Exclusive: The Fall - Tarsem's Visual Companion - Part 1

The director on his astonishing imagery.

by | October 3, 2008 | Comments

Photographing The Fall

Its otherworldly story split critics down the middle, but none can argue with the power of its imagery. Opening in the UK this week, Tarsem’s The Fall is one of the year’s most beautiful films. A tale about storytelling, it’s a clash of colour and ideas and is designed for those whose sense of balance can be comfortably shaken. Now, as RT hosts the web’s most comprehensive gallery of stills, director Tarsem walks us through the images.

The Fall

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Tarsem:

This was one of the first sequences that came into my head for The Fall. I felt that there should be a stylised version of how he got hurt opening the movie. And, funnily enough, while we were shooting the Second Assistant Director got into an accident on a bridge and broke his elbow. Everybody was running, full of energy but very opposite to the situation. Then I knew that my feeling was right because I wanted it to be a loud statement but you shouldn’t hear anything. I knew the Beethoven piece was correct.

Those people seem to have a lot of energy but they’re not going anywhere, so my first thought was Photo-Sonics. I shot it really high-speed to make it abstract. When you see the film you know this is probably how he got hurt and it becomes a bookend with the footage at the end where she decides he’s done all these stunts from the movies. I knew the story I wanted to tell in the middle, but not how to plot it, and these bookends made the rest very clear. The film is about a guy using the body language of another person to tell a girl a story and, of course, it’s a two-way street and he doesn’t realise it.

Someone wrote that I must hate horses because of this shot and the one in The Cell. Actually, all I think is, “What looks good?” What looks good falling down? What looks good in the dark? I always approach it like that. It’s pure coincidence that there’s a horse in this scene, I needed something plausible that he fell off, and of course it’s a horse. The reason for the shot in The Cell was because I wanted to piss everybody off one by one. When I went to the writer’s house, he had a farm with horses. Everybody would have something that set them off. Do this, but don’t harm the child. Do this, but don’t put the iron on the baby. Do this, but don’t kill that person. His thing was, don’t kill the horse! I just wanted to fuck with him! It could have been a cow, anything – it doesn’t make any difference to me!


The Fall

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Tarsem:

Catinca Untaru, who plays the young girl, is phenomenal. It was the complete thing, I shot it in sequence, she actually grows, her teeth come out and her English gets better. All of that was sewn into the structure of the film. Anything that she could feel was right. If she couldn’t feel it, it didn’t go in the film. We made her believe, and everyone else believe, that Lee Pace, who plays the stuntman, couldn’t walk and we structured everything around that belief.

I’ve been location scouting for seventeen years and for all for that time I’ve been taking photos and putting all of this stuff on the wall. I worked this story out by trying to structure the photos on the wall of all the places I’ve been to but for her the storytelling had to be more important. I shot this first and then incorporated those things in. For me the feeling of it was right and once you get a structure it all makes sense.


The Fall

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Tarsem:

That’s a real lunatic asylum. We found out that my now girlfriend’s father was a shrink here in the 50s! It’s all operational still, in South Africa, and they gave us a wing to use which wasn’t operational. Once I’d decided the direction to go in with her I knew that it couldn’t be made up and I couldn’t shoot in a studio.

I decided that this section of the film would be very dull and grey. It’s Ozu, and then it’s Kurosawa. For this side it’s very still – these characters are the important things. You had to keep it static, hospital stuff, and she’s bored. Basically he just blows her mind with these tales that are limitless. It was difficult but I just wanted to do it. Ozu and Kurosawa, even though they’re from the same country, they’re not two visual styles you’d think would work in the same movie, but it’s because they’re so disparate that I loved it.


The Fall

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Tarsem:

These costumes are credit to Eiko Ishioka who does the costume design. We were really trying hard to figure out what these bad guys would look like because it’s such a difficult brief. I didn’t want to go the Conquistador route because I thought it was too easy. A child’s imagination is a lot more visceral than that. Someone was sourcing pictures for the hospital and they pulled the picture of the guy in the X-Ray suit and I thought, fuck me! I’d be scared of that guy!

So I said, take that and make him into a warrior and she came up with these suits which are just phenomenal. These guys freak me out and they’re the boundary of her imagination really, she can’t go any further than this. So of course she perceives these guys as the bad guys.

A lot of people have been complaining that they get overwhelmed by the pictures and miss the plot points, but I think, so much the pity – see it again!


The Fall

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Tarsem:

There are no special effects in this film – every location is real. All I’ve done is clean up holes and stuff. This is right by the Chinese border and it’s high in the Himalayas so it’s very hard to breathe here. In fact it’s above the tree line so I had to bring the tree that you see in this scene in. For eight or nine months of the year this place is rock solid and freezing. It only opens up for about three months and so we went there in the summer. I knew it was the perfect place for them to meet the mystic.

Of course he’s telling the story to her like it takes place in America but he’s forgotten that the day before she thought he said it takes place in India. When he says Indian he means Red Indians, but she thinks he means real Indians. You get the sense that he’s plagiarising from a film he’s working on but all of the visuals are from her point of view. You end up with characters which are quite hodgepodge.


The Fall

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Tarsem:

If you read the back-story of Otta Benga, on the far left in this picture, and all of these characters in history you’ll find something completely different from the characters in the movie. These are characters from the news at the time he’s telling the story. Otta Benga’s appearance and Darwin’s relationship with Wallace, all of these were very big stories at the time and he’s just stealing from them, but he’s not doing it not very well.

Otta Benga was a pigmy, actually, who was brought over to America and ended up living in a zoo because they brought him over for the trade fare and he couldn’t adjust to life here. They kept him in a zoo until someone wrote an article saying, “You’ve put a black man in a zoo, are you fucking kidding?!” He shot himself in the 1920s. She believes Otta Benga is this big, black God because of the way he’s describing him – or not describing him – but really he was a pigmy. All of these are completely misunderstood characters because he’s saying something and she’s perceiving something else.



Come back to RT on Monday as Tarsem‘s visual companion to The Fall continues exclusively on the site, but for now you can check out our new and comprehensive gallery of images right here and, most importantly, hit cinemas to see the film, which is playing in the UK now. The DVD is out now in the US.

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