Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Julie Taymor

The young Taymor started her career on the Awaji Island, Japan, studying pre-Bunraku puppetry to learn more about experimental theater.

The versatile artist has since found success both in Hollywood and on Broadway as a writer, director, producer, and costume designer. Her greatest acclaim as a director for the stage has come from the long-running, visually magnificent musical The Lion King (1997), adapted from the beloved Disney film, for which she received two Tony Awards. Her film credits – all of which contain feats of splendor and Taymor’s strange, lush designer touch – include Titus (1999), Frieda (nominated for two 2002 Academy Awards), the Beatles extravaganza Across the Universe (2007) and, most recently, The Tempest (2010), starring Helen Mirren and David Strathairn.

Taymor now is set to return to the stage to direct Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Brooklyn’s Center for Shakespeare and Classical Drama. In between projects, this visionary gave us a few pieces of advice with that characteristic Taymor flourish.

Julie Taymor The Woman Thing in Hollywood

1. There are no golden rules. Everything you think you can plan or count on will be challenged and every rule broken. But you can try to stay firm on some points. The list below are “rules” I aspire to adhere to in no particular order.

2. Whether it’s film or theater or whatever, love a project deeply. Even if you have not conceived it from scratch, you must be able to fall in love with it because it will become your baby—for a very long time. In fact, you must love it to death, because it is really too much work and aggravation.

3. Believe in the project. That is not the same thing as loving it. Trust and hold tight to your early instincts, because you will encounter doubting Thomases all along the way. Remind them—and yourself—why you got involved in the first place. What was the vision? Who was the audience? Why? What for? How?

4. Make sure your film speaks to you. Don’t patronize, underestimate or dumb down your material, no matter how “commercial” the project is or how big the budget. The audience knows and feels it. A great entertainment can truly cross over a wide range of ages, backgrounds, intellects, etc. Look at Shakespeare.

5. Unless you are extremely blessed, there will always be a battle. Fight it—hard—if you care for your baby. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a million compromises; it is a constant collaboration on every front. Listen, but don’t get lost. There are many ways to tell the same story. Just make sure by the end of it all, it is still the way you intended to tell it. Be flexible but do not lose the heart.

6. Know with whom you are going to bed. Talk is cheap and dangerously flattering. When the film is in the can, everyone thinks they know how to cut your film; it’s the curse of the digital age. Obviously a director picks her creative teammates. That means you have hand-selected artists whose work you admire or, better yet, you have a team with whom you have a long-term relationship. On the producer side, you may be working with people you did not hand-pick. Do the research. What are their past films? What is their history on budgets and working with the artists and script development?

7. Final cut. Get it. Of course that is a golden rule very few have been bequeathed. But truly try to think ahead and get as much of the “control” issues in a contract that are important to you. Don’t trust that anything will be worked out later. Film length, posters, graphics, trailers, publicity, credits, housing, etc.—if it matters, put it on paper.

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8. Risk is the essence of creation. The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff. For me the joy of making a piece of art—whether it is a film, a play or an opera—is the experimentation in the process of the realization. It is thrilling to challenge yourself, your collaborators and the audience in how you tell the story. Each story and form requires its own style. It should be custom-created. People will always want you to repeat yourself and give them what they already know or love or expect from your work. You have to give them what they don’t know they want. Walk a tightrope—it’s a thrill.

9. Keep your sense of humor at all costs. Especially when the going gets humorless. What’s the point of doing any of it if it isn’t fun? It’s way too much work. I suppose some think it is a good way to make money (if that’s what moves you), but for me, I want to have a good time and enjoy the people around me when I am working. It isn’t just the end result, it is the process of creation that moves me to work in this communicative art form.

10. Have something to say. There is so much crap out there; don’t bother to add to it unless you have a reason. People want to be inspired, moved, transformed through form and story as well as entertained. Set the bar high for yourself and for everyone else. MM

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Danny Boyle, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Zack Snyder, Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan, John Waters, Eli Roth, Kevin Smith, Randall Emmett, and Neal McDonough.

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