The Auteurs: Julie Taymor
One of the daring visionaries in the world of film and theatre, there is definitely no one like Julie Taymor. Known for both her visual extravagance as well as creating unique interpretations of famous stories, she has garnered quite a reputation despite only having a small number of films to her credit. The stories she tells often focus on individuals trying to cope with both their work and surroundings. While her films may not always garner commercial success, Taymor’s refusal to compromise her vision has made her a force in an industry dominated by men.
Born on December 15, 1952 in Newton Massachusetts, Julie Taymor’s induction into the world of theater came early in her life. At age 10 she staged plays and became part of the Boston Children Theatre company, a year later she discovered Julie Portman’s Theatre Workshop. After graduating high school, Taymor went to Paris to study the art of mime at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. It was while overseas that she was introduced to the world of international cinema through the works of Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. Taymor spent much of the 1970’s honing her craft in the world of theater and even received the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship grant, which allowed her to travel to Asia to continue her studies.
In 1980, Taymor met music composer Elliot Goldenthal, who would become her life partner, and the pair began collaborating on various reinterpretations of famous plays by William Shakespeare and other playwrights. Her work was considered quite daring and started to garnering attention outside of the world of theatre.
Fool’s Fire / Oedipus Rex
Julie Taymor’s first attempt at filmmaking was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Hop-Frog, which she turned into a one-hour short film entitled Fool’s Fire. Using her expertise in puppetry, Taymor created an off-the-wall film filled with both lavish visuals and surreal imagery. Fool’s Fire made its premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and later aired on the PBS program American Playhouse.
Later that same year, Taymor filmed her own stage version of Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex in Japan. The production highlighted Taymor’s sprawling approach to set designs and elaborate costumes which transcended beyond the stage. The film was a major success at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, and Julie Taymor eventual won an Emmy for her work after the film was featured on various television programs. Taymor’s reputation grew even further when her groundbreaking 1997 theatrical version of The Lion King nabbed a Tony award for Best Director of a Musical.
Having achieved major success in theater, Julie Taymor decided it was time to dive further into the world of film. Her first official feature-length film was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus Andronicus. The story centered on a general who, through several ill-advised decisions, gains the ire of the new Roman emperor and his bride. The latter of whom who holds a serious grudge against him. Exploring the concept of vengeance, Taymor managed to create a film that was set in an anachronistic world but remained faithful to the source material. She took elements of Ancient Rome, including monuments and a sense of order, and intertwined it with the uniforms and thirst for power that was found in Fascist-era Italy. Infusing elements reminiscent of Federico Fellini and Luis Bunuel’s takes on surrealism, Taymor eloquently captured Andronicus’ fragile state of mind in the wake of Tamora’s vengeful plans.
Anthony Hopkins was cast in the role of the titular character, while Jessica Lange played his foe Tamora. The rest of the ensemble cast included Alan Cumming, Harry Lennix, Colm Feore, Laura Fraser, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Geraldine McEwan, and Angus MacFayden. Given a $20 million budget, which was quite modest considering her ambitious approach to the story, the production began in late 1998. Filming in various parts of Rome, including the famed Cinecitta Studios, Taymor assembled a crew that included famed production designer Dante Ferretti, award-winning costume designer Milena Canonero, and Elliot Goldenthal who worked on the vibrant score. The icing on the cake for Taymor was securing the services of the renowned editor Francoise Bonnot, who was famous for her collaboration with Costa-Garvas and Michael Cimino.
Titus debuted in December of 1999 in time for awards consideration, but received mixed reviews from critics. While the film received praise for its performances and set designs, its 162-minute running time was sore spot for many. Though Julie Taymor was proud that her vision for Titus made it to the big screen, the film only grossed $2 million worldwide against its $20 million budget.
Retreating to the world of Broadway, where she helmed a production of Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird, Taymor was approached by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein about directing a biopic on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. A passion project for the Mexican actress Salma Hayek since the late 1990s, the project was stuck in development hell. Taymor agreed to make Frida with Hayek starring as Kahlo and British actor Alfred Molina as Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera. She filled out her supporting cast with a talented array of actors including Geoffrey Rush, Valeria Golino, Diego Luna, Ashley Judd, Mia Maestro, Roger Rees, and Hayek’s then-boyfriend Edward Norton who not only played Nelson Rockefeller, but helped to shape the certain aspects of the film’s script as well.
Using Hayden Herrera’s biography on Kahlo as a base, Taymor worked closely with filmmaker Gregory Nava, Anna Thomas, Diane Lake and Clancy Sigal, to write the script. Julie Taymor didn’t just want to explore Kahlo’s work as an artist, but also examine her socialist views and Mexican roots. To capture the essence of Mexico, and the surrealist color scheme and feel of Kahlo’s work, Taymor hired both renowned Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to shoot the film and the Quay brothers to handle the animation sequence. At the time production was set to begin, in the spring of 2001, rumors began to swirl that Jennifer Lopez was going to star in a rival film about Kahlo’s life. Fortunately for Taymor and Hayek, who planned to see their film through regardless, the other production eventually fell apart before filming started.
Frida opened the 2002 Venice Film Festival to an excellent reception. The film gave Taymor her first taste of commercial success as it grossed more than $56 million worldwide against its $12 million budget. Garnering numerous praises from both critics and audiences, the film went on to receive six Oscar nominations including a Best Actress nod for Salma Hayek. Though Hayek walked away empty-handed on the big night, the films did win two awards for its makeup and Elliot Goldenthal’s score.
Across the Universe (review)
After another return to the world of theater, as well as directing operas, Julie Taymor decided to create another bold and ambitious film in the form of a musical. Utilizing 34 songs by The Beatles, and set in the 1960’s, Across the Universe revolved around a young man from Liverpool, Jude (Jim Sturgess), who travels to America to find his father and falls for an American girl, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), in the process. Through her unconventional approach to musicals, Taymor was able to capture the mixture of innocence and radicalism that defined the decade.
Collaborating with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on the screenplay, Julie Taymor rounded up a who’s who of actors and musicians to handle the numerous musical numbers. Some of the folks who appeared in the film included: Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard, Harry Lennix, Joe Cocker, U2 vocalist Bono, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio, Dylan Baker, and Bill Irwin. With the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, she created a dazzling visual display in which each song was giving a distinct feel.
Though originally set for a 2006 release, Across the Universe was delayed because Taymor found herself embroiled in a public war of words with Joe Roth, the head of Revolution Studios, over its running time and her demands for final cut. Roth wanted a shorter version of film, rather than Taymor’s intended 133-minute cut, after receiving poor responses from a test screening he secretly held without notify Taymor. Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal eventually intervened and asked Julie Taymor to re-cut the film as Sony took over the distribution rights. In the end, Julie Taymor won the battle as her version of the film premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival a few days prior to its theatrical release. Across the Universe received mixed reviews with some praising its lavish vision, while others were critical over its song choices. While the film had is supporters, Beatles fans did not come out in full force as the film only grossed $29 million at the box office, failing to recoup its $45 million budget.
The Tempest (review)
Following the tumultuous battle over the release of Across the Universe, and the fall of Revolution Studios in December of 2007, Taymor returned to the world of theater once again to direct Elliot Goldenthal’s operatic take on Grendal. She also took a few years work on the now infamous theatrical musical version of Spider-Man, an ambitious project that yielded disastrous results. It took The Tempest, another Shakespeare adaptation, to finally lure her back into the realm of film.
Shot on location in the islands in Hawaii and Lanai, Taymor’s film had a free flowing theatrical feel that was different from most works based on Shakespeare’s plays. Taymor decided to make some bold changes in her reimagining of the work, the most noticeable being her decision to make main character Prospero a woman instead of a man. Excited at the chance to work with Helen Mirren, who was casted in the lead role, the rest of her ensemble cast featured Chris Cooper, Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Djimon Hounsou, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, and Reeve Carney. With a talented cast on board, Taymor brought in visual effects supervisor Mike Cooper and set designer Mark Friedberg to provide a vibrant look to the mysticism that flowed through the film.
The Tempest premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival and then played the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks later. Despite the praise towards Helen Mirren’s performance, the film underwhelmed many and it failed to recoup its $20 million budget during its limited theatrical release. Although Mirren’s performance was severely overlooked during awards season, the film did receive an Oscar nod for Sandy Powell’s costume design.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Julie Taymor’s most recent project is an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which she filmed, with the help of her Frida cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, during it 2013 run. Screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, the film received an excellent reception from critis and audiences. Currently it’s unclear whether the film will receive distribution as filmed stage plays do not carry the same commercial appeal as traditional adaptations.
While Julie Taymor has received her share of criticism, often unfairly, for seemingly favoring style over substance, she has never wavered from making unique and challenging films. She is an artist whose works tend to polarize critics and audiences alike. However, Taymor’s films are never dull. She continually brings an air of spectacle and dazzling majestic imagery to the worlds her characters inhabit. Julie Taymor is one of the cinematic visionaries whose fearless and creative voice is both unique and refreshing.
© thevoid99 2015