TARSEM SINGH has made a lucrative living for 17 years as a sought-after director of commercials, videos and the creepy 2000 horror hit, "The Cell." As he told me, more in awe than in boast, he once made more money in one day shooting a commercial than his father did in 30 years as an aircraft engineer in India.
And what did Tarsem do with most of that dough? Breaking the cardinal mantra of Hollywood, he spent it making a movie called "The Fall." Shot in 24 countries over a period of nearly four years, the film is a dazzling visual fantasy as well as a meditation on the art of storytelling, seen through the eyes of a young girl and a bedridden stuntman who spins yarns about five exotic brigands roaming the world on the hunt for treasure. David Fincher, who has a "presented by" credit on the film along with Spike Jonze, describes the film as "what would've happened if Andrei Tarkovsky had made 'The Wizard of Oz.' "
After emptying his pockets, Tarsem -- who goes only by his first name -- has just one problem. He can't get anyone to release the movie.
Nearly 10 months after it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, "The Fall" remains unsold, hurt by a largely negative critical reception at the festival. Even though the film has found admirers in Europe, potential studio buyers have all raised the same nagging question -- exactly who is the audience for this picture?
Fair question. For all its style and ambition, "The Fall" -- which screens Saturday at 9 p.m. in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum as part of the L.A. Film Festival's Secret Screening series -- is exactly the kind of film that is overlooked in an era in which marketability trumps originality. Though the story revolves around a spirited young girl -- played by Catinca Untaru, a 6-year-old from Romania who had never acted before -- it is too intense for young kids, yet too self-consciously artsy for mainstream audiences. In many ways it's a throwback to the "Raging Bulls" era of filmmaking, when directors pursued personal visions with such pictures as Nicholas Roeg's "Performance" or Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart."
"This is an obsession I wish I hadn't had," Tarsem explained during a recent stay in Los Angeles. "It was just something I needed to exorcise. You have to make your personal films when you're still young. I knew if I didn't do it now, it would never happen."
Although the 46-year-old filmmaker is represented by CAA, which specializes in finding financing for its talents' projects, he insisted on spending his own money, eager to have total creative freedom. "Tarsem wasn't willing to accept the terms of what the money people wanted," says Fincher, a longtime friend. "He has a unique vision of the world as his back lot and he didn't want to compromise that in any way."
Tarsem also worried that a financier might not grasp his unorthodox artistic process. In fact, the most fascinating part of the story behind "The Fall" involves the filmmaker's eccentric creative choices and work habits. He never, for example, had a finished script for all the scenes involving his exotic brigands. And although he could have had any number of stars -- one of his big fans is Brad Pitt, who recently shot a Japanese commercial with him -- the only actor Tarsem wanted for the lead role was Lee Pace, an unknown whom he'd seen playing a transgender night club performer in a cable TV movie.
The director did the first 12 weeks of filming at an asylum in South Africa that stood in for a circa-1920 hospital in Los Angeles, where Pace's injured stuntman character was convalescing. Convinced that Pace could give an effective performance only if everyone on the shoot thought he was actually paralyzed, Tarsem had the actor spend all his time on the set in a wheelchair or in bed. He says the only person beside himself who knew the actor could walk was a male nurse who wheeled him away for bathroom breaks.
"I wanted people to really think he was crippled," Tarsem explained over lunch the other day. "On the last day of shooting, the actor told the crew, 'I have something to say,' and he stood up and told everyone he could walk. Some people laughed, some people cried, some people were angry. But it was necessary for the movie."
After he finished the hospital sequences, Tarsem had a wrap party and then began plotting out the various adventure scenes for the film, using his commercial jobs as a launching pad. He spends most of his time traveling the globe, shooting commercials. (Last week, for example, he was in Morocco, India, England and Germany.) So whenever he had a job in a faraway spot, he would finish the commercial, keep his camera crew behind and summon the actors for his film.
After he shot a Coke commercial on the Butterfly Reef in Fiji, Tarsem flew the actors in for two days of filming. He did the same thing in Namibia. After he shot a Mountain Dew ad there, he used the country's sand dunes for a scene in which his characters were lost in the desert. Other scenes were set in remote parts of the Himalayas, the high desert of Rajasthan and the Andaman Islands near Sumatra, where he filmed the actors astride elephants swimming in the ocean, an image he'd first used in a Coke commercial.
Tarsem completed the film last year, but his luck ran out when he took the picture to Toronto. He especially wanted Roger Ebert, who'd been a fan of "The Cell," to see the picture. But the critic fell ill and couldn't cover the festival. The critics who did see the film were not kind. Variety's Dennis Harvey wrote a scathing pan, calling the film "an overlong whimsy" that was "basically a coffee-table book of striking travelogue images masquerading as warm-hearted period drama and fantasy."
Bad news travels fast. "It was terrible," Tarsem recalls. "We had all these [sales] appointments set up and after the reviews came out, everyone canceled."
Over time, a number of acquisition executives have caught up with the film and come away impressed. But without rave reviews, they believe it would be a tough sell. Several execs I spoke to theorized that Tarsem's success as a commercial director worked against the film, saying it would've received a warmer festival reception if it had been made by a struggling Third World filmmaker instead of a chic director best known for soft-drink ads and R.E.M. videos.
"If the film were in a foreign language, it would probably would have sold right away," says Think Films chief Mark Urman, an admirer of the movie. "But the film speaks to the mixed blessing of total independence. It might never have been made inside the system, but being made outside the system created a whole new set of problems, since there wasn't anyone around worrying about whether the filmmaker found a way to give pleasure to many people instead of just himself."
Tarsem's supporters scoff at the idea that a film buyer always has to know who the audience is that will embrace a film. As Fincher put it: "Who knew who the audience was for 'Pan's Labyrinth'? People are much more sophisticated about taking in visual information today. I'm not convinced that everyone has to have all their food pre-chewed for them."
Fincher makes a good point. There is something magical about a movie like "The Fall" that transcends cold-eyed marketing calculations. It has its flaws, but it has something too many films today lack -- a sense of wonder about the possibilities of the medium.
Nonetheless, it remains unsold. Tarsem insists he has no regrets about the millions he may never see again. "It's like the old cliche, 'Easy come, easy go.' " he says, noting that with two homes and an Aston-Martin, he's not exactly starving. "Money makes accountants happy. But I didn't want to end up an old guy, sitting around talking about the movie I never got to make."
He sighs. "I just wish I could get more people to see it."
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