After he shot a Coke commercial on the Butterfly Reef in Fiji, Tarsem flew the actors in for two days of filming. He did the same thing in Namibia. After he shot a Mountain Dew ad there, he used the country's sand dunes for a scene in which his characters were lost in the desert. Other scenes were set in remote parts of the Himalayas, the high desert of Rajasthan and the Andaman Islands near Sumatra, where he filmed the actors astride elephants swimming in the ocean, an image he'd first used in a Coke commercial.
Tarsem completed the film last year, but his luck ran out when he took the picture to Toronto. He especially wanted Roger Ebert, who'd been a fan of "The Cell," to see the picture. But the critic fell ill and couldn't cover the festival. The critics who did see the film were not kind. Variety's Dennis Harvey wrote a scathing pan, calling the film "an overlong whimsy" that was "basically a coffee-table book of striking travelogue images masquerading as warm-hearted period drama and fantasy."
Bad news travels fast. "It was terrible," Tarsem recalls. "We had all these [sales] appointments set up and after the reviews came out, everyone canceled."
Over time, a number of acquisition executives have caught up with the film and come away impressed. But without rave reviews, they believe it would be a tough sell. Several execs I spoke to theorized that Tarsem's success as a commercial director worked against the film, saying it would've received a warmer festival reception if it had been made by a struggling Third World filmmaker instead of a chic director best known for soft-drink ads and R.E.M. videos.
"If the film were in a foreign language, it would probably would have sold right away," says Think Films chief Mark Urman, an admirer of the movie. "But the film speaks to the mixed blessing of total independence. It might never have been made inside the system, but being made outside the system created a whole new set of problems, since there wasn't anyone around worrying about whether the filmmaker found a way to give pleasure to many people instead of just himself."
Tarsem's supporters scoff at the idea that a film buyer always has to know who the audience is that will embrace a film. As Fincher put it: "Who knew who the audience was for 'Pan's Labyrinth'? People are much more sophisticated about taking in visual information today. I'm not convinced that everyone has to have all their food pre-chewed for them."
Fincher makes a good point. There is something magical about a movie like "The Fall" that transcends cold-eyed marketing calculations. It has its flaws, but it has something too many films today lack -- a sense of wonder about the possibilities of the medium.
Nonetheless, it remains unsold. Tarsem insists he has no regrets about the millions he may never see again. "It's like the old cliche, 'Easy come, easy go.' " he says, noting that with two homes and an Aston-Martin, he's not exactly starving. "Money makes accountants happy. But I didn't want to end up an old guy, sitting around talking about the movie I never got to make."
He sighs. "I just wish I could get more people to see it."
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