Portrait of Shakespeare as an
Angry Young Man

Written by Richard Stayton
(From the February 2000 issue of Written By)

Julie Taymor is the consummate adaptor, with the majority of her work occurring in theater as an award-winning director. Her acclaimed stage transformation of The Lion King from movie to Broadway musical provided the opportunity to direct a feature film. Taymor chose Shakespeare's first and perhaps bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, as her debut film vehicle. Her reputation drew such actors as Jessica Lange and Anthony Hopkins to a winter in Rome for the shooting. The revenge-tragedy begins with a war-weary Roman general (Hopkins) returning to Rome with Goth queen (Lange) in chains.

Taymor's previous film ventures were adapting and directing the Edgar Allen Poe story Fool's Fire for PBS' American Playhouse and the Stravinsky opera Oedipus Rex. While in Los Angeles for the premiere of Titus, Taymor spoke to Written By about the challenge of adapting a difficult Shakespeare play for the screen.

Richard Stayton: Why adapt Titus Andronicus? It's certainly not the most popular and perhaps is the least-produced Shakespeare.

Julie Taymor: But in its day it was the most popular Shakespeare, the absolute potboiler of this period. I showed it for inner-city high school students early on. They went crazy over it. They said, "Move over, Schwarzenegger, here comes Titus." But also they loved the theme and the story, and they talked about violence and the cycle of violence, and they were really moved by the father-son things and the rape issues. They didn't talk much about the racism.

RS: Did you choose Titus for your film debut because you'd done it as a play and had a comfort level?

JT: Not at all. I had other movies that I wanted to do, but they weren't ready yet. What happened with Titus was it had a momentum going. The play had good reviews, so I could attract actors to do readings. Then I just adapted the screenplay, and I had such a good time doing it. What's so great when you do Shakespeare is there are no stage directions. People think, "Oh, you just do Shakespeare." No, no, no. Who's Titus talking to? Are they tribunes? Are they judges? Are they senators? Where's the family? None of it is spelled out. So it's up to the director in theater and film to decide where to place the dialogue. I had a great time taking a speech and making it move from this atrium with the swimming pool down the corridors up into the bedroom. When the two boys are in the bedroom [in the film], it doesn't say the bedroom [in the play]. But I wanted to play on the sexuality. So I had a wonderful time working with my favorite writer. Oh god, would I love to meet Shakespeare! The more you direct Shakespeare, the more you just fall in love.

RS: Your film's opening certainly wasn't in Shakespeare's play.

JT: If you're gonna mix motorcycles, tanks, chariots, that blend of period, I wanted a specific image to start. Remember the Chinese sculpture soldiers, the whole armies that were unearthed? That was the concept of that opening image for this child as he falls through this time warp into the past. That's not Shakespeare. That's a layer I've put on it. The child's like God playing on his kitchen table, which then at the end becomes the banquet table. A kitchen with Gulf War soldiers, G.I. Joes, Star Wars--type action figures. It's innocent play, and it just escalates in 30, 40 seconds. It gets louder and starts to surround him. It's almost like he is God conjuring this. He's animating this war until his entire kitchen, the walls are shaking, and it's real. And the bomb goes off. This surreal figure of a man carries this child out of the burning kitchen and into the Roman Colosseum, and there he kind of goes down what I feel is like an Alice in Wonderland hole. Then he picks up the Roman soldier on the ground, and he turns and sees this army coming in. Now you can mix 1950s and 1930s cars and tanks and 1930s gowns and 1990s slot machines, and you know it's coming from the perception of the child where history is a nonconcept. To him these are all of now. And you go to Rome, and it's all of now, layers of history, which is what's so perfect about being on location.

RS: Did your stage version begin this way?

JT: The play began with the boy, but the stage is so symbolic. It's not able to fill out the details. There's no bomb. It's sound. And I had the toys. But we couldn't go to that degree. Here, I can make the transition with him. I have the Colosseum.

RS: What differences between theater and film did you encounter?

JT: First of all it was hard to raise the money, and there's never enough. Ellen and Robbie Little of First Look Pictures, the overseas film group, read the screenplay and optioned it before Lion King opened [on Broadway]. So they took the script and went to Jody Patton, who is Paul Allen's sister, and she loved the screenplay.

RS: So all was generated by your script. You didn't co-write it with an experienced screenwriter to make it more filmic?

JT: What? Titus? No, Shakespeare and I adapted it. I didn't need anybody because all the language, all the dialogue, is Shakespeare. But I cut at least an hour and a half out of the play.

RS: How do you make those choices?

JT: That takes a lot of work. You have to keep the iambic pentameter, and you have to make sure that you're keeping the content and that it flows. That's not easy. I rearranged certain scenes as well. The play begins with the politics of the two brothers vying for power, and that's not a good beginning for a movie. I made up the entry into the Colosseum. [In the play] there is no orgy; there's no hunt. The visual sequences I added because I felt you needed the breath. Otherwise, it'd be a play on film. I think this is one of the most cinematic Shakespeares. It's got stylization in it, but it's a movie movie. It doesn't feel like it's a play on film. It's a film, and that was very important to me to really do that. Open it up and have weather, rain, and the real visceral experience of nature.

RS: Being in Rome, shooting low-budget on location during winter, must have been difficult. How did you get Hopkins to commit?

JT: I wrote him a letter. I described the part as ranging between a Father Knows Best, a General Schwarzkopf, and a Hannibal Lecter. Then I sent him the screenplay, and he was doing Instinct in Florida. I was down there and visited for three hours. He'd seen The Lion King. At the end of the three hours, he just said, "I'll do it." I said, "You don't have to make your mind up now." He said, "No, no. I'll do it." He didn't want to do Shakespeare. He'd done [Shakespeare on the London stage]. But he said he loved this script. He loved this character. Something in the darkness of the story appealed to him. I don't even have words for this voracious. . . It's Shakespeare as a young man, so it's got all of that anger and energy and power that early work has. Sometimes people's first works are their best because they're without self-introspection, they're without self-censorship, and I think that Titus has got that. It's a very moving dissertation on suffering and on violence but also on the aftermath of violence, which few movies depict. What happens after you blow up these people? Very few films investigate how people become violent. Characters just matter-of-factly go out and blow up the store, commit crimes.

RS: During that initial meeting, what did Hopkins want to know?

JT: We talked about violence in the story. My concept of style because it mixes and blends time, and no movies quite do that my way. He loved the danger of it. He said I'd have to help him, and I thought, I help you? He said, "No. I don't want to go over the top, and I want to make sure it's not theatrical. I want to make it real." I said, "So do I. And you're gonna have to help me because this is my first feature film." So there was a real bonding, a mutual respect and desire to work together. It was the most thrilling meeting I've ever had with anybody. I was just on cloud 25. Because he went on his instincts. Oddly, he's making that movie, but he went on his impulse and stuck with it and didn't back out. He knew the money wasn't good, and it was a very hard, grueling grind for him to go to Rome for four months.

RS: Did you rewrite on location?

JT: No. I cut some things when I knew that I didn't need them, but I can't rewrite Shakespeare. Actors need to memorize Shakespeare ahead of time. The language has to be natural, so they can't be new to it. I did some cutting in the editing room. It was very tricky because once I'd created the script, I couldn't just take lines out and still have it flow. So it's absolutely what is on the page. But you need breathers from dialogue in Shakespeare. You can't keep the audience always having to use their ears, so I added visuals. But I had done a very tight scrutiny of this script.

RS: So the script was the key to attracting such talent?

JT: The script was the ticket.

RS: Why do you think there's a vogue of Shakespeare on film?

JT: Every writer in the Guild will say no one does it better. But what's really extraordinary about Shakespeare? He wasn't original. All his stories come from other sources. Ovid's Metamorphosis. Plutarch. Tradition and playing upon a tradition was where the art lies. It's how the artist tells the story, not if the story's totally original. So we love Shakespeare because he tells great tales. Then what is attractive to writers and directors is how to retell it and to reshape it and to reimagine it. I think the art of telling a story is as important as the story itself. So when you read the screenplay of Titus, it's really how I put all of the stage directions and the scenes and where I place the scenes that's extremely important. That's what makes the screenplay unique. It's not just the language. When you cut Shakespeare, you shape it. You're really doing something because you are deciding what is really worthy, and you're also organizing the pace and the emphasis. So it's a big job to edit Shakespeare. You've got to be very careful. Because I respect the script, I didn't want to rewrite it. I didn't want to change the language. I wanted it to really be his language that I put into the context of this movie.

RS: Did you apply the same edits to your stage version?

JT: The play was edited as well but not as much as the movie. There you're in a minimalist theatrical environment. This is what's also attractive about Shakespeare and why so many of his plays make good screenplays: He wrote for the Globe Theatre with no scenery, so everything is left to the imagination of the audience.

RS: Titus is often criticized for its violence and cruelty, and considered the bloodiest Shakespeare play. Why do it now?

JT: We love these stories of violence, vengeance, and tragedy; and it's all around us and will never stop. Punch and Judy is an exorcism for children. Puppetry is the most violent of mediums. It allows you to get out your anxieties. All art does that, whether it's looking at a painting of The Rape of the Sabine Women or looking at Jesus Christ on the cross. Artists will always tell the dark tale. We complain about violence in the movies, but it's always going to be there. It's how it's there. I do think there are responsible ways of doing it, and I think there are completely irresponsible films out there that really do cause Littleton and do cause many of the violent acts. I'm with the Senate [on causes of violence]. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have violence in movies. Those boys who did this thing to this girl in Titus, they're baked into pies; they don't have fun and get away with it. They're neurotic messes afterward. They're freaking out. In the dungeon they're not happy boys. They're playing and dancing, but they're freaked by what they've done. They live with their conscience. Titus lives with his conscience.

RS: Ancient Rome was the first cultured society to use violence as entertainment.

JT: Where we condone it. Where we say, "Yeah, let's pay money and watch this. Let's go to a boxing ring. Let's watch guys punch each other out. It's an art." We have to accept that. That is just part of human nature. But you accept it, and you deal with it, too. You tell the stories. You try and say, "All right, if you're gonna have this vengeance thing, be aware of the outcome: Nobody survives."

RS: But you've directed one of the most violent movies out there.

JT: They say that, and I have to read it in all the press because that's the rap that Titus had. But people will direct Titus very differently. Many of the productions play it over the top and as a bloodbath. I didn't. In many scenes you don't see any blood at all. You don't see when the knive's going in, you don't see the girl's tongue cut out, you don't see the hands cut off. I never put violence on the screen that Shakespeare didn't put in his script. And yes, you have that end where Titus kills his daughter. I didn't stab her because it would've been a violation. I repeated the motion in the first scene with her where he strokes her face. The front page of the New York Times three months ago had a whole article on the honor killings in the Arab countries where fathers would kill their daughters, brothers would kill their sisters, all because the girls eloped with someone or slept with someone or married the wrong guy and her chastity belonged to the property of that family and that clan. In Rwanda the children come up to you, and they say, "Short sleeve? Long sleeve?" Then they hack you at either the hands or the elbow. "Short sleeve, long sleeve." Where's this big, huge theater of cruelty? In the Balkans, Croatia. I don't think this is the least bit unreal. I think what Shakespeare's done is an in-your-face real story of a great man with flaws.

RS: And who goes mad.

JT: I know madness. I've been close to madness in my life, and there is a certain clarity to mad people. They are able to see reality in a different way. I think Titus finally becomes a man whose consciousness has been opened, and he knows the way it is, and he knows he has to die. Shakespeare puts all kinds of violence on the same common denominator. He says, "All right, you think you can justify a glorious war? I'm going to kill your firstborn because my religion says it's important." Then you go into lust, infanticide, rape, nihilistic violence. Ultimately, violence will end in violence, and that's it. You might say you have to go into World War II and bomb because of the Holocaust, blah, blah, blah. You're right, but it will never end. There will always be a repercussion if you use violence. I think this is the most important thing for people and young people to understand about this story. At the same time you enjoy it because it's entertainment.

RS: While planning to massacre students, the Columbine High School killers discussed potential directors of the film based on their story.

JT: Don't you think that's Titus altogether? All of a sudden you're jolted like Pulp Fiction; you're going, "Wait a second!" Shakespeare, this angry young writer, is making you uncomfortable with things because he sucks you in, and I think that disturbing feeling is thrilling because it upsets you, and, "Wait a second--I was laughing. Now I'm crying." And Titus is laughing, and then he says, "I have not another tear to shed." The original play is overwritten, and that's why I think it got a bum rap. Shakespeare didn't edit himself. He didn't have a red pencil. They gave pages to the actors. The actors edited it. He wasn't there for publishing. If people say it's a bad play, I would have to agree that the entire play of Titus is overwritten, but I had a great time with it because it's a pearl within an oyster--a big, shiny, brilliant, beautiful pearl. But we have to get rid of this excess baggage of scholars like Howard Bloom or whomever who keep saying, "Oh, oh! What about the play?" It's not meant to be read. It's meant to be performed.