'It's my magical mystery tour," is how

Tarsem

- the nom de screen of the successful director of TV commercials

Tarsem Singh

- describes the epic jaunts he took over the years, and around the globe, in the process of filming

The Fall

.

From India to Bali, South Africa to South America, Egypt to China, Italy to Fiji, Romania to Turkey, Tarsem would shoot his commercials and then turn around and use the same crew to get scenes for his "passion project."

A dark fairy tale that starts in a Los Angeles hospital, circa 1915, and spins off into eye-popping cinematic realms,

The Fall

draws its inspiration from old Hollywood silents, from children's literature, from

Charles Darwin

(a character in the film), from high science and low art. Tarsem cast a complete unknown - a 5-year-old from Romania named

Catinca Untaru

- as little Alexandria, who wanders the hospital with her arm in a cast. She befriends a serious, and seriously injured, Hollywood stunt man (

Lee Pace

), in one of the wards. He starts telling her stories about a masked bandit and a beautiful princess, about monkeys and warriors, and soon the movie has flown off - literally - to other lands, other times. The film opened Friday at the Ritz East and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ.

Tarsem, 47, an Indian who keeps homes in London and Los Angeles, says that he's on the road 300 days a year. Reached in L.A. a few weeks ago, he had just returned from shooting a Nike spot in China and Japan, pegged to the Summer Olympics. He has made ads for Coke, Levi's, Mercedes-Benz, Pepsi, Smirnoff.

Tarsem and his brother, Ajit, plundered their savings to make

The Fall

. Tarsem won't say what the budget was, but the film, with its blinding colors, dazzling

Eiko Ishioka

-designed costumes, battle scenes and end-of-the-world locales, looks as though it could have easily exceeded $100 million. There are next to no computer-generated images either - no green-screen effects in which otherworldly cityscapes were digitally rendered after the fact.

What you see is what they shot.

"People always ask me, 'How much did it cost?' " he says. "But I have a better question for you: 'How much do you think it would cost if a studio had made it?' That's the more important number. I just did not want this to have a price. It is not anything that anybody can copy.

"It's uninsurable, it's undoable, and the locations we went to are pretty inhospitable and unacceptable to most people." He says he and his actors and crew were chased from the steps of a Turkish mosque by a disgruntled mob.

Tarsem has directed a feature before - the arty

Jennifer Lopez

thriller,

The Cell

, released in 2000. The seed of the idea for

The Fall

came from a 1981 Bulgarian movie called

Yo Ho Ho

, about an actor with a broken back who meets a boy in the hospital. Tarsem long ago acquired the remake rights, and still gives credit to

Yo Ho Ho

, although he says his film assumed a life, and a story, of its own. A friend told Tarsem recently that he had seen the

Zako Heskija

-directed

Yo Ho Ho

and deemed it "unwatchable."

The Fall

has been playing well on the art-house circuit and has garnered reviews that run from one extreme (absolute raves) to the other (angry rants). "It's as polarizing as can be," says Tarsem, happily. "People that are even from the same newspaper are fighting about it - 'it's absolute garbage,' or it's 'phenomenal.'

"And that's good news. Nobody shrugs and says, '

Comme ci, comme ça

.' I'm glad."

The Fall

is "presented by"

David Fincher

and

Spike Jonze

, fellow commercial and music-video directors who have gone on to great things. Fincher's credits:

Fight Club

,

Zodiac

; Jonze:

Being John Malkovich

.

"They have been very good friends from the very beginning. We have known each other for such a long time," he says. "I don't take input very well, and they're the only two people that I ever listen to. So it makes perfect sense that they should 'present' it.

"If you see a Fincher film, if a shot is not perfectly composed, there's no way that it can make it into the film. And if you see Spike's films, it's all about character. He doesn't care what the texture of the film is like. For me, I felt this film was so much in-between - one shot is absolutely dead still and is all about character, and the next is all about composition and using actors as puppets. I thought I was falling in between the two, so it was perfect to have their push."

Short subjects.

The "mystifying oracle" known as the Ouija Board is on its way to becoming a movie, a supernatural thriller that

Michael

(

Pearl Harbor

,

Transformers

)

Bay

will oversee. Plot details are scant, says the Hollywood Reporter, but will likely involve a Ouija-boarder transported to other planes of existence via the letters and numbers of the trademark divining game. Screenwriter

David Berenbaum

(

Elf

,

The Haunted Mansion

) is scribbling away. . . . The

Mira Nair

-directed

Amelia Earhart

biopic is in production on Toronto soundstages and elsewhere.

Hilary Swank

is the awesome aviatrix who disappeared flying over the Pacific,

Richard Gere

plays her publisher-magnate husband,

George Putnam

, and

Ewan McGregor

is Earhart's lover,

Gene Vidal

(the father of

Gore

). . . . If

Harrison Ford

can resurrect Indy, then

Eddie Murphy

can bring Axel Foley back to life, too, right? It's been 14 years since

Beverly Hills Cop III

was in theaters, but jazzed by the kazillions that

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

is making for Paramount, the studio and Murphy are talking about reviving the franchise. Variety reports that

Brett Ratner

(the

Rush Hours

,

X-Men: The Last Stand

) is in discussions to direct.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.