Writers & Company

From The Lion King to Shakespeare, Julie Taymor brings magic and drama to classic stories

Julie Taymor is best-known as the director of The Lion King, the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time.
Julie Taymor was interviewed by CBC host Eleanor Wachtel in 2014. (Courtesy of BOND/360/Deen van Meer)
Listen to the full episode53:55

Julie Taymor is best-known as the director of The Lion King, the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time. Since opening in 1997, the show has grossed nearly $1.5 billion US, reaching more than 100 million people around the world through 25 travelling productions. Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director of a musical in 1998 and also won best costume design that year — for her creative incorporation of ancient puppetry techniques to bring the animal world to life on stage. 

Following the success of The Lion King, Taymor built a reputation as a daring filmmaker. She directed the critically acclaimed Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Her later films include the biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek; Across the Universe, an experimental film linking the lyrics of hit Beatles songs; and another Shakespeare adaptation, The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren.

At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, Taymor premiered the screen version of her stage production, A Midsummer Night's Dream. She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at the festival. 

This interview was originally aired on Wachtel on the Arts on Sept. 16, 2014.

What she learned from The Lion King

"You can have these ideas that people can love and be intrigued by and they want to play with you in the same playground or sandbox, but there is always going to be a moment when you're not sure it's going to work. And that is the critical moment. That is the moment where people get scared and they fall back on what they think they know, and that's what leads to many things getting cut in films.

The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff. I think that's an incredible motto and lesson.- Julie Taymor

"I had the most extraordinary support from Disney to go all the way. We did experiments. There was a point when they weren't sure that the puppetry with the masks was going to work. So they allowed a full workshop and came to a point where they said, 'Wow. Your first idea really works. Let's go with it.' This was the motto. The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff. I think that's an incredible motto and lesson.

"If you make a souffle, everybody knows that there is a point where, if you get anxious and open that oven too early, it'll flop and there's nothing you can do about that. You need to have the support system there to say, 'Okay, we're going to go through all of the difficulties.' And that's harder now than it was 18 years ago when we did The Lion King. Because with the Internet and with the speed and with everybody blogging and talking, it makes it more difficult to get through those obstacle times, and the times when you're not absolutely sure it's working."

The Lion King is the highest grossing broadway musical of all time. (Joan Marcus)

On why Shakespeare is for everyone

"I don't think kids are the least bit frightened of Shakespeare. If it's well performed, you do not need to understand every word. The actors and the director need to understand what they're saying, but the audience can get it if it's well done. They get the intention. What I love about film even more is that with facial expressions and close-ups, you can understand even better than on a stage.

I don't think kids are the least bit frightened of Shakespeare. If it's well performed, you do not need to understand every word.- Julie Taymor

"It's hard sometimes for audiences to get past the beginning of a language that isn't contemporary, but I think that goes away very fast. As we know, over 900 movies have been made of Shakespeare's plays. He's the most prolific screenwriter in the world and there's a reason why they're in Japan and Russia and Poland and Germany and France, as well as in English. These stories are so great. The language is magnificent and I love the poetry, but the stories are the things that are still original and are still challenging and exciting and shocking."

A still from Julie Taymor's film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Courtesy of BOND/360)

How Shakespeare has influenced her work

"The language of his plays inspires my direction. The visual image. So in that sense he makes me look deep into the text. This spoils you a little bit, because contemporary language doesn't have that richness. You know, the richness of imagery in the text. He's got so many more ways to speak about every emotion.

"The more you work on it, the deeper and richer it gets. It's spoiled me in the sense that you're working with such great depth, but it also shows me how daring this artist was and how you can do that and still be commercial."

Julie Taymor's comments have been edited and condensed.

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