“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”
– A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Julie Taymor deals in dreams. Her directorial works—which include the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of The Lion King (1997), her critically acclaimed feature film debut Titus (1999), and the Oscar-winning Frida (2002)—aren’t tied to one genre, form, or even temporality. By ignoring the logical and literal in favour of the experiential and surreal, she seeks to create worlds that echo of our own, but never directly mimic it. It is precisely this quality that has served her well–especially when it comes to her takes on Shakespeare. In a sea of overdone adaptations by the iconic playwright, Taymor’s versions stand out for their original blending of time periods and detailed costuming, teasing out the timeless quality of the plays’ themes.
After studying under mime Jacques Lecoq in Paris as a teen and majoring in mythology and folklore at Oberlin College, Taymor won a fellowship to spend the mid-to-late 1970s in Japan studying traditional puppetry. During this time, she built on an interest in physicality and the body in performance, which eventually led her to establish Teatr Loh, an international troupe that toured Indonesia. When she returned to the United States in the 1980s, she met her longtime collaborator and partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal, and shifted her focus to Broadway and the Bard. The move might seem radical given her background in experimental theatre, but Taymor found a way to incorporate the avant-garde into the populist with her free-form adaptations.
Taymor hasn’t made a “proper film”—she defines this slippery term in our interview—since 2010’s The Tempest, a gender-bending version that casts Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero. In the interim, she’s explored filming theatre, doing Live From the Met simulcasts and now taking her 2013 stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the screen. (The first time Taymor tackled this Shakespearian proto rom-com, which follows four lovers over the course of one confusing night in the woods, was in 1984 for The Public Theatre.) The end result is far from a mere “filmed stage play,” as Taymor formally explores the differences between the theatre (she shot in front of a live audience) and film (close-ups are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare) and toys with the surreal that lays just beneath the real.
cléo: How do you approach the task of adaptation?
Julie Taymor: I wouldn’t call my Shakespeares adaptations, because I’m doing the actual Shakespeare text; I’m not changing the language. I do edit them, but even in Shakespeare’s day the players would edit them. The plays weren’t revered, golden kid glove things. Every actor would find what they liked; they’d “cut and paste.” Which is why you now find a lot of holes in the scripts, because once they were codified and written down they didn’t always make sense. I do revere the language of Shakespeare, but when I work with actors they have to improvise—especially in the comic roles. For instance, here, Puck [Kathryn Hunter] was doing a lot of improv. Of course, any director is adapting the text to how they see the play. There have been any number of Midsummer’s Night Dreams and this one isn’t like any of them—and the others are all different, too. Look at Max Reinhardt’s with Mickey Rooney. It doesn’t look anything like the Michael Hoffman one. There is no “definitive” Midsummer and this is my take. I believe that’s what is great about Shakespeare: his work demands, and allows, you to come at it from your own perspective. I do a lot of adaptations of myths or folk tales or early stories, and I think that’s because there are a limited number of great stories in the world. When they’re truly great, then they can be done many ways over and over again.
As products of their time, Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging not only for their language, but also in the treatment of female characters. Here we have the scene of Helena saying to the man who’s spurning her, Demetrius, that she’ll be his dog.
Yes! Isn’t that a great scene though? “Woof! Woof!”
That’s just it you play it up for comedy, which in a way is uncomfortable, as Helena is asking to be beaten.
When I hired Mandi Masden to play Helena, she had never done comedy before and kept saying she couldn’t do it. But what I liked about her was that I felt we would be moved by her. I didn’t want to have her play Helena as just this gawky, gangly, comedic character who you just laugh at. Because in the scene following this one she’s yelling: “How could you mock me like that?” It is serious drama. Just like in where Shakespeare gives Kate the best dialogue, here Helena gets the best lines. And yet, as we said at the beginning, she’s willing to humiliate herself for a man. But during this scene, you see her full humanity. You’re hurt and moved by her. This cocker spaniel scene shows how far she’s willing to demean herself, which, quite frankly, a lot of women are. “I’m willing to be a dog for you.” I’m willing to strap myself into uncomfortable shoes, make myself skinny if that will make you love me—that’s the same thing in a contemporary context. That’s what Shakespeare was getting at.
Following this scene of willing degradation, Helena then has an amazing speech about the importance of sisterhood.
Isn’t [Shakespeare] a genius? People dismiss the lovers [in Midsummer] for all being alike. I didn’t find that at all. I cast them distinctly. I dressed them distinctly. And yet, I didn’t want to make them contemporary stereotypes. I mix time, but the costumes—as in Titus and as in Tempest—are a reflection of character more than period.
The costumes are used in a very melodramatic sense: interior becomes exterior in the clothing.
That’s exactly it, the costumes represent their personalities. In Titus, Lavina [Laura Fraser] is wearing this little 1950s dress with belle gloves. Those gloves are important, as her hands are cut off. When she’s on that stump in her underwear [after she’s been raped] that image was meant to recall Marilyn Monroe. Rape is a heavy word to say when talking about the subway image of Marilyn Monroe, but there is something about the air pushing up her dress that is salacious and intrusive—she’s pushing down her dress. And yet this is the iconic picture of Marilyn Monroe that men and women find so sexy. So I used that image as an inspiration. In Midsummer, I worked with the designer, Constance Hoffman, and we looked a lot at Alexander McQueen, who was very influenced by the Elizabethan time period with the ruffles and drapes. For Hermia’s [Lilly Englert] dress, we wanted it to be short so it would be contemporary—I bet any girl on the red carpet would love to wear it. Because that’s her character: a mini princess. And taking off the clothing matters, too, as the lovers stumble through the forest. For Hermia, first she takes off the ruff—it’s the halter that her father has out on her. I also intentionally limited the colour palette, as I did in Titus. The costumes are then linked together by the limitation of colour, because when you mix time periods, something has to hold things together.
Puck is also very uniquely stylized.
Because he/she can move in and out of the human world, I wanted a sort of Waiting for Godot suit look. With the bowler cap, too, we get that Western symbol of the entertainer. Puck’s a clown, but then Kathryn’s suit also has an Issey Miyake feel to it. Puck also begins and ends the play, which I changed, as Shakespeare’s play doesn’t have a prologue. I use prologues a lot in my work; for me, these set up the convention and the world. In Shakespeare’s play, it starts as a tragedy with Duke Theseus [Roger Clark] basically saying he raped Queen Hippolyta [Okwui Okpokwasili] and now will marry her.
“I wooed you with violence, using my sword.”
Very good! But for me, I thought about how this opening would play in the theatre and wanted to reduce things to their most basic ideograph: the bed. It’s all about dreaming. My prologue does many things, but it really says: “This is a dream, relax.”
As far as the contemporary elements, you use Brooklyn construction workers to represent the troupe of actors who perform the play-within-the-play. How did you come to that decision?
The production inaugurated the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. As I watched the theatre being built, I saw all the construction workers from Brooklyn and Queens building this place that would house dreams. I thought: “Those are the guys. Those are the guys who make the theatre curtain, who built the scenery, built the theatre.” They create the concrete world in which the surreal happens. In the normal Midsummer, you never get to see the players be workers: they’re putting on a play, they’re actors. I wanted them to be workers. They represent the magic of theatre…and cinema: seeing ordinary objects transform and become surreal.
I’m glad you brought up the connection between theatre and cinema, because this is a very formally cinematic rendering of the theatre: there are close-ups, superimposition, cross-fades. When you were conceiving of doing Midsummer for the stage, were you also thinking about how to translate it to film?
I never thought of it as a film. My Magic Flute, for example, was the first Live from the Met in HD. It was live cutting, so I worked with the director during filming, but that’s not my thing. My thing is spending eight to 10 weeks with my editor editing and refining. I moved away from that with Oedipus Rex, which was two live performances, four cameras, plus shooting over two days with three steady cameras. This production ended up even more cinematic than that. I got cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto [who most recently shot Martin Scorsese’ Wolf of Wall Street and worked with Taymor on Frida] and we shot over four days, with a live audience and pick-ups, and got on stage with a steady cam. That’s what makes it a movie: the camera is able to get into positions a theatre audience would never be able to see. The live-ness comes from the audience and their laughter. I can’t wait to see it today—did the audience laugh at your screening?
Good. That’s my biggest fear! That there will be a disconnect. In any case, I didn’t naturally think it would be a film, but if you asked me now if I wanted to make a movie of Midsummer—that is, shoot on location—in a way I’d rather do this. I’ve seen Midsummer movies and, without criticizing the others, to get that world you need CGI, the forests get boring, and it all takes place at night so you need fake moonlight. There’s a certain level of acceptance when you do a play: you accept the make-up, the sets. That’s why there’s not one visual effect in this movie. We do a few dissolves and editing, but our producer asked if I wanted money for visual effects and I said: “No, I don’t.” I actually think that the projections in the theatre are enough, and they come off very well in the 4k digital filmmaking. The transformation of real objects without CGI is far more surreal.
The editing, which creates shifting sightlines, also draws attention to a certain cinematic language.
Normally in the theatre you look at who’s talking. But what I did was put the camera on the person who was listening. That way, I’m not only going to get Shakespeare’s language, but I get the reaction to the language simultaneously. You can’t do that in theatre. I also was able to cut back on the laugher of the audience, as I wanted to get deeper into the emotional crises.
The audience’s presence also meant that you, the director, had an audience.
I mean, fuck. That was nerve-wracking. Every time I wanted a new take, I felt this pressure to explain myself to Rodrigo, knowing people were watching. Of course, after a while you just forgot they’re there. It also changed how I directed the actors. You buy the broad comedy because there is the audience’s laughter, but because it was also being filmed the actors could be subtler and tone down their performances.
Riffing off of “broad,” I want to talk about your work on Broadway in relation to doing Shakespeare. I think there’s actually a really strong connection between the two, given his plays were meant to be seen by “the masses.”
Of course! Titus was the most popular play of its day. It was a potboiler thriller. In Shakespeare’s time, there were all these hideous things happening just down the street from the Globe Theatre: public hangings, bear-baiting. Shakespeare had to up the ante and create things that were more shocking than reality. For Midsummer, this was created for a wedding—and what an idea to have everything go wrong the night before the nuptials. It’s really a Midsummer Nightmare. I should have done that, that’s a better title! At any rate, Shakespeare is a genius of undoing romantic love and staying romantic.
Is it really romantic, though?
When I started out working on Midsummer, I thought: “Shakespeare’s cynical because he doesn’t give the antidote to Demetrius [Zach Appelman] at the end.” Demetrius is still drugged when he’s saying: “I love you Helena.” Is he on drugs or is he not? Then I realized it’s much deeper than that—this is just my interpretation, of course—but some people need drugs to see truth. Some people need to be shaken out of their realities, be it LSD in the ‘60s or ecstasy now. For Demetrius, he thinks he wants the “It Girl” Helena, the cover model celebrity, the in-style, perfect girl. But then with the drugs he gets shaken for a moment. Look at Helena: she may not be the perfect doll, but she’s brilliant, she’s intuitive, and she loves him. Demetrius finally sees her. That, to me, is the most unsung part of Midsummer and, to my knowledge, no one’s ever played that up before. That’s what I adore about Shakespeare. I read it over and I always get something new out of it.
This interview was conducted during the Toronto International Film Festival.