Leading an Opera of Darkness


It wasn’t so long ago that Tarsem Singh was one of thousands of new immigrants to Los Angeles. He arrived here in 1983 from a remote Indian village in the Himalayas armed only with the fantasy of one day becoming a movie director.

Every day, he took a bus to Los Angeles City College with the “Guide to Film Schools in America” tucked under his arm and lunch in a paper bag: a thin sandwich and a tea bag. In the evenings he bused tables at a chic Beverly Hills restaurant, cleaning the plates of industry types.

“I was an exceptionally dumb kid. I had no idea what a wide shot was or anything behind the camera,” he recalled. “I was the unhippest person you could know. I had the worst clothes, and nobody wanted to sit at the table with me because I always brought my own lunch.”


Those days are long gone. As one of the highest paid and celebrated commercial and music video directors, Tarsem (he goes by one name professionally) has burst into Hollywood with his first feature-length movie, a $40-million thriller starring one of the hottest stars of the moment, Jennifer Lopez.

“The Cell,” released by New Line Cinema, meshed perfectly with the 39-year-old director’s wild imagination, over-the-top drama, love of color and visual daring.

“When I saw the script I thought, this is the perfect jumping ground for me,” he said, relaxing in his room at the Chateau Marmont listening to Indian music featured in the film.

“What interested me was the blank canvas of going into the mind. . . . I wanted to go into the mind and play it like an opera, like theater.”

The movie, which opened Friday, deeply divided critics. Roger Ebert called it an “astonishing debut” and “one of the best films of the year” and Times critic Kenneth Turan assailed it as “creepy and horrific,” a film that “puts viewers through as much misery as the people on the screen.”

The story is about a psychologist (Lopez) who enters the mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) through experimental technology. Lopez and an FBI investigator (Vince Vaughn) are trying to find where the killer is hiding his latest victim, who is still alive.


Tarsem said he took on the project precisely because it was a chance to play on his visuals; the story line, he said, was more in the background. From the very beginning he saw the film as an opera, in which costumes, visuals, body language and music play a more central role than dialogue or character development.

“I’ll do my version of ‘My Dinner With Andre’ another time. I love movies with brilliant dialogue,” he said. “This script was one that every director I know had seen and had turned down. Opera, when you come down to the base shell of it, is not smart. It’s about emotion and a visual that takes you through a trip.”

Some critics complained that the film is too violent and plays on pop culture’s fascination with gruesome murderers. But Tarsem says he was borrowing from the classics. Whether it’s the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, opera or any Hindi movie, human suffering has always been a staple of theater, literature and the arts.

“Name me an opera that is not dark,” Tarsem said. “It’s about love, about hate, about drinking their relative’s blood. There is no middle ground. If you see a Hindi movie, they are [stories like] a husband going out to buy foot jangles for his wife but when he comes home he finds out the wife had an accident and lost her feet. This is my background.”

When making “The Cell,” he wanted to avoid something he says happened to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Tarsem said the 1992 film was an inspiration for “The Cell” and even has the same costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. Tarsem said he was perturbed when the audience laughed at moments in “Dracula” that were not intended to be funny. He decided to make “The Cell’s” killer so dark and dangerous that no one would dare laugh.

“I said, ‘OK, I know how to shut you up,’ ” he said. “I will make this guy such a scary guy that he could come out dressed as a cheerleader in pompoms and nobody will laugh. [D’Onofrio’s character] wore and did the most ridiculous things--in one scene I call it the Moroccan serial killer look--but the reason you don’t laugh is because of a certain darkness that you see at the very beginning.”


Executives at New Line are aware of how some politicians, including vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman, are criticizing Hollywood movies deemed too violent, and they are braced for some controversy.

“The violence takes place mainly in the dreamscape world,” said New Line’s vice president of production, Donna Langley. “This goes on inside this man’s head and ultimately he is punished for it. We are aware that the film does have its controversial moments, but we’ll wait and see if this material is one [politicians] latch on to.”

Lopez had been interested in the script for years, but it was not until she met with New Line movie production chief Mike De Luca that starring in the film became a possibility. When she met with Tarsem, she was sold.

“I almost had the sense that he had it all mapped out and he knew how every single frame would look,” Lopez said by phone from New York.

“I knew I had to hand [the movie] over to him, but I had no problem doing that. To me, he took the script to a different level. It is so visually stunning, it’s a total movie experience. It’s what you go to the big screen for.”

Voyage to America Began With a Con

Although his videos, commercials and film are very flashy, slick and pumped up, Tarsem in person is very much down to earth, albeit hyperactive. He lives in four places--London, Italy (the home of his girlfriend), India and Los Angeles. He speaks with a slight Indian accent and in such rapid-fire English that it’s hard to keep up with him. His chiseled, tanned face is constantly brightened by a large smile and an eager laugh.


His voyage to America, he explained, began with a con. He told his father, an engineer, that he was going to Howard University to study business. His father paid his way. Once safely on North American soil, Tarsem called his father and told him he was actually going to film school.

“In India, either you are a lawyer, doctor or you’re a [jerk],” he said, noting that his father is still upset about his decision. “I had $64, a Greyhound bus ticket, $1,800 in travelers checks and three bags, and I headed to L.A.”

At L.A. City College, an inspirational teacher began guiding him through the craft of filmmaking. To make ends meet, he sold cars at a Hawthorne dealership; he proudly notes that he won salesman of the month three times and learned lessons that would help him later in Hollywood.

After two years at L.A. City College, he received a scholarship to the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, where he began studying film in earnest.

He borrowed $7,000 from a friend and made nine commercials. His reel caught the eye of Suzanne Vega, who hired him, while he was still in college, to direct one of her music videos. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. saw that video and hired him to direct the “Losing My Religion” music video in 1991. Tarsem admits he had no idea what he was doing at the time.

“It was a disaster. It was terrible. Nobody had understood what I had pitched because it was really in my head,” he said. “So I would spend the time in the bathroom throwing up. My A.D. [assistant director] thought I was doing drugs.”


But the video was the rage that year, winning MTV’s best video award. Later he won a Directors Guild of America award for commercials. Last year the British Academy of Film and Television Arts gave him a Britannia Award--the equivalent of an Oscar or an Emmy--for commercials.

Tarsem’s trademark has been to play on contrasts. Take his 1996 Nike commercial, for which he places an ultramodern soccer match between the world’s best soccer player and the devil in an ancient coliseum in Tunisia. Or, in the case of “The Cell,” the near unbearable darkness of a serial killer’s mind contrasted with the extravagance and vibrant colors of operatic dream sequences.

“Contrasts always help to accentuate drama,” he said. “In a video or commercial, you have limited time on the screen. Contrasts tend to heighten tension.”

New Line executives were impressed by his work.

“We had been very aware of him as a commercial director for a while,” said Langley, who shepherded the project through its three years of production.

“Tarsem brought a very unique visual style that we knew going into this we needed. The movie is about the exploration of the mind. So we needed someone who could render that artistically. Also, this was on the heels of ‘The Matrix,’ which had raised the bar on visual effects, so we needed somebody who could do something different.”