Director Julie Taymor Interview THE TEMPEST

     December 9, 2010

In Julie Taymor’s version of William Shakespeare’s final masterpiece The Tempest, the gender of the traditionally male sorcerer Prospero has been changed into the sorceress Prospera and is played by the illustrious Helen Mirren. The film follows the exiled Prospera on a journey from vengeance to forgiveness as she reigns over a magical island, cares for her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), and unleashes her powers against those who have wronged her. With the assistance of the sometimes unwilling Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), Prospera puts her former tormentors – members of the royal court – through a series of adventures, while the king’s son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) meets Miranda and falls in love at first sight.

During a press conference at the film’s press day, director Julie Taymor talked about the reasons behind her passion for bringing The Tempest to the big screen, developing the mother-daughter relationship for the film, her decision to cast Russell Brand to do Shakespeare and the importance of not playing up stereotypes. She also gave a brief update on the status of the Broadway production of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, currently in previews. Check out what she had to say after the jump:

Question: What appealed to you about bringing The Tempest to the big screen?

JULIE TAYMOR: I had directed this years ago. I think 1984 was my first Tempest off-Broadway, and it was my first Shakespeare to direct. Being the first, there’s an old love for it. I directed it almost three times – the third time was for a PBS behind-the-scenes special on the art of making theater – so I knew the play well. Like Titus Andronicus, I would probably never direct a Shakespeare, if I hadn’t done it on stage first because in the theater, you have to strip it down and it’s all about the actors. This was low-budget for a film, but theater is even lower budget, or can be. You have to get the play on that basic level. I felt that The Tempest, being one of his most supernatural, surreal and magical plays, has this tremendous balance between great human interaction and great roles for actors. Look at how many wonderful actors I have in 10 roles. That’s outrageous. That’s a lot of wonderful lead actors who can make something out of these meaty roles.

Though there have been a number of Tempests – a few that are Shakespeare Tempests and some that are based on it – there isn’t one that’s definitive. Not that this is, but there was room for another one. It felt that the visual effects and what you can do with the island’s beautiful landscapes and what you have to do with the magic of Prospera is a great thing for the cinematic medium. So, after Titus, this was the Shakespeare I wanted to do. It just took me 10 years to really sit down and say, “It’s time to do it.” That’s the reason that I did it. And then, wonderful producers helped us get it off the ground. This idea of turning Prospero into Prospera wasn’t the instigation for doing it. It was, “Who do I want to play Prospero?,” and there she was. The play lent itself to that.

Can you talk about developing the mother-daughter dynamic between Helen Mirren and Felicity Jones?

TAYMOR: Working it out well starts with hiring two people who can act those roles. Felicity is really a special, phenomenal young actress. What was wonderful was that we did a reading with Helen, a year before we shot the film, to just make sure that it was something that wouldn’t be a gimmick and would work and would be profoundly true to Shakespeare’s play without ruining it or deviating. And what we found in that reading was how beautifully it lent itself to that.

In fact, the dynamic between the mother-daughter is different than the father-daughter, but equal. I don’t think we’re trying to say it’s better. It’s just different. The protection that you see in that first scene where Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) comes and falls in love with the daughter, and you can see that she knows what her daughter is going through ‘cause she’s probably been there, as a woman, as opposed to the male reaction of, “I’m going to have this fight and come up against a young stud who thinks he’s going to take my daughter.” That goes out the window.

I don’t think I was aware of that before we got into it. That was the discovery. All I knew was that Helen could play Prospera and there would be no problem. That’s where I started. And Felicity was really running barefoot on that island. She literally was going down those cliffs barefoot with the rocks. She was the girl. She played it as if this island were the home that it was for Miranda, for 15 years.

What led you to cast Russell Brand in Shakespeare?

TAYMOR: The thing about Russell Brand is that there’s nobody who is the contemporary court jester, in the way that Shakespeare understood the court jester, better than Russell. It was not a giant leap to cast him because that is his job. His job is to take down the kingdom with humor, political savvy and intelligence, and get right to the heart. We call them “the fools,” but look at the fool in King Lear. He talks the truth. So, when I was introduced to Russell on a Friday night, I went to see him at some stand-up in New York City on a Saturday night, didn’t know who he was, and then cast him on Sunday. And, he said yes. It was the easiest casting that has ever come to me.

As the adapter of this film, how important was it for you to not play into the possible stereotypes that could easily happen with a character like Caliban (Djimon Hounsou)?

TAYMOR: It was something that I knew, right off the bat, that it would become a hot issue and that people would probably have an uncomfortable feeling, but the fact is the fact and the history is the history. The island that were usurped, whether they were from Native Americans, South Americans, Africans or Asians, were usurped and Shakespeare was writing about that. His stories were coming back from the mariners, who told the stories of going to the Americas and seeing wild savages with feathers who were paraded in the streets and you could make a buck off of them.

I think Shakespeare, in Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew, wrote about the conditions and he wrote about people who were racist. When you hear Stephano (Alfred Molina) and Trinculo (Russell Brand) talk about Caliban, Shakespeare is reporting about the people’s attitudes about Caliban. Then, he goes and gives Caliban just about the most beautiful, poetic language in the whole play. He writes about Caliban’s condition.

That’s why I love Djimon’s performance. You can easily go in a direction that makes Caliban a buffoon, and many people will avoid the racial part of it at all, by just making him into a monster, but you’re missing when you do that. I treaded two places here because he does have the webbed fingers, he is half black and half white, he has moon-calf markings, he has a white moon circle with a blue eye from the mother who was a blue-eyed hag, and his body is made up of lava rock and clay. Yes, at his heart is an African man playing that part, but he’s playing a part. I don’t want to erase that he is an African man. Not at all. That is Djimon Hounsou with his body and his presence, but there are all of these elements, and I think Shakespeare is the one who made me feel totally comfortable about it. He wrote a historical truth, as well as an allegory for our time. That’s why we confronted it, dead on.

Were there any specific directions that you gave to Djimon, to ensure that that came across in the film?

TAYMOR: When Djimon came to the house to talk about whether he really would do this or not, as soon as he started to talk about witchcraft and his understanding of power, I realized that he got it. I did say, “You know it’s Helen Mirren, who’s a small, white woman that’s going to come up there with a staff and overpower you,” he didn’t blink. That made him the perfect actor for this role because he didn’t have to even make believe that this dynamic would work. We were blown away by his stories. I lived in Indonesia for four years and I understand trance and magic and where it comes from. We have a very condescending attitude, in America and many European cultures, about what that means.

I was very aware that this would bring up hot spots. Having Djimon come in and embrace it so wholeheartedly with so much talent and vulnerability, you feel and you’re frightened. That goes for Caliban and Prospera. This is why Shakespeare is the greatest. You swerve because you understand her dilemma since she was ousted and robbed and sent out to die, and she comes back like a phoenix and is this living volcano, and then she goes and does it to somebody else. This is pure Shakespeare. On the one hand, he’ll say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” and talk about existentialism and these beautiful things, and then the next moment, Prospera is going, “Oh, damn, I forgot about Caliban. Back to revenge!”

He was not a cynic. He was a complete humanist. He understood who we humans are and he believed in the power of transformation. I think that these actors have to be there in that place, so that they’re not creating stereotypes, in any sense of the word. This isn’t a feminist tract. This is Helen playing this fully dimensional and individual character, Prospera, as Djimon is playing this extraordinary, complex character, Caliban, only delivered by The Bard.

What went into your decision to do so many close-ups in this?

TAYMOR: I think the close-up, as the director, is a very big, important contribution for the contemporary audience because it allows them in to see the facial expressions and what’s going on in the eyes that close, when the audiences now think it’s going to be difficult. They think, “I’m going to go and it’s going to be hard,” and this we must dispel. With these great actors, you are able to understand the language, even if you don’t understand every word. Because the facial expression does support the emotion so profoundly, the audience can release a little bit from the language. They’re able to follow the story and the emotions through these actors’ faces.

I love directing Shakespeare on film. It’s fantastic that the actors would do exactly the same thing and be true to their part, but as a director, I have that extra additional camera to get in there when it’s supposed to be a soliloquy. You can move in on Helen’s face as she’s talking about giving up her magic and she’s almost muttering under her breath, or sometimes she doesn’t move her lips, but you see it happening on her face. I think that’s a boon and an enhancement for the audience of now, that is very impatient with comprehension and listening.

Having already alluded to how expensive plays can get, can you give a status update on how Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark is going?

TAYMOR: It’s in previews. We’re doing our job. It’s working well. The third preview ran smoothly. We’ve got another four weeks. We’re very excited about it.

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