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The Trip From Stage To Screen
Acclaimed writer/director Julie Taymor is responsible for the feature films "Titus,” "Frida” and "Across the Universe” as well as theater productions such as "The Lion King” and the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute,” among many others. Her latest production, opening on Broadway on December 21, 2010, is "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” starring Reeve Carney as Spider-Man, with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge.

The first Shakespeare Taymor directed in the theater was "The Tempest,” on a small stage in NYC in 1986. The play began with the silhouette of a young girl building a sand castle on the top of a black sand hill. In Taymor's words, "Suddenly a stagehand, garbed in black and holding a large watering can, ran to the young girl and started to pour water onto the castle. As the lights shifted focus, illuminating only the castle and the falling water, this mundane image was transformed into a ‘rainstorm' that dissolved the fragile castle into the earth. Though Prospero's ‘magic' was exposed through the art of theater lighting, the audience was invited to believe that the tempest had begun.”

"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.

"In the film of ‘The Tempest,'” continues Taymor, "I had an opportunity to act on these two impulses: to combine the literal reality of location, its natural light, winds and rough seas, with conjured visual effects that subvert the ‘natural' and toy with it. As in the theater version, we begin the film with the close-up image of a black sand castle. As the camera pulls away we realize that the castle is tiny, fitting onto the palm of a hand. Rain begins to fall and the castle dissolves through fingers as the camera finally reveals the surprised expression of the young girl belonging to the hand, Miranda. Lightning cracks and we cut to what she sees: the wide, roiling sea and a distant ship caught in a ferocious storm.”

The long shot of the tempest appears almost sublime, like a Turner painting come to life. The juxtaposition of these two moments and the play with perception and scale signals the style of the film: from visceral reality to heightened expressionism.

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.”

The decision to switch the gender of the lead character was a diving board to a whole new appreciation of the play. It had everything to do with Helen Mirren and a coincidental exchange that Taymor had with the actress. When Taymor encountered Helen Mirren at a party, she had already envisioned Mirren in the role, and their conversation cemented her decision. "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.”

According to Mirren, "The gender switch fundamentally changes the relationship with Miranda. It becomes matriarchal and completely alters the dynamic between the two characters. It also alters the political slant of the play, making it obvious that Prospera's banishment has to do with her being a woman in control of a male-dominated court in Milan.”

Other facets of the drama were also altered by the change in gender, Mirren continues, particularly Prospera's relationships to Caliban and Ariel. Her behavior toward the two servants can be seen as very brutal, but Mirren doesn't believe that stretches reality. "I think women can be pretty brutal too, particularly in terms of revenge. Remember, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'”

The major adjustment to the text was in the reshaping of the character's backstory. In this version, Prospera becomes the widow and heir to the deceased Duke of Milan. Like the original Prospero, she has studied the alchemical arts, though, in her case, it has been in secret, as women were often forbidden this path of study. Once Prospera inherits her dukedom, Antonio, her ambitious and treacherous brother, accuses her of witchcraft, punishable by death at the stake.

The themes of power, revenge, compassion and forgiveness become more complex in the various relationships that Prospera has with her Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel and Caliban. Prospera's protective feelings for her daughter are quite different than those of a father. There is no male rivalry with the young suitor; no "honor defiled” in the attempted rape scenario by Caliban. Instead, Prospera's actions are a direct result of her knowing intimately what Miranda is experiencing as a young, virginal woman and where the dangers lie. In this gender twist, it is partly because Prospera is a woman that her dukedom could be stolen from her, and the bitterness of this fact infiltrates and heightens the tension of all of her interactions with the other characters on the island.

Mirren deftly illuminates Prospera's many conflicting impulses: with her erratic fury, cruelty, maternal warmth, cold authority and poetic introspection, she plays the witch, the scientist, the poet, the ferocious tiger protecting her cub, the steely leader and more.

The gender switch, according to one of the film's producers, Lynn Hendee, not only alters the play's dynamic thrust, but dovetails perfectly with its bittersweet finale. "It makes the ending so much more poignant,” Hendee notes. "As written, Prospero sacrifices the incredible creative freedom and power he has on this island to go back to banal society for the sake of his daughter. But when it's a woman who makes this decision, she's returning to arguably become a second-class citizen again.”

That voluntary return to a fettered life conjured an image in Taymor's mind of Prospera's servant, Ariel, tightening the bodice of her corset in preparation for her return to Milan. "We see, just through the clothing, that she's going back to a place that is like a prison, ‘where every third thought shall be my grave.' It's an incredibly powerful visual and visceral manifestation of what she is willing to sacrifice for the sake of her daughter,” says Hendee. "It makes her choice profound.”

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