With the epic, lawsuit-riddled catastrophe of the Broadway show “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” behind her, Julie Taymor thought small — sort of. Her version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was staged in a Brooklyn theater with fewer than 300 seats, although it still cost north of $2 million and employed projections, puppetry, and more than a dozen children who act as both fairy hordes and onstage crew. Taymor’s film of that production is, by contrast, a relatively modest affair, without the grand cinematic flourishes of her film adaptations of “Titus” or “The Tempest,” but the simplicity of her approach is deceptive. Like Robert Altman, she brings the cameras onto the stage rather than shooting from afar. If the theatrical audience already enveloped the production’s thrust stage, the movie audience is practically sitting on it, as if we’re free to wander among the players as they bring one of Shakespeare’s trickiest and most popular plays to life.
After a one-night only screening through Fathom Events, Taymor’s “Midsummer” movie is headed to art houses later this summer. It may not be as extravagant as “Frida” or “Across the Universe,” but it captures a part of her work that’s been all but invisible to those outside a small handful of cities, and stands on its own as a sprightly delight.
You’ve done Shakespeare on film before, but this time you’re capturing an existing theatrical production rather than starting from scratch. Do you think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a Shakespeare film, or a filmed record of a play, or something in-between?
I’ve had the benefit of shooting two Shakespeare movie-movies, “Titus” and “The Tempest,” both of them on location. When I do that, I’m doing an adaptation of an actual play to these environments. Because the environments are literal — in “Titus,” we were in Rome, we had colosseums, we were in forests and swamps — you find the metaphorical landscapes for what in the theater would have been stylized. For the rape of Lavinia — with the help of Dante Ferretti, of course, the great production designer — I chose a swamp with burned-out stumps from a forest fire, because it was inspired by the language of Shakespeare. That’s a metaphor for the rape of this woman. You are supporting the language and the ideas that are in the play with your choice of landscape. In “The Tempest,” when we were in a forest where all the machinations of the court were, it was like a labyrinth of trees — whereas for the two young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, they were in this gorgeous sand pit, where their love could flower with this gorgeous color. So I use the locations in cinema to be extensions of what Shakespeare’s ideas are about.
When you do something like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where you’re actually shooting the play itself, what can you do in film that you don’t get in theater?
You get the close-up. We shot four performances live, with four cameras in different locations surrounding the play, and then for four days we could go onstage and do more single-camera setups: hand-held, Steadicam. The audience was invited; they were watching a movie being made, and that’s where we could get intimate. Then it was edited for 10 weeks like a normal movie. In theater, you’re usually looking at the person who’s talking — and, quite often, the back of the person who’s listening. In the movie, you get reaction shots, and it actually makes the language twice as clear, twice as moving, twice as layered as live theater. That’s why I love Shakespeare on film.
Theater acting can look broad and un-subtle if it’s not filmed sympathetically. How did you work with the actors, who have to play to both movie audience and a live audience in the theater?
So many of our leads have acting experience in television or film as well as theater. What you get in this film is you’re aware it’s being performed live, but after a while, you forget the live audience. You know they’re there, but because we’re onstage and in their faces, it’s much more immersive. Because I could do these daytime pickups, I could be more intimate. I could say to David Harewood, “You don’t have to project for the last row in the house. Your acting can be brought down to an inner monologue, and you can get this multi-layering of styles.”
There’s also something very important about the way this is staged in theater. Because audiences are on all sides, the movement of the actors is much more naturalistic. They’re able to face upstage, downstage, sidestage, so when you have these fights going on, it’s really kinetic, and that allows the camera to be everywhere. It’s not staged to the front. When you see opera live, it’s artificial. Anything on a proscenium is going to be artificial. This has a real free-wheeling feeling to the camera, and to the actors.
“Midsummer” is going out to theaters for June 22 on one night only, a releasing strategy that’s more often used for operas, like your “Magic Flute” or “Oedipus Rex.” What’s your feeling about that approach? It greatly limits the number of tickets, and the ability to build word of mouth over time, but it also gives the screening something of the feel of a live event.
We don’t have big, big stars, so to take Shakespeare and try to release it in a normal way would be very difficult, and cost a lot of money. What we all felt was better to do these screenings, meaning if we can get the word out that you’ve got one night or two nights to see it — although there are independent cinemas that will roll it out over the summer — it’s better this way. It is like a live experience. And it makes it special. You know what it costs to get movies out into the marketplace. This wasn’t an expensive film. But it’s a beautiful film, and it needs to find its audience. It is really beautiful to see in a theater. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and I think it’s going to have a long life.
There are so many “Hamlets” and “Macbeths,” but you’ve said there’s no definitive film version of “Midsummer.” Why not?
It’s a very theatrical play, which makes it very hard to do on film. The Max Reinhardt [from 1935], with Mickey Rooney and James Cagney, is very charming, but very old-fashioned. It’s very beautiful, but it’s not for us now. And in the other film versions I’ve seen I felt were far from definitive. It’s very hard to place this in the 1920s or the 1930s and do it in a realistic setting and really believe in the supernatural world. Helen Mirren came to see [the new film]; she’s played Titania, Hermia, and Helena, and she was knocked out. She said, “This is so much better filmed this way than in real environments.” Even though I set both of my previous films in real environments, I tend to agree with her, because the stylization allows for the mind of the audience to be filling in those blanks. It really releases you, in a way. You see these 20 young kids with bamboo poles running around the room, trapping the young lovers and being these obstacles — it’s freer. This is more fun than CGI. I think the mechanicals, when they come out to their “green plot” and they have a grass rug and a grass barcalounger, it’s like their playroom, their dne where their pool table is down in the basement in Brooklyn. How hard is that to do in a naturalistic movie? You can’t! And suddenly you’re stuck with realism. I find this much more layered and amusing, and the actors can really go town with it. It just opens it all up.
A wonderful example of that is when Max Casella’s Bottom is enchanted and suddenly has the head of an ass. There’s no attempt in your production to hide the fact that it’s anything but a mask, like a prop from the play within the play that’s gotten stuck on his shoulders.
This is a head that is put on him. It’s not like it’s a living donkey. What we did is we took Max Casella’s face, we made a life cast of it, and then we pulled it out and put it at the end of a donkey’s nose. Max was the original Timon in “The Lion King,” so I knew he was really good with manipulating mechanics; you can see his hands manipulating his mouth, and you can see his real eyes, and this is really pleasurable for the audience. It doesn’t take away from believing. I think you believe more. You go with it. “The Lion King” proves completely that seeing the mechanics is the magic.