Self/less: Tarsem Singh says ‘I Don’t Want to Fight My DNA’

Director Tarsem Singh reins himself in for the sci-fi melodrama Self/less.

Over the course of his first four feature films, director Tarsem Singh has made a name for himself as an impressive visual stylist, whose gorgeous and often jaw-dropping compositions and tableaux have helped make rickety or insubstantial storylines (in movies like The Cell, Immortals and Mirror, Mirror) go down easier. His very personal and decidedly uncommercial second feature, The Fall, was probably his most creatively satisfying, if only because he dispensed with a standard narrative in favor of something more fragmentary that matched the movie’s surreal nature.

With Self/less, his fifth feature, Tarsem has gone in the other direction: this sci-fi thriller is set firmly in the real world, a few years from now, and while the film is as beautifully shot as Tarsem’s others, there’s little here in terms of truly arresting and fantastical images. What there is, however, is a solid (if derivative) story: Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying corporate baron who is given by creepy scientist Matthew Goode the chance to live on by transferring his consciousness into a younger, healthier body, which happens to look just like Ryan Reynolds. At first Damian embraces his new life even if he left his empire and his estranged daughter behind; but soon enough, he discovers that others have paid a price for his new life, and the time has come for him to pick up the full tab.

Although it plays like a cross between John Frankenheimer’s existential horror masterpiece Seconds and John Woo’s sci-fi actioner Face Off, Self/less always feels confident in its storytelling (the script is by David and Alex Pastor, who wrote and directed the little seen but effective post-apocalyptic Carriers) and correct in Tarsem’s no-nonsense approach to visualizing the narrative. Den of Geek sat down with the animated and colorful director to talk about what drove him to direct the movie, why it’s eerily relevant and why it’s not in his DNA to shoot “gritty.”

Den of Geek: What attracted you to this material?

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Tarsem Singh:  I ended up doing visual films back, to back, to back, to back. And I just thought I wanted a thriller that was cinematic. So my brief was more anything that was like a more commercial Roman Polanski is what I was going after. So when this thing came along, I said, “Good. Story is great. It’s very solid. Does not depend on visuals to drive it. If you can put it in the right city, I want to do it.” And immediately New Orleans came along. And I went, “I’ve shot there. Love it. Perfect.”

Why was the city important to you?

Well, if somebody is told, “You don’t know where we’re going to ship you. Go and party like you want to or do whatever you want, and then maybe in two months you are going to go away and you are going to disappear and leave your life here.” I think people, if they want to go hedonistic, you’d end up in Vegas or New Orleans. I couldn’t think of another better place for him to recuperate. When that was in New Orleans, I just said, “Wow. It’s perfect, because that is where most of the story happens.”

You mentioned the fact that you shot several films in a row that were very visually oriented — which has become your trademark. Did you feel like in some ways you had something to prove by taking on a film that was more realistic looking?

No. I just made an effort towards it. I wanted to do one visual film. It was a personal film. Then another movie came along before that, and the next two, and then suddenly you turn around and everybody has found a perfect pigeonhole in which you live. And I just thought, “If I don’t change it now, then the scripts that Tim Burton throws in his trash are the only ones that will come my way.” I just said, “I’ve got to change it or five years from now I won’t be working in anything except in that territory if I’m lucky.” So the push was to say, “Can you give me something that works on paper and then I can hit it further?”

You’ve done a lot of fantasy…

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That was the key word. I said, “Anything that’s not fantastical.” I said, “Of course it can be slightly in the future, but just not fantastical.”

Well this is science fiction, but not the kind of science fiction with spaceships and rockets and things like that. Are there science fiction films that you drew on as inspiration?

I would have liked to have gone there. For me, my favorite one is always La Jetee, which is just a couple of people immobile in hammocks. You sit down in hammocks and do drugs and say, “Hey! I had the same trip this guy did!” That is one way to go, which is originally what I thought of for The Cell. That kind of got technical, and when more money comes in, people expect to see more on the screen. So we ended up pushing it and then just thought, let’s make it look like it’s today’s stuff happening maybe a year from now. So, of course the unknown technology, we don’t know what it is. So that’s where we took our brief from. It’s just MRI machines and stuff like that done with a makeshift lab. So it wasn’t really so much sci-fi…just MRI machines but a little bigger.

The issues that the film brings up are very relevant today — transhumanism, shedding your identity, shedding your body.

For me, one of the creepiest things…a word that creeps me out the most is, I think, harvesting. You know, when insurance people are waiting a long time for a liver from England or in any of the rest of the world, and you don’t get it in time, you basically go to the Philippines for three months. They take your blood type. You walk around in the poor areas. Everybody’s got their blood type and an agent. 10,000 bucks or whatever it costs. They get that guy, take a liver and give it to you, and you go away. It’s not going to stop. Most people, when they are young, they will say whatever they want, but when you get old and desperate, you’re not the same person you were earlier, especially if you have money. It’s going to get bigger and bigger.

We also seem to be in this state where people want to live other lives. They want to live on a reality show. They want to be a celebrity. There’s a movie called Seconds from the ‘60s which is similar to yours in that people can…

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Love that film. It’s a film school film that they always show you.

Self/less touches on that too — the extension of this could be if you are not happy with your life, you just find a new one.

Yeah. You see it in Seconds. You see it in The Twilight Zone. There’s films from way back that this theme has always been part of. The theme is what interested me. Some of them did brilliantly. I think Seconds really holds up because it’s so stylistic. And The Twilight Zone episode was incredibly hokey. But the subject matter is the same. Hopefully this one is like older wine in new bottles.

The shots in your films are composed so beautifully…

I tried in this one not to, but I can’t shoot as if my grandmother shot it…

But they are great to look at. And also the action scenes; you know where everything is happening. Why is it so difficult for a lot of directors to do that? You make it look easy and it’s not.

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I don’t know that it’s difficult. It’s different. For me, I was thinking, “Should I go gritty with this,” which is a word everybody wants to use and make it look like that. I just said, “It just isn’t in my DNA.” As the expression says, you can take the whore out of the street, but you can’t take the street out of the whore. I am a guy who shoots like that. I tried to shoot it crappily, for lack of a better word. It basically looks like how I want it to look. I don’t want to fight my DNA.

Tell me about The Panopticon. That’s your next project.

It isn’t. I think it fell apart just because I think the deal couldn’t be worked out financially.

It was an apocalyptic type of story?

No. it wasn’t so much. That would have been me really fighting my DNA, because I wanted to shoot that as my version of how everybody shoots movies through their phones now. But it was going to be incredibly stylistic. Just the numbers just didn’t match up.

Anything else cooking?

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Yes. There’s about three or four projects. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about them. I will know within a week. One is for TV of all things.

Do you think you’d ever possibly shoot a film with two people in a room talking?

(A film like) My Dinner with Andre was a thing I always said I would do right after I did The Fall. I’d love to, but it just depends if I can get someone behind it or not.

Self/less is out in theaters Friday (July 10).