can make a labyrinth out of this if I make it look like it’s enclosed. The fact is, it's a really cheap-looking park in the middle of Jaidpur."

And as for the Blue City...

"Jodhpur, the blue city, is a Brahmin city where you’re only supposed to paint your house blue. I made a contract with the city; we would give them free paint. We knew legally they could only choose blue. So they painted their houses blue and it looked more vibrant than it ever had before."

Tarsem made it all sound so simple, and when you see the film it all seems literally impossible.

"There are no computer effects. It’s just the kind of visual stuff like what I was doing all the time with commercials, where it looks like more than it is. In all these places I had filmed over at least 17 years, I told the people, this is a paid job, its a commercial, but I’ll come back one day and make this place look magical. To use a line from 'The Godfather,' he does them a favor, and one day, 'and that day may never come,' there will be a favor in return. And 17 years later that day came, I showed up, and some of the favors I could cash in, and some I couldn't. "

And then Tarsem made one of the most astonishing films I have ever seen. It is all the more special in this age of computer-generated special effects, because we see things that cannot exist, but our eyes do not lie, and they do exist, yes, they really do.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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