Julie Taymor made her feature debut in 1999 with Titus, a tweaked version of William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus. Now, a decade wiser, she’s bringing the Bard back to the big screen with another slightly altered classic, this time The Tempest. Exiled sorcerer Prospero becomes exiled witch Prospera (Helen Mirren), adding a new layer to any between-the-lines reading of the story’s relationships. The Tempest screened last week for New York Film Festival audiences, with Taymor sitting down afterward to answer some questions about her latest effort.
The director admitted that she’d long ago decided on telling the story of the exiled Duke/wizard and his daughter if she ever brought Shakespeare back to the silver screen. “The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play [I directed], in 1986, with Theater for a New Audience, and I fell in love with the play then,” she said, explaining that she wouldn’t want to tackle a movie adaptation without first working on the story as a stage play because of theater’s “pared down minimalism.”
The big change in the move from Shakespeare’s original script to this new film is Mirren’s rejiggered main character, Prospera. Taymor insists that there’s no underlying political message. “There was no mission, period,” she said. The change is actually an artistic choice, one that has a very specific inspiration. “It was me wanting Helen Mirren to play Prospera,” Taymor explained, adding, “I was going to do it with a male but I didn’t have a male in mind that excited me more than the idea of working with Helen Mirren.”
The match was a perfect one, with happy coincidence informing the casting more than business negotiations. In the early days of planning for The Tempest, before Taymor was ready to start extending offers, she found herself chatting with the Oscar-winning actress about the dearth of Shakespeare roles suited to older women. Mirren’s response: “I can play Prospero as a woman.” Taymor, seeing an opportunity, replied, “Do you want to?”
The collaboration started there. Then came the campaigning for money and the casting, a process which netted an all-star lineup, including Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina and David Strathairn. Finally, there was a reading to see if Prospero would work as Prospera. That’s when the light bulb flared to life for Taymor. In her prep research, she realized that a late-in-the-story speech delivered by Prospero is actually taken word-for-word by a speech delivered by Medea in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Shakespeare just lifted it,” Taymor said.
“That speech is not original and he only slightly changed the words,” she continued. Medea is, of course, a female character, and seeing this, Taymor accepted that The Tempest could indeed work with a female character at its center. She’s careful to admit that the change isn’t any better or worse than the original, or other interpretations that have emerged since; it is simply different.
“I think it’s a great actor, with a different feeling of the play, and male actors have a different take on their Propsero as well,” Taymor explained. “And for people who have seen the play a lot, it’s just another take. For other people, for a lot of the actors, they loved it with the female in the role. You just have to have great performers.”
That’s really what has been key to the lasting appeal of Shakespeare’s works. The language is of a particular time and it can be exceedingly difficult to follow closely for those who aren’t accustomed to it. However, the truths explored are universal and a strong cast coupled with a creative director will generally bring out some new aspect of the work that hasn’t been seen before. Taymor acknowledges that fact, and appreciates it.
“What happens is that you can direct these plays 100 times, and you can’t believe what happens,” she said. “[Composer Elliot Goldenthal] and I sit there in the editing room with my editor Francois [Bonnot], and every day we are honored to get something more out of the language, and having actors you get it on so many levels. You get it on the surface level but you also get these riches coming from Shakespeare’s mind.”
Director Julie Taymor’s The Tempest hits theaters on December 10, 2010. Read Spinoff Online’s exclusive review of the film here.
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