Self/Less is a mystery sci-fi thriller starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley. Kingsley plays an extremely wealthy man who is dying of cancer. However, he learns of a radical medical procedure that allows him to transfer his consciousness into the body of a healthy young man, played by Reynolds. He soon learns all is not as it seems and there are more costs than he previously thought. During roundtable interviews, Tarsem gave us great insight into the making of the movie and working with the actors and writers.
Read what he had to say below:
So, right off the bat, was there a point when you read this script knowing that you were going to go in and you kind of question is this something that I want to do? Or were you automatically attracted.
Tarsem Singh: Two things, one, because I always wanted to do one visual film, and it not being two, not being three, not being four, and then suddenly all anybody knew was that I wanted to do fantastical stuff and I just said ok, that’s five percent of my work, mostly when I worked in advertising, and I’ve been saying I want to do it, a thriller or a similar one just like that and I never, suddenly I was thinking, if I don’t make the change now, best case scenario, ten years from now or five years from now if I’m still working in town I’ll just get the rejects of, you know, people like Tim Burton. So I just said like no, I want to make that choice now, so it got much more difficult, so I was looking for a thriller, and a non-fantastical thriller. I know this is slightly sci-fi, but, not really, it’s just a mcguffin for me in this particular one, and then thematically I was very interested in it.
Do you feel tempted at any time to have at least one scene or sequences with some fantasy?
Tarsem: Bloody Hell! I did! And you know what happened? It actually stuck out a little bit and then they asked me that “oh remove it” and I was first fighting with the studio then I thought it slows it down … It had one surreal section … for today’s audience it is a relatively slower moving film, you know, to go in there and then I just thought I’d put it in you know like that it shouldn’t slow down anymore. So there was one and then I just thought the effects were not what this film was about and how believable is it.
Can you speak about the MRI scene.
Tarsem: Well it wouldn’t explode. Originally, that’s what they had written, that it would come out of your body and go there and I just said, but maybe it did, he put it in his mouth and if you open his mouth it just got stuck in the machine, it just doesn’t like metal there. And that’s what I call mcguffin. Again when you show it to people, if this was India, I wouldn’t have to do any of that … But here, people need different answers. So for me, you show it to the audience and they go like meh not buying that or too tacky or no and you find a mix. So for me, I thought the bullet thing was too obvious, for me. But when you talk to the audience there was a light amount of I’m lost, I got it, and you say oh ok, then you find that mixture later. But I don’t believe in finding a movie in the edit. The movie is 23 seconds shorter than what I showed them a year three months, like when we finished it, the directors cut was 23 seconds longer. And so it survived exactly, so all that shifted is making certain things clearer, we just needed something that makes him outdo the other guys.
Speaking of that, did you get the final cut?
Tarsem: Final cut was given to very few people and also when you get it, it’s not the best thing to have because certainly if they don’t agree with you they might take it out in much smaller cinemas. In this particular one they looked at that and just saw that the audience completely loved it. So that’s why it waited for this long cause they decided it will come out in the summer. Oh it will get lost in summer movies, they said yes, we will go with the counter program, but we believe in it. So we’re going to put our money into this. It is supposed to be a much smaller film. But the audience went for it … and most of the time you’re dealing with the people who are asking these questions, they are very intelligent people. They’re just trying to make sure their investment is a little bit safe. For me, a lot of indie people that I know when you ask them questions, I’m like oh my God, ok you can keep that. So for me, it’s a question of when someone puts that much money in it, how much milk will I allow them to put into my coffee and still think, it’s good enough. And that’s the question. So I’d say it survived me.
You have a great chase sequence in this.
Tarsem: Because actually you haven’t seen my commercials, my commercials used to be, they’re very action oriented. I did a kiddie movie and I did surreal films and I ended up with those. So with this particular one … you can feel the weight of the car. Obey the rules of physics … So it was that kind of a chase. You spend more time investing people into a grounded character so when he goes and gets hurt you want it to feel real. So it was more a question of lets make sure the car chase is believable and real and not … Fast and Furious. Suddenly in the middle of it, as much as those effects are incredible and wonderful, but this film didn’t warrant it.
It feels that you always come out from your own world and share something unique, a unique vision.
Tarsem: Are you saying that because The Fall I got to do whatever I wanted, and I just made the movie I wanted. And this particular [one] I’m getting a script from somebody else because I’m really very lazy. It took me like 17 years to get The Fall written down the way I wanted and that was also still only ten, twenty pages … So thrillers would take me too long to write and there are people that can write and I can see and just say if you can show me something that works on paper I can hit it out of the ball park. On the other hand, visual films, somehow, badly perceived. A lot of people think like eh, it’s crap but he can fix it, it’s visual and I go I don’t want to go there anymore. Just make it work on paper and I’ll take it there. So this was a fight for a while. So the writers did a really good job and I recognized that I can see what this is. And I’ll tell the reason my DNA will be in it is because just where I’ll put the camera. I’m not going to shoot it with my telephone, it’s not going to be shaky cam, certain things I love that in, but this is not that type of film. It can be grounded and cinematic without being shaky cam and shitty and I just went for that … but most people who haven’t seen that side of the work always look at and say that this is a complete shift for you and I say in movies, Yeah. But, I shoot 300 days in a year, and most of the other stuff is not fantastical at all.
So you’re still doing commercials?
Tarsem: I was, and now I just had a baby.
Congratulations. You work with some dynamic actors, what was it like working with Ryan and Derek Luke. What was that like?
Tarsem: Great! I’d say that Ben Kingsley and the Ryan thing was switched. I was only afraid of Ben Kingsley, but he was phenomenal and we got along like thieves. I just loved him, and we’re still in touch all the time and have dinners and everything and so really that was the only person where can it go? I don’t know if I’ll get Gandhi or Sexy Beast. But I think he’s amazing and if he feels that you know what you’re doing, it’d turn out great. So for me, Luke was fantastic. When I saw Luke’s previous job the only thing with Luke that I’d ask him was take a look at a movie and I don’t want you to do it in that style. Was I think it’s Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. I said look at Ed Harris, that when he gives the information about talking about the guy who cut his eye open with this thing, just the way he delivers it in a mall. And Luke took this thing and completely made it his own. And I just looked at that and said yes you don’t have to go over the top with it.
Were you concerned about the marketing department, maybe showing too much?
Tarsem: Always! Have you ever met a director who thought that they made the right trailer? No, for me this is one of the best ones that I’ve ever had because I think my previous trailers were horrendous. So the bar was set really low. But in this particular one, the question becomes about how much do you give away. I think I see that a lot, and people say that a lot they say you gave away too much, I say I agree. The thing of it is when you look at a statistic, it literally goes like this, that people want to go see a movie that they feel they know what’s going to happen and then they get double crossed … So when people spend that bit amount of money and say that’s what marketing tells us. I go alright, I hope you’re right, because I’ve always lost on the trailer fights. I just kind of go I do this for a living I cut movies, can we cut commercials but they just go, no we know what we’re doing. So I just go away before I make more enemies. I come back and we look at it, I do a thing. But I think there’s something good in the trailer it goes up to our second act and then it makes you think something is happening that is not. So I looked at the trailer and I just said ah! So people think that they’ve actually got the story out of the trailer but they haven’t. But there is something in the second act that when you walked and watched through the audience that have not seen the trailer, there was incredible shock that was brilliant and I think a bit of that is gone but there is still enough to go on. That’ll hopefully drewing them in, like you know, there’s people that’ll just say I hated that movie but I’m going to go see it, I know it’s going to be terrible, but I’m going to go see it and then there’s people who’ll say lovely movie, I don’t want to see it and I’m just thinking bah, where’s the thing when you spend that amount of money, I just say ok, you guys go over there.
How do you direct people who have to be playing the same character but they’re a different person. Kingsley turned into Reynolds, and Anton turned into another Anton. Did you study them for their acting first?
Tarsem: No, well, if it were a play, and if I had to get it into the movie like I did in The Fall that’s exactly what would’ve happened. Of course they said yes, yes. I said first I’ll shoot Ben Kingsley then I’ll show Ryan the tape. As we’re about to shoot the movie, you get Ryan Reynolds for three months and the last two weeks, Ben Kingsley will show up and I went what! I said ok, you turned around and said ok, how do I adapt? I said ok, leave it for me, because I don’t think the movie is about that. And it’s a question that again, nobody really knows what happens when you go into another body. It’s just whatever make-up rules we make. You know people will have a real hiccup about, you know like accents. Like what’ll happen with that particular accent if this goes in, I just say well, you really wouldn’t depend on it if you had a lisp in one body and you go to the other one and the teeth are together, would you still have a lisp? No way is this muscle memory, with your tongue and your mouth or whatever, but certain habits that you have could transfer. So I actually took seven or eight of them and only one of them survived. He still has this little sarcastic laugh and smile and a single of that, that I had from both characters, but by the time they came they were actually pulling their performances down. So only one survived that when he walks in he always just has the habit of throwing his keys over from the back or so I just took, I took a couple of those and the glasses with the other guy, which transfers, between Luke and the other guy, just a slip of the tongue, and then he says Eddie, and then he gets it. So there’s just a person who’s done it enough time and there’s someone who hasn’t. How much transfer is it, it’s just a mcguffin. A rule that we make up and that we live with.
For me, accents is where we always lose. I had no problem with Alexander, and everybody gives such a lot of shit to Oliver Stone and they say now for me all white people sound the same and I have no problem with the rules you make, alright. And I didn’t want Anton to start doing bro stuff. You know the white Anton to start acting like that guy or the black guy to act differently. I didn’t want that but there is one that I feel really bad about and I don’t know who’s little bonnet it got in to, and they got it out, is that I had the, and I’ll say black and white Anton, the black Anton, when he’s underneath shooting at the guys and he’s said like “I’m going to burn you! I’m going to cook you up!” and I had him say a line that I loved, because originally, this is a guy that they got from Russia, and I had put in a line and I made him say it “I’m going to make goulash out of you!” and … anybody who would watch it was like what the f—- and that’s true. But later on when you find out that that guy is actually from Russia, it would make more sense and I tried to fight for it, and then you kind of you pick your fights … [The] Black guy is saying goulash I’m thinking because he’s not black! It’s a Russian guy in that body and I lost that fight but I wish I had it in because then later on when you see them sitting in the car I had his radio tuned to Russian economics. That there’s somebody speaking Russian and because you might not get with the program and I really thought it played well.
I just wanted to ask you about Victor Garber, casting him and what was it like working with him.
Tarsem: He’s such a sympathetic character. So Victor, he’s made this decision out of the character, has made this decision out of very correct choices. It’s like this guy helped me through my whole life and you had a son that was dying and somebody comes to you and says, hey we built this thing in a lab and it’s a DNA thing and your child will go into it and you keep him home for like a couple of years and he’ll be fine and none of us I hope in this room or anywhere have had that issue happen with a child, but when that happens you just grab it strong and he’s made that decision, he’s not a bad guy. But then later on somewhere in between where he just feels creeped out with his son doing a … thing, you think this is the bad guy. I could only think of Victor. His every decision is made right. He did not have a bee in his bonnet at all. He made all these right, then he tried to pass on something altruistically to his friend to get him to live, he didn’t do it to himself. He just thought, this guy can do more to the world than go out now and that’s why. So his choice was for that and he said he always did it because he had that big scene in upfront with Ben Kingsley and it’s true and it’s strange, we had Gerber on the first day of shoot and the last day of shoot. And that was it! I literally had him on the first day was the house that we, I think we shot for two days within maybe, and one day in New York. So he was literally the bookends. Yea but, if you want to put somebody, you know, on a table with Ben Kingsley and they can’t act, he’ll eat everybody. Got to make sure and Garber was so brilliant. And that young guy who only had that scene we cast him literally three days before and I had to stand and give him applause cause he did not lose his balls I was just thinking that you have Garber, and Kingsley, and you have all those lines and you’ve just been cast to come in, on the table and deliver and he was great.
Chasity Saunders contributed reporting.