Mirror Mirror director Tarsem Singh talks visual effects, fighting dwarves, music videos, and superheroes

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Mirror Mirror director Tarsem Singh has come a long way from his days as an award-winning creator of music videos, following a path that has included stops in the world of advertising (including a memorable Pepsi ad featuring Britney Spears and Beyonce Knowles battling gladiator-style) and a run of visually stunning feature-length films that began with The Cell in 2000.

This weekend, Singh applies his unique filmmaking aesthetic to one of the most popular fairy tales of all time, and offers up his own spin on the Brothers Grimm tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” The family-friendly film casts Julia Roberts as The Queen, with Lily Collins (Priest) as Snow White and Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as Prince Alcott.

And while the story of Snow White is already well-known around the world, there’s no denying that Mirror Mirror presents a distinctly different take on the tale everyone is familiar with — due in no small part to Singh’s flair for fantastic visuals, eye-popping set pieces, and a talented cast of actors.

Singh spoke to Digital Trends this week about Mirror Mirror and what he learned from making the film, as well as music videos and why the only superhero movie he’d like to make.

What was it about the story of Snow White that first appealed to you as a filmmaker?

It wasn’t anything specifically about Snow White. I’d just done three visual films, all R-rated films, and I wanted not to do a visual film. When this came along, it’s so family oriented that I thought it was also breaking with what’s expected of me, so let’s read it. I looked at it and said, “Wow, I really, really know who the queen is here. I don’t know who the prince is, and I don’t know who Snow White is, but if you can get the queen I’ll make this movie. And funny enough, I’d just met Julia and she liked the character, so we were making the movie within the month.

The story of Snow White has been done so many times before, and we’re getting a different take on it later this year, too. From your perspective, what is it about this movie that sets it apart from the rest?

It’s a family tale that’s charming, but “charming” is a really hard word to define. There have been gritty versions done before, and there’s a lovely animated one, and so many other different kinds. I just say that this is a charming family film — and god knows there are too few of those types of movies around. I spend a lot of time with my brother’s kids, and I thought I’d like to do a movie that they’d like — not too gritty, because we’ve seen all of those. I wanted to make a charming film that isn’t animated, that’s actually a fairy tale. At the same time, though, if you stick too close to the fairy tales, they’re so simplistic that you have nothing to do after ten minutes, so obviously you have to change it a little. So we took elements from the fairy tale and that’s where we ended up.

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You mentioned not wanting to do an animated film, but you do use some pretty spectacular animation in the opening sequence of the movie that — without spoiling anything — feels very unique. What can you tell us about that scene?

I originally wanted an animation piece there, but everyone said animation was too dissociative, and that most people won’t relate to the young Snow White if she’s animated and all of that. I kept saying we needed animation, and they kept saying no. In the end, when they couldn’t afford what I wanted to do instead of animation, they finally said, “Okay, what can we do with animation?” There was one animator that I really liked, and the producer liked the same guy — which was a shock to me. Finally, me and a producer were seeing eye to eye, which was wonderful. [Laughs]

There was an animated film I’d seen that was really wonderful, which he sent to me as a reference. In it, everything was animated except the eyes. The eyes of the people were real. I said, “That solves the problem of everyone wanting to relate to these characters. They’re not cartoons, because their eyes are real.” So as much as I’d like to take credit for the animation, our animator delivered. He’s fantastic. I got the exact piece I wanted.

What about the dwarves? Your take on them is something I’ve never seen before (which isn’t surprising), so how did you come up with the idea to have them fighting on the bouncy stilt-like contraptions we’ve seen in clips?

In the beginning, everyone was very hesitant to use real dwarves. I said we should use real dwarves because I don’t have the time and money needed to do something like Lord of the Rings where you shrink people. I want the dwarves to be real, and I don’t want them to look at all articial, no matter how good the technology is. Once we learned that there was a competing film and we didn’t have the time to spend on shrinking people, they let me have the dwarves. But they still said the dwarves had to fight. That was a problem, because it’s really hard for people with the particular handicaps of dwarfism to do that type of thing. Everyone who I liked could barely walk fast, so I had to come up with a completely different technique. I decided to solve it through wardrobe and make these guys giants when you first meet them. They fight on stilts, so it’s fighting that can be done with stuntmen in masks. And once they’re done fighting, the way they become small again is this sort of collapsing, accordion-like machine.

Now if this was for adults only, this would be hard, but because it’s for families, they will buy that magic. Like I said, “charming” is a very hard-to-define word, and means different things to different people, but that’s what this film is: charming. It’s not taking itself too seriously, and it’s expecting the adults to understand that yes, those are stuntmen — but the children, they don’t question stuff like that.

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Did you have any problems adjusting your style of filmmaking for a more general, family-friendly audience profile? So many of your films have been dark, violent movies aimed at adult audiences…

Not really, no. The producers were really helpful. For example, they told me things like, “When you go really dark in a particular element, make sure there’s a counterpoint you can cut to that has comedy.” [They told me to] have a counterpoint any time I thought children would be uncomfortable with a particular scene, and to balance it all out. Those kinds of rules, once I understood them, I could include them.

One of your first big successes was in the world of music videos with REM’s “Losing My Religion.” Have you ever thought about returning to the music world for a project? Do you get that urge?

I think my taste in music has changed too much. When I came out of school, I was doing music videos and did one that was very successful, the “Losing My Religion” one, but my personal taste is so much more toward folk and classical that I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. Fortunately, I’ve never needed to work for money. In advertising I got all the toys and all the other things I wanted to play with as a director, so I just moved into that world [from music videos]. I never really went back. So I’d say no, I’m not against doing a music video, but I’m not particularly pushed to work in that world, either.

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Is there a world you’d like to work in that you haven’t been able to yet?

Right now, everybody thinks I only want to make visual films, but I’d like to make just a straight-out, clean drama. I grew up always wanting to do visual films, but at the same time, there’s a side of me that likes drama. I haven’t had a chance to make a film like that, and if I don’t do it now, maybe I never will.

Well, given your approach to visual films, it’s a bit surprising that we haven’t seen you do a comic book movie yet — something like one of the dark superhero films that everyone seems to love these days. Has that ever crossed your mind? Do you have any interest in making that type of movie?

Probably not a superhero movie that you’d recognize. To a certain extent, the guys in The Fall are superheroes, especially if you’re telling the story to a child who has never seen cinema. If you’re talking about superheroes from a comic, though, I’ve never been a comic-strip fan. But I’d love to do Samurai Jack. Is he a superhero? He’s an animated guy who looks like he belongs in a Kurosawa film more than anything else, and I would like to go in that direction and see what I can find. If I do a superhero movie, I don’t think it would be a conventional, straight one. And right now, those are doing so well that I don’t see why anybody would want to redefine the genre and screw it up with somebody like me. [Laughs]

Keep an eye on Digital Trends later today for our Mirror Mirror review.

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