Braving the storm: Julie Taymor brings a female perspective to Shakespeare's 'Tempest'

The Tempest, which opens Dec. 10 from Touchstone Pictures and Miramax Films, is Julie Taymor’s fourth feature film, and her second Shakespeare adaptation. The first was Titus (1999), from one of the playwright’s earliest tragedies, Titus Andronicus. Both plays examine the boundaries of justice and vengeance.

“That’s the big question in our day and age, isn’t it?” Taymor says during an October phone interview. She is in rehearsal for a Broadway musical that may be another variation on the Rubicon of justice, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. “So many films are simplistic,” Taymor adds. “Who is the bad guy and who is the good guy? That’s the way our culture is, but Shakespeare isn’t simple—he makes you uncomfortable.”

Unsettling the audience is the director’s starting point in The Tempest. The opening shot is of a castle, which turns out to be made of sand. The camera pulls back to reveal it as a tiny structure in the hand of a girl. In the gathering storm, the rain dissolves the fortress. That portentous image, which prefigures the final soliloquy—“Now my charms are all o’erthrown…”—is Taymor’s invention. Next we see the girl, Miranda (Felicity Jones), running frantically along the beach, intercut with scenes of a ship buffeted by the gale.

Miranda reaches a bluff, and there, instead of her father, Prospero, Shakespeare’s protagonist, she stands before Prospera (Helen Mirren), her mother. She pleads with her to calm the sea near the shore of their island, but Prospera holds a staff aloft and contemplates the revenge she will take on her enemies who are aboard the vessel. They were the cause of her exile to that isle where she and Miranda have spent the last 12 years. In the play, Prospero loses his Milan dukedom when he delegates the affairs of state to Antonio, his scheming brother, who later steals his crown. In the film, Antonio seizes Milan by accusing Prospera, his sister and the widow of the Duke of Milan, of being an alchemist, a charge that would have condemned her to death.

Taymor’s gender switch is provocative, and may lead to other roles for older women in the Shakespeare canon. That, the iconoclastic director says, is something she has long contemplated. Mirren’s remarks to the press at the Venice Biennale this fall characterized the change in feminist terms, but Taymor, a passionate, progressive thinker, nevertheless remains unmoved by such critiques. “I think that all the actors who knew the Shakespeare, and those who didn’t know it and just came to it with a woman in that role, preferred it,” she recalls. “Helen had a lot to do with it. She’s a fabulous actress. But it isn’t feminist because I don’t think like that. I put a woman in the role because it could happen and because it works.” At the New York Film Festival press screening in October, Taymor said she wanted to work with Mirren, and that when the two met to discuss possibilities, it was Mirren who suggested Prospera.

If Prospera is new, Taymor’s take on Caliban, portrayed in the film by the talented Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) is, by necessity, somewhat traditional. Caliban is at the center of Shakespeare’s rumination on civilization; he is the one native of the isle, yet he is enslaved by Prospera because of his attempted seduction of Miranda. Taymor, however, trades the rather worn interpretation of The Tempest as a treatise on colonialism for an emphasis upon the nuanced relationships of the characters. “When you make Caliban just a wild beast, it loses a lot,” she explains. “That’s not what Shakespeare intended. His sources were the sailors who came back from the New World and talked about the savages with feathers. Caliban could have been Native American or South American, but whatever he is, he is ‘the Other.’” In the play and the movie, Caliban conspires with Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina), the “low comedy” characters, to kill Prospera.

Much of the principal photography for Tempest was done on location in Hawaii, on L’nai Island, where Taymor vacationed before shooting Frida (2002). She recalls that the volcanic island “just said ‘Tempest’ to me,” but Taymor put aside that thought to make the Beatles musical Across the Universe (2007). “When I directed The Tempest in the theatre, I had black, volcanic sand on a raked stage,” the director explains. “So I changed Shakespeare’s ‘yellow sands’ [Act I, ii] then, and in the film, added this notion of the power of the volcano. Helen’s robe is one image of that.” The sorcerer’s robe, which Prospera appears in several times at the beginning of the movie, is a symbol of her ability to transform nature. It is a sculpture of glimmering obsidian, and that color, as well as the indigo hues of volcanic ash, informed Mark Friedberg’s production design, as well as Sandy Powell’s costumes for Prospera and Miranda.

Taymor repeatedly turned to Shakespeare’s text in forming her ideas for the film. There she saw evidence of what she calls the playwright’s cynicism, in Alonso, King of Naples, Antonio’s co-conspirator in the coup d’état against Prospera, and in Sebastian, who covets his brother Alonso’s kingdom. “You hear it during the chess game, too,” Taymor explains, “when Ferdinand is cheating and Miranda says, ‘For a score of kingdoms you should wrangle and I would call it fair play.’” Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, is Miranda’s fiancé. The scene is rarely emphasized in theatrical productions, yet it presages a repetition of Prospera’s downfall. “That’s Shakespeare saying that innocence is wrong,” Taymor observes, emphasizing what can come of Miranda’s naiveté. “He doesn’t have Antonio and Sebastian transform, but he does believe the world should transform. He’s saying that no matter what, we must strive for that which is divine.”

Taymor’s familiarity with the classics, and her knowledge of myth, allows her to move easily between theatre, film and television, as a director and a writer. In 1992, she transformed an Edgar Allan Poe short story into a delightful “American Playhouse” production, Fool’s Fire. That was followed by her direction of The Lion King on Broadway and The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. Despite the breadth of her creativity, many critics perceive her as being grounded in theatre. No doubt her stage experience serves her well in editing Shakespeare, a task film audiences may underestimate; in their complete form, many plays, including The Tempest, run four hours or more. In a cinematic adaptation, Taymor says, her best tool is obviously the close-up: “In The Tempest, the road map of Helen’s face is so powerful.” Mirren wore almost no make-up during the shoot. “The close-up,” Taymor observes, “also helps the audience understand the language.”

In most performances of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s themes of love and forgiveness inform the direction. That’s true in Taymor’s case, too, but she reveals in The Tempest many other dimensions to the play, mostly through Prospera. She’s a magus, a protective mother, and a sensual older woman who flirts with Ariel, her male sprite (Ben Whishaw). “When you put yourself into an unbalanced situation where power, ego and narcissism take over, you can move into the darker side,” Taymor explains. “This is true in Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Spider-Man. Prospera makes the other choice.” Taymor hopes her film sparks thoughtful discourse. “We all want to entertain,” she says, “but you also want audiences and critics to be thinking not just how this is different than the normal versions of The Tempest, but about what Shakespeare is really saying.”

Elliot Goldenthal: Scoring Shakespeare
For a scoring session last fall, composer Elliot Goldenthal chose the Hammerstein Ballroom, a beautiful, sonorous space, and the only recording studio in New York City which can comfortably accommodate a full orchestra. If the adjacent post-production studio was a little cramped on that occasion, with members of the crew of The Tempest, Goldenthal’s sound recording team, and a white furball, which director Julie Taymor introduced as her new puppy, there was also an invigorating intensity. Goldenthal conferred quietly with his collaborators, joked with his musicians, and sometimes stood before the monitor with Taymor, his partner of 25 years, to watch a few seconds of film quickly mixed with the music that had just been recorded.

Goldenthal discussed his original music for The Tempest after the film’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival in October. “Sometimes when I work with an orchestra, that’s only one piece of cloth,” he says, recalling the scoring session. “Afterward, I knit the whole thing together so that there are various textures.”

Goldenthal, who won an Oscar for his score for Taymor’s Frida, eschewed period music for Tempest. “There were songs composed in Shakespeare’s time by Robert Johnson, who worked with a boys choir—and the music exists,” he says in a telephone interview from New York City. “But The Tempest is not a frozen museum piece. It’s contemporary and timeless in the sense that it reflects unchanging human patterns, everything from revenge to deceit to forgiveness.” The composer, known for his inventive orchestration, put aside the music he had written for Taymor’s theatrical productions of the play.

He did, however, revisit Shakespeare’s verse.

“Other than the fact that hearing the text a couple of thousand times, I would get a better understanding of what Shakespeare had in mind,” he jokes, “I thought about the characters who are multi-dimensional but distinct and individual. For example, I chose for the most part instruments that you can find in the earth like hollowed-out trees, hence the didgeridoo.” An Australian Aboriginal wind instrument, the didgeridoo has a low, haunting sound. “It’s an instrument for Caliban,” Goldenthal says, “and, of course, for Caliban, there’s skin, so I also use percussion.” Taymor’s Caliban is caked with earth and half-clothed. Prospera calls him: “Thou earth, thou!” A drum accompanies his speech in Act I, ii. “He says, ‘This island’s mine,’ and then bang! ‘By Sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me—bang!,” Goldenthal explains. “Musical punctuation is the best way to put it.”

The sprite Ariel’s instrument is the glass armonica, invented by Ben Franklin, which consists of a shaft encircled by glass bowls. “I use it in many of my works,” Goldenthal notes, “because it has ethereal overtones.”

The Tempest score also features guitars and steel cello, which can be amplified like a guitar. These instruments are “knitted” with many others during the storm sequence. “You hear choirs of amplified guitars,” Goldenthal explains, “and a full orchestra.” Late in the picture edit, Taymor decided that the final soliloquy should be set to music. “It wasn’t originally intended as a song,” Goldenthal says. “It might have been Shakespeare’s last words on the stage as an actor saying a farewell to his company.” The resulting “Coda,” named for a musical passage that provides a definite conclusion to the essential parts of a movement, is seven minutes long, and sung by Beth Givens. “To find the vehicle to float those words so that it didn’t sound like too much of a jump from Helen Mirren to a sung vocal was a big challenge,” the composer recalls.

Goldenthal admits that Taymor’s habit of temp-scoring with his past film music is a “problem,” but the smile one often hears in his voice returns when he’s asked to recount other aspects of their collaboration. “She is an excellent director in the sense that she understands the creative side, and gives one leeway to express it,” he observes, “but she also understands practical matters. If I suggest we do something in another key but we have 45 minutes of recording time left in two days, she’s able to move on.”