By Marilyn Ferdinand
Yesterday, I had one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. The hubby and I took a short drive to a clean and modern theatre with great sound not far from our home—normally, we have to drive into the city for the films we want to see. We found parking instantly, went into the theatre, and watched one of the most seriously joyous films on offer today, The Fall. After the film, we had the opportunity to share an extremely informal Q&A session with director Tarsem (he has dropped the Singh Dhandwar), with all of us, including the director, sitting on the floor of the theatre’s lounge. More on that later.
The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1915. The opening credits, a gorgeous duotone, slow-motion sequence, show us a confusing scene involving two men splashing in water below a train trestle, a handsome couple in a rowboat, and a crane on top of the trestle. After a few moments, the crane lifts a horse from the river below and moves it across the frame.
Soon we are in a hospital, where 6-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), her right arm wrapped in a cast and suspended straight out from her body, moves restlessly through the children’s ward and yells down to Nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell) that she has a note for her, in English, which she is just learning. Alexandria tosses the note, but it does not reach its destination. She runs down the stairs, holding a thin box from her suspended hand, and discovers that the note has landed in the lap of a young man. She is angry that he is reading it, but he says he didn’t know it wasn’t for him. Trying to calm her down, he says his name is Roy (Lee Pace). She tell him her name, and he tries another ploy to encourage her confidence. “You were named for Alexander the Great?” The girl says yes, without really seeming to know what he’s talking about, and leaves.
She returns the next day, however, and asks him more about Alexander the Great (Kim Uylenbroek). In the first picture-book sequence, she pictures Alexander on a horse, trapped in a courtyard. Roy corrects her, saying he was abandoned in a desert with a few of his troops. The image immediately shifts to great red dunes and parch-lipped men who are out of drinking water. Roy says that a messenger (Aiden Lithgow) rides to Alexander with a helmet full of water—the last Alexander’s army has left. Alexander takes the helmet and pours all of the water on the ground. Alexandria says, “That’s stupid.” Roy tries to explain that dumping the water made all of the men, including the emperor, equal. “I would give every soldier a little bit,” says Alexandria, and she departs.
Soon, Alexandria and Roy are daily companions, as she comes to his room for a story he builds upon for her. The basic story is the fight against Governor Odious (Daniel Altagirone) by five brave men, each with a different reason for hating the governor. Luigi (Robin Smith) hates Odious for killing his brother and has vowed revenge. An Indian (Jeetu Verma)—pictured as a man from the subcontinent rather than the Native American Roy intends—hates Odious for kidnapping his beautiful squaw (Ayesha Verman) and causing her to commit suicide by locking her in the Labyrinth of Despair. Runaway slave Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), a mystic (Julian Bleach) who emerges from the trunk of a tree that the men have seen burst into flames, and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his monkey Wallace, each with beefs of their own, round out the vengeful band. The band swears an oath in front of a sacred banner that they will kill Odious—mystically, the tremendously tall, white banner stains red with flowing blood.
The tragedies of the girl and man are soon revealed. The girl’s father is dead following the theft of their horse and the burning of her home. (It’s never clear exactly where this happened—I imagined that she and her mother and sisters were refugees from World War I who were settled in California to pick oranges for American farmers.) Roy, a stuntman working on his first movie, lost the use of his legs in the stunt we saw in the opening sequence. While Alexandria’s bones will mend, Roy may never recover. He is additionally burdened by the loss of his girl to the star of the film he was working on. Roy, in fact, is suicidal and refuses to tell more of the story until Alexandria fetches him some morphine pills from the dispensary that he can use to end his life.
The film builds in intensity, as Roy’s despair ratchets up even as Alexandria grows closer and closer to him. In an attempt to destroy her feelings for him, the fairytale goes very poorly for our heroes. “Why are you killing everyone?” Alexandria cries. “It’s my story,” says Roy. “It’s my story, too,” Alexandria says angrily. This central truth—that audiences make stories every bit as much as their tellers—lies beneath Tarsem’s obsession to make this movie. His emotional catharsis becomes ours as well as he allows us to end the story the way we want to.
The story of this film’s birth is fascinating. The screenplay is very loosely based on a Bulgarian film whose title translates as Yo Ho Ho, and explores the idea of upended fairytales; as Tarsem explained, fairytales as we know them proceed in predictable ways toward happy endings, and he wanted to make a serious film in which “Santa Claus gets cancer.” He mentioned that Ponette was an inspiration for his use of a child in the film. After 23 years of planning, scouting locations in the four corners of the Earth while on commercial shoots, and waiting for the right child for the lead to be born, Tarsem finally finished the film in 2006. It took two more years and the help of Spike Jonze and David Fincher, personal friends of Tarsem’s, to get it a limited theatrical release. Tarsem has been doing personal appearances and publicity tirelessly to help get the word out. A greater spokesperson could not be found.
Among the topics we discussed was the visual splendor of the film made possible by location shooting and the dazzling costumes of Oscar winner Eiko Ishioka (due for another one for this film). According to Tarsem, the film was shot in at least 24 countries, and none of the visual effects were computer-generated. An image I and others were sure was computer-generated was of Governor Odious’ troops running down a series of zigzag staircases. In fact, these staircases actually are wells that were built with several horizontal lines to mark the water level, an indication of how much to tax the wells’ users. The wells are disused, ancient structures found all over India for which Indians had little regard. Tarsem found one exposed enough in an area experiencing drought and hired extras to play the troops—according to Tarsem, it’s cheaper in India to use real extras than to create images electronically. Now, the wells are showing up more and more in Indian films and commercials. In another example, a shot of an iridescent-blue butterfly dissolves to the very real Butterfly Reef:
In one scene, Alexandria has to translate between her mother and her doctor. For a while, she does it properly. Then, she gets tired of it. Her mother says something lengthy to the doctor, and Alexandria says, “She says, ‘OK.”" To the doctor’s disbelief, she merely says, “That’s how we say it.” This incident was taken from Tarsem’s own experience of translating for his illiterate grandmother. It got a big laugh in the theatre and at the Q&A.
Tarsem told of shooting in the sacred Indian city of Rajasthan, where the only color that houses are allowed to be painted is blue. During scouting, Tarsem thought the color of the buildings was too faded to pop on screen. He offered the people of the town free paint and the chance to paint their homes any color they chose. Naturally, they all chose blue and freshened up his location with a new coat of paint.
The film includes a montage at the end of dangerous stunts performed during the silent era. Tarsem said he actually wanted to make a film set in contemporary times, but he could not afford to get permission to use stunts from current films. Because silent films are in the public domain, he used those. He thought to have Alexandria age to the present, but his young star could not do an older voice and adding an older actress just didn’t work. Therefore, he kept the film within Alexandria’s childhood.
The hardest part of the film for Tarsem was finding the right child. He said he sent people he knew out with cameras to shoot video of children all over the world. He originally conceived of the part as that of a boy, but when he saw Untaru, he was blown away. Once he secured her services, he shot for 12 weeks in sequence. Untaru spoke very little English at first and imitated him, which basically left her with Indian-accented English, but picked up the language very quickly. He did from one to three takes of her scenes, “because she got cutesy after that.” Her chemistry with Pace is incredible through their semi-improvised scenes, and Tarsem thought after seeing them together that he might just make a straight drama and cut out all the storytelling sequences. I agreed that the reality-based scenes were much stronger and very emotional, but the story grew on me and permutated to reflect Roy’s troubles in an interesting and story-enhancing way.
Unaccountably, the film received an “R” rating in the United States, for what I’m not sure, but perhaps for a very short scene of Alexandria hearing a noise (her nurse and a doctor having sex) and going over to investigate. The rating is a real tragedy, because this is a perfect film for parents and children of about 10 years old and up. Children like stories that seem real to them even as they are being entertained by a fantasy. Parents, take your kids—you have nothing to fear from this age-appropriate film. Adults who are young at heart, check out this wonderful adventure with a brain.