Fall, The: Why It Took 15 Years for Second Feature of Tarsem Sing (The Cell)

It took Tarsem Singh 15 years to make his second feature, “The Fall.” The film’s journey included a decade of location scout, an extensive international casting call and a four-year shoot spanning 18 countries around the globe–all financed by the director himself.

It all began with Singh’s quest to create a film using what he believed was a unique story structure and visual language. He found something close to what he was trying to accomplish in terms of structure in the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho, written by Valeri Petrov and directed by Zako Heskija. In that film, an actor who is hospitalized with a broken back befriends Leonid–a 10-year-old boy in the same hospital–in order to get the boy to provide him with poison so he can commit suicide. But as the movie progresses, the friendship becomes the genuine article, and Leonid’s innocence and trustfulness end up making the actor abandon his plan to commit suicide and restoring his faith in life.

What intrigued Singh most about the tale is the way the actor uses storytelling to manipulate the child. Singh draws a parallel to the role of the creative artist working in a commercial medium. “When you pitch a story to a Hollywood studio, you’re never telling the story you want to tell them; you’re telling them the story you think they want to hear,” says Indian-born director. “You’re trying to keep their interest and you’re watching their reactions. If they start to look at their watch, you’ll add more action or sex. This is what storytelling was about before the written language. It’s like the difference between listening to a pre-programmed soundtrack or a DJ. The DJ will switch the timing, change the pace and the mood of the music, according to response of the crowd.”

Singh, who made his feature film directorial debut with The Cell in 2001, purchased the rights Yo Ho Ho and borrowed the basic concept for The Fall, transforming the character of the little boy into a little girl: “The idea is that a guy wants to tell a different tale than the one he’s telling, but he invests enough in the characters that he can hold them hostage to the child,” he says. “Sometimes, when he’s drugged or drunk he takes it into places the girl doesn’t want it to go. In the end, the child’s sheer innocence makes him think he should give life another chance.”

As the character of the injured actor spins his yarn in The Fall, the characters’ stories are played out against some of the world’s most magnificent manmade and natural sites. It’s these stunning visuals that set The Fall apart, particularly from other independent films. “When you say indie, you usually think of a low-budget affair that doesn’t look very good,” says Singh, Singh, who won MTV’s Best Video Award for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video. “That’s obviously not this movie.”

So how did the director manage to create such a sumptuous feast for the eyes on an independent budget For starters, he spent nearly 11 years scouting the world for locations and laying the groundwork for the film while working as a commercial director. “Whenever I did an ad I would take pictures. I would also tell people on commercial shoots, ‘This is a paid job, but in a few years I’ll have a job that I’ll need favors for,'” explains Singh, who has directed commercials for Smirnoff, Coke, Nike, Levis and Pepsi, among other global brands. “I called in a lot of favors. When we were finished with a commercial, we would shoot part of the film.”

This unusual, piecemeal approach to shooting posed a major challenge for Singh and his brother Ajit, one of the film’s producers: finding actors who would be available and willing to traipse around the world with them over a four-year period. “I knew I would never get big names,” says Singh. “And even if I had, it would have been a handicap. Shooting in 28 countries with four or five guys, it’s easier if nobody’s known. I’ve gone around with known actors, and it’s difficult. You need to have a completely different approach. My approach was we’d arrive at a place and just say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ We could do anything.”

To play injured stuntman Roy Walker, Singh tapped then unknown actor Lee Pace, who later went on to garner two Golden Globe nominations for his roles in the television film “Soldier’s Girl” and the groundbreaking series “Pushing Daisies.” The other actors who appear in the hospital and make up the Black Bandit’s posse in the fantasy world were also all unknowns or relative unknowns, among them Julian Bleach, who plays the Mystic, Leo Bill (Charles Darwin), Marcus Wesley (the former slave, Otto Benga) and Robin Smith (Luigi, the gunpowder expert).

While he scouted the world for locations, Singh also was searching for the right child to play the enthralled listener to Roy’s epic stories. For this pivotal role, Singh decided he needed not only a face unknown to audiences, but someone with no prior acting experience. “I didn’t know if it would be a girl or boy,” says Singh. “I would send people out to schools and have them tell stories and video the children’s reactions. I came to realize that after about four years old, they were already acting as opposed to reacting naturally. I was afraid the film would become like A Little Princess–a movie I really like, but not the one I wanted to make.”

Singh says he was aiming for a performance more like that of Victoire Thivisol in the 1996 French film Ponette. Thivisol was just three-and-a-half when she made her screen debut in Ponette.

Singh finally found his leading lady when someone sent him a tape of a five-year-old girl from Romania named Catinca Untaru. “She was just fantastic,” says the director. “We did a scene with her. She spoke no English, she could just communicate very basic things.”

For Singh and his brother, the discovery came just in time. “I had talked about making this movie for years, so finally Ajit said, ‘Either we make it or we stop talking about it, otherwise we’ll turn into old men and we’ll still talking about this movie.’ Two weeks later we found the girl.”

With that key role cast, Singh says he felt an urgency to make the movie before Untaru became more self-conscious as an actor. “I came back and told my brother, this girl is going to be a different person in a few months–we need to make the film right now.”

As it turned out, a miscommunication between the casting agent and the young actress had a profound effect on the entire production: Untaru believed that the actor playing the storyteller was a real-life paraplegic. Singh found Catinca’s delivery of her lines with Pace so real, he made the audacious decision to keep not just her, but the almost the entire cast and crew under the illusion that Pace could not walk.

“He had only been in one TV movie, and in that he played a transvestite,” Singh says. “Nobody but me, my brother, the costume person and two executive producers knew that he could walk. I also had to tell the guy who played Alexandria’s real father in the movie, so he would understand that the part was smaller than it seemed in the script because in the fantasy scenes he would be replaced by Lee.”

To maintain this illusion, the hospital scenes were shot first, in sequence, over a period of about 12 weeks. During that time, keeping the cast and crew in the dark about Pace’s ability to walk presented some special challenges. Singh had to change Pace’s name to get him down to South Africa, where the hospital scenes were shot. On one occasion, a makeup person walked into Pace’s room to find him standing–and almost passed out.

“I had to take this person aside and ask her not to tell anyone,” Singh says. On a couple of occasions, Pace even ran into fellow actor Daniel Caltagirone at the gym, but Caltagirone–who plays Sinclair, the movie star who steals Roy’s girlfriend–apparently did not recognize Pace. Caltagirone “had only seen him in a wheelchair or a bed,” says Singh. “He almost got caught twice.”

In addition, Singh had to make an exception to the “communist rules” under which the movie was made: “Everybody in the cast and crew traveled equal. If it was a luxury hotel, everyone stayed there. If it was a crappy hotel, everyone stayed there. And everyone got paid the same amount, from the focus puller to the actors. But for Lee I had to make an exception. Not in terms of pay, but I realized he would have to stay separately so everyone on the set would still believe he couldn’t walk.”

Finally, when the hospital scenes were in the can, Lee stood up and the illusion was broken. “Some people were laughing, some were crying and some were very, very angry,” the director recalls. “Everybody said, ‘You could have trusted me,’ but it had nothing to do with trust. People would have reacted differently to him if they had known.”

Once everyone knew Pace could walk, Singh and crew went on to shoot the rest of the movie over the next four years. “We decided we would just go to however many countries we needed to,” he recalls. “No CGI effects were used except to clean up certain scenes. We went to 18 countries in all, all over the world.”

In structuring the film, Singh took a very fluid approach to maximize interplay with Catinca’s childish imagination. “Rather than a locked-down script, we just had situations I had written down over the years, such as ‘elephant swims’ and ‘guys send messages to each other in a language no one understands,'” he says. “She pointed out the ones she thought were interesting.”

The scenes where the elephant swims with the Black Bandit on its back were particularly challenging to shoot, says Singh. “All elephants swim. But it’s very difficult to make them swim when you want them to. Plus, they empty their bowls when they do it, so if you try to shoot from behind the visibility goes to crap, as it were.”

Sometimes, Singh would show pictures to Untaru, and ask her in what kind of place she thought a certain part of the story would occur. “We used her naivete,” he says. “There’s no budgetary limit to a child’s imagination. When she’d get bored, she would go from one location to another. At the end of the day we would decide which was the most interesting approach and that was the one we’d edit in.”

Even some of the lines and situations in the film grew directly out of Untaru’s responses. For instance, when Pace told the story about Alexander the Great, Untaru thought the great leader’s decision to dump the helmet full of water into the desert sand instead of sharing it with his thirsty men was stupid–a reaction that made it into the movie. Similarly, when Pace wrote the word “morphine” on a piece of paper, he wrote the letter “e” in such a way that Catinca thought it was a “3,” and that’s how she pronounces it in the film. From there, the filmmakers got the idea to have her character throw out all but three of the morphine pills–to the immense frustration of Pace’s character–as a result of her misunderstanding.

The fact that much of the film was shot in sequence worked to the filmmakers’ advantage in some surprising ways, says Singh For example, Catinca’s English rapidly improved as production went along–and one day she showed up on set with two front teeth missing. “If we had been shooting it out of sequence for a studio we would have been dead,” Singh says. “All the things that would usually be a handicap, we used to our advantage.”

Similarly, Pace’s voice became so hoarse after the scene where he has a shouting fit that the actor suggested they not film the following day. “I said it’s supposed to be the same night so it made sense in the story,” says Singh. “When we had to match his voice in post or dub, we had to have him scream for two hours to get his voice that hoarse.”

Other continuity issues were less easily corrected, as when Catinca began to develop a slight Indian accent due to the fact that she was spending so much time on set with Singh. “We had to stop production for 10 days and have her spend more time with her family to try to save her Romanian accent,” he says.

Singh says he received encouragement to make the film from fellow directors, such as David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) and Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). Jonze gave him a George Lucas documentary of director Francis Ford Coppola making the film Rain People. “When you see Coppola, he had this mad energy,” Singh says. “I realized I needed to make this film now because he was 10 years younger than I am.”