For twenty years, Julie Taymor has been known as one of the great visualizers of iconic material. From her theater work, which includes the musical adaptation of The Lion King, to her film work, which includes the acclaimed film Frieda, Ms. Taymor dabs in a color palette that brings electricity to every scene. A huge fan of Shakespeare (she directed the Anthony Hopkins-led Titus), Ms. Taymor brings another adaptation to the screen, this of the Bard’s final work, The Tempest. The film takes a gender change to begin with—Helen Mirren plays the male role of Prospero (now Prospera)—and uses gigantic visual effects to portray Shakespeare’s language. In her interview after a press screening, Ms. Taymor discuses her approach to some of the issues and themes in The Tempest.
Why The Tempest, after Titus, why did you choose this as your next Shakespeare adaptation?
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 of like 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.
Having worked on the play several times, what has subsequent readings revealed to you?
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.
What was your rehearsal process like for the film, in comparison to the stage?
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 in myself that this wasn’t a gimmick, that is 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 to 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.
In recent years, the character that gets the most scrutiny is Caliban, for obvious reasons. Talk about your conception of that part.
It was very interesting, in my other three production, 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’s he 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.
How did you conceive of the timing and rhythm for this play for cinema?
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 that 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.
Why did you choose to have Beth Gibbons sing the song during the end credits?
That speech, the last speech of Shakespeare’s play, was cut from the film. I never shot it with Helen. I thought we didn’t need it, because she had already done a number of monologues, and what is she going to do, turn to the audience? And even if it hadn’t been end credits, I felt very different. In theater, the house lights come up, the actor unmasks himself, and the artifice is revealed. That really doesn’t happen in cinema.
And then we got to the end of the film, when we were editing, and you had the Ben Whitshaw-Ariel song, and the volcanic glass staff shatters, and I thought two things. One, what are we going to do for end credits, because we don’t have any more money, and on the other hand I thought, its not enough, we need that speech. So [composer] Elliot Goldenthal and I discussed taking that speech and tailoring it a little bit, so a few things are edited from it, and Beth came to mind because she felt like Helen. She has an incredible vulnerability and power simultaneously. The song was written with Beth and mind and we were proud that we could show her the film, and she says yes immediately. Some people have told me they thought it was Helen, but I can tell you, Helen doesn’t sing.
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 about this?
I love it because Shakespeare was a realist, and he do 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. So “every third thought will be my grave,” that entire speech is so powerful, as she has that corset tied by Ariel, she goes “So…here I am. So.” And she’s ready to act with these guys.
And we always say, Antonio doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything from the circle of fire to the end, and it’s all in Chris Cooper’s face. This is where cinema is so powerful in a way—I love doing things theatrically but I love doing Shakespeare on film because the acting can fill in the blanks with his or her attitude. The whole ending with Caliban is not the play. It’s unspoken. But the fact that in the end of the play, he/she says “Go into my cave” and he says “Oo I’ll be beaten to death” and he retires into the cave. Since 1986, I’ve felt that isn’t satisfying. I do feel that Prospero or Prospera has made a move, and I feel that Ariel is there to open that. Ariel is the spirit. This I didn’t do in the theater, but that moment where he looks at the staff, and she looks into his eyes, and he looks into her eyes, and she does not lift the staff, which is the only way this white woman is going to have power is through this staff of magic, he walks up those steps and doesn’t look back, and you see what that means in her face. Even when she says, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge thee as mine” that acknowledges that this is her thing of darkness, that she has created this thing of darkness.
What happens is that you can direct these plays 100 times, and you can’t believe what happens. Elliot and I sit there in the editing room or with my editor Francois, and every day we are honored to get something more out of the language, and having actors you get it on so many levels. You get it on the surface level but you also get these riches coming form Shakespeare’s mind.
Click below to read the full interview
The tension between the visual and the vibrant text, and the tension of the landscaping with the minimalism foregrounding of the actors with the background almost became with for me like landscaping, the actual physical beings. Could you talk about that choice and the aesthetic behind it?
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 Frieda, 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. I think of the two lovers, and this was hard to find and I loved a film when I was a lot younger called Woman in the Dunes. The two lovers are down in a pit and everyone is looking down at them and they can’t get up because everyone forced them into that incredible sexual moment. Here, we found this gorge, this incredible gully, and it was red and romantic and the sun, and that’s natural day light and Prospera’s up there, but it pushes the two together. They’re down in there.
Every piece of scenery is used to represent the inner landscape. So when the king is sleeping we’re in this iron wood forest that you would really get lost in. It was straight lines but it would hide. You were doing a conspiracy here, and you needed places to hide. And when the clowns get drunk, they’re in what we call the Bramble Forest, and its all gnarl and looks like Hansel and Gretel, and it’s what’s going on inside of them. So the landscape was profoundly a major player in telling the story. The volcanic landscape where Caliban comes out of is the main island of Hawaii, and where you also see those men in eternity. It is just miles of black lava. And you needed to show it was a barren, unfertile landscape he was forced to live in. It was his cell. But if you noticed inside we had a lot of beer bottles and other debris of humanity in black oil slates underneath.
How did you decide on how to make the music with what went with Shakespeare’s lyrics and how did you decide on the visual designs that were not part of Shakespeare’s play?
Well that’s Elliot Goldenthall. He composed all the music, there’s a little but of Gamalan at one point in there, it’s all Goldenthall. Of course we’ve collaborated for thirty years. He’s done all of my films and all of my theater except for the dead composers project and Spider-Man and Lion King. We did talk about the combination of the contemporary sensibility of electric guitars. He uses electric guitars like an orchestra. The whole Tempest had traditional orchestral elements, but a lot of that is electric guitar. Just like Sandy’s costumes, I wanted to bridge time. Shakespeare is for all time. I didn’t want to update it. That’s different. I think if you look at the original Shakespeare plays, they would be wearing togas or renaissance or Elizabethan pantaloons. In those days, they would not be contemporary, with older or historical costumes. So Elliot created it using didgeridoos and paixiao, the kind of flutes used for Ariel that have this wind sound. The Australian didgeridoos for the Caliban scenes. For the songs themselves, he composed them for the lyrics, and he does a lot of songs, but I lent him a free hand to do his magic and he writes these magnificent things.
The visuals that were not part of the landscape—Mark Friedberg and I got together and we talked about that she’s been there for 12 years on this island. We didn’t want to do just “a cave” but she’s got all this magic, which is full of incredible symbolism. The cell is like an open book, there are these two walls, and they are white, and down at the base is this half moon, which is very feminine. There’s a circle and a square that are part of alchemical symbols, which would be part of Prospera’s study. So you have the black, the red, and the white. And whether you are in Native American culture, or Hindu culture, they are very important symbols. And whether they mean anything to the audience or not, it doesn’t really matter. It will resonate in a kind of DNA way. I wanted that half-moon circle to be where Ariel would come from. The part with Ariel in the water is live—there’s no CGI in that. That is literally shot under glass. Ariel, Ben Whitshaw, is literally underneath the glass, in the water, and Helen is on a plank in some of these two shots that are live, which is live sound. But when he’s singing “Full Fathom Five” and that is not a set.
Could you talk about your conception of Ariel?
I cast Ben Whitshaw, 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 be 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, and 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.
There are not many female directors in cinema, and did you see this adaptation as a political mission at all?
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. That speech is not original and he only slightly changed the words. 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. She is protecting her daughter.
I think that a lot of the elements come from Helen playing this come from the 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. I think it’s a great actor, with a different feeling of the play, and male actors have a different take on their Propsero as well. And for people who have seen the play a lot, it’s just another take. For other people, for a lot of the actors, they loved it with the female in the role. You just have to have great performers.