If you try to get director Tarsem Singh to reflect on what he’s learned making films, he’ll refuse. “You don’t go and do a thing in life and go ‘Now what did I learn from that,’” Singh says. “If you can pinpoint something, then you learned dick from it. It’s years later you might say ‘I can see this and this.’ It’s never that simple. It’s a lot more about the experience of something.”

Kingsley and Singh on the set of Self/Less

But despite his hesitation to discuss his successes and failures, the Indian filmmaker, whose latest effort Self/Less is out July 10, has some ideas about what he’d take away from each experience. Self/Less is Singh’s fifth feature film and despite that he’s convinced that people haven’t seen at least 80 percent of his work since he mostly focuses on commercials. “I can put on different hats,” he says. “And as long as I can justify it and enjoy it I can move the subject forward.”

With that in mind, we asked Singh to recollect his intention behind each of his films, beginning with his debut The Cell. His thoughts help confirm what he knows to be true: He’s difficult to put in a box despite Hollywood’s efforts to do so.

THE CELL (2000)
The FBI enlists a psychotherapist (Jennifer Lopez) to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer to find out where he has hidden his latest victim.

The Cell, for me, was a visual opera,” Singh says. “It’s a story I wanted to tell that you could just watch visually. It had to do with how I grew up, which was at a boarding school in the Himalayas. Every three months, when the school was snowed in, we’d get a holiday and I’d go to Iran. In Iran we’d watch TV in a language we never understood — only the visual was the story. The Cell was about that, using another person’s body to tell the story. I don’t know if I did anything really well — I just think other people do stuff more shitty than me so my stuff looks really good. I want to put my DNA in whatever I do. It happened to be a serial killer film — that didn’t interest me at all — the reason I was interested was the visuals of it. The critics were absolutely right when they said I’m more interested in the cart than the horse and that I put cart before the horse.”

THE FALL (2006)
An injured stuntman (Lee Pace) tells a little girl with a broken arm a fantastical tale involving five mythical heroes, and fiction and reality blurs as the story unfolds.

The Fall was the movie I was supposed to do first. That is my baby. It took me 26 years to put together. It took me 17 years of location scouting. We shot in 28 countries. That was something that was a personal experience I had for a very long time. I had been looking for the girl for close to seven years and I hadn’t found her. The Cell came together quickly, so I did it, and then suddenly I saw this girl [Catinca Untaru]. I thought the movie would take much longer to make since it had taken me that long to prep. My favorite scene is not visual at all. It’s the scene where the man freaks out and the little girl pees herself and runs. It was their interaction I liked. But I went off and did the mystery tour of 28 countries. And I look at it and I think it looks dated. But I got to have all the fun I wanted and got it out of my system.”

Zeus chooses Henry Cavill’s Theseus to lead a fight against King Hyperion, who is on a rampage across Greece to obtain a powerful weapon that will unleash the Titans on humanity.

“I wanted very badly to do non-visual films and it just didn’t happen. Then Immortals came along and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. After doing The Fall in 28 countries I said, ‘I want to do the next film and not do a single shot outside the studio.’ So I literally didn’t. Now that I think about it, it was probably the same reaction [Francis Ford] Coppola had after doing Apocalypse Now. Just being that much on location I wanted to be in a studio.”

In a family-friendly retelling of Snow White, Julia Roberts’ evil queen steals control of a kingdom and an exiled princess and her band of seven dwarves race to reclaim the throne and save the day.

“My friend [Eiko Ishioka] who had designed the wardrobe for all my previous films was dying of cancer when Mirror Mirror came along and I said ‘We have to do this right now.’ It was wonderful. It was the last experience I had with her. I loved that experience. Julia Roberts was so incredibly professional. She’s somebody that you could change one little thing and she would do exactly what you wanted. It was a different rendition of Snow White. It was completely sugary saccharine. It was the Bollywoodian Snow White. That’s why I put the song in the end that I got so much criticism for. At the studio left the song on the titles, but there was a real push against it. The song was kind of the reason I made it.”

SELF/LESS (2015)
A wealthy man (Ben Kingsley) who is dying from cancer undergoes a futuristic medical procedure to transfers his consciousness into the body of a healthy younger man (Ryan Reynolds), but he begins to discover the body’s dark origin.

“Suddenly I realized everybody wanted to put me in this hole: The guy who does visual films. I thought, ‘I’ve got to change this. It has to be a thriller. Something new that does not go into the realm of the fantastic.’ This script came along and I really liked the themes that it’s addressing. It’s a thriller and I wanted to do it cinematically. I wanted it to be much more of a Polanski-esque approach. I like the subject — it’s an issue that will come to a head in the next five years. It happens now when you buy organs from a third world country and use words like ‘harvesting.’ I’m sure this will happen. I don’t want to say everybody wants to live forever because people will say they’ll get bored. But when you’re in your 80s and can be in your 30s again, then you will probably want that. If it happens to be Ryan Reynolds, then great. It raises really hardcore moral issues. It’s best to question those and throw them out there.”

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