The Exclusive O Interview
Her new musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has taken more than $60 million and nearly a decade to produce. Creative mastermind Julie Taymor tells Oprah about the immense challenge and unparalleled thrill of bringing her wildest dreams to Broadway.
On a chilly Sunday last November when I was hanging out with Bono and friends, he invited me to stop by Broadway's Foxwoods Theatre to check in on his latest project—the much-anticipated musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Along with his U2 bandmate the Edge, Bono wrote the songs for the show, and they're fantastic. But the concept for the story and the overall creative vision belong to the brilliant Julie Taymor.
Julie is the director who brought the world the Broadway version of The Lion King—and designed its unforgettable costumes, to boot. With Spider-Man, she's not only the director and (along with Glen Berger) cowriter; she also created the characters' stunning masks and helped conceive the awe-inspiring sets. Despite criticism that Spider-Man is the most expensive musical ever (production costs of $60 million and counting), as well as one plagued by delays, it was clear when I left the rehearsal: This show would be worth it. In fact, after watching just a couple of numbers, I called my office and told them to clear the decks for opening night: "I have to be there!"
Growing up outside Boston, Julie was involved with theater by the age of 9. But her imagination reaches well beyond musicals and plays: Even as she was putting the finishing touches on Spider-Man, she was getting ready for the December premiere of her latest movie, The Tempest (her second Shakespeare film—in 1999 she directed Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange in Titus, her out-there adaptation of Titus Andronicus). Meanwhile, New York City's Metropolitan Opera was preparing to restage her production of the Mozart opera The Magic Flute. It seems there's nothing she can't do.
In 2001 I interviewed Julie at the Manhattan home she shares with her longtime love, the composer Elliot Goldenthal. In those days, she and Elliot were enjoying The Lion King's stratospheric success. This time when we spoke—at Foxwoods, the day after I dropped in on the rehearsal, and just a few weeks before the start of previews—she was still working out her new show's kinks. Julie wants Spider-Man to be perfect. She's a person who gravitates to "big, mythic things." She wants to leave her audiences with a feeling of awe, a sense of having been spiritually moved. She calls the show a spectacle. I call it—and her—spectacular.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Julie Taymor
Oprah: When we talked in 2001, one of the things that struck me was your saying that you never take on a project unless you can figure out a core idea that moves you. What in particular excited you about Spider-Man?
Julie Taymor: Well, with this project I have to say that Bono and the Edge were a really good draw.
O: I heard they wouldn't sign on unless you were involved.
JT: They were hired first, and they called me, yes. But I didn't want to do something that would basically be just another episode in a series. I wanted to do something different, so I was asking myself, "What is the essence? Why is this such a popular myth?"
O: Had you been into the story before?
JT: No, but you know my background is mythology and folklore. So I started to look at the comic books, and on page one of Ultimate Spider-Man, I found the story of Arachne. In Greek mythology, Arachne is a young girl who's full of hubris—that attitude of "We're better than the gods." She was a great weaver—she wove all the stories of the gods' misdeeds. And basically, the goddess Athena got pissed and challenged Arachne to a duel at the loom. The two female powers, the human and the goddess, wove, and Arachne's tapestry turned out better. Athena got so angry that she destroyed it—and Arachne hung herself on a single thread. Athena was so taken with this act that she transformed her into a spider and made her immortal. Really, she was dooming her to loneliness, cursing her to weave her webs in the darkness, inspiring fear and terror everywhere.
O: All that was on the first page of a comic book?
JT: Well, I've probably told it a little more dramatically, which is my way. But one morning I woke up at 5—that dream time when a lot of solutions come for me—and I had the whole concept. I went, "My God, that is the essence, isn't it?" And then of course there's Spider-Man, this teenage boy Peter Parker, who's an Everyboy. You know, Superman came from Krypton, and Batman had rich parents—both of them were singled out. But our boy from Queens could be a white boy, a black boy, a Chinese boy, a Japanese boy, a girl—anybody. He's a regular Joe. He has been given this power by a spider bite, and now he has to rise above his normal life and take that on. When I thought about Bono and his life, I went, "Oh my God—there's Peter Parker, right there."
JT: The reason Bono and Edge can write these songs is that they get the dilemma, which is: How do you be a superhero, save the world, and also be a dad and husband and drink in your pub and just be a guy? How do you balance those identities?
O: And don't they do that well?
JT: They do. So here you have this regular boy who's bullied in school. Who can't get the girl next door. He doesn't even have parents—just an uncle and an aunt. And he's been given this gift, this power, whatever that means in our times. It's a contemporary myth, but it's connected to the ancient myths, too.
O: Which you're a student of. It's fascinating to me that you haven't wasted a moment. Every single experience you have, you use to fuel your creativity, don't you?
JT: I try to. Mythology, folklore, the different places I've traveled—all of it feeds me. But I also have very good people around me. I tend to collaborate with the same people over and over. The set designer, George Tsypin, has done six operas with me. My lighting designer started 14 years ago and did The Lion King and every show I've done since. I do have a new costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. I love doing costumes, but that would have been too much for me to handle.
O: You did all the masks for this show, though.
JT: Most of them. There aren't that many—12 or 14.
O: And you did the directing.
JT: And cowriting.
O: But you have a sense of when enough is enough and too much is too much?
Next: Taymor reveals how she tackled the challenge of reinventing Spider-Man for the stage
O: Here's what I always wonder about you: Are you always out-of-the-box? Is your imagination and your sense of creativity always on, in every facet of your life—or do you have times of plain old normal existence?
JT: Well, I have a dog now.
O: You have a dog.
O: So that's some normalcy.
JT: And every night I go home to Elliot. I've been with him 25, 30 years. We're not married. We say we're happily unmarried.
O: He's a composer.
JT: A brilliant composer; he did the score for The Tempest, and it's stunning. We travel and we work together all the time. That's how we met; we spent five years working together and then fell in love. He's never envious of the time I spend on work. We adore each other in work mode.
O: You adore each other.
JT: And inspire each other. We didn't have children. That was very personal. We sort of tried. It was Lion King time and it didn't happen, and probably it's okay.
O: Yes. Because you wouldn't be able to do all this with the intensity that you're doing it with.
JT: No. I wouldn't. So two years ago, we got a dog. I know that's hardly a substitute for a child, but it's completely fun to go home and play with her. She's black-and-white, and she was born on Halloween. Her eyes move independently, like sickle moons, and we named her Luna because she's insane. We also play in the morning. It's a small thing, but it's very joyous. And I understand why people need and have children, because it gives you that "get off yourself for a moment" feeling—a reprieve from your egocentric, narcissistic blah blah blah.
O: A reminder that it's not all about you.
JT: Exactly. Although what I'm doing right now, of course, is pretty much 24/7 for me.
O: Getting back to what you're doing right now: How did you deal with the challenge of making the musical different from what movie audiences have seen? Had you seen all three Spider-Man films when you started?
JT: When we started, only the first movie had come out. This was right after 9/11, so all of that was on our minds. But the fact is, our idea came out of the Arachne story. In our version, she falls in love with her protégé, Spider-Man—who, at the top of act 2, starts becoming world famous. Suddenly there are Spider-Man hot dogs, hero sandwiches, underwear—everything. And he no longer has time for his girlfriend or his aunt. He's failing as a human being and rising as Spider-Man. And that's when Arachne says, "Save me."
O: Yes, yes, yes.
JT: She says, "You are Spider-Man, you're the one" and "Together we can weave worlds of ecstasy." Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Mary Jane, has had it: Peter is always disappearing, he's full of secrets, and she's had enough. So she breaks up with him—at which point he throws away his Spider-Man suit. That's when Arachne goes ballistic.
O: How did you figure all this out? What was the process like?
JT: Once I got the idea of Arachne, I realized that this would be a love triangle. And that it would be a great thing for a musical. Because you have to have a dilemma. What is Peter singing about? He's an action hero when he puts on the suit, but when he's Peter Parker, when the costume is off and no one knows that he's Spider-Man, he's a troubled teenager.
O: Trying to find his way.
O: Just like everybody else.
JT: Trying to have a normal existence like Bono and all these rockers. And really trying to balance out his life. So there is a lot for him to be singing about. There are many other characters who sing, but for Peter and Mary Jane, it's their love story.
Next: What it was like to collaborate with Bono and Edge
O: What's it been like collaborating with Bono and Edge?
JT: Bono? The most fun, next to my sweetheart. Or equal to my sweetheart.
O: Equal to Elliot.
JT: You know Bono, right?
JT: He's so fun. We would meet in Dublin or at their place in France or here in New York. Edge is the scientist, meticulously writing everything down, and Bono is just a ball. So it's been a blast, because other than Elliot, I've mostly worked with dead composers. And over all these years, we've kept on meeting and working. Through different heads at Marvel Entertainment and through different producers, we stayed, and all our collaborators stayed.
O: And it was delayed and delayed.
JT: The delay was not as big as the press has made it out to be.
O: Well, I don't think you do anything until it's ready. Period.
JT: Exactly. It's just that it's Spider-Man, so it's big news.
O: Does it make you nervous to have so much attention on it? Or is that a good thing?
JT: You know what that's like.
O: You just gotta deal with it.
JT: That's right. Although I hate it. Lion King cost $29 million 14 years ago—which would probably be equivalent to $50 million now. But back then people didn't care about money like they do today. It's the same with movies: Everything is about box-office gross. Just once can we please talk about the film, for God's sake?
O: I know what you mean. On Monday everybody wants to know about the weekend grosses—not about what was good.
JT: Right. Our entire sensibility is gone. To me, this is an enormous tragedy. Because people don't see the movies that would move them or could be interesting.
O: You're right. More important, you can't put this much of your heart, your soul, your energy, your sacrifice—100 percent of yourself...you're not doing all that for a dollar return.
JT: And why would you be upset about the cost when it's not your money? It's not public money. It's the investors' money—and they're happy. They wanted to do Spider-Man on Broadway—of course it's going to be complicated and technically challenging. We're doing stuff that's never been done before. There's a whole rooftop scene on top of the Chrysler Building. There's flying and motors and wires and things that I don't even know how they did them. I mean, what are you going to do—fly like Peter Pan onstage? Mary Poppins—we're supposed to go like that? Is that what the audience wants? So it's up to the producers. Tell me what kind of show you want, and I'll think it up.
O: Watching just the few scenes I saw last night, it feels like an enormous thing to get done on time.
JT: It is. It's a big story. And in this day and age, everyone gets to see you working the kinks out, because we don't go out of town for previews anymore.
O: The previews happen right here.
JT: Lion King had its first preview in Minneapolis, and we actually had to stop in the middle of it. The producers came out onstage—it was very funny—and said to the audience, "Aren't you the lucky ones—you're at the first preview, and guess what? We can't do the scene change without stopping. So just sit in your seats—it's going to take ten or 20 minutes." And they sat there. We spent the rest of that week writing a new scene, downstage, so we'd have time to change the scenery. That's what previews are about.
O: Figuring all that out.
JT: But now there's no point in going out of town, because of the Internet.
O: Because everyone's a critic. So by the time you finish the first preview, whatever happened is already out there.
JT: Right. You know, you asked me once about fear; well, that's a fear we all have—will people see through the technical mishaps that can happen? All we can do is pray that the audience will say, "There's a show there."
O: Listen, I've never cared bupkes about Spider-Man—and I've called four people already. I can also tell you that I left the set yesterday with a greater sense of the possible. I actually had flying dreams last night, for the first time in maybe three years.
JT: That's beautiful.
Next: Taymor on the reaction she hopes to elicit from her audience and what she's proud of
O: When the audience leaves Spider-Man, how do you want them to feel?
JT: I want the audience to feel spiritually moved, excited, and exhilarated by possibility. Touched by the hero epic, which tells you that you must sacrifice in order to have it all. That we can't be content to think only about ourselves, that there is a much greater destiny and a greater world out there. It's huge stuff, especially for teenagers and young people. And I know there are plenty of people who will come who don't like rock music, so Bono and Edge have done a variety of music. It can't be so loud that it sends everybody running. My mother has to like it—she's 89.
O: So you're going for 89-year-olds and 8-year-olds. Now let me ask you this: Do you think most people have what you have—this ability to step outside yourself and see other worlds?
JT: Well, I think that's what artists do, isn't it? You know, I'm not religious in an organized way, but I kind of understand the power of where religion comes from, because art comes out of that same kind of fervor. The first artists were shamans and priests. And contemporary art, including rock music, has some of that same power—which is why many cultures ban the arts, because they know they have the power to influence and inspire.
O: Do you think that our reality-TV culture is making us more banal in our expectations?
JT: Materialistic, banal, everything. We should be able to have beautiful poetry in our lives. We should be able to—
O: —evoke the spectacular.
JT: Yes. There's a reason Spider-Man and Avatar are out there, and are always going to be there—those fairy-tale, big, mythic things. Because we have a desire to access another part of ourselves. We want that feeling of awe.
O: That's exactly the right description. It's awe.
JT: It's why we hold on to rituals; it's why we go to weddings. There's something that elevates. That's what I want to happen when you walk into this theater. Which is not to say I'm not terrified that I've overconceived it—you know, Oh God, is there too much? When I see how much trouble it is to transform from one scene to another one, I'm like, What was I thinking? Am I out of my mind?
O: You don't take "no" easily, do you?
JT: Oh, I take it—but not because something's just too much trouble. I take no when something truly can't be done or when it surpasses the money.
O: I told you as I came in today that I feel so proud of you. Do you feel proud of yourself?
JT: Not yet
O: Come on. Just a little?
JT: You know what I'm proud of? The women. In so many stories, it's always about the guy. But the Arachne character we're creating is going to blow people away. And there's a number—"Deeply Furious"—where the women come out and just take the stage. The whole first act is almost entirely female power and energy.
O: There's a woman infusion.
JT: There is. I feel proud that I have assembled a team of such great artists and technicians. But proud of the show yet? The proof is in the pudding. I set a very high bar, and if there's anything I don't like, I get very antsy. So I'll come home and Elliot will say, "Okay, which was it tonight? Are you excited or are you depressed?" But in the end, all that goes out the window. Because, to be honest, it's just a play. And ultimately I'm just doing my best.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, December 9, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.