A former child actress and a performer to the core, a cheerful Julie Taymor balanced a passion for her projects with an obvious compulsion to entertain in an event last night at the L.A. Film Festival. She catered to both by dividing the night up into parts, screening footage from four of her productions (Titus, The Tempest, Across the Universe and The Lion King) and then demonstrating the directing techniques — sometimes by physically dancing around the stage — that brought them to be.
Clips from blood-soaked Shakespeare adaptation Titus led to a conversation about ritual violence. The film, which features a mutilated woman spewing ribbons of blood from her severed tongue, was, Taymor said, a way to access brutality through beauty. “What that poetic aspect does is make you step outside of the violence in a way and reassess what it is,” she said. By dealing with that kind of pain on screen we can also remove it from ourselves. “Punch and Judy, all the Grimm's fairy tales: they take the worst of human beings. They put it out there and you're exorcised.”
She also explained how she handled turning Titus from a small, low-budget stage show into a multi-million dollar Hollywood film. “In the theater, it was a very simple production. Just plastic legs” — vertical screens on wheels pushed across the stage by human actors — “with photographic reproductions of black and white columns on them. And that was the set. And then I adapted the script, and all of a sudden there's 150 locations.” She chose sites that mirrored the mental states of her characters, situating the raped Lavinia in a burned-out field. “To me the landscapes are metaphorical.”
Taymor finished Titus “as an antidote to the Lion King,” the Broadway phenomenon that launched her star. (“I mean what was I going to do next, a cartoon?”) If Titus was about negotiating violence on screen, The Lion King was an exercise in rethinking artifice on stage. “What I wanted to do was to make sure it did things that film cannot do. I wanted to show the rods and the strings…. It's the very transparency of creation that becomes the story. I wanted to burst through the space of theater.”
A clip of the play reminded the crowd of the theatrical vision that made her famous: a blue sheet pulled through a hole in the floor becomes a drought, and a painted sheet of piano paper becomes a wildebeest stampede. Who didn't want to be Julie Taymor back in 1997, after she won a Tony for accomplishing with puppets what even film directors only dreamt of? The lights came up to find the audience in a kind of stunned silence. “What were you on and how can I get some?” moderator Harry Lennix asked.
Taymor led us through her influences, starting with her year practicing mime with Jacques LeCoq, and then post-graduate work in Balinese theater and mask carving, rounded out with film courses at NYU extension. “I had a lot of experience directing theater. I learned on the job in filmmaking,” she said. While she speaks, she jumps up to imitate Scar's limp, or demonstrate Mufasa's manipulation of his headpiece. Behind-the-scenes clips from Across the Universe, her ultra-stylized musical film, show a Taymor who's magnetic when she moves across the stage to choreograph a scene.
“Why don't you do more acting?” Lennix asked.
“I just got fired. I'm available,” Taymor answered. The audience clapped and exhaled a little. It seemed important to remember that this was a woman whose Spider Man: Turn off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway production ever made, flopped horrifically this year and left a lot of people hospitalized (before getting a revamp from another director). Lennix changed the subject.
“Have you ever set out to be a trailblazer?” he asked.
“No. Every project has its demands. It's all about telling the story,” Taymor said.