'Mirror Mirror' Director Tarsem Singh Talks About Subverting Snow White and Making Julia Roberts 'An Evil Person You’ll Like'
The acclaimed visualist talks about transforming the classic fairy tale into an empowerment epic, casting Pretty Woman as the picture's villain, and choosing projects that combine personal creativity and commercial appeal.
Evidenced by his first three films The Cell, The Fall and Immortals, Tarsem Singh is a visualist first as a director, and a storyteller second. Audiences know it, and so does he. But as a filmmaker who often describes his job as that of “a prostitute who fell in love with his profession,” it’s commercials that sustains Singh creatively, while movies are a different – and perhaps more importantly, secondary – discipline in his career. Nevertheless, Singh clearly invests as much of himself in his feature efforts as possible, which is why they’re as distinctive as they are polarizing.
Singh’s latest film is Mirror Mirror, one of two different adaptations of the classic story of Snow White that is set to arrive in theaters in 2012. On the eve of the film’s release on Friday, March 30, Singh spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his experiences making the movie, and about the movie’s meaning to his career going forward. Always candid and engaging, Singh offered insights about his approach to such familiar source material, and talked about leaving his DNA on this and other movies even as he attempts to make them as broadly appealing as possible.
The Hollywood Reporter: In other interviews you observed that the original Snow White story was largely about vanity. What in particular did you want to emphasize in your interpretation of the story that made it new or different for audiences familiar with previous versions of it?
Tarsem Singh: I just wanted to be a little bit bigger, because the original one is only about vanity, and it’s a ten-minute tale. So to make it any bigger [knowing] how fantastic the original animation was, how charming all that was with singing numbers and all of that involved, and we weren't going to have that, how do you make a ten-minute tale longer? And it just was that vanity is only one part of it, so make it about power -- a wicked stepmother’s interest in power. And a prince has arrived, and to get him she needs to be beautiful. So vanity was one of the elements, and money was another. There were a whole bunch of other things that came in just to get that power, which just made it into a bigger film.
THR: How tough was it to balance the classical iconography of the Snow White story with something that was more reflective of like modern values, particularly in terms of the empowerment of Snow White?
Singh: Well, I had never seen the original film until like a month and a half ago, but I knew what it was about. But I just thought that every time you tell you a tale you have to be sensitive to who you're telling it to and what time it is. I mean, before the Brothers Grimm there was never Snow White and her stepmother; it was Snow White and her mother. It was a very cautionary tale about girls living at home past a certain age. And then when the Brothers Grimm came along, they were like the original studio executives, and they kind of went "wait a minute, this isn't good, it should be a stepmother." But also, everybody knows it’s shortcut that you can take with an audience if you stick to a certain amount of what we expect from it -- it allows you to move on. So it's safe to say the stepmother, she’s allowed to be evil. And when you watch her as an old woman giving an apple to [Snow White], you'll know it's poisoned. But if that is the only tale you want to tell, that being a stepmother makes you evil, then I just think you need to stick to the original one. And I just thought that it worked wonderfully as a song and dance animation film, I had no interest in remaking such a brilliant take. So let's just make it about what is it every person who has a girl tells them, which is that they can be anybody. They can be the president, they can be this or that -- girl empowerment is such an issue. And I believe in it, and I come from a culture where they really don’t hold women very high and seeing my brother raising his daughter and how my sisters were treated when we were young, and it's just a wonderful thing to have. But I think the pendulum was so swung against women for eons, and now it's probably like taking a big lash to the other side and I happen to be in the middle of that swing.
THR: We always hear actors describe villainous characters as “misunderstood.” But how important is that audiences identify with Julia Roberts’ character versus delighting in seeing her be bad?
Singh: That’s a great question. The truth is that even if you start telling the story from the point of view of the guy that killed someone, once it becomes first person, you're kind of in the shoes of that person. Every time an actor takes on a role they have to justify how this person exists, so actors will obviously say they’ve been misunderstood, because to get the hook into the character they're telling you why that character did the things they did. But as far as Julia's thing was concerned, like when you have such a abbreviation of character, that this is Snow White and her evil stepmother, you know that she's evil and now you know that once people know that she’s evil, let's have fun with it. So that's why to a certain extent when you see Hindi movies, they have that license because the same actors play evil in 99.99999% of them, and the same guys play the villains, so when they appear, you know who's the bad guys, you know who's the good guys, and it allows you to abridge that. So for me, instead of saying how they became evil or whatever happened, I said “here is an evil person I want you to like.” So then you have somebody like Julia, a person who has such a contagious laugh that even the servant who’s terrified of her will start laughing with her. Initially before the film came together, I just said "that's the person that makes the movie for me." I think we will find a Prince and then we will find Snow White, but we will not find another queen for this film than Julia. So the push was just there because I just wanted from the very beginning a family movie, not a gritty, modern movie, it's a family movie. And the idea of Julia being that is perfect for the tone, and one everybody will agree with when they see the film.
THR: How do you balance what people might expect from a family movie with simply indulging your specific sense of humor?
Singh: I think that's a very tough balance. Well before movies came along, and I think even before literature, which is what I was addressing in The Fall, is that a story has so much to do with who you're telling it to and a lot of it has to do with you. When you're in the middle of the street in Morocco or India where you have the storytellers, they would change the tale depending on how much you lean forward, lean back, get bored and are about to leave. Now along came literature, written word, and then you have these set things that you come to terms with and that's when you get a lot more of the person telling the tale, saying “this is my tale, you take it or leave it.” And then you come to film, it's actually a set story that a person is told. If you can't come to terms with it, you just reject it by not going to it. It's actually coming full circle from how stories originally were told around the campfire before writing was around – and it's how the these focus groups now come around. I put a lot of stuff in that I just think works, and then they'll come in and they can turn around and say "I would never let my kids see that." And you have to be sensitive to that. When you make a hundred million dollar movie and you want it to be accessible, it's much more of a Trojan horse; if you have any sensibility, you have to put it within the shell of the horse for people to be able to swallow that. So I hope that this is as much of me as people can accept and have an appetite for.
THR: Was it tough it to find a balance between doing something different and maybe more modest than you’ve done in the past, and still fulfilling the demands of bringing a fantastical story to life?
Singh: I do a billion commercials, I do lots of kiddie things, I do all sorts of stuff, but my first three films happen to be R-rated movies, so I think everybody was thinking that's where my take is. And when the offer was there to make this into a gritty movie, I just said "no." I was supposed to do only do three visual films; I wanted to do a whole bunch of [different] films after. Otherwise I just thought, later you can't get out of that box, and when the people realized I wasn’t going to be around much longer, and we just thought, "okay, let's do another visual one where it would be a children's tale.” And in terms of having to put on a different hat altogether, I think it's just that people who only know me from movies will think that it looks like I put on a different hat. But I'm hoping it will broaden me out.
THR: What sort of would be an ideal career path for you at this point in terms of balancing personal projects with more commercial ones?
Singh: Oh that’s brilliant question -- I've been dying to say that for a while. For me, the ideal [example of a filmmaker] has always been [Roman] Polanski. You see a studio film and you see a personal film and you see as much of him in Knife In The Water as there is in Chinatown -- you can see his DNA in everything that he did, from any genre that you can think of. He always had that in there. So if I can mix it up right now, that’s what I would fight for; I would say, am I in the movie, and do I have a take on it? Because no matter what, I’m very happy doing advertising, and I love it, so I would like to carry on making films that reflect as much of me as the audience can bear.
THR: Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Clint Eastwood have established long-term relationships with studios so they have a destination for all of their projects. Is that a feasible goal for you to aspire to?
Singh: It is probably, but I’m so haphazard that I don’t know if I can get organized enough to put all of that together. Jeff Robinov at Warners is a good friend, and we’ve never done a movie together -- I’ve never really gone to him with a project. But I’m kind of on a treadmill and I don’t calculate too much and things just come along the path to me. I kind of just embrace them one by one. But if I had to think slightly more long-term, which I guess I should be doing, I’m bloody 50 now, I should probably figure that out and where to go with it. But I’m not that farsighted.
THR: Ultimately how much does it matter to you if you get branded as the guy whose focus is on visuals over story?
Singh: (laughs) Well, it just goes without saying that I am like a monster as far as critics and scriptwriters are concerned, and the poster child of production designers and wardrobe people. But that’s because of the first three films that I chose, and it was a very conscious decision for me to get my DNA out there – that I am going to put the cart before the horse -- except The Fall, which was a personal film and it was all about storytelling and it was a manipulation of storytelling. But the other films just fell into that terrain, and now hopefully if I get my way it will always be one of those things that when you change, people who said you were crap all along will start saying how wonderful you were earlier. But I think that change is coming now, and I'd like to mix it up right now. But that brand doesn't bother me at all, nah. It's me.