When visionary stage and film veteran Julie Taymor decided to tackle William Shakespeare's play 'The Tempest' (now in theaters) she stayed true to form, re-imagining the classic tale of an island-bound sorcerer's plot for revenge with a key transformative twist: She gave the protagonist a sex change. The result is a take on 'The Tempest' that resonates in completely new ways, carried by the force of Helen Mirren's performance as the exiled and usurped Prospera, a noblewoman and practitioner of magic who struggles with vengeance and forgiveness after conjuring a storm that brings her enemies close.
Taymor, currently fine-tuning her biggest project to date – the $65 million Broadway production of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,' starring 'Tempest' supporting actor Reeve Carney as Peter Parker – took a break from prepping for the show's January debut to discuss the film, which she made two years ago in Hawaii. She shared her reasons for adapting Shakespeare's play (his last solo work and the first Shakespeare that Taymor ever directed for the stage), her preference of old photographic techniques over CG for the film, the significance of Caliban's race and Prospera's gender and how each magnified themes already present in the work, and explained why the 'Spider-Man' mythos – as well as the story of 'The Lion King' – is Shakespearean at its core.
Why make 'The Tempest' at this point in your career? You're clearly already quite busy as it is, taking time to talk with us while in the middle of prepping for the debut of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.'
I shot this two years ago. I'm always busy, there's always something. I'm moving from theater to film to opera, back and forth, all the time, but after 'Across the Universe' I wanted to do a film with very few actors. I usually move from one extreme to another. I'd always wanted to do 'The Tempest' - since 'Titus,' which I did 10 or 11 years ago. Even though there have been 'Tempest' movies, movies that are based on the story or movies that actually use Shakespeare's language, there didn't seem to be a definitive 'Tempest.' Not that mine is, it's just that there's room to do another one, I felt. It lends itself to the cinematic medium so perfectly because it has this beautiful duality and balance between human psychology, human emotions, revenge, love, romance, comedy, and yet it also requires magic. In Shakespeare's play, which is the last one he's credited with writing solely for himself, it originally was the first one he did indoors. Not outside, like at the Globe Theater. And therefore he would have used, as they called them in the play, "quainte devices" and special effects that were theatrical, probably with oil lamps and candles and lighting. But he did want to create a play that had a lot of magic in it, because it's about that kind of power – both black and white magic and alchemy. So the idea that this works very well for cinema was natural. And I've directed it three times in the theater, so I love it, I know it, and it was the first Shakespeare play I ever directed. I had all kinds of audiences but we also played it for teenagers and they brought their parents in. I'm a firm believer that kids love Shakespeare if they see good Shakespeare. And if it's accessible and comprehensible. So I'm not saying I'm a missionary, but I really do want this film to get out to young people because Shakespeare performed his work for the masses.
Speaking of that cinematic quality you saw inherent to the story of 'The Tempest' – what visual qualities did you want to achieve in translating the play to the film medium?
When I cast Ben Whishaw it was about having the most fine, young, fabulous actor in the world play that role – and therefore I did not want to use CG, computer-generated imagery for Ariel, even though he's a spirit. All of his performance except for the frog moment, where we actually put his face onto that frog for half a second, it's all him. He's wearing the wings, he's got the black makeup on; it's not computer-generated at all. Under the water, he's literally shot under a piece of glass that's got two inches of water and Helen is above him in a two-shot. She's on a diving board and he's below, it's live sound. People think it's CG effect but it isn't. Then when they're acting together in the cell, you'll notice the camera doesn't move that much because they are acting together. And then in visual effects after we could make him look transparent. In the kind of repetition imagery, where you see him and you see multiples of him, that is done in the way that old photographers did that kind of effect; it's a Muybridge effect.
It's actually startling to realize how little actual CG you used for the visual effects in 'The Tempest.'
None of them are [CG]. And it's kind of disappointing that people think that they are, because we use a computer after to treat him but it's him – it's his body and you're just photographically multiplying it. Like old photographic techniques from Melies, Regnault, and from Muybridge in particular. So my inspiration was old, old photography. You know, there are CG effects in there. Obviously, to get the skies to be as gray when we're shooting in sunny Hawaii, you do a lot of cloud replacements. [Laughs] We're doing 'The Tempest' and it's a bright day and there are shadows all over the ground! So I did a lot of work in color correction and yes, there is a lot of visual effect in the piece but not in creating the characters. As the harpy, when [Whishaw] is the big black bird, he's got giant black wings on and black oily make-up and teeth, and we have him sitting with the costume part that is the body of the bird and he's got breasts that we put on him. I was very intent on having the performers' performance come through.
You cast Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, Prospera's slave-slash-adopted son. Talk about the racial element underlying that particular casting choice and further, how Prospero's gender switch altered the dynamic between those two characters.
Well first, with Caliban, in that time period Shakespeare would have been hearing stories of the mariners who came back from the New World, talking about the Native Americans as savages, as monsters, as creatures with feathers and gills. There was a lot of that kind of speak going on as exotic people from outside of Europe would be paraded through the streets for money, in Europe. This was something that was part of the culture, and Shakespeare knew about colonization, obviously, and wrote about it. That's what this is – the Rousseau, the New World. All of these ideologies are absolutely straightforward in Shakespeare's play. I felt that Caliban is not a white man, obviously, he's the other. His island is him and he has been usurped. It has tremendous mirroring with the fact that Prospera herself, as the Duke of Milan, had her dukedom usurped. This is one of the things that Shakespeare does so beautifully, he has all of these characters' experiences mirror each other.
But when I came up with the concept of what Caliban would look like, I had a lot of clues from Shakespeare. One is that he's called "thou Earth, thou." That he is nature. He says, "Here you sty me in this hard rock whiles you do keep from me the rest o' th'island." He's called a "debauched fish," he's called a "mooncalf." So if you think about what he looks like, he has this sort of circular moon around a blue eye, and his mother was the blue-eyed hag Sycorax, a witch. So he has one blue eye and one dark eye; I wanted him to be half black and half white, and his body is made of volcanic earth and clay and is cracked, and he has long nails to dig the pig nuts. His body has raised scars that are the curse words that he's carved in his body, which is inspired by the line, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is I know how to curse." Djimon did unbelievable physical performance – he studied butoh, a Japanese dance form, but it was also part of his own inspirational self that created that movement style. So he's not just a black man; he is the Earth, he represents what is natural. Whereas Ariel represents what is the spirit, the trickster, which can be both benign and benevolent at the same time, but ultimately is the higher aspect of what we possibly can be as human beings. Ariel is in white make-up and totally transparent, the opposite of the Earth and he is the air, the airy sprite, They're polar opposites of each other, both aspects of what it is to be human. And what is Prospera, where she has her rage and the possibility to rise above it and utilize her greater self, what we as human beings are capable of. The greater self, the self that can be spiritual and forgiving and have compassion. And that is the story of 'The Tempest.' 'The Tempest' is the incredible journey from the rage, from a storm, into this incredible calm where you may be giving up a lot of freedom but you also have arrived at a place of peace.
How does changing the Prospero character from a man to a woman alter or enhance those qualities?
In the era of Shakespeare's time, again, women were burned at the stake for even dabbling in medicinal arts, let alone alchemy. And therefore the whole issue of white magic/black magic is right there in terms of a woman who was given the freedom by her husband, if you follow the backstory, to practice in the sciences and her brother uses it to have her accused of witchcraft to usurp her dukedom. So Prospera may feel and start as a benevolent sorcerer or alchemist, but because of the revenge factor of having her kingdom taken away and her daughter and she sent out to die, the vengeance part takes over her spirit and she moves into the dark side. I think what you get with Helen's performance is this unbelievably complex woman who's both powerful and vulnerable, has an incredible maternal side to her, which is very unique, to have this mother-daughter relationship, she's got a sensuality and a humor to her because she's Helen Mirren, and in the end when she puts her corset back on, it's very different than when a man puts on his duke's robes. You see that she is really giving up her life to go back into civilization for her daughter; she's giving up her freedom, because to go back into that courtly society she has to go back into the corseted stays of women of that time. So there's an enormous amount of the various changes that happen by putting a woman into this role, but ultimately the play is the play, and the themes of Shakespeare's play don't change.
There seems to be a few links between your Shakespearean work and the 'Spider-Man' musical you're currently working on, in that Spider-Man himself is a hero with classical roots AND you happened to cast 'The Tempest's' Ferdinand as your Peter Parker...
It's ironic that our Ferdinand is Spider-Man! Reeve Carney is magnificent as Peter Parker. He's just so different, so natural and great.
Do you find that people were surprised that you turned to Spider-Man, a pop hero in comparison to the characters and classic works you've focused on thus far in your career?
I don't know why. They would be as surprised as taking on 'The Lion King' when they were surprised 14 years ago. These are mythic pieces, and 'Spider-Man' is a contemporary myth. If you get into the story and the drama of what we're doing, it's based on Greek mythology. Both Shakespeare and the 'Spider-Man' comic book writers, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, they were all inspired by Greek mythology and by ancient stories – all of them. And they are the pop artists of their times. They're all pop icons. Shakespeare is the most celebrated screenwriter ever; there are 700 movies by Shakespeare. He's way beyond any screenwriters being adapted and written and done in many languages, and all of his plays, whether it's 'Forbidden Planet' or 'Ran' or any of these, they are based on the fact that he is such a great writer and storyteller. People have said 'Hamlet' is the basis, whether you believe it or not, of 'The Lion King.' He was there at the birth of Western psychology, Freudian psychology. What he writes, and the complexity of his characters, has never been surpassed by any other writer – the dramas. And therefore he is constantly adapted, done, over and over again because he is terrifying, funny, he allows for the actors to just chew into their roles and make them even greater. The language – he doesn't patronize his audience like many contemporary movies and books do. He doesn't make things simplistic; they're complex.
Where do you see Shakespearean influences most in the 'Spider-Man' saga?
I think that the story of Peter Parker is Shakespearean in the sense of his conflict. A conflict between being told to be the superhero and rising to that place, this is kind of like Prospero's dilemma – do you rise above yourself and go to your better nature with the power you've been given, or do you stay with your earthly loves and desires? How do you balance those two things out? And the love of the girl next door? When I pick a project, there are things that are very common. I'm in love with stories about the outsider, whether it's Grendel the monster or Juan Darien, the boy who turns into a jaguar. Even Frida and Diego were called "the monsters" of their society. Outcasts were considered monsters. So there's a certain type of story that attracts me and I think it's really wonderful to be able to do Shakespeare in a movie and 'Spider-Man' on a stage. I love that, what people think of as an irony. It's just what I like to do. If they fit those mediums and you can do with those mediums what those stories need, why not?
How has your extensive theater work influenced the way you see film, and vice versa?
With any of my films, if it requires naturalism then it's naturalism. But if they ask for surreality like in 'Frida,' which is very naturalistic until all of a sudden you saw paintings from her point of view, they were highly theatrical. When I say theatrical, I mean cinematically theatrical. Where you're using the medium of cinema to be able to show her inner life and how her paintings came to be. 'Across the Universe' is the same; the songs are put out into highly cinematic, animated things I can only do in cinema, but they're not what we're used to in cinema in this day and age of absolute "reality-naturalism," whatever that means. So my cinema has theatrical things and my theater has highly cinematic things. In the new production there are 3D comic book animations that come out. I try and mix it up a little bit when it's appropriate.