Tempest: Interview with Julie Taymor



Julie Taymor is the director of "The Tempest," the screen adaptation of the play of the same name. The film, which stars Helen Mirren, Djimon Hounsou, and Russell Brand, is being released Touchstone Pictures on December 10.

Showing the mechanics of theater


“Revealing the mechanics of the theater,” says Taymor, “creates its own alchemy, its rough magic, and the audience willingly plays ‘make believe.’ In cinema, where one can actually film on real locations and create seemingly naturalistic events, the temptation is to throw away the artifice and go for the literal reality.”


Taymor chose to compact the events of the play to take place over the course of one day (two days in the original). The collapsed time element adds to the story’s tension, but also impacted the shooting schedule. Taymor explains, “We were shooting on location and had to use natural light, so we had to stop at dusk. To create the noontime solar eclipse that occurs, we chose to shoot day for night. Prospera’s magic transforms nature, so there is a certain surreal lighting that happens, which our cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, was able to do in-camera. Later, in post-production, we experimented further with lighting. There were scenes when Prospera torments her enemies in which she can actually make all light disappear. We shot that in green screen in the studio in Brooklyn, New York, and played with more heightened theatrical lighting.”


Casting Mirren at a party


“We were talking Shakespeare,” Taymor recollects, “and she had no idea I was planning this film when she mentioned that the first Shakespeare she ever did was Caliban in ‘The Tempest,’ and she actually said to me, ‘You know, I could play Prospero—as a woman.’ And I said, ‘Do you want to? Because I’ve been preparing a film version of “The Tempest” with exactly that in mind.’ And, fortunately, she said yes.”


Casting Ben Whishaw


“In casting Ben Whishaw,” says Taymor, “I had to accept a major condition: he would be unavailable until the end of the shoot and thus never on location in Hawai’i. That meant that Helen would have to film most of her Ariel scenes without Ariel.It was a daunting, yet fortuitous challenge. After all, Ariel is not human, does not walk on the ground and is constantly transforming. This limitation was an invitation to Kyle Cooper, the visual effects designer, and myself to invent an entirely new way of combining a live actor’s performance with CGI. Because of Ben’s availability, most of his performance was filmed in the studio in front of a green screen, making it possible for us to manipulate his image in postproduction and place him in the pre-shot backgrounds with Helen.”


"The miracle is,” says Taymor, “that the effect is live, in camera, and not computer-generated. It was extremely liberating to be able to preserve a great actor’s performance and yet transform him into the various elements and creatures that are delineated by the text.”


Djimon Hounsou as Caliban


“But in order to truly serve Shakespeare’s unique vision of this character one must go beyond socio/political commentary achieved through a casting choice,” says Taymor.


"This Caliban, both beautiful and grotesque, is the island; nature personified. And Djimon’s athletic and antic movement, inspired by the Japanese dance form, Butoh, completes his physical embodiment,” states Taymor.


Adapting from stage to screen


Taymor explains, “Normally in theater performances it is delivered with the house lights on, all artifice removed, and is directed to the audience. I had originally cut it from the film script because I felt that Prospera speaking directly to the camera for this last moment of the film was one speech too many and in no way could equal the effect it has in the live theater.


“The film’s last image of Prospera on the ocean cliff, her back to the camera, tossing her magic staff to the dark rocks below, and the staff’s subsequent shattering, is the ending. But when all was cut and timed and scored and mixed, the rhythm of the end of the film felt truncated, incomplete. I asked Elliot to take those last great words and set them to music for the seven-minute-long, end-title sequence. And to that haunting female vocal, sung by Beth Gibbons, the credits rolled and we drowned the books of Prospera in the deep dark sea.”