After a painful failure with Spider-Man, Taymor has bounced back with a stage and film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here she talks about why there are still few female directors, and why she won’t do Hamlet
As director of the stage musical The Lion King – which has just passed 80 million tickets sold for productions around the world – Julie Taymor is one of the most powerful women in theatre.
And to those who might question her gender being specified, Taymor says there is still a difference. “There are still very few women directing in theatre – more in London, but not in New York. And still not so many in movies,” she adds. Her film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in the UK this weekend.
“I think it is so much harder for women to get the opportunity. You know that I’ve only ever done one show [The Lion King] in London? I’d be happy to direct here but I’ve never been asked.”
The dominance of male directors is often attributed to sexist producers or the difficulty of combining work and family life, but Taymor, provocatively, thinks it may also be because women have better artistic taste.
“I know a lot of women who won’t do schlock. People say: ‘Why don’t they give women the big Hollywood blockbusters?’ But I think it takes so much for a woman to get to that place that they have to have a passion or a story they really want to tell. When women fail, they don’t get another chance as easily.”
Taymor, 62, has recent experience of painful failure. While The Lion King has become of the most celebrated pieces of modern theatre, her CV also includes one of the most notorious: in 2011 she was the original director of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, until she was replaced during the troubled pre-opening period that included 180 preview performances – the greatest number in Broadway history.
After lengthy litigation over the credit and recompense she should receive for her work on that musical, Taymor prefers – either for legal or psychological reasons – not to refer to it by name, although she notes that a male director might have endured less controversy.
“The Unmentionable,” she says, “has lived with me much longer than the over-budgets and failures of many men who are allowed to fail.”
When The Lion King opened on Broadway 18 years ago – her London version has now been running for 16 years – Taymor became the first woman to win a directing Tony. Last week the British director Marianne Elliott collected her own second. Are such achievements symbolically significant?
“I think it is important,” says Taymor. “We – myself, Marianne, any other women who are honoured – become role models for young women. I never had those. I didn’t think about being a director when I’m young and would never have thought to be a conductor, even though I loved music. So it’s good to show that it can be done.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a stage production that she then filmed – was her first project since the horrors of Spider-Man. She says it has been a comfort to work on a comic and magical classic that also happens to have been the first play she ever saw, as an eight-year-old on a school outing from Boston.
The experience of The Unmentionable affected her confidence when she started work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taymor admits. “Of course it did. It’s not confidence in the sense of ‘do I know what I’m doing?’, it’s the confidence that people will let you experiment. Look, it was terrible and upsetting. By myself, I would have died. With my collaborators, there was a lot of support and also disgust at what happened.”
Taymor’s two earlier Shakespearean films – Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, and The Tempest, with Helen Mirren as a female version of Prospero – were made on location. Her Dream, though, is based on recordings of a stage show at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York; the heads of the first rows of the audience are in view.
Taymore filmed four live performances using four cameras and then had a few hours each day on stage without an audience to refilm lines or scenes. “I didn’t want to shoot it like Live From the National Theatre, although that’s fine in its own way” she says.
“But if you just film a [theatre performance], you don’t get to put the camera on stage or use a handheld camera for close-ups of speeches, which I’ve done here … My big belief about Shakespeare on film is that, if you can show close-ups of mouths moving and reaction shots of other actors in the scene, you have double the understanding.”
The director plans to do more Shakespeare on stage and screen: “I have absolutely no desire to do Hamlet; I know that will be sacrilege here.” Why not? “Oh, it’s just a serial killer drama that I have no enthusiasm for. Please put in ‘she smiles’ or I’ll be in big trouble.”
Taymor’s midsummer schedule includes more landmarks for The Lion King. She supervises the final casting and last week of rehearsals for most of the international productions. “I’ve just opened the Mexican Spanish version. We’ve had one running in Spain for five years but that’s Spanish Spanish, and Mexican Spanish is different. I’m doing China this year. I don’t tire of it.”
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in cinemas from Sunday 21 June