In over two-and-a-half decades as a director of films, plays, and operas, Julie Taymor has never been afraid to tread upon sacred ground — or to bulldoze her own her own path through it, if necessary. It’s a trait that served her well on her last film, Across the Universe, which used the music of the Beatles as the foundation for a soaring, luminous ‘60s love story. Her interpretations of various classics from the band’s oeuvre (including a rendition of “I Am the Walrus” by a mustacheod, mutton-chopped Bono that’s precisely as strange as it sounds) won praise from Fab Four fanatics and agnostics alike, and even earned the endorsement of the band’s surviving members. More importantly, for yours truly, it helped repair some of the psychic damage caused by this abortion.
Recently, however, Taymor’s yen for tinkering with greatness has found its share of detractors, most notably among members of the fanboy orthodoxy, many of whom regard her new stage play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as nothing less than heretical. They’re not the only ones who’ve targeted the troubled $65 million musical; everyone from Broadway denizens to late-night talk-show hosts have joined in the frenzy to kneecap a show that doesn’t even open for another month.
If Taymor is troubled by such travails, there was scant evidence of it when I met her earlier this week to discuss her film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brimming with heavy metal guitar riffs, psychedelic imagery, and slapstick humor, and featuring Helen Mirren as Prospera (nee Prospero), a role heretofore portrayed exclusively by men, it’s sure to raise eyebrows among The Bard’s loyalists. In other words, it’s 100% Taymor.
What inspired you to change Prospero to Prospera?
It was really very simple. I wanted to do the movie of The Tempest and I didn’t have an actor at the front of my mind when I was ready to do it. I just didn’t have one person that I said, “I have to do it with that actor.” And I think at that time I had just seen The Queen — or was it Elizabeth? That thing on HBO that she did. And I had always dreamed of working with Helen Mirren. And then started to think, what would happen if we made Prospero female? And it worked. When I went through the text and I thought about it and the relationships and I changed the backstory a little bit, and then there was this absolutely fortuitous moment where I ran into her at a DGA meeting in New York, and we were talking about Shakespeare and I was mum, and she came out with the fact that she thought she could play Prospero. And so I said, “Do you want to?” And she thought I meant for the stage, and I said “No, as a film.” And she said, “Absolutely.”
Certainly if anyone can pull if off, it’s her. Few actors, male or female, boast a stronger screen presence. And she can be quite intimidating when she wants to be.
That’s the thing. You could believe that she could be the master of that island. You could believe that. The way she walks around her brother in that circle and looks at him, the way that her eye and her face. No, not every woman could play that role, just like how not every man could play the role of Prospero. So, I think that when I thought about who could do it, there were maybe two or three women in the entire world who I think could do that — of that certain age. And Helen was the top of my list, so I was just blown away when I ran into her. Because it felt fated.
Looking at your career, you seem to have this tremendous respect for classic artists and works, and yet also this desire to tweak them a little bit and present them in a new light. Is that a fair appraisal?
I understand what you’re saying. I’m trying to think … because you’re thinking of Beatles?
I think what it is that … like when I do operas, classic Wagner or The Magic Flute. Because I’ve done five operas. When I did the Beowulf legend, Grendel, the new one that Elliot [Goldenthal], wrote, it is the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view. So even that, it’s like taking the old Wagner operas and turning it on its ass and saying, “I don’t want to do the hero story, I want to do the monster story.”
It’s more compelling, usually.
I definitely agree. And I think that, I’ve done The Tempest three times with men — the same male, actually, who was my original Titus in Titus Andronicus. He was very good. I like to go sometimes to places where I don’t know what’s going to happen. I find that journey — if I’m going to spend two or three years on a movie — I don’t want to know in advance how an actor is going to play it or what the result’s going to be. This felt like it was exciting territory — without disrespecting the original. And I feel the same way with Spider-Man. Or with anything. I have tremendous respect for Stan Lee and the origins of Spider-Man and I’ve read all the comics and I found my idea for it — for Arachne and the new development — in the comic book. That’s where I found it. And it goes back to the Greek mythology, the origin of the spider. And Stan and those guys, [Steve] Ditko and all of them, they knew where they were getting their source material. So I feel like, every artist, your job is to interpret the material in a way that you believe in, not to mock it or throw it to the side. Titus Andronicus, I think, is a great play. Most people send it up as Grand Guignol. But I don’t believe that. I believe it’s one of the greatest plays ever written about violence. And very honest and very difficult for people to take, but brilliant poetry. So I have to, almost, be in love with the piece. How many years have I been on Spider-Man? Seven? Eight? I stick with it and I stick with it. And I work with great artists in collaboration with me; they’re always really interesting, whether it’s Bono, The Edge, Elliot Goldenthal, Wagner, Mozart. I’ve been lucky with the composers and my collaborators.
And so we get on this train, and we have an idea of where we’re going, but it isn’t to deconstruct. Like The Beatles — to me, Across the Universe is the essence of The Beatles, from through the “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” generation through “I Am the Walrus.” In seven years, you go from this naive, high school kind sweetness, “All My Loving” and all of that, right into the psychedelic, anti-war revolution. And the living Beatles and their wives all loved it. I sat and watched it with Paul McCartney. It was unbelievable. It was a great experience.
There had to be some trepidation there, too.
Of course there’s trepidation. Of course. And a lot of music producers didn’t want to come near it and then Elliot and T-Bone Burnett did the producing of the music and Elliot did a lot of the arrangements. And if you love it, which I do, I know those songs, I grew up with those songs, I’m going to do it with the upmost respect. There’s fear, in the sense of I hope I get it right. There are going to be a lot of people who don’t even like the concept. Those aren’t covers. The thing that I think is disrespectful to The Beatles is to think — first of all, it’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They’re singer-songwriters, and they deserve to be sung by many artists, as they are. That’s how great they are. So they’re not covers for a band. These are songs written by Lennon and McCartney, and occasionally Harrison wrote a couple of great ones there. So their music can be done, whether it’s by Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles or Jim Sturgess or whoever; it just has to be done viably and done well and anybody can have their opinion about that.
When you spend this much time on a project — like the seven years on Spider-Man — does it strike you as unfair, or frustrate you, the amount of criticism it’s getting now before it’s even opened?
Well, right now I’m wanting to talk about The Tempest, so you can switch back.
Well, the question can apply to any work, not just Spider-Man.
Yeah. I don’t know about the word fair or unfair, I think it’s the way that it’s happened now with the internet. And I think for the most part, journalists are a little bit lazy in picking up other journalists’ stories and that becomes it. The truths are really hard to find in most of this stuff. The state where we are is we’re in the first week of previews. Now we’re starting the second week. We have five weeks of previews. It’s a normal time to be able to work out your kinks. Audiences who pay money for previews know exactly that they don’t have to come to previews. They can come after it opens. And I think that it is a shame that we’re under a microscope. Even Women on the Verge opened with the same — maybe not exactly the same — microscopic scrutiny. Which is not the way it used to be. With Lion King, we were in Minneapolis. No one batted an eye. There was no internet. And we stopped for weeks. We couldn’t get the mountain to rise. We had to write new scenes because we couldn’t get the stampede. And finally, we came in to New York two months later without anybody seeing or batting an eye. So it’s difficult.
What strikes me is the profound disincentive for the kind of thing that you like to do and have done well, this bold way of looking at something and reinterpreting it.
It is. It’s hard. Let’s hope that we prevail in making a show that people like and want to see. And that it can outlive the unbelievable amount of yap, basically, talk about it. So far, I’ve been to three or four shows and they all been standing ovations at the end, even though from my point of view, it’s still got a long way to go to be the way we all imagined it. And we need this time to fix it.
So back to The Tempest.
Yes, thank you.
You have actors like Russell Brand who are legendary improvisers and then they come to a movie that doesn’t allow for much of that. How do you nurture their need to put their own stamp on a character without betraying the text?
This is a really good question. Russell came to rehearsals in London. We had two weeks of rehearsals in London, then another week of rehearsals in L.A. In London, we just worked on text and improvisation. Because the clowns in Shakespeare, we don’t even have a good word for them because they’re not really “clowns”; they’re low-lifes, they’re fools, whatever. They were probably great actors during Shakespeare’s day because they’re not in verse. They’re in prose. And they’re often kind of horrible parts. People are like, “Ohh, the clowns.” Because it’s not the great poetry. But the situations are great. And probably in Shakespeare’s day, these were wonderful actors who made it up as they went along. So, Russell comes in and I know Russell’s talent not very well. I’d only met him once and seen one of his movies, I think, but I followed him on the Late Night chat shows online, and I went, “Oh my god, this guy is amazing.” And his first improvisation in London as Trinculo — you know, we talked about the verse and the world and what it’s coming from — his first improv was so genius I couldn’t believe it. And I actually, personally, thought it was better than the Shakespeare. In a way, if he had been a well-known actor, he might have wanted to improvise on the spot. But being a stand-up comic, he absolutely did not because of his respect with the other actors and the language and Shakespeare and because he would’ve been killed. Right?
So he was word perfect right away. But the improvs I always do — with all actors, you improv — and he happens to be the best I’ve ever seen in my life at improvising. So we had a ball in L.A. when Fred Molina and Djimon Hounsou came — I think we’re going to put this online sometime this week — and we just turned the camera on and I said, tell me who you are, Trinculo. And he went on for five minutes absolutely, deeply entrenched in this character. Never strayed.
He’s just a living genius comedian, but in a way that the fools in Shakespeare were always smarter than their kings, he is that. I think he would’ve been Shakespeare.
That’s one of the interesting things about him. There’s a keen intelligence there, beneath the exaggerated gestures and costumes and comic routines.
Which is great! Because that means he’s bringing this to a young audience and they’re listening to the language, the way he puts his words together. We all envy that. It’s brilliant the way that he speaks, how quickly his mind goes. How he can speak about religion, spirituality, the Tower of Babel, it’s so mind-boggling. I did an interview where he played Shakespeare last week. We dressed him up in the clothes of Alonzo the King, and he wore his black t-shirt and his jewelry and he had his hair, and I went, “You know, just be Shakespeare. And I’m going to interview as Bill Shakespeare.” And it’s awesomely brilliant. It’s so much fun. They may use clips here and there, but it’s got obscene moments, which is his trademark, but even they are deep. The obscenities and the way he can talk about life and put it into “labial terms,” as he would say. He’s just brilliant. I didn’t know much about him, and he’s become much more famous since we shot this. And Reeve Carney became Peter Parker since we shot this. So I feel like, okay, I have a knack for finding good actors.
The Tempest opens in select theaters Friday, December 10, 2010.