Julie Taymor Soars Across the Universe

Julie Taymor has directed movies like Titus and Frida and she brought Disney’s animated movie The Lion King to Broadway with a hugely successful Tony-sweeping musical. For her latest movie, Taymor combined her two passions to create Across the Universe, a movie musical based on the songs of the Beatles, starring Evan Rachel Wood and newcomer Jim Sturgess in a love story set during the turbulent ’60s where hippie peace and love was countered with war and violent protests.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Taymor along with a small group of journalists at the Toronto Film Festival, and she was more than happy to field even the toughest questions about the movie, as well as drop a few tidbits about the impending “Spider-Man” musical she’s working on with Bono, who also makes a cameo appearance in the movie singing “I Am the Walrus.”

ComingSoon.net: Why did you decide to do this as a musical movie rather than doing something on Broadway and then converting it into a movie, which is the normal way these things go?
Julie Taymor: Well, I’ll tell you exactly. First of all, I am so happy that it was a movie musical because it wouldn’t have been written the same way if you did it on the stage. All the movie musicals we’ve being seeing have come from the stage, except for probably “Moulin Rouge!”, I think. Most of them though, are going to have limited locations, range, a kind of epic palette if they’re written for the stage first by the sheer limitations of theatre. The reason “Lion King” is the way it is, is because it was a film first, so then I was obligated to do the savannahs you know what I mean, big giant stampedes. I think that, first of all, when this came to me it was already a film. It was not my idea to make it as a film. I was hired, brought on very early when it was only a concept of a love story set in the ’60s during this tumultuous period of time, and then I worked with the writers, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, and created the story, and I pulled the 33 songs and added the three new characters which were Sadie, JoJo and Prudence. I was asked to do it as a Broadway musical before this, six months before when Peter Gelb was at Sony Classical and he said, “Sony has the publishing rights, would you like to make a Broadway musical?” Absolutely, and it wouldn’t have been this musical. I has a completely different concept and then Peter moved on to run the Metropolitan Opera House, and that was over and this movie, was happening and Joe Roth asked me to do the movie. It had to be, because I was in a Beatles time or something.

CS: Did you get any influence from the ’70s rock opera movies like “Tommy” or “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”?
Taymor: No, what I liked about “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” was how it played with that incredible animation, and I’ve been told that probably that one scene “We Don’t Need No Education” has reference or that it’s to the “I Want You” I don’t think we go, “I’m going to take that and do this.” Yesterday, a producer friend of mine who saw the movie said, “Do you know that you did Romeo & Juliet in this movie?” And I went, “Well, it’s a love story.” He said, “No, No, No, don’t you know that when Jude goes up on the roof and starts to speak to the world, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” and then he turns around and she’s on the balcony. Do you not know that that’s “Romeo & Juliet?” I said, “I wasn’t thinking about it,” and he said, “Well, that’s exactly what that is, where Romeo speaks his love to the universe and he turns around and there she is up on that balcony.” It was my idea to stage it that way, but I never thought about “Romeo & Juliet” ever, but who knows what’s inside my psyche and my life that knows “Romeo & Juliet”? We as artists, we end up, things filter through you and then they come out hopefully in a fresh way. You don’t make everything up! (laughs)

CS: Can you talk a bit about the choice of songs? When you have to pick 33 of the Beatles’ songs from such a vast library of great songs, it must have been difficult. Did you write the script and then put the songs into it?
Taymor: No, no not at all, it was a starter 3-page treatment then I became involved and expanded what the concept was and that it would have the war at home through the Detroit riots. It would have much more politics, much more craziness. It would have a double love story, or a triple love story.

CS: But were all the songs mentioned in the script?
Taymor: No, there were no songs yet–there were two that I remember that we kept in at that stage. It was that “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was set in a veteran’s hospital. There was no “bang, bang, shoot, shoot” nurse and no mother superior dancing around, but there was that setting. “All You Need is Love” definitely, because the title of the movie before I became involved was “All You Need is Love”. I wanted to change it because I feel, as I still do feel, you have to experience the dark side and go through all of the experience of those characters before you can say the words, “All You Need is Love.” “Across the Universe” to me is much more appropriate because also this movie speaks to everybody in the world and the Beatles belonged to everybody in the world. I think, “All You Need Is Love” is a very deep statement, but it can be a very trite statement at the same time.

CS: Why did you decide to not use any of the Beatles performances?
Taymor: How can you use the Beatles performances? It’s impossible. What are you going to do? Have these guys lip-syncing the Beatles? No, that’s not this movie. I haven’t met anybody who hated it, but I’m not saying they wouldn’t. I’m just saying it hasn’t happened to my face in my presence yet. I think you can object to certain things that you might not like or whatever, like in any movie. If you come in saying, “I don’t want to hear other people singing The Beatles” then you’ve had 40 years of thousands of covers that you have not liked, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Fiona Apple. You know, it’s absurd. What one has to really respect is that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and with a little help from Ringo Starr, were great songwriters. That’s why you never see the word Beatles in the main credits. Those are songwriters. That means their songs can be interpreted by many performers, and to limit it to being The Beatles is a mistake, because those are perfect performances, but that doesn’t mean those songs can be re-interpreted, like all Mozart is or Sondheim. How many “Chicago’s” are you going to have? You have different singers singing great artists work. I think people have to get over that hump. Then you can object about, “Well, I don’t like this rendition or I don’t like your version of this song, or I don’t like musicals.” (laughs) I don’t like people taking Beatles songs and putting them into a literal context. That was always my biggest burden. The biggest fear is taking songs that are not abstract, but they’re up for the personal interpretation of all you people who listen to them. But it’s a musical, that was my job. It’s a musical with a story, with a context and a thrust, so you just do it.

CS: Can you talk about working with such a young and fresh cast on this?
Taymor: Well, the joy in this project is that it had parts for really young people. Evan Rachel Wood is known, but she was growing up, no one had really seen her. She was 17 when we started the movie. Having these young people means you’re going to have fresh faces, and they’re not jaded in any way. We also had to do a month and a half of rehearsal and pre-record, so they got together and they called it “Beatle Camp.” They were living together. Actually, I think a couple of them did move down to the Lower East Side and live together and the thing is that they bonded. They came together as a group from very disparate places and they were what you see in that film. The charisma and the chemistry is what you see on the movie.

CS: You said that the words “The Beatles” never comes up, but also the word Janis never comes up, although Sadie is clearly supposed to represent Janis Joplin.
Taymor: She is, and she is consciously so. I knew Dana Fuchs,; not as a friend, but I knew where she had done “Love Janis” off-Broadway and she did a demo for me for another musical movie that I’m working on and she had that raw…that is who she is. She’s from the South, she’s from a black neighborhood, gospel churches, she grew up on that music. She’s a phenomenal singer. She and Martin Luther McCoy who plays JoJo, I wanted them to bring in the other sound of the ’60s. Now you’ll say he looks like Jimmy Hendrix, and he certainly plays the guitar and he does all of that, but there were other black performers who had that whole style with the band and the hippie shirts, but the way that Martin sings is actually closer to Marvin Gaye and it’s his way of singing. They’re both singers with their own careers. They’ve never acted before, so this was really a joy to see that they’re both incredibly talented actors as well. That was an attempt to actually bring in the other kinds of sounds and voices that you would hear from that period.

CS: I noticed that you gave a lot of the love songs to women, and I realized how feminine those lyrics could be.
Taymor: Well, do you think any guy right now would sing “Hold Me Tight” or “It Won’t be Long yea…yea..yea”? Those Beatles at that time were channeling fifteen-year-old girls. That’s why the girls were going nuts, because they sang their feelings. Jude sings a love song. He sings “Something in the Way She Moves” and what’s such a beautiful thing about that love song is how unsimple it is, how complex it is. “I could leave her now, you know I know how. Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover” So you know he’s had other lovers. “There is really something in the way she moves me. You know I could leave her now, you know I believe in how…” (Forgive me if I got the lyrics wrong.) There are these love songs and they’re poignant and they’ve got complicated twists and turns.

CS: At what point did Bono get involved with the movie?
Taymor: Bono entered because Elliott Goldenthal had worked with Bono, and I had met him a couple of times and then I had been working with Bono on doing “Spider-Man: The Musical.” Did (Jim Sturgess) tell you what he did? He and Evan did the reading. Good, maybe that means he’ll do the Broadway musical if he’s talking about it. That’s a good sign. He was phenomenal, the two of them. First of all, I love Jim and Evan and Jude and Lucy. I love their chemistry so much that I would cast them in a million movies together, because I think like Tracy-Hepburn, that once you get an onscreen couple that clearly connects like that, it’s fun for audiences to see them. We don’t do that these days. They used to do that. You’d have the paring, remember the old movies? They would have those actors who would pair. There would be pairs that would do many, many movies like Tracy-Hepburn & Bogart-Bacall.

CS: There’s a real timelessness to the story and the music, such as the image of the soldiers trudging through the rice patties with the Statue of Liberty. It’s so stunning and so “right now” and maybe it’s because I’m looking at things through the prism of…
Taymor:Iraq?

CS: Yes, exactly.
Taymor: We were too. Absolutely, you wouldn’t have Lucy’s line in the laundromat when she says, “Maybe when bombs start going off in this country, people will listen.” If you didn’t have 9/11, you wouldn’t have a line like that. And I think it’s absolutely true. I think it took people in this country to get affected personally either on a national level or on a personal level like Lucy is where her boyfriend goes to Vietnam. I and the writers and all of the kids in the movie, we were very aware that this is not a nostalgic period piece. This piece is as important and as contemporary today as it was then. It is what is going on, that there is a war that is not a happy war, that isn’t a war that we all believe in, that is a war that goes on and on and on, as she says, “Nobody’s listening.” Especially through Lucy as the activist, Lucy who’s has had the personal trauma of loved ones being affected. She’s right now. She’s mothers, daughters, girls. Yet this movie, even with that image of the Statue of Liberty is fun. That is the fine line that we directors and writers have to tread. The Beatles are incredibly entertaining and moving and yet they did “Revolution,” which was from John Lennon’s heart. When he wrote that song, he was being pushed obviously to be much more activist, and he was on that line. That’s exactly where Jude is when he comes into that office, not like he doesn’t want to have the world change, not like he doesn’t believe in violence. So, I think that they’re songs which were simple love songs–”Hold Me Tight” and all of those–going right through their psychedelic, more druggie period, they’re fabulously moving and entertaining, but they also were social statements. “A Day in the Life” was a social statement at it’s time. Now, we don’t use the lyrics, but everybody who knows, “A Day in the Life” knows, “I read the news today, oh boy…” That’s all you need in the ghost of those lyrics are right there when you see this Vietnam veteran sitting in the hospital in a wheelchair with the other veterans watching the march on the Pentagon on television. Even “Sicko” was an entertaining movie. There’s ways that I believe you don’t have be mindless and stupid to be enjoyed. I LOVE good comedies. I mean, “Ratatouille” was one of my favorite movies this year and Ben Stiller’s movies, I love them, butI think when you have the Beatles you have an obligation and the period to do both. It was a very, very chock-full time. People we both responsible and totally irresponsible.

CS: You talked about the differences in producing something for the screen vs. for the stage and when you choreograph the dance numbers, there’s always the issue of things going on off-screen that we don’t see because we’re limited by the camera.
Taymor: I had a great DP, too! Bruno Delbonnel. You have widescreen, it’s a wide format, so there are these wide shots where you have 200 people, especially the street where we do “Come Together.” It’s one of my favorite moments when JoJo is coming and you see the people shifting.

CS: And also the demonstration that incorporates a large number of people and the giant puppet characters seemed like something that couldn’t be done on stage.
Taymor: I think this movie can be done on stage with a very serious…. it would be fun, but I’d have to really, really find a way that 30 people could play everything. You see, that’s what’s fun. The idea of the limitations of theatre, I enjoy that. When you say, “Okay, how are you going to have a stampede on stage?” Well, I used old-time theatre. I don’t know if you ever saw “Lion King”, but that I enjoy. If I had started this on stage, I don’t think it would have had helicopters and bombs going off in Vietnam and riots in Detroit and then what we do in “I Want You” where we do the body parts. Going straight from full choreography? You can’t do that in a theatre. The juxtaposition of theses scenes, the editing is so cinematic. You’d have to find a completely different language in a way to do that.

CS: The psychedelic scenes probably couldn’t be done like that on stage either.
Taymor: Oh, you mean with Bono in the “Walrus” section? Mr. Kite and the circus? Well, the circus in a way with the blue people jumping. The exterior of the surface is pure theatre. I could do that on the stage. What I couldn’t do is what happens in the circus. I can do it in a different way, that’s very theatrical, but we use animation and we use all this kind of different dance, speed it up and all kinds of stuff. I can create an equivalent, but it won’t be the same.

CS: I know there’ve been a few different versions of the movie, so did you end up getting your own edit at the end?
Taymor: Yes, that’s my cut.

CS: Is there a longer version or other things that you wound up cutting out?
Taymor: No, what you’ll see on the DVD extras, which will be a gas, is expanded musical numbers, which you always knew would be cut. You’ll get those because we shot them, they’re there, not necessarily the whole song, but you’ll get more. When you get into the DVD extras is fun, because you’ll see there is a huge dance number at the end of “Come Together” that we knew early on in the editing, it wouldn’t work. The story just becomes performance, so that’s something with my editor Francoise, who I adore–she did “Frida” and “Titus”–we go through. You have that material. So that’s all you get. This is the director’s cut, I’m happy to say, and very supported by the studio on that.

Across the Universe is now playing in select cities and will open nationwide on Friday, September 21.

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