Tarsem, @radical.media

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Visual maven Tarsem seems to have re-appeared on the scene with spots like Nike "Masks" and his blockbuster work for Pepsi International, including the recent Brazilian spot featuring a breathtaking soccer stud circus, in which the football pros gracefully transfer their skills from land to the surf. Creativity checks in to parse some of his latest screen magic and find out what's behind his apparently re-invigorated commercials career.

C: It seems in the past year or so you've re-emerged in kind of a big way.

T: Holy Moly! I didn't know I disappeared! No, I know what you mean. I've been shooting my movie for the last two years and have just been shooting mainly in Europe. Now the movie's finished so at the beginning of this year I came back and shot some stuff in America and suddenly they say, "Oh, the Indian's still alive!"

C: It's called The Fall, right? What's it about?

T: I wrote it with two friends of mine years ago. It's a period film. 19-teens. A guy who'd broken his back while working on something is basically trying to manipulate a little girl to steal pills from him so he can O.D. She ends up giving him enough reason maybe not to do it. It's kind of like English Patient meets Paper Moon meets Wizard of Oz.

C: So would you say it has characteristics of dare I say classic Tarsem? Is there a classic Tarsem?

T: I don't know if there is. If you see anybody you think you can recognize-Herb Ritts, Michael Bay, anybody you think of and can recognize their work, they've arrived. So when I started I just thought, you know what, I'm just going to see if I can put enough of myself into these ads. If people can recognize it, fine. If they can't, then fine, I'll go and rip some people off. But it worked out and I think I've just been doing what comes to me naturally. And somehow when you put the body of work together, I think I'm in it.

C: When Nike "Masks" first came out, it was like "Who the hell did that? That's amazing!" Once we heard it was Tarsem, it was like of course! So what was your thinking on that spot?

T: The main thing was the aggression you portray before a battle. It's how your opponent sees you. You might be a nice friendly guy that pets the dog, goes to church. But when you're in that zone, this is now the guy who you don't fuck with. Basically each person's personality had to be reflected. I didn't know any of the athletes, but they told me, for example, this guy's like a scorpion, he stings. I knew I didn't want to do anything in post. It had to be real. So I went to Eiko (Ishioka, the artist who worked with him on The Cell) and she designed initially quite a few of the masks. We went through them with the agency guys, put them into production and between Xmas and New Years we flew a three wall set around America and got one day with each athlete.

C: Robert Duffy cut it-did you work closely with him on that?

T: Yes, he had been doing my film and I didn't really feel like taking him out, but I saw the spot and I think we were in such a dark tunnel with the movie for such a long time we thought it would be a good break. [On spots] I tend not to usually work that closely with him, but we'd just been together on the film. This particular one is the only time I've ever sat with him and actually cut the whole thing through with him. He's brilliant.

C: The Pepsi spot-how in the world did you do that?

T: That's what they pay me for! Each of those players was given to me for about three hours each on a runway in Madrid. I had about a 10x10 foot square of sand patch and I had to make it look like they could surf. My relationship with the Pepsi client is pretty direct, pretty brilliant, so when Marcello Serpa (CD, Almap/BBDO) had that idea, I said, "Ok, I'll work it out but I don't know anything about surfing." I went down to Fiji and shot for five days just people surfing. I didn't want it to look at all like a lot of stuff I usually do. I love to do tableaux. This had to feel like the greatest soccer players in the world were suddenly on a fucking beach. It had to look grand, so I had to go handheld. Of course every director friend of mine who surfs said, "You're nuts! It'll never happen!" But I hung out with really good surfers and figured out when each one of them could figure out some sort of a jump. And I said, if you can see the CGI in it, it will not be successful, so I had to work out where I could do it and where I couldn't. Of course, I won't reveal what we finally did, but I don't think anybody can tell. It just looks like the guys were on the beach.

C: You've been doing these pretty grand productions, especially for Pepsi, not the tableau type of thing like you said. It's a little bit more mainstream. Is this something else you like to do?

T: I just think it keeps you young if you mix it up. For me, it's the only thing that gets my attention. If I've done it before and you come to me, I'll fall asleep on the set. So every time you go and it's like reinventing the wheel, it seems to work pretty well.