INTERVIEW: The Tempest director on tackling 400 year old race tensions, plus how to bring Shakespeare to the screen and Spider-Man to the stage

Julie Taymor: "I don't think Shakespeare is racist"

on November 09, 2010 by Amy Nicholson
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julietaymorinterview.pngThis is your second Shakespeare film after the bloody Tituswhy choose this one?

I directed The Tempest three times in the theaterit was the first Shakespeare I directedand I think it's one of his final masterpieces. It's just such a great play and I always felt that it was destined to be on the screen. It's been made into film before, but it's just so cinematic. You can really use the power of what cinema can bring in locations and magic. What I think is exciting about having Helen Mirren play Prospera is it does bring a new angle to the material and it opens up the world for female actors of a certain age to have a really good play, a really good Shakespearean role.

Shakespeare wrote for a time when people had to use their imaginations. He could fantasize anything because no one expected to see it literally as described. But now, they do.

They used to perform plays in the Globe Theater, which was outdoors and meant you had very little control over lighting. By the time he wrote The Tempest, he wrote it for an indoor theater where they actually had lots of stage magic. That was one of the reasons why he made it so full of theatrical magic, but it's theater magicit's not cinematic magic. They would have had moving scenery and lighting and lightining for the storm. He must have found some sort of theatrical device for Ariel because it says in the script when he makes the food vanish, "Quainte device." Thinking in theater terms, like I've done with Spider-Man or The Lion King, you find theatrical equivalents to cinematic effects. And what I've done in the movies, like here with Ben Whishaw because I wanted Ariel to be real, I took his human performance and used photographic techniques in the style of Eadweard Muybridge, the old photographer, to transparent and multiply him. But I didn't do that at the expensehopefullyof the actor's performance. He's a great actor and he didn't want to CGI him, so it's all real. Those wings? They're really live. He's wearing those wings, and when he's in water, he's really under two inches of water and a piece of glassit's an in-camera photographic effect. I think the play, like many Shakespeare plays, has so much to say about the balance of human beings with our power. How we abuse our power when exploiting nature, because the major theme of this play is nature versus nurture. What are the things that we create and how do they battle with things in a natural state? Caliban, love, vengeanceProspera is really battling her desire for revenge and at the end when compassion wins out, she says to Ariel, "The greater virtue is in forgiveness than in vengeance." She forgives her enemies and, in a way, is liberated from that dark cloud hanging over her.

Do you feel a different pressure when you create the world of a film as opposed to a play? In film, you say, "Hark! There's a castle!" and they expect you to show a castle. In a play, you say "Hark! There's a castle!" and it can be a backdrop, a box or nothing at all.

I think what I do in film, whether it's Across the Universe or Frida, is there are ways to use stylization in cinema that harkens backspeaking of harkto the early filmmakers like Georges Méliès, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, who really understood Expressionism in film. The German Expressionists were incredibly theatrical in their film-making. For instance, we had a low budget on this film. $20 million for a film with these major movie stars and all of these costumes and visual effects and a location in Hawaii is very low budget. When we had to think up how to do Milan, we did it with miniature sets. All those flashbacks are highly stylized, forced perspective sets. There is Milan, there is the castle, there is the boat, but we did it in a very theatrical way. But it's still cinematicI can't do it exactly that way in the theater. In my Spider-Man production, it's written like a movie, yet we're doing it all with giant pop-up sets that are based on graphic comic book art. It's really stylized, but it's cinematic because it constantly keeps changing. And we have 30 scenes in the first act, 35 in the second, and we move from living rooms and row houses in Queens to the astral planes of Spiderland. It's very, very cinematic, but it's all done with theater language. So when I move into film, if it's appropriateand if it's The Tempest, of course it's appropriate because of the magic and the effects and the visualsI'll use every tool that's in my power in the cinematic vocabulary to make it happen.

Every shot in this movie is wild and gorgeous. How do you figure out what shots you want to do?

I went to the island of Lanai years ago and when I saw the landscape, it immediately said, "The Tempest!" The high cliffs, the red rocks where Caliban hides, the black lava, those incredible labyrinthine bramble forests. I saw how the landscape could be a visual metaphor for the inner landscape of the characters. It was a perfect set for The Tempestthe natural settings were so theatrical and surreal. You've never seen Hawaii like that. There's not one palm tree in the entire movie. It's not Hawaii 5-0 or Lost. Putting Trinculo coming over the horizon line in this vast, open, empty space is really theatrical. I love working with great actors, with great language and writers. But I am a visual filmmaker and theater director, and that's how I see things. I use the camera and landscapes to frame what is going on internally and externally for the characters. When you use the camera in a wide shot, you see how lonely those characters are in this vast landscapeI see it in my head.

You had to combat the weather yourselfthere's a shot in the beginning where the men from Milan are nearly taken out by a wave.

And that was real! That wave came at that time. And it was thrillingthat's why that shot got in the movie! We had a couple of takes on that and we were blessed. There's also a scene with Prospera and Caliban on those giant cliffs and just at the right time, one of those waves crashed and shot up all this foam! It's almost awkward to say how blessed we werewe were very respectful of the land and the people, and we did as much as we could to take proper care of the environment. And we were rewarded with great weather. When it rained, it was supposed to be a rainy scene. Maybe once or twice, there were clouds that were tricky for the DP because he needed light in daylight hours. When Prospera does the solar eclipse, we did a day-for-night photographic technique which made the whole landscape look different. That starts right before the harpy scene where the men are getting lost on the field, right after you see Prospsera playing with the sunbeams.

The hardest challenge in a Shakespeare film is getting the actors comfortable with the language so that it sounds natural and clear to the audience. How did you tackle that?

I work very hard on that, whether I'm doing theater or film. To me, it's absolutely essential that even if you don't understand a single world, you will understand it because the actor doesbecause there are nuances in their tone and their voices and their facial expression. You get it because of the musicality; the rhythm is right. We had Helen rehearse for a long time on her own time and with me, and then we had various lengths of rehearsals with everybody. Some people had never done Shakespeare like Reeve Carney and Chris Cooper. And then we had really experienced people like Alfred Molina and Alan Cumming and Helen Mirren. Djimon Hounsou, Shakespeare is his fourth language. Even if it was his first, that language of Caliban is hard to understand no matter who speaks it, but Djimon is genius because his body and expression are so powerful that if you miss words here and there, it really doesn't matter.

Lets talk about his character, Caliban the slave. One of the things that today's audiences have to confront is the 16th Century racism in his plays, say in Shylock in Merchant of Venice.

The thing with the period that the story is set in, it doesn't say that Caliban is a black man. But he is The Other. There were stories that were brought back from the New Land of the savages, and they were thought of as monsters, as different. I don't think Shakespeare is racistI think he is reporting the situation, which was Colonialism. And he's showing it up. He's showing how even though Prospera had her kingdom usurped, there she goes and usurps somebody else's. He puts mirrors on everything. Shakespeare plays with race and lets us see how those clowns call Caliban "unnatural" and a "monster" and a "moon calf," but they're such ridiculous characters themselvesand then Caliban speaks the most beautiful language of everyone when he said, "The Isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that hurt not." He creates a character that you have compassion for because you understand him situation. You're not only frightened of him, but he's also vulnerable and you laugh at him. Djimon uses the Butoh, which is the Japanese language of movement, to show that he is the essence of what is nature. I think that Shakespeare wasn't afraid of confronting these issues, and what we do in films now is so simplistic. We know who's the good guy, we know who's the bad guy. In Shakespeare, your allegiance shifts between the characters. You love Prospera, you see she's wronged, and then you don't like her when you see how she treats Caliban and puts him into these miseries because he threatened her daughter. But then it's her fault because she put her daughter on the island and you see her suffer for that. Why we do Shakespeare and why he's so important today is because he's not simplistic. He speaks the truth about how complicated we are as human beings and he goes into psychological depths better than any writer alive.

And like Shakespeare, in your careereven with Fridayou're drawn to tell stories that have been told before. It's like ancient Greek theater: everyone knows the story, but the point is the writer's own spin on it.

Absolutely. There are no new stories. We're rehashing the same stories over and over again. You can take any movie out there and say it's been done beforejust now it's in new clothes or a new language. And the thing is, when you get an artist like Shakespeare, the more you see this movie, the more you'll like it. It's not because of my workit's because of Shakespeare. The more you listen to him, the more you get out of it, just like a Mozart or a Picasso or any great artist. You don't get it all just on one hearing or seeing or showing. It's so rich that for me to have done The Tempest three times live, then to have spent two years working on this one, I don't tire of it. Adding in the nuances of all these great actors, I get something new out of it every single time. I can't say that for every movie because of the levels and layering of Shakespeare's imagery and poetry. Everybody I know who's seen this movie more than once likes it better and better because they can get deeper and deeper into it. There will be people who won't get this movie and won't want to give it another chance, but it's there.

This year, Disney is releasing their 50th animated feature, Tangled. After The Lion King, which of the other 49 would you love to do?

I was contemplating Pinocchio for a while, but then Warner Brothers did it. [Laughs].

Tell me about putting together the Spider-Man musical with U2what an unexpected combination.

We're in itit's great. I've been working on it for a number of years and both Bono and the Edge are tremendous collaborators. I think it's special. I'm in the tech process, which means we have to work out all of the flying and the scenic things, but I'm feeling very good about it at the moment!

Tags: Helen Mirren, Julie Taymor, The Tempest, Djimon Hounsou
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