CAMPAIGN CRAFT: PROFILE TARSEM - Maverick ad director turns Hollywood film-maker. Tarsem may have completed his first feature film but he still wants to make ads, Jim Davies reports

I’d finally been put through to Tarsem’s room at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. It was nine in the morning there, five in the evening here.

I’d finally been put through to Tarsem’s room at the Chateau

Marmont in West Hollywood. It was nine in the morning there, five in the

evening here.

We’d been talking for three or so minutes when he asked: ’Is this the

actual interview?’ ’Yes,’ I replied. ’Oh well, I’d better sit up then.’

Like some latter-day potentate, he conducted the rest of the

conversation from the comfort of his hotel bed, while I just about

managed to resist the temptation of enquiring as to his choice of sleep


One of the most feted commercials directors of the past decade,

38-year-old Tarsem is putting the finishing touches to his first

Hollywood feature, The Cell. Slated for a US release in August, the

’science-fiction thriller’ stars Jennifer Lopez and Vincent d’Onofrio

and, according to the promotional blurb, promises to be ’visually

distinctive with ground-breaking special effects’. Considering he’s

devoted a year of his life to the project, Tarsem is remarkably sanguine

about it. ’It was a very good learning experience,’ he says. ’It’s a

very, very visual film. I got hold of a whole bunch of toys that I

wanted to play with. But I missed advertising like hell.’

Since he burst on to the scene in the early 90s with his accomplished

student reel - which included the multi-award-winning pop promo for

REM’s Losing my Religion - Tarsem has been inundated with film offers.

He’d previously insisted that he was holding out for the right one, so

why The Cell? ’I wanted to do a movie while I was still feeling young. I

thought if this goes on too long I’ll just be one of those angry guys

who is pissed off at this and that. I’d always wanted to do a personal

film first, but this got the green light so I thought ’let’s do


Tarsem certainly let people know he was back in the advertising frame

with last month’s Nike work ’the mission’ through Wieden & Kennedy. This

explosive 90-second tour de force is a hi-tech follow-up to Tarsem’s

1995 ’good vs evil’ ad in which footballers battle with assorted


Though the director has ventured into the realm of digital special

effects previously - notably his ’message in a bottle’ commercial for

Smirnoff - he’s undoubtedly more noted for his impeccable styling and

art direction, which is often combined with astute filmic allusion and

wry humour. It’s a pure coincidence, he says, that two such

effects-driven projects have cropped up consecutively. Generally, he

prefers to ’mix it up’ more and suggests that his next film might be

more dialogue-based, ’two people talking on a bus or something’. This is

an intriguing thought, although you can bet any Tarsem bus will be

decorated with feathers, flowers and other finery.

Tarsem’s hankering for variety hasn’t always been so evident. As an

up-and-coming commercials director, he developed a reputation for his

uncompromising pursuit of his personal aesthetic. He’d turn down

scripts, always insist on maximum input, even contribute his own money

if budgets didn’t allow him to achieve his vision.

’In the beginning I was very specific in what I wanted,’ he admits. ’I

was thinking that in three or four years I will have a portfolio and

people will understand the sensibility that I am interested in. Now

people are coming to me with such amazing stuff and all the battles have

already been fought. It sounds calculated I know ... in retrospect I’m a

lot smarter than I feel.’

Not according to Robert Campbell, a producer at Outsider, who worked

with Tarsem at Spots before the director left for in


’He’s the brightest person I’ve ever worked with,’ Campbell says. ’If

he’d chosen to be a surgeon, he would have been brilliant. There was no

doubt in my mind that he would succeed as a commercials director. There

was nothing like it around at the time.’ His present UK producer,

Dominic Delaney, says that Tarsem has moved on in recent years: ’At

first it was his innovative, fresh style which set him apart. Now he’s

matured and a more complete film-maker. He sees things in scripts few

other directors do.’

Curiously, Tarsem (born Tarsem Dhandwar Singh) could well have ended up

in a different industry. Though he’d dreamt of becoming a film director

since his school-days in the Himalayas, his father packed him off to

Delhi University to study commerce. From there he won a scholarship to

study business administration at Harvard, but once away from parental

influence he dropped out and wangled his way into the City College film

school in Los Angeles.

Another scholarship took Tarsem to the Design Center in Pasadena, where

he met and established a working relationship with Fatima (now a

commercials director at Tomboy Films) whom, he acknowledges, was

instrumental in developing his rich, heavily stylised ’look’ - described

as ’Tarkovsky meets Caravaggio’.

’Nearly everything aesthetic came from her,’ he says. ’She was very


His big ad break was the Levi’s commercial ’swimmer’, conceived by Larry

Barker and Rooney Carruthers in 1991 at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. It was a

shot in the arm for a somewhat jaded campaign and, with its beautifully

observed casting, still ranks among the best in a competitive genre.

More Levi’s ads for Europe and the US followed, with spots for

Coca-Cola, Reebok, Nike, Perrier and Smirnoff consolidating his position

as one of the most sought-after directors on both sides of the


’I never did music videos so I could do ads, and I never did ads so that

I could do movies,’ Tarsem says. ’I just love advertising. If I wasn’t

in demand, I’d pay to do what I do. It’s like breathing for me.’ And

though he was proud to win a Bafta lifetime achievement award for

advertising in LA last year, he feels he has more to offer. ’I feel I’ve

just started.

I just blinked. I’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot to rip off.’

With that, he wraps up the interview and slumps back for another 40




Consolidated Tarsem’s position as a leading ad director


Tarsem’s 1997 award-winning ad features a number of sports stars


Demonstrates Tarsem’s love of digital special effects

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