At the tender age of 7, a young girl from Newton, Massachusetts, took an interest in the theater. In an effort to impress her parents, she drew her sister into stagings of children’s stories. Then, at age 9, she became involved with the Boston Children’s Theatre. She became the youngest member of Julie Portman’s Theatre Workshop of Boston at age 15, and then, in the first of many travel explorations, went to Paris to study with L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq—all before graduating from Oberlin College with a major in mythology and folklore.
Taymor made her proper theater directorial debut with the 1986 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for the Classical Stage Company in New York, and, in 1991, she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship – a.ka. the “genius grant” – for her contributions to theater. After winning a pair of Tony Awards for designing the costumes and directing the 1997 Broadway smash hit musical “The Lion King,” Taymor shifted her focus to film, directing “Titus” in 1999 (an adaptation of the Shakespeare play “Titus Andronicus”), and the biopic “Frida” in 2002, based on the life of eccentric artist Frida Kahlo. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards. In 2007, she helmed the critically acclaimed film musical “Across the Universe,” which refashioned the songs of The Beatles set against the turbulent backdrop of ‘60s America.
With her latest film, The Tempest, Taymor’s career has come full-circle. When Prospera’s (Helen Mirren) throne is usurped by her brother, she is sent off on a ship to with her four-year-old daughter. Prospera, a sorceress, ends up on a remote island with Miranda and soon butts heads with Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) over her efforts to raise Miranda. The film boasts an all-star cast, including David Strathairn (Alonzo), Russell Brand (Trinculo), Alfred Molina (Stephano), Ben Whishaw (Ariel), Chris Cooper (Antonio), and more.
MMM attended the post-screening Q&A with theater legend Julie Taymor – whose upcoming musical “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” is scheduled to begin previews on November 14 – as she chatted about the decision behind Prospero’s gender change, her love of Shakespeare, and being a female director in Hollywood.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Why The Tempest, after Titus? Why did you choose this as your next Shakespeare adaptation?
JULIE TAYMOR: Actually, The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play in 1986 with Theater for a New Audience, and I fell in love with the play then, and I directed it three times. And after Titus, in 2000, I decided if I were to do another Shakespeare it would be The Tempest. It’s one of his greats. I had loved it. I fell in love with it in the theater. I don’t think I’d have liked to do a Shakespeare film without trying it in a theater first because the paired down minimalism—what you have to do in a theater—you would have to really do it with the actors first. It lends itself to the cinema. It’s extremely visual, and in fact his most visual play.
MMM: Having worked on the play several times, what has subsequent readings revealed to you?
TAYMOR: One of my favorite scenes is the one where Prospera, in this version, and Ariel talk about compassion and forgiveness. She say, “What do you think spirit? Shall I forgive him?” And he says, “I would if I were human.” And I just find that compelling, both emotionally, and what Shakespeare is saying that all the joy and run of revenge is ultimately about forgiveness and making your way through that. It’s very different, and in many ways this [film] is saying some of the same things about the play, but my version in the play was a black sand ground with a white site, so the image of the clowns—the fools—was in the original production, in the silhouette. There are many things that haven’t changed, but once Helen Mirren went into the play, without changing the lines, things changed immensely. Not just because she’s a great actress but also because the dynamics were so different. In my stage version, it was a male Prospero, and a female Ariel, although it was just a floating head. Caliban was with a New Guinea mud man mask, and in the film, I didn’t want to hide Ben Whitshaw’s face or Djimon Hounsou’s face, so that brought a different sensibility to those characters as well.
MMM: What was your rehearsal process like for the film, in comparison to the stage?
TAYMOR: In the theater, you get all your actors on day one, and you get them for five or six weeks before you go into tech. Helen worked on it for four weeks. We did a reading a year in advance because it was extremely critical to both Helen and myself that this wasn’t a gimmick, that it had validity as a Shakespeare play, and it wasn’t about putting a woman in, because obviously you had to change many of the words, the he’s to she’s, the lords to what, the master to what. It’s very interesting because we kept the word master because the word mistress doesn’t mean the same thing. It’s incredible in the English language about what words change and which don’t. We used the word Mum as opposed to mother, and this process of the reading informed us about where we needed to go. We rehearsed in London with Russell Brand, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, and Helen, those actors for about two weeks on and off. And then in Hawaii, where we shot most of the film, I had what we called the court—David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, and Chris Cooper parts—for not very long, because these actors are very busy. But I did have Djimon, Russell, and Alfred Molina in LA for a hilarious four or five days as well. And we did rehearsals in a bare room where you can really engage with the language and the physicality of it all, before we go to shooting.
MMM: In recent years, the character that gets the most scrutiny is Caliban, for obvious reasons. Talk about your conception of that part.
TAYMOR: It was very interesting, in my other three productions, I had African Americans or Africans play that role. It is a non-white role. If you want to be technical, his father is black and his mother is a blue-eyed hag. He’s just not European in the sense of the world. This play is written in a time in which there were many explorations, many journeys to the New World. He may have been called a monster because he was a Native American, and whatever he was, he was the other. Now, in this version with Djimon, I take Shakespeare at his words, I take him literally. So when he writes, “Thou earth thou speak” or “moon calf,” all these wonderful words to describe, “thou fish thou” I incorporated. He is made of the earth. He is representative of the island because the main theme in this play is nature vs. nurture. And nature, the actual island itself, is Caliban. Is he wrong to have been attracted to Miranda when she comes of age? You watch this conflict in Prospera; she’s a monster at that point for putting Miranda on this island in close proximity with other human beings and its only natural. It’s about civilization in that sense. So it’s very touchy to put a black man into a slave role, but it felt more honest. It’s not politically correct, whatever that means, but he also has webbed fingers, he’s got a blue eye. He’s got the moon, the two-tone skin that he’s half black, and half white. He’s got this circle—even though that’s not what a moon calf means, I love the idea he looks like a calf, a cow, with these spots. So unlike the theater piece—which I put him in clay as well—he is slightly monstrous in his physical appearance.
MMM: How did you conceive of the timing and rhythm for this play for cinema?
TAYMOR: Titus was long. It was two hours and forty minutes. And The Tempest is four hours in its full, unedited, unexpurgated version. Now Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be shown in full, and I had already cut it when I did it years ago to an hour and a half version, and this is probably a little less dialogue and a little longer because I wanted to have certain moments of breathers from the language, but there isn’t a lot. Maybe my feeling is that it is Shakespeare and knowing audience attention spans, I didn’t just allow us to go into these visual massive panoramas—although there are a few—because there is a momentum in the play. It takes place literally between 2pm and 6pm. It’s interesting because the play is very confusing because she says “Three days hence, I’ll free thee” and at other times she says in three hours. So we played with the idea in time. It was a revelation when I went back to that speech in which she says “I have bedimmed the noon-time sun” and I realized that it was a solar eclipse. So I realized that if I have an eclipse when she starts to do the dark magic on the court, we will be able to go into a theatrical, highly stylized world. It’s very hard to shoot in broad daylight all the time; you can’t control it. And we’re in landscapes where you can’t bring in lighting – we were in cliffs with winds and rain. That’s real stuff. But it was wonderful to pull this sense from the script itself and then bring it to the landscape, and then shoot in green screen or blue screen later on for the highly stylized moments.
MMM: I always thought that it was problematic that Prospero destroyed his magic and gave away his book and I know the speech says “What strength I have is now my own” and that’s the usual interpretation, but clearly the evil is still abound. Sebastian isn’t any better than what he was and neither is the brother. I wonder about your thoughts on this?
TAYMOR: I love it because Shakespeare was a realist, and he did these silly things where the bad guys are fully punished and the evil is truly gone. He is so cynical about the world and the most beautiful thing about Shakespeare is that he can be passionate, romantic, and cynical at the same time, and one doesn’t give weight to the other. He can have the most beautiful story about first love, first sight. And think about Ferdinand and Miranda—we talked a lot about the chess game, where she says to him, “You should cheat” and it’s like she already knows what’s in store for her. So what is he saying there? He’s already saying that this youth, this innocence, is already on its way to corruption.
The character of Prospero and Prospera has done everything in service of the daughter. “I do this for thee my daughter thee my loved one.” I think in this version what we feel really strong about is when Prospero gets his robes back, he just becomes the duke again. But in ours, because it’s a corset, and you go from these androgynous free clothes that you wear on an island and be comfortable, back into that severe female corset, she’s not just giving up her magic, she’s giving up her freedom.
MMM: Could you talk about the film’s aesthetics?
TAYMOR: The island of Lana’i, I don’t know if any of you have been there, but I was there ten years ago, right before I did “Frida,” and I had been thinking about The Tempest. But I went there and there’s this place called The Garden of the Gods and its where you see Caliban carrying the sticks and there were these giant red boulders, it looks like Mars, and then I saw these giant cliffs and then I saw these giant forests that look like labyrinths and its almost unpopulated. There’s two Four Seasons Hotels, which was very nice for us, and there’s a little town, but it’s so beautiful and so small that I knew it was the island of The Tempest. There’s not one palm tree in the film. When you think of Hawaii you think of Blue Lagoon or LOST, but you don’t think of what I think is the most gorgeous part of Hawaii which is the volcanic landscape. The idea of the volcano is so profoundly part of the design, not just part of the landscapes but in the costumes that Sandy Powell so magically did. That robe she wears is volcanic shards. It’s shaped like a volcano. She is a volcano. That fire in the cell is the fire of the volcano. It’s this bubbling anger, this fire inside of her that is in the landscape and the person. I always try and find an ideograph when I do theater, and film. If you just shoot in landscapes, you really have to feature the actors in the foreground because the landscape is a character.
MMM: Could you talk about your conception of Ariel?
TAYMOR: I cast Ben Whishaw. I love him, and I thought he and Helen would have this chemistry, not necessarily sexual, but there’s the tendency of the old woman with the young man and having a relationship and it seemed to me it could be very cool. The thing that happened was that Ben wasn’t available for the shoot in Hawaii, so instead of casting another actor, I took it as one of those restrictions that could be a plus, and it was an enormous plus. And had he been there, he would have been on the ground, and he would have been 5’9’’ and on the ground, and all of his shots would have been like me up here. What would we do? So the fact that he wasn’t there made me come up with a concept, and I always wanted him to be able to be transparent. So by not having Ben on location, it freed us up for allowing him to transform. He was air, he was water, he was fire, he was lava dogs, he was frogs, he was harpies. The harpies is not a visual effect either. He is with giant wings, on a glass table, in blue screen. I wanted it to be as real as possible. I didn’t want it to be a CGI character because the power comes through the actor and we, even in some of those two shots in the cell itself, we could make it transparent in post and we were able to control the corporeality of his presence. And the one scene where he’s not effected is where he says, “I would if I were human,” because he has to be there, and that’s just the real Ben, almost in the Bhutto white make-up, which helps to create this non-human androgynous figure, and we did want him to be androgynous, hence, he is. But we did want this duality there of a male-female spirit.
MMM: There are not many female directors in cinema, and did you see this adaptation as a political mission at all?
TAYMOR: Not for me. That wasn’t the intention at all. There was no mission, period. The idea of having a female wasn’t really the idea of having a female, it was wanting Helen Mirren to play Prospera. And I was going to do it with a male but I didn’t have a male in mind that excited more than the idea of working with Helen Mirren. And there are only a few Shakespeare plays, which we both agree. We had met each other, and we were talking about Titus and how few roles there are for women of her age in Shakespeare, and she said, “I can play Prospero as a woman,” and I said, “Do you want to?” because I had already been thinking about it and working on it and I wasn’t ready to offer it but at that moment I said let’s do it and she asked if it would be in the theater and I told her film. And then we had to raise money, and we casted, and we did the reading to make sure it would work. When I did the research on this, three times, the speech of Prospera where she makes the ring of fire, when she renounces the magic, that speech is a direct lift from Medea [the speech is actually by Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphosis]. Shakespeare just lifted it. And I was surprised that it was a female speech; that it comes from a sorceress originally. So when we started to look at this play we realized that it does work with a female in that role. The mother-daughter relationship is very different than the father daughter relationship. When she has the young prince Ferdinand it’s not about her competition with him, it’s because she knows her daughter can get hurt. I think that a lot of the elements come from Helen’s performance. It wasn’t because of any mission on this, it’s just one of those revelations that this works, a great Shakespeare play that works. In this day and age it shouldn’t be such a big deal.
THE TEMPEST opens on December 10, 2010.