Julie in the Sky with Diamonds: Across The Taymor Universe

In my chat here with Julie Taymor about her new film, the Beatles-era musical, we focus on her latest and possibly most personal effort -- first talking shop, then Societal Ramifications.
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Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Zuma/Corbis

In case you haven't noticed, Julie Taymor is one of those brilliant people. Yes, yes, The Lion King on Broadway and the films Titus and Frida -- these factors are known. And yet, as one glances at her very impressive educational background, one begins to note a Renaissance Woman thing going on: Sri Lankan cultural study; mime technique in Paris; a degree in mythology and folklore; the founding of an international mask/dance company in Indonesia; the study of puppetry on Awaji, Japan; Broadway; a few operas; a long-term partnership with composer Elliott Goldenthal; plus a smattering of big awards and resounding acclaim. I think it is highly appropriate to dub her the Director with Kaleidoscope Eyes.

Julie Taymor is also thoughtful and punctual; en route to the U.K. for the premiere of her new film, the poignant Beatles-era musical Across the Universe, she calls ahead to confirm our chat, then gets back early (who does that?), then we finally hook up for a wide-ranging discussion. We focus on her latest and possibly most personal effort -- first talking shop, then Societal Ramifications.

"You just know," she explains simply, in terms of how one coaxes forth strong performances and sequences. "It's when you believe ... when it makes you smile ... when you're excited by it ... then it's true for the audience as well. All the pieces have to come together, so there's different stages at which it's 'on' -- meaning you can be shooting a scene and you have a great performance by an actor, but if it's a complicated thing like [musical segment] 'I Want You,' you've got to wait until all the elements are together."

She expresses a sort of awe for one of her own most striking visions, the 'She's So Heavy' sequence of dewy, half-naked American soldiers carrying the supine Statue of Liberty across the killing fields; and the awe is merited. "Each of those points could be a terrific sensation, but you really have to see how they play together. It's kind of obvious, I think, when it's on, when it's working."

Taymor expresses gratitude to the film's production studio Revolution, for not demanding that she have stars in the lead role - - a decision which helps lend an organic earthiness to the project

As for the challenges facing this particular film, Taymor flies directly into the faces of critics: "Well, I think the first challenge really is picking a coherent screenplay. But the most challenging aspect was getting the studio to let me finally put out the cut that I wanted -- which we have. It's finding something that they could all approve and be behind, and basically be my cut and be my vision and be something I'm proud of -- which it is."

But there are always glitches. "It was very hard to get all the locations," she continues. "Columbia University refused to let us shoot there -- which was an appalling situation. So you have to be very ready to dance on your toes and make adaptations, but that's normal for any film. 'Challenging' was making a story that would do justice to the Beatles' songs, and make them feel like they're organically coming out of those moments and those emotions. It was totally organic. It was like a round-robin.

"The screenplay [co-written with veteran British ex-pat screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais], started as a love story set in the 60s with those three main characters -- then when I came on board, I added Prudence, Sadie and Jo-Jo, and added the names, and did that so that we could really encompass much more of the range of the Beatles' music, to be able to have all those different voices and then the situations that these voices would be in, so that you could actually have those songs. Otherwise it would be very limited if it was just Jude, Lucy and Max."

This provokes the interviewer to summon The Controversy (i.e.: the studio's attempted shortening and re-edit of the movie, which Taymor didn't approve). "No, there's no cutting there. Everything is in ... period. There's nothing that's not in; that's the director's cut. What you'll see on the DVD extras will be longer versions of the songs -- you'll get the whole songs -- but the cutting of those songs is the director's choice. You'll get more of, say, Jo-Jo singing -- than the intercutting of Jo-Jo and Sadie, which helped push the story along."

What the hey, as long as we're here, let's flog Henry the Horse a bit more; I ask specifically about that other cut. Taymor is firm. "Oh, there's no other cut. Joe Roth's cut did not happen. He did it, but it didn't get used in any way whatsoever. It's a shame that it even got out there at all -- but I wouldn't be having any interviews or talking about this film if it wasn't my cut. I wouldn't want to be out there. So, to clear it up, it's 100% my cut, so there we go."

We then proceed to discuss the potentially tricky business of building a bridge of understanding between Boomers (for most of whom the songs of the Beatles are the Holy Grail) and Taymor's cast, who are mostly Gens X and Y. "Well, I think for the Holy Grail people -- and they are [Holy Grail] for me too, and for Elliott and everybody who worked on it -- these are not really 'Beatles' songs; they are John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison...and a little bit of Ringo Starr ...songs. Meaning that these are composer-lyricists who were so brilliant, just like Mozart was -- you don't have to go back and only listen to Mozart or Rachmaninoff renditions [of their own works]. When Gershwin sings his songs, they can be interpreted by many people. And so, the Beatles' versions of the songs are perfect, tremendous -- but there have been forty years of other versions of the songs, some brilliant and some pretty bad. But the songs transcend performance; they are brilliant music and lyrics, beautiful melodies. Therefore, our job, and in particular the music-producers' and arrangers' job, was to create fabulous arrangements that fit the story and fit the characters.

"So anyway, that is how you deal with the people who are terrified of us approaching the Beatles. But when you have women singing and black people singing and different races singing, and they have their own situations, the songs take on different meanings -- and I think that just shows the breadth of the songs, it shows their power."

Although Across the Universe overflows with musical sequences of many stripes, I note to Taymor that "Dear Prudence," which moves from personal concerns to global ones, is a standout.

"They're singing this lightweight, joyful moment, and there's skeletons and 'Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' Now we're getting into politics. The marches and the riots build. People ask, 'Why did you have to go from Fifth Avenue to Columbia University to the Pentagon?" Taymor notes our thematic segue: "Now we're into that other part that really moves me tremendously, which is the period and the war, the fighting, the protests. This is very important, because if you really watch that first march, with 'Dear Prudence' playing, everybody's having a good time, it's the flowers-into-rifle-barrels moment."

There is also some confusion in the populace regarding the puppetry in the film, which Taymor sets straight. "You know, the Bread & Puppet Theatre -- I didn't make that stuff. That's a recreation of the Bread & Puppet Theatre's march on Fifth Avenue. Those aren't my puppets at all. I'm assuming you'd be aware of it if you're not eighteen or something!" That's not only funny, but the point extends to the film's circus sequence as well: "That's Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, which used to be in Goddard, Vermont -- and all over Vermont. [Troupe founder] Peter Schumann would do these things all the time, and then he would do these political marches, so a lot of this is all very accurate to the period. We did an enormous amount of research."

Also, notably, the "Peace" banners and anti-war paraphernalia from the shoot were embraced by Washington Square Park's local residents -- who chose to leave it up!

Taymor continues: "'Dear Prudence' is interesting because it starts out on a personal level, and it talks about, 'Come out and play, the sun is up, the sky is blue' -- but it's all playing against something that's very dark that's just beginning to build. It's the first time the kids are in a march. The second time it's the Columbia riots, where they're swept into police brutality. And the third, the Pentagon march, is where the army and the citizens became lethally involved with each other, and it's on a massive scale. We show that on a television, that's real footage from the Pentagon. It's very important to show those steps, to see where Lucy is ready to go -- and the threshold is when the bombs are being made by these representatives of the Weathermen [the Weather Underground].

"She stops at that point. The war, as she says, 'just goes on and on and on and no-one's listening.' Her statement, 'Maybe when bombs start going off here people will listen' -- all of Lucy's 'radical nature,' as her mother says, is very, very crucial to this movie, to understand how that passion really was common in that period. She's not a leader, she's just a regular girl with a conscience -- and a personal relationship to the war, having lost a boyfriend and potentially a brother.

"I think all of us who made this movie two years ago are dying that we're not in any different situation now." So was there an intentional correlation between the film and the current crises? "I think, when you see Paco [the Weatherman analogue] in the Fifth Avenue peace march, that's direct footage from the Viet Nam era, which says, 'Even America's friends are starting to become our enemies.' It sounds so precious and so obviously horrible, but we didn't have to work very hard for the parallels; they're just there."

But obviously this isn't the 60s. What has changed? "The things that are different are also obvious. For instance, now it's cool to be basically stupid. Whereas back then it was cool to be smart, informed and if you had to protest something, you had to go out on the streets to do it. You had to congregate, because you didn't have blogging, and couldn't sit behind safe computers, or do it over cell-phones or message-texting or whatever. You had to go out, and that is a very different way for human beings to communicate, and it has tremendous power.

"I think that young people were very turned on to the power that they had to change what was around them. There were so many movements: Black Power movement; Women's movement; Anti-War movement; Free Speech movement; Psychedelic Tune-In Drop-Out Don't-Get-Engaged movement, go off to a commune and live your own life. These kids were rebelling, they were rebelling against the 50s. They were rebelling against their conservative, adult parents who thought that they were actually giving their children everything, every opportunity, post-War.

"But now kids have everything. They don't need to rebel against anything. They can get what they want -- except for the poor, the poor who go off and fight the war."

Okay, so now the interviewer is contemplating a sort of law of conservation of energy, in terms of social activism: Has the activism really disappeared, or has it moved to some ghastly medium like MySpace, or is it dormant? Taymor is quick to respond: "I think it's dormant, because I think people don't change that much. I think they need to be inspired and educated and turned on. I really believe that there will be a transformation, that especially the young will want that. But they're going to have to do it, or they'll just lose it. Maybe it's time that this country just wanes away, and somebody else rises..."

Suddenly comes the twist of a Gestalt. Taymor is inspired by her own immediate surroundings: "Oh my god, I'm listening to another woman talk at another table, eating, and she's talking about how we murdered people at Guantanamo. You know, I'm in the first-class lounge, and we're talking about the war here, and eating dinner, and she's eating dinner and talking about murdering people. Very interesting."

Across the Universe appears to be a highly polarizing movie - with both fervent admirers and dismissive detractors. However (and without an iota of defensiveness) Taymor points out that most of the detractors are critics ("They're not called 'enthusiasts' -- they're called critics!") and she's right: Her movie is a crowd-pleaser.

"When I hear some of the complaints, like, 'oh, it's literal' -- I think, well, what are you supposed to do in a movie, for Christ's sake?"

Our conversation twists and turns through a few more factors (Paul "Bono" Hewson as entertainment power-icon; the exploitative nature of using images of Vietnamese faces without consent), Taymor then returns once again to her character, Lucy.

"When Lucy's at the Pentagon and she says, 'Everyone's fucked up and nobody's listening; you should be radical; we should all be radical!" - you know, I really believe her, she's right, I really believe in what she's saying. And she's an Everygirl. She's nothing special. She's just an Everygirl who manages to get to that point because she's moved, her heart and her intellect are moved."

Across the Universe. Worth seeing and discussing.

As the song says: "Look around, round, round, round, round..."

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