Educated at a boarding school in the Himalayas, Tarsem saw “maybe four movies a month, 90% of them English. But sometimes we would go into town and see Indian movies.”
And Indian pics proved to be the ones that made the most impact. “There’s no filmic equivalent in Western cinema to Indian films,” Tarsem says. “Opera would be the more precise equivalent. The drama is very big.”
Tarsem, who uses only his name professionally, was sent to the U.S. to study business at Harvard. But soon after he landed in Canada to stay with some relatives, he scraped together the bus fare to come to Los Angeles, where he began studying film at L.A. City College and eventually at the Art Center College of Design.
Right after graduation, he landed his first directing gig, Suzanne Vega’s “Tired of Sleeping” musicvideo and, eventually, the ground-breaking “Losing My Religion” video for R.E.M., which earned him MTV’s Best Video Award.
By then, he had already drifted into commercials and picked up Golden Lion trophies in Cannes for an Anne Klein campaign and for Levi’s. He recently added another Golden Lion for a Miller Lite spot.
Like his musicvideos, Tarsem’s commercials are a visual smorgasbord. “I’d say my work, both thematically and visually, reflects the influence of several different directors. I love rubbish cinema, crap films, lovely films, interesting films. I also watch a lot of latenight TV, porno films and Andrei Tarkovsky. All of that is in my work. I never know where it’s going to go.”
It was just a matter of time before Hollywood took notice. Several offers came his way before he decided on New Line’s thriller “The Cell,” starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D’Onofrio. But Tarsem stresses that he followed no great masterplan, rather he just felt a need to be working at 24 frames a second. “I never did musicvideo to do commercials or commercials to do movies,” he says. “I just like filmmaking. If I’m not filming, I have a problem.”
“The Cell” afforded Tarsem exciting cinematic opportunities, he says. “It allowed me certain kinds of visual interpretation I’d never seen before, because the structure of the script lets me show what’s going on in someone’s head.”
But like other fledgling film directors who come from purely visual filmmaking like commercials and musicvideo, the demands of narrative storytelling made him glad that he had assembled such a professional cast.
“The best thing that happened to me on ‘The Cell’ was getting to work with actors, all of whom came from different schools of thought. I learned a lot from each of them. I learned that you have to let the talent breathe, to get into their roles.
“By the time the film was over I had really found my footing,” Tarsem says. “I’d love to do a film that is nothing but a bunch of talking heads, not visual at all.”
But the newly anointed features-helmer says he’ll continue to fill in the gaps between movie work with ads and musicvideos.
“I enjoy filming, and I’ll only stop when I start repeating myself.”