Academy of Achievement Logo

Julie Taymor

Interview: Julie Taymor
Theater, Opera and Film Director

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

Back to Julie Taymor Interview

In your own life, when did you first feel transformed by art?

Julie Taymor: I don't know if I'll remember that moment, but I was always playing in the backyard. I was always dressing up and putting on shows. My elder sister loved to organize things. And so we did a lot of make-believe. Remember that word? A lot of play.

I think that there's an unfortunate thing right now that children are in front of computers as opposed to going outside and taking a bit of string and a bit of fabric and a stick and making a kite, and understanding that this kite could be a bird because you imagine it to be a bird, not because you push a button and "bird" comes up in your Google. I feel like the computers are a tool, but they've become a monster, and will really cut down on the creativity and imagination of people, period, that it's a going backwards in certain ways. It's going forward and it's wonderful when you use it as a tool. But it's like when people say, you know, the modern technology is better. Well, honestly, who built the Taj Mahal? Who created these beautiful structures, these buildings, and out of what? Or the pyramids. I mean, yes, you had slaves, and that's lousy, but on the other hand, it's the imagination of the creative -- the artist -- isn't necessarily better because they've got higher technology and better tools.

My parents encouraged us to go out and play...

I went to Boston Children's Theater when I was a young kid, at about age eight or nine. I started to take the -- not the subway, but the trolley cars into Boston, and was acting at a really young age. I think Midsummer Night's Dream is my earliest memory of a play that we saw on a trip in the summer when I was about eight in Canada at Stratford, at the Shakespeare festival there. And then I acted as Hermia, and that was my first memory of really acting when I was seven or eight years old. But I think it was a Shakespeare play. I'm almost sure it was a Shakespeare play.

You've said that your parents gave you a sense of trust in yourself, and gave you freedom. How did they do that?

Julie Taymor: Well, I'm the youngest of three, and I'm younger than my older brother and sister by five or six years. They had a lot of trouble with them. It was the '60s, and I got to watch. I should tell you about my new movie, Across the Universe, because it's all set in the '60s.

My father basically said to my mother, "Okay, she's yours and if you don't want to say no, then don't say no." They put so much trust in me that I had to create my own sense of morality. I would make those decisions myself. They treated me like an adult. I called them by their first names when I was very young, and I became very good friends with my parents. Only once did I lie to them, and I lied because they forced me to because they didn't trust me. They wouldn't let me go with my boyfriend when I was 12 or 13 or 14 or something on a trip, thinking of course I would lose my virginity, or I would do something, get pregnant. I was master of myself. I could take care of myself, so I went anyway, told them I was with a friend. When I came home, I said to them, "I lied to you, and this is why I lied to you." I know that sounds pompous, but they said, "Oh, you're right. There's no reason to do that. We're not going to treat you like a child." So treating me like an adult made me act like an adult. That's why...

When I was 14 or 13 or 15 I went to Sri Lanka on the Experiment in International Living for a summer. I wanted to travel. And going outside of my own culture and traveling and seeing my own world from a foreign perspective is a big part of my life and who I am. That's what I was talking about earlier, is stepping outside of yourself and examining yourself with a different perspective is very important, and it's important to do as an artist for others. Then, when I was 16, I graduated from high school early -- and never really officially graduated -- and went to Paris to study mime at École de Mime Jacques Le Coq. And then traveled some more, and started my own theater company in Indonesia. I basically was very, very let free, let go. "Do what you want to do. We will support you." And I suppose that could be bad. But in my case, it worked out well, and I was always extremely close to my parents.

Were they artistic as well?

Julie Taymor: My father was a doctor. He's gone now. Mother was in politics, but she has an artistic flair. I think she's very dramatic. Her father didn't want her to go into theater or film. That was a bad thing. You know, only hussies become actresses. But then she found a medal my grandfather had received for acting when he was young. No, my parents weren't in the arts, but they were lovers of the arts, and they talked about it. I didn't really go to concerts, classical music or any of that. I never really enjoyed opera when I was young. But they were very encouraging of us doing the arts.

What kind of politics was your mother involved in?

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Julie Taymor: Democratic politics. We're from Massachusetts. She was always involved; she ran for office and was a state representative. We knew the Kennedys; I still know Ted Kennedy. She was a delegate to all of the conventions and many other things.

When she got older she got her master's and started a program for women in politics at Boston College and then Boston University and Smith College. She's now in her 80s, but she was one of the first women to really be involved in politics. I remember canvassing with her when I was 12 and having people say, "Oh, go home. Take care of your kids." "Well, my kids are with me." Having that kind of prejudice against her as a female -- because she was one of the first. She was very attractive. She wasn't Louise Day Hicks if you remember that. She wasn't that kind. There were a lot of women that didn't support women at that time.

So she became very involved in teaching and setting up programs, especially for women who had finished with their children, who now wanted a career in politics. She started a whole program to get them ready to go out into the political sector.

So you had a role model for being outspoken, not hiding in a corner, and forging a new path.

Julie Taymor: My mom? Oh God! My mother was never home when I was a kid. I complained. "Why aren't you baking Girl Scout cookies?" or whatever, although you can buy those in boxes. Actually I was very proud of her, that my mother was working or going to school. I think that I got enough attention, and I think the fact that she let me be free and didn't spend so much attention on me was a good thing.

That's a twist on what a lot of the parenting books say these days.

Julie Taymor: Oh, suspend all that!

Were you a serious student at school?

Julie Taymor: Yeah, yeah.

I did well in school. You know, I went to Oberlin. At that time, grades were -- you elected to have them or not. It was all of that era where grades were out the window. But I did very well in school. I didn't really study the arts; I practiced the arts. I really never studied drama and playwriting or any of that. I just was a practitioner always.

What about books? Were there books that you particularly remember as a kid, growing up?

Julie Taymor: Well, as a child I remember Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Those are the books that I can remember. As a young adult -- I think 14 or 15 -- Gabriel García Márquez. I think that I must have read One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was 14 or 15, and that was my favorite book at the time, and then more of his books. As I get older, I have other favorites.

Could you name a few?

Julie Taymor: Salman Rushdie's books. I think the last one he wrote, Shalimar the Clown, was incredible. Oh my God! It's hard when you get put on the spot for your favorite. It's always what you just read. White Teeth! I read a lot of books that are, for lack of a better word, cross-cultural. I find movies and books that take me -- transport me to another culture are the things that I'm most interested in, and always have been. So reading about someone from an Indian culture growing up in England -- some other books by Indian authors have come out recently that I've really enjoyed.

You mentioned visiting Sri Lanka when you were 14 or 15. What program was that?

Julie Taymor: It was the Experiment in International Living, where you live with a family for the summer.

That's really young to be traveling away from home.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Julie Taymor: Yeah, but they let me do it. They were very busy with my older brother and sister, who went right through politics, the drugs, the dropouts, the marches, the entire '60s, and I watched that as a voyeur. I was 12 or so, watching my sister, who was in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. Then her husband was on the way to being a Weatherman. I saw the whole thing. My brother went to Haight-Ashbury and was a musician and dropped out of college three or four times. And the LSD! I actually had tremendous sympathy for my parents, compassion, because they didn't know what the hell was going on.

This new movie that will come out next year, Across the Universe, is the first piece of work that I've done that has anything remotely to do with the way that I grew up in America. Everything else I've done, whether it's Grendel -- Beowulf, the monster -- or Frida Kahlo or Titus -- Shakespeare -- or Indonesia, have been places where I feel I lived. Where I live is not necessarily in New York City. That's where my apartment is, but I live in Mexico, or I live in Indonesia. I live in Japan. I feel as comfortable in those other cultures, because, in a way, I'm always uncomfortable. I can't explain that, exactly, but I put myself into situations where I'm forced to do something, to create, to respond, to see differently.

It was fascinating to be offered a Beatles musical -- this is using 30 Beatles songs -- having nothing to do with the Beatles. It's a completely original musical set during the '60s that takes place in New York and Vietnam and Detroit and Washington and Liverpool, but is not about the Beatles, and really is telling the story of that time.

How did you get the Beatles songs?

Julie Taymor: Revolution Films. They had the rights. I picked the songs. That's where I was this morning, before I came here, I was in the cutting room, working on that movie.

So you're preparing an opera for its world premiere and cutting a movie on the same day?

Julie Taymor: Yes. I've been back and forth. I had to look at visual effects this morning.

Sounds like a busy weekend.

Julie Taymor: Very. These are the two biggest projects I've ever done, and they overlap each other, this film and this opera. Bigger than The Lion King actually, in a certain way.

Going back to the beginning of your career, what do you think you learned in Japan and Indonesia that changed your way of looking at things?

Julie Taymor: Very different in Japan than in Indonesia, because Japan is already a modern culture, even though they have traditions, which are incredible and are not just preserved, but living. Different experiences impressed me. One thing is, I would go back and forth between the traditional arts, like the Kabuki or the Noh, and explore the contemporary theater, like Suzuki or Terayama, the Butoh theater, and all of the unbelievable puppet theater that they have for adults. You know, we still hear the word "puppet" and we get this nauseating image of some kind of Muppet or something. Puppets really are the origin of theater. Even the shadow on the wall of Plato's cave was a puppet. The very first actor was some kind of hand creating some kind of animal.

I met a Noh mask carver in Kyoto, and I was very impressed, when I went into his workshop, how he laid out his tools, how he laid out the wood and the carving tools, and the neatness, so that the act -- the sheer act of carving -- was an act of devotion. And you didn't go into just a messy studio and just slap-dash something together. The making of the mask, or the making of the puppet in Indonesia, the carving of the leather shadow puppet, is such a high art form that -- a wooden mask, you have to hold the head to north, and the south would be the bottom. How you put the masks in a box, how you treat them -- they are not merchandise. They are not just inanimate objects.

If the grain of the wood in the tree goes from north to south, then you carve that mask that way. People make up these rules. They're not God-given, because there's no such thing, but somehow these rules come from nature. When I was talking about awe earlier, they are things that bring the level of our humanity to another place. We can either be monsters or angels. We are able to be demons and angels, as that book says. We are able to be incredibly creative or to be incredibly destructive. We have that decision to make, to create something. It could be grotesque and ugly, but it is monstrously beautiful, so it inspires people.

I received from my experience in Japan an incredible sense of respect for the art of creating, not just the creative product. We're all about the product. To me, the process was also an incredibly important aspect of the total form. And in Indonesia even more so. So then I spent more time in Indonesia and watched these incredible ceremonies that would go on for nine hours that were completely -- the separation between your function as a Hindu and your function as a puppeteer creating a puppet show in this Hindu (culture) -- there is no separation.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
We have relegated our arts to an entertainment factor, yet on the other hand, we recognize the power of sports and entertainment to completely take over the psyche of individuals, the worship of celebrity. So you can't dismiss it. I think that there is a point where you can't dismiss it. What you have to do is plug into it and understand that that's something very powerful.

There is incredible power in the arts to inspire and influence. Let's even just take homosexuality in our culture. Brokeback Mountain is, to me, way behind. If we didn't have movies like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, where we see a love affair between two men. That was way beyond Brokeback Mountain for me. When we saw the family accepting their son's choice -- not even his choice, but who he was -- that completely started to change the culture. So in entertainment, you have the power to totally transform.

Now, again, if you're talking about religion, we see that we're into this massive religious warfare. That is so totally connected to the spirit, and the spirit is completely manipulated by the arts in a good and bad way. You can rile people up with incredible poetry, with words. And what are words?

I heard Ralph Nader speaking about the sharp tooth and the smooth, silvery tongue. Grendel is full of this. What Grendel is about speaks to these issues. It is the power of music and the power of words, whether they're from the Koran or the Bible, to sway you. People will go to war based on art. "Men gone mad on art." That's a line from Grendel.

If you can show through a story what will happen, what is going on, you will by far inspire and influence people more than anything else. They're not going to be listening to reality. They won't. Because there's nothing worse than reality. What they want to hear is stories, and then if the stories touch them -- and that means sets the blood and sets their sentiments and their emotions going -- they will do something. But it has to be done that way. That's what will move them.

That's why when you go to church and you see people going into a trance, you say, "How does that happen? How did it physiologically happen?" How do people walk on coals if it's not through belief? Belief is through talk and through image and through music and through the church or the temple or the space that you've created to create that sense of transformation.

You've described this amazing ceremony in Bali where religion and art came together and was kind of a transformative experience for you. Could you tell us about that?

Julie Taymor: After I had received the Watson Fellowship and had been two years in Indonesia on this traveling fellowship, I stayed to start my own theater company. And in this hiatus, while I was pulling together the performers, I traveled to an incredible ceremony on the rim of a lake, a crater lake, a living volcano. I've got the scars to prove it; it carved out my leg. This little village called Trunyan was having an initiation ceremony where all these various villages would come to initiate the young men into their manhood, 13 or 14-year-olds -- like many ceremonies. I was there with another performer, and we split up and...

I came into this village square, this temple square in the dark. I was tired. Sat under this banyan tree with its roots hanging into the Earth under a full moon. No electricity in this village, of course. And I watched as, out of the darkness, with no audience around -- and they couldn't see me, I was in the shadows -- 20 or 30 old men in full warrior costume with all the little mirrors and the spears, came out and danced this incredible dance in the darkness. And I was squinting my eyes, and seeing the light bounce off these mirrors. And as these voices rose out of these old men and they stood up straight -- these bent old men stood up straight for this eternity, which was a half an hour or so, and these sounds came out of their mouths -- I watched in complete wonder, wondering, "Who were they dancing for?" My God, in my culture, if there's not an audience -- and a paying audience -- you don't do it. If there's nobody to see it, why would you do it? And yet they were performing, singing, dancing for this time for what I would say is what really is God, and that is for a principle other than themselves, for something that is larger. Whether it's to pay back nature or just to say, "I'm doing this because I have to do it, because it's part of me." They probably do it because they don't know why, ultimately. They do it out of tradition. But where these traditions come from, and the fact that it was done so perfectly, without the critic being there, without the applause, was really moving to me at age 22.

And right after they danced, they bent over again and walked out of the arena, and then...

A young man with a propane lamp came on and set up a couple of propane lanterns to light up the space. A curtain was put up. And it filled with an audience of all-aged people for the next nine hours to see a human drama, an opera. And those people needed the light because these performers were performing for human beings. But something else there didn't need the artificial light. It needed a light that came from inside. And it's something that is probably the most important moment of my life, to go back and understand. Especially when I'm having trouble, like I've had all week with this bloody set. Why am I doing this? I don't have to do this opera. I can make movies. I can make money in Broadway theater. I'm doing it because I love the art form. And, therefore, at some point you put those blinders on and you say, "Okay. It's not working now, but I knew I had a vision there. Let's just keep on that track."

And somehow, miraculously, last night, it went smoothly for the first time, and we had a standing ovation. We were utterly shocked, because we thought it was a piece of shit! We thought we hadn't pulled this thing off. All those musicians recognize what Elliot (Goldenthal), the composer, has written. When you say, "I am doing this for the love of it, for the art itself," it pulls people into a place, just like bad things can pull them into a place where they will crash into the World Trade Center or anything. If you can tap into that in a human being, you can really transform.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Let's talk a little bit about this opera, Grendel, that is having its world premiere this very week. We're very honored to have you here during such a busy week, talking to us. This opera is ostensibly about a bad guy, a monster.

Julie Taymor: The outcast.

But this monster seems an awful lot like a human being in a lot of ways. There are different things tearing at him, conscience and pain and struggle.

Julie Taymor: Well, he is us. He is the monster that we are as well. What John Gardner wrote in his 1970 novel was the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view. I am, to be quite honest, sick of hero stories. I feel that they are a bit full of crap. I won't mention names, but we have them in big blockbusters happening all the time. When Elliot -- the composer who is my main collaborator -- and I read Gardner's novel in the '70s, we were both taken with the perspective of the outcast, of the other.

We loved it, and we started this 20 years ago. We took Beowulf, the epic poem in Old English, and put it right together with John Gardner's contemporary retelling. If you bring it into today, we really feel that it has something very fresh to say now. Even if you just look at something like the immigration issue. "Oh, they're coming from the outside! The outsiders are going to come and take what is ours!" And then you say, "Wait a second. Didn't you do that to somebody else? Weren't you ever the outsider?" It's this thing, again, of having the ability to step outside of yourself to see who you are. And...

Gardner, in his novel Grendel -- and hopefully in our opera -- you look at human beings from a different vantage point. You look from the dark side, from the condemned side. Grendel is a monster because he is the seed of Cain. Well, he didn't intend to be. He was born that way, just as you are born a black, a homosexual -- maybe or maybe not -- a Jew, a Muslim -- you are born that way. And if you are, then, the enemy or the terrorist or the outsider, you don't necessarily have any say in that. And so you have a different world view. When you look back at the party that you're not invited to, you see it with fresh eyes.

That's what we do for our audience. We say, okay, you're used to the big, bad wolf story, and you hate him because he's the big, bad wolf, and you are compassionate with Little Red Riding Hood. But here...

The subtitle of our opera is Transcendence of the Great, Big, Bad -- and that was kind of a play on that notion of, "Oh, the great, big, bad this! Oh, big evil, the axis of evil. Oh, look at this bad, bad, bad!" But you have to say, "Aren't they saying the same thing about us? Aren't we the big bad?" We are, if you look at what we've been doing lately. Are we not the terrorists who come in, who start a war, who ignite things without anybody asking us? Are we not the trespassers?

In Gardner's Grendel and in our opera, he, the monster, he's "the world rim roamer, walker of the world's weird wall." He watches men as they build roads. And he said, "Huge bears fled at the click of a harness, wolves cowered at the sound of man. They hid. They cringed. They ran." This monster gets angry at human beings and becomes who he is to destroy them. On the other hand, you watch human beings creating this incredible terror of nature. Even back then, from that time of Beowulf, the king builds roads and chops all the trees down. And the lights, the monster sees all the mead hall lights, and the lights blot out the stars. Well, if that's not familiar! We don't see any stars in the big cities anymore. We feel that Grendel is very, very potent as to where we are today, which may not be any different than where we were in the 10th Century.

We've read that art is a way to try and find a life more real than life, that we go after art to transform ourselves. Here we are, finding out about ourselves from an ancient tale, finding out how we are in 2006 from looking back a thousand years ago.

Julie Taymor: Well, "the monster" hasn't disappeared. With all the technology, you'd think communication would be better, but it isn't. I think it's worse, in a certain kind of way. We've made our little clubs and our little cultures.

Americans in particular are myopic. They're not traveling as much. When you were a college student, the next thing you would do on graduation was to take a year off and travel. That's what I did. I went to Indonesia. I stayed four years. Now, you've got to go and make sure that you get that job or become a movie star or plan your plan so you can have your merchandise, so you can -- I am telling you, it was not even remotely important to me where I lived or what I owned. And I didn't for years have a place that was my own, and I don't think that's the values of young people today at all.

Even for a very successful artist, there are setbacks; there are times when you doubt yourself. You've had some awkward moments in the last couple of weeks with this opera, with an elaborate set that didn't work as you planned at first. Can you tell us how you came through that?

Julie Taymor: Well, it was funny. I heard Ralph Nader speak earlier, and he said, "When you're in your 50s and 60s, you're more seasoned." That was the word, "more seasoned." He was talking about how you have to risk failure. Well, I suppose in the sense that I didn't have a complete mental breakdown over the last two weeks, I'm more seasoned.

What happened here? How did I allow this production to be so ambitious and a set to be created that was impossible for this opera company with this limited amount of time and this budget? I allowed my imagination to just play out. Now, as of today, I can say, "All right." Because we had an okay performance last night. It's not perfect. It will never be perfect, not this set. We don't have time. So I have to deal with my discomfort with the fact that I am a perfectionist, and I know it should be better, but what I really bow down to now is that the music and the performers sing and dance, meaning that it's good. They're good. The technical stuff is still messy, and I can't do anything about it, which is annoying, because I've done much better productions than this that way.

So it's been a total nightmare. Dangerous.

We had to push to producers to postpone, which is unheard of in opera, they say. But I said, "It's safety. If you don't postpone, I'm not going to back going on that stage, because we have people on high cliffs and mountains and flying in the air, and staircases flying all around. It's too complicated." So later than sooner they decided to postpone the opening and call it two previews -- our premiere was a dress rehearsal. And we haven't had that much time to fix it, but it is definitely running now. Knock on wood. Because who knows? You know, it's human error or computer error.

That's part of the arts -- and scientists say this too -- that it's through failure, through disappointment, through experiment that you are able to find the theorem or the name of the fish or the right chemical.

Julie Taymor: I really do believe that if you don't challenge yourself and risk failing, that it's not interesting. This is a story that was told many times with The Lion King, but when I first created this concept, none of that brass at Disney -- except for the producer, Tom Schumacher, and one other, Peter Schneider -- really believed in it. So I said, "Fine. If you don't believe that you can put masks on people's heads and create this dual event, where you have the human and the animal simultaneously, get me the money to do it properly and I'll do a workshop. And I'll do three different kinds: I'll do my original concept, I'll do makeup and I'll do a mask. Because I've got nothing to prove. I just believe that this is the right technique for telling this story."

We did the right workshop. I set it to be on a stage with the right lighting and the costumes, because you can't judge in a fully lit rehearsal room. "I can, but you can't, because you're film people." I mean, they can't make the leap. So they need all of the advantages that they should have. When we finished, every one of the techniques worked, which of course they would, because Peking opera works, and Kabuki theater works and Javanese shadow puppetry works. And what Michael Eisner said -- God bless his soul -- he was there last night, actually. He said, "Well, they all work, and your original idea I think we should go with, because it's the most risky, and therefore the payoff, if it works, will be the biggest."

Probably even he couldn't have imagined how big that pay-off would be.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Julie Taymor: No. No. The point is that they didn't do the safe thing. Even hiring me wasn't the safe thing. It was potentially interesting. I had never done a commercial hit before, or a Broadway show. But there was a sense that I had a way to tell this story, and they trusted me. They let me, as an artist, do it, and they supported me. I've had that rarely. I have another theater company that has done it very well. L.A. Opera did it. But they couldn't necessarily quickly support it because it was bigger than our time allowed. Now, we hope that, after last night, it will be smoother. It worked very well last night, so it was exciting.

With The Lion King, you were bouncing off of a wildly successful animated film. The film itself is really quite poignant and beautiful. So that was sort of a challenge to have something that was equally moving, and you certainly did. Did the idea of the masks -- the animals and people together -- come to you at once, or was it kind of a slow development?

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Julie Taymor: No, I knew that whatever I did had to be totally theatrical, because I couldn't compete with film. One of the reasons I love to jump back and forth between mediums is that film does allow me to be more literal. I can go to the real place. I can go to the Coliseum, and I don't have to fake it. I can go to an Eskimo snowfield if I want to have snow; I don't need to do chicken feathers falling out of a plate.

When I was thinking about The Lion King, I said, we have to do what theater does best. What theater does best is to be abstract and not to do literal reality. So when you listen to Jeremy Irons in the guise of this animated lion, you go, "My God, that animated lion is so human! Look at how human the features are!" So how do I get that humanity, because the humanity of The Lion King is its power, not its animals. It's the humanity of the movie. And I thought, "Well, if I cover the human with the mask, I won't get that part of the humanity. So let's have the human, and then let's have the mask be the symbol of the animal." And as a sculptor, you have to abstract the essence. It's called an ideograph. You have to extract the essence of the character into a few brush strokes or a few carving strokes.

So because Scar is very serpentine and he's off-center and he's crooked, you make a face that's not symmetrical. Whereas Mufasa, he's salt of the Earth. He is the Earth. He's the Sun King. He's the Sun. So you have these big circles. My job as a director and as a designer is to do that kind of abstraction and to say it with a few brush strokes.

If you look at the scene -- Act Two, it begins with a drought. Now, I could have trees -- green trees with leaves falling off, drying up. But wouldn't a film do that better, and an animated film even better, because they can make it any way they want? So I say, "What -- in the most simplest terms, with the most simplest theatrical idea -- technique can say it?" And it was a big, white circle of cloth that's silk with blue lines on it that was pulled through a hole in the floor. And all you saw was that circle, which was also the circle of life, was also the circle of Mufasa. It's the main element in the entire -- the main symbol is the circle, as the wall is the main symbol in Grendel. You watch this water -- but it's just silk -- disappear through a hole. Film can't do that. Theater is far superior to film in poetry, in abstract poetry.

That doesn't mean there aren't some films that are very theatrical and abstract.

When you're trying to make those visual effects real, the audience wants to believe it. They want to believe those things. And in theater, they jump with you. They are transported. They know that that's just a piece of fabric on a stage, or that sun is just sticks -- bamboo sticks with fabric hanging in a bunch of strings. But when you bring that sun up with those "invisible" but visible wires, the audience is moved because they fill in the blanks. They're there as participants. They are there to fill out the rest of the sentence. You don't patronize your audience with reality. Oh, we could do a sunset with a projection. No. Why would you do that? That's not what you want. You want to create -- you want to say -- if I were to create one of those suns that are on the desert with those lines that shimmer, how do I do it with just silks and sticks? That's why I do theater. I do theater to be able to figure out how to create that and let the audience be the participant in creating the whole story.

In film, you get to do the whole thing, and you get a different kind of sense.

When you're a filmmaker, you create a whole world yourself, whereas in theater, the audience helps you create it. Is that how you see it?

Julie Taymor: Well, film is expected to be more real. In Across the Universe, we shot everything in New York City, but we shot Vietnam, Washington, D.C., Detroit -- but we really were trying to make it look like Vietnam. When we went to New Jersey into the swamps, we brought our palm trees. We weren't just suggesting that it was Vietnam. We were really trying to create that visceral reality there. Even a film like Titus, with Anthony Hopkins, is a movie movie. We shot in the Coliseum, on locations. Of course, it was theatrical because I played with mixing historical periods.

In theater, you can be much more abstract and simple and be suggestive. When we do the savannah in The Lion King, people walk with platters of grass on their heads, and the audience gets it. They get that that's a field that's moving grass. Now, if you were to do the -- not the animated film, but the film of The Lion King, it would be very hard to do that unless you were doing the film of the play, and then people would accept it. But if you were really to go out there and do it, you'd have to have the real grass going. Now I enjoy doing both. I enjoy moving back and forth because each medium challenges me with their own rules.

What I don't have in theater is editing. I would love my transitions to go like (snaps fingers) -- that! Instead, I have to wait for the mountain to turn. Elliot wrote these beautiful transitions (in Grendel), but the set doesn't work fast enough, so we've got some holes. Whereas in film, you can really play with how you tell the story through the cutting. Transitions in both forms are important, but they're the opposite. They work in opposite ways.

A lot of what I do in theater is cinematic, and a lot of what I do in film is theatrical, but there are different rules to it. What I mean by that is I use perspective in theater. I'll go do a long shot with a little miniature puppet of the animals walking through the grass, and then all of sudden the life-size person will come forward. And you've made that change from the long shot to the close-up. And you accept it, through a technique change. But in film, obviously, it's simple and easy to do those changes. But each art form makes me more interested in the other art form because I try and bring in those techniques and those ideas and put them into a different way of using them.

A recurring idea in your work is this idea of ritual, that theater in itself is a ritual. We all sit in a room and have a communal experience. There was a ritual aspect to your production of Oedipus Rex and Titus as well. You draw this parallel between art and religion, and it seems to be very close in a lot of your work.

Julie Taymor: I'm not religious, but I believe in the ecstasy that art and religion can create in human beings, the ecstatic or the awe -- as I like to call it, you know, "a-w-e" -- that it makes people feel in a way that isn't their banal, everyday feel. That they go, "My God, it transformed me. My life changed." Frida Kahlo, the story of Frida Kahlo, I'm in Australia and I meet a woman and she says, "I have cancer, and watching that film has completely transformed my life because now I know that every single moment I can actually fill with color, and I don't have to go into the dark and the morose."

When people talk about all of the bad things happening in the world, you just go, "Okay, and how do we live our lives? How do we live through those dark times? How do we bridge those horrors and those ailments and those deaths and those accidents?" And...

Theater evolves through religion to be the mediator between the darkness and existence, to help you get over the hump of a bad season and no rice paddies and a sickness, a demon that's come into your family and has spread malaria. And you go, as the artist -- the shaman -- would make these spirit journeys, and he would take you into a place. Now, it's a psychological play, but as we said, the concrete world isn't necessarily the most powerful world. The world of the mind -- whether you're watching Matrix or whatever -- the world that's inside here has the power to do a lot of good and a lot of damage.

So that is the religious part of it. That's the part where...

When people are there, and they're committed -- whether they're a performer who says, "I'm going to take the next 10 hours to put on my costume, it will take me that long, and as I do, I will eat this food and I will cleanse my body," whether -- you know, if you're a dancer, a Kathakali dancer from India putting on that 40 pounds of fabric -- it transforms who you are so that you can stay up all night and dance for 20 hours. As a regular Joe, you can't do that.

So we've seen that. There is something human beings can do. "The adrenaline rush," we call it. Fear, tremendous love. When people kill themselves, commit suicide over love, that kind of passion will move mountains. And I know, as an artist -- and I still feel weird about that "A" word, "the artist" -- but I know that that's the greatest pleasure I get. Satisfaction more than pleasure.

I love to make people laugh and cry, and that's very good. But in another way, when these moments have happened, and people have written me or have told me, "You don't know what that did to my life," I feel incredibly blessed. I was just given this gift somehow from my mommy and my daddy, and whatever else, to actually do that for people. And it's -- I have to say what I have to say, but not in a void. I'm not one of these people that go, "Oh well, I'm just going to do my art and I don't give a shit what anybody thinks." I don't feel that way. I really, really love to have people honestly be moved and inspired. And whether it's just here or just here -- it's always better if it's the both. That's why Shakespeare is so great, because he gets you from the gut to the heart to the head, and that's what I aspire to do, more than anything.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
In your film Frida, pain was healed through color and art. Unbelievable pain, more pain than most of us can imagine. That was one of the most colorful films ever made.

Julie Taymor: Yeah. In our culture, we think that happy and color is trivial, that black and darkness is deeper. But Nietzsche said -- which is a line that I firmly believe -- "Joy is deeper than sorrow, for all joy seeks eternity." And if you see Grendel, you'll see, as he's on the edge of the abyss, ready to leap to his death, he sings, "Is it joy I feel? Is it joy I feel?" And it's so, so moving. You can have a lot of different explanations for the ending of that opera, but there is something so palpable that you will feel when he sings those lines.

Through all of the art forms that you have brought us, you have been working with the same composer through much of it. Can you tell us how you came together and how you knew that was the right partnership?

Julie Taymor: But you don't know it's the right partnership because it just grows. I think we met in 1980, so 26 years ago we met.

A film producer who had worked with Elliot said -- and who was a friend of mine -- said, "You're equally grotesque, so you might be attracted to each other's art." Then we created a musical together called Liberty's Taken -- that Norman Lear produced, actually -- of the underside, the bawdy underside of the American Revolution. And we started to work together in theater. He would do incidental music, and I would direct, or design and direct. And we found that our tastes and our inclinations and the stories we wanted to tell were aligned.

Juan Darien would be the piece that really did it for us. He brought that piece to me. It's a Uruguayan short story by Horacio Quiroga. It's also a requiem mass. Elliot's idea was to put the requiem mass together with the seemingly naïve child's tale of cruelty. It's a child's tale just in that it's about a little jaguar in a circus, but what it shows is really man's inhumanity to the "other."

We have often been attracted to the story of the other, the outcast. And he and I just loved working together, so it just kept happening, and our relationship is completely bound up with our work. We enjoy each other's art. He's done Frida and Titus, and of course he won an Academy Award for Frida, which was very nice. I was happy it was on my film, you know.

Even with the Beatles, he and T-Bone Burnett are producing, but Elliot has done a good deal of the arrangements, and it's incredible to hear his new take on Beatles songs. It's amazing as a composer.

Do you edit each other's works?

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Julie Taymor: That's an interesting question. We so much love what the other does, and respect it, that if he does something that I don't quite get, I won't question it -- especially in the opera. The opera is his. The composer is at the top. He's top dog. So for me, last night, I didn't take a bow, because I wanted to see Elliot go on stage. It was the most extraordinarily wonderful thing to have all those people standing for him. There's a lot of private stuff that goes into that, but it is his work in opera. It's Mozart's Magic Flute. It's not Schikaneder's Magic Flute. Now, I've done the Magic Flute, and I've got a nice one that keeps coming back, but in years it will die and Mozart won't.

So Goldenthal's Grendel is there, and in that, I didn't even listen to a lot of it until it was done, because in film -- when he's doing music for my films -- I am the director and I can say, "I don't like that. It doesn't work." And he has to sublimate, even if he feels it does. But now, after these many years, if he really believes, I can probably see it. You see? There's a different communication. We're much faster. It's very easy to see where the other is going and support it. So it's an amazing artistic collaboration in theater. He's done ballets on his own, and other works, but we're doing theater and film and now opera, and we're doing musicals as well together.

After Across the Universe is edited, do you have another project already in mind?

Julie Taymor: Yes, we have. I have a couple. We're doing a movie musical of Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, which we did as theater and as a musical, and now we're throwing out all the original and writing together. We enjoy writing songs together too. I did one for Frida. I do the lyrics, he does the music. So we're writing this musical together.

Then -- if it happens, it happens -- but I've been slated to direct a Broadway musical Spiderman with Bono and the Edge writing the music. It just hasn't quite been signed off on; it's been in development for a while. But I would like to do that. I look forward to that. I've got a weird take on it.

Thank you very much for a great conversation.

You're very welcome. Thank you.

This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 16:31 EST