Julie Taymor

on making "Titus"

interview by Douglas Eby

The first feature film of stage director and designer Julie Taymor, writer and director of THE LION KING, TITUS is a new version of her 1995 stage production of Shakespeare's early tragedy, "Titus Andronicus." 

The story involves Roman general Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returning home from a victorious war, and carrying out a traditional victory ritual, the human sacrifice of an enemy prisoner. 

Titus chooses the eldest son of Tamora (Jessica Lange), the Queen of the defeated Goths. Tamora and her two remaining sons plot revenge. She gets connected with a new emperor. More death and carnage ensues. 

Taymor comments on what makes the story relevant: "Our entertainment industry thrives on the graphic details of murders, rapes and villainy, yet it is rare to find a film or play that not only reflects on these dark events but also turns them inside out, probing and challenging our fundamental beliefs on morality and justice." 

Taymor notes the film blends both concrete and symbolic images of violence: "I kind of explore violence in many different ways; as something very visceral, and, like Shakespeare put it on stage, I put it on screen. 

"But there's not tons of blood. It's not as graphic as other people could have made it. It's psychologically graphic. You feel it. And then there are moments where it is highly stylized, which makes it moving, poetic, and it really inspires a depth about the act, instead of just turning you off because it's so gruesome." 

In the "Penny Arcade Nightmares" sequence, also used earlier in the stage production, there is a blending of costumes, props and settings from a number of eras. For the film, Taymor notes, they shot elements "in the traditional blue screen manner. And then I gave those elements to Kyle Cooper at Imaginary Forces, and showed him my theater work, in which I'd done some very surreal imagery behind kind of misty plastic. 

"He made these terrific images that are a combination of real things and also computer generated images. But it's really more about layering images, and creating textures. It's very not-slick, it's very hand-made looking, that's what I wanted." 

She notes the film mostly uses "real tigers, and real does, and some puppetry. We shot all the elements necessary, the trees, the shadows, the fire, the body parts. Ovid's 'Metamorphosis' is the inspiration for Shakespeare, as well as for me. So you get half animal, half human, half human, half nature imagery throughout the movie." 

She acknowledges that some people say there are specific scenes of beheadings or mutilations, but, she says, "There's none of that stuff." As an example, she refers to the depiction of violence against Lavinia, Titus's only daughter: "You never see her hands being cut off, or her tongue, or any of that; that's off screen. 

"But you do see the aftermath. Instead of stumps at her wrists, her arms end in twigs, and it's very surreal as she's left on a stump in the middle of a swamp." 

Referring to one of the film's rare concrete and realistic scenes of violence, she notes "There's a moment where, onscreen, Titus's hand is cut off in the kitchen. Again, you never see the cleaver go into the hand." 

Not seeing it, she agrees, is probably more effective. "It's about violence, as opposed to being a violent movie." She doesn't have a concern that it will estrange audiences: 

"I don't think this is nearly as violent as BRAVEHEART or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or a number of other movies," she says. "Because of its depth, because of its poetry and richness, and because the characters are so developed, and have such unbelievable journeys, there's no gratuitous violence." 

One of the defining qualities of her work, including this film, is Taymor's use of a wide range of historical and cultural material. "The film is really ancient Rome, even Etruscan, and then the 30's, 40's, 50's and the present," she says. 

"And cars and costumes are a reflection of character. So Saturninus [Alan Cumming], who's the kind of mad emperor, drives in Mussolini's car, I mean it really is of that period. Then his brother, who's more of a 1950's straight sort of guy, very conservative, he drives in a 50's convertible. 

"For the costumes, I encouraged Milena that we're not placing this in a period, but that certain periods give us a feel about character. So Titus starts in metal armor, because he's a warrior, and he's protected, and invulnerable, but he breaks down, and by the end he's naked in a bathtub, then in a white bathrobe. 

"And the 30's and 40's give you a feeling about Jessica Lange and her character. She's very androgynous and decadent. It's metal, a feeling like you got watching Visconti's THE DAMNED. It was very difficult for a costume designer, for Milena, very challenging. And for Dante Ferretti, the genius production designer we had." 

She acknowledges the level of skill of her entire team: "The people I worked with were the best in their field. You don't get any better than that. I'm very thrilled with the product, and I think it's extremely unusual, this movie." 

Taymor uses a range of technology in her stage and film work, and notes the film has a "time-slice" sequence, but that they had been working on it long before MATRIX came out. 

"Ours is just one [sequence], and it's very much to do with storytelling," Taymor says. "I don't use special effects if I don't need to. I use them only to be pivotal in a story, so they are special moments. Otherwise, it's just technique for technique's sake, which I detest." 

Keeping with this approach, she says the cinematography by Luciano Tovoli was straightforward: "He's a brilliant, experienced classical photographer. And his lighting is just spectacular in this." 

The director of the 1955 production (starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh), Peter Brook once commented "Titus is about the most modern of emotions: about violence, hatred, cruelty, pain..." 

Taymor responds to the quote, with a laugh, "It's also about humor. He didn't get the humor, Brook, he kind of missed that. It's in the script, and I think it's what makes it almost 'theater of the absurd.' It kind of throws you off, because you can't believe it, how your emotions are taken one direction, and then another. But it's very important to the story, the humor. But it's black humor." 

The script is her adaptation of the Shakespeare play. She had directed the play off-Broadway in 1994, and notes "I was familiar with it, and very passionate about the power of the play, and thought it would make a brilliant screenplay. You know, Shakespeare just lends itself to movies, because it's so expansive, his stories." 

In a presentation to the National Council on the Arts, she said the limitations of the theater, the lack of merely realistic effects, are creatively stimulating. "When you are limited in your ability to present a realistic image you have to use your imagination more fully," she explained. 

"Imagination is much better than reality. You call upon all the various images you have gathered. I've never been to Africa, but when I think of it, I think of the National Geographics I've read and the movies, TV shows and animals I've seen. Then I add my understanding of grass and air that I felt as a child on Martha's Vineyard. 

"I put all that together, play with scale and come up with the 'grass heads.' If you were making a movie, would you be allowed to do that? No, because you might as well go to Africa and shoot the savannah." 

And Taymor has been critical of too much reliance on computers and other technology for stimulating creative ideas. "I think it's very sad that children aren't given the basic tools to create with," she has said. 

"They're given such sophisticated tools now that their imaginations aren't really being tapped. Everything's way too literal. Sitting in a chair in front of an ugly box when you could be running around in an open space seems regressive to me, not something that is going to make a more creative human being." 

She does use the internet as a research tool, but thinks "people have become so excited and obsessed; I find it extremely distracting. I know I sound very old-fashioned, but I think it'll all keep coming down to sweat and blood and sex and things passing from one mouth to another, and airspace and things that just don't change about what it is to be human." 

Art is often a matter of storytelling, and, Taymor notes, we may be very familiar with the basics of a particular story: "It's nothing new. It's a reaffirmation of something you know. 

"That's why it falls into the ritual mode. You look at an artist for how he interprets, not what he interprets. We've heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony a million times, but that doesn't mean we don't want to hear it again. We want to hear a new artist's interpretation. 

"So it's the telling of the story, the communicating, the nuances. It's like, we know we die; therefore, how do we choose to live until then. We're not shocked by the ending of our tales - it's nothing new. It's how you live it that's important, how you experience life." 

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[edited version published in Cinefantastique magazine]

*book: Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire

by Eileen Blumenthal, Julie Taymor


Behind the Scenes With Julie Taymor

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> also see additional interview with Julie Taymor

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