At the 31st edition of Göteborg International Film Festival, back in early February 2008, I participated in a press session and a Masterclass with American stage and film director Julie Taymor (Frida, Across the Universe). It was a great day, and I got to talk quite a bit with Taymor about a wide range of topics. I wrote it up for my editor at Norwegian film magazine Rushprint (Norwegian version here), and now I’ve finally written an English language translation. Taymor’s reflections upon her working method, her films and thoughts upon the visual arts, really makes for an interesting read. Or at least so I think. Here it is, “Oh, girl: A Talk with Julie Taymor“:
“The first thing I do when I’m creating, either for stage or for cinema, is to find the idiograph of the story. Which is; the one, simple expression that can tell everything. And at the same time be recognizable for the audience. It’s like in old Japanese paintings – if you were to paint a bamboo forest, you should be able to find its essence with only three strokes,” says American stage and film director Julie Taymor with coruscating eyes and gesticulating hands. We’re sitting in a café in Gothenburg, Sweden (and I note to myself that I’ve learned a new word: idiograph.).
“Subsequently, I lift up a mirror, with which I’m showing [the idiograph] from here, there, behind and in front,” – she moves her hands around her head – “like a cubist painter, I want to open up the image and give you a fresh perspective. That is my job. And cinema makes it possible.”
A young man, Jude, sits on a wet, windswept beach with his gaze towards the sea and the horizon. He lifts up his coat around his neck, and his scruffy hair hangs down by his face. With a sad expression he looks directly at us, and sings a song we know so well:
Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay. She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry, still you won’t regret a single day. Oh, girl… girl…
A memory brings a smile to his face. Then, we’re thrown into the waves that pound the beach, to the sound of “Helter skelter”, and images flicker past fast in the water – his memories – and the story we’re about to be told. This is the opening scene of Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s movie musical (or ‘rock opera’ as she herself defines it), which is built on the music and lyrics of The Beatles.
Like the opening scene described above, Gothenburg is also a windswept, rainy place when we meet Taymor there in connection to the city’s annual film festival. More than for her three feature films, Taymor is known as a prominent American stage artist within physical theater, musicals and opera. Her innovative interpretation of Lion King from 1997 became her great commercial breakthrough. ‘Variation’ is the key word to describe her three cinematic endeavours: Shakespeare adaptation Titus (1999), biographical artist portrait Frida (2002) and most recently Beatles rock opera Across the Universe (2007). All films has in common that they share the fruits of Taymor’s visual creativity and inventive use of film language.
“Already when I was 11 years old I knew that I wanted to work in theater, and when I was 15 years old I joined a professional troupe. The year after I went to Paris and begun studies at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, where I was made aware of pantomime and a kind of theater that focus more on the images than the words. We eliminated the playwright altogether,” she smiles. Taymor is born in 1952, and went through her artistic formation in between the 1960s and 70s. She talks about an inspiring period of upheaval where she moved into experimental physical theater, inspired by [British theater legend] Peter Brook. She also spent a period as part of the ensemble of Herbert Blau.
Following these experiences, she spent four years in Asia, mainly in Indonesia. There she had close encounters with the theater of the indigenous people, and obtained an interest in masks and dolls. “These deeply traditional forms of doll- and shadow plays go back to the source of all entertainment, to the shamans. When I returned to the US and started my career in theater, it was both as a mask creator, an actress and a director. The bridge to cinema came twenty years later,” she explains.
Improvising the planned
At the Masterclass she gives in Gothenburg the same day as our conversation, she shows a scene from Across the Universe which references clearly to her rich artistic background from theater. The sequence shows the inner and outer experiences of a character, Max, when he’s at the examination of men liable for military service at a conscription office in New York. The Beatles’ song “I Want You” is the carrying element of the scene, and during the scant four minutes it lasts Taymor uses the verses as both dialogue and songs, and she employs both surrealistic spaces, masks and animations.
“I could never do that scene on a stage. With “I Want You” I found two idiographs; Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. Both tell everything about America’s military operations abroad, and what the servicemen sacrifice. The soldiers in the scene got masks that made them all look alike,” Taymor says with enthusiasm. “We turned the meaning of Beatles’ lyrics from being an expression of love to becoming a patriotic demand. And the verse continues: “She’s so heavy,” – and while they sing it, the soldiers carry the Statue of Liberty into Vietnam. With these images I didn’t need to show the whole draft process and all those elements that we know from before. Hopefully, with this scene, you’ll be into Max’s psyche before he’s sent to Vietnam.” I concur to her that, yes, it worked. At least for this member of the audience.
Back at the coffee table, our talk with Taymor moves to cinema, and more specificly: editing. We ask how she got comfortable with film language, after all those years working on the stage. And we ask about her collaboration with legendary film editor Françoise Bonnot (Z, Army of Shadows, The Tenant), who has edited all of Taymor’s films. Instantly, the director breaks into a big smile:
“Oh, I love Françoise! We met on my first film, Titus, and I immediately understood that working with her would be invaluable. In addition to her immense experience, she has musicality. And on Across the Universe we finally got to make a musical together. All the possibilities to create transitions and juxtapose images through visible cuts, we employed very consciously. I’m drawn to surreal as well as realistic storytelling devices, and eventhough our scenes were carefully planned we improvised with our images many times a long the way. For example, a sequence like “Strawberry Fields Forever” arose to a large degree from experimentation during editing.
The Art of Limitation
To this writer, one of the most striking things about Across the Universe is how it brings forward new aspects of the old, well-known Beatles songs and makes them inseperable from the characters in the movie. Taymor talks about how the film and the songs have inspired each other: “Songs were chosen for scenes, but scenes also formed out of songs. We had the complete Beatles catalogue to choose from, so we worked thoroughly before deciding on the 33 songs that best could tell the story,” she says with poorly hidden pride over the unique opportunity to use The Beatles’ material this unhibited. Yet she talks with fondness about limitations:
“Cinema attracts me because it gives me the opportunity to express something that isn’t possible on a stage. At the same time, I’ve had a restricted budget on all my films. But that have only been positive for the creative process. For instance, on a film like Frida, my work on finding an idiograph for every scene became useful also in regards to production,” Taymor explains. “Since we couldn’t shoot Frida’s travels to New York and Paris in the actual cities, we solved those scenes by recreating small parts of those places that expressed Frida’s mood; New York became cold, tight and art deco – Paris became romantic and art nouveau. Same with the color palettes. If we would’ve had access to the actual places, we would’ve had too much to choose from. Limitations force you to find the essence of what you want to say, which is one of the most important things to know for an artist,” she concludes convincingly.
Julie Taymor puts a lot of words into every sentence she utters, and has an unusually well-articulated relation to her own process. But after having talked with her, I realized that, paradoxically, I had a problem with boiling it down to an essence. Yet after giving it some thought, I think what she is saying is this: All art is about telling one thing. At least one thing at a time, and knowing what that is. Taymor appears to still be exploring what film language can offer her as an artist. So to me there’s something contradictory to the fact that she’s involved in cinema to “do what you can’t do on stage” when, at the same time, her next project is a stage musical of Spider-Man (!) – check out the video of Taymor talking about it.
The last thing she tells me, is that she plans to make the famous web slinger fly on stage. “I think I’ve figured it out, and my version of the Spider-Man myth will deviate from the movies. It will be something of its own.” Maybe she plans to give Peter Parker a new mask and suit? Suddenly she’s surrounded by Swedish fans, asking for her autograph. “Any advice for young filmmakers?” a person in the crowd asks, and she smiles. “Find your own voice. Use the camera consciously. Don’t get technical for the sake of technicalities.”
And then, she’s off. I wanted to ask about the idiograph she’s creating for Spider-Man. But I guess we’ll find out. Soon.