TED2011

Julie Taymor: Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Filmed:

Showing spectacular clips from productions such as Frida, The Tempest and The Lion King, director Julie Taymor describes a life spent immersed in theater and the movies. Filmed right as controversy over her Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was at its peak, she candidly describes the tensions inherent within her creative process, as she strives both to capture the essence of a story--and produce images and experiences unlike anything else.

- Director, designer
Julie Taymor is a film, theater and opera director. She is known for lavish movies such as Frida and for her hit Broadway musicals, The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Full bio

(Music)
00:13
["Oedipus Rex"]
00:19
["The Lion King"]
00:27
["Titus"]
00:34
["Frida"]
00:49
["The Magic Flute"]
01:05
["Across The Universe"]
01:12
(Applause)
01:27
Julie Taymor: Thank you. Thank you very much.
01:32
That's a few samples of the theater, opera
01:34
and films that I have done over the last 20 years.
01:37
But what I'd like to begin with right now
01:40
is to take you back to a moment
01:42
that I went through in Indonesia,
01:44
which is a seminal moment in my life
01:46
and, like all myths,
01:48
these stories need to be retold
01:50
and told, lest we forget them.
01:53
And when I'm in the turbulent times, as we know,
01:55
that I am right now, through the crucible
01:58
and the fire of transformation,
02:01
which is what all of you do, actually.
02:03
Anybody who creates knows there's that point where
02:05
it hasn't quite become the phoenix or the burnt char.
02:09
(Laughter)
02:14
And I am right there on the edge,
02:16
which I'll tell you about, another story.
02:19
I want to go back to Indonesia
02:20
where I was about 21, 22 years, a long time ago,
02:22
on a fellowship.
02:26
And I found myself, after two years there
02:27
and performing and learning, on the island of Bali,
02:30
on the edge of a crater, Gunung Batur.
02:33
And I was in a village where there was
02:37
an initiation ceremony for the young men,
02:40
a rite of passage.
02:43
Little did I know that it was mine as well.
02:44
And as I sat in this temple square
02:47
under this gigantic beringin banyan tree,
02:50
in the dark, there was no electricity, just the full moon,
02:53
down in this empty square,
02:57
and I heard the most beautiful sounds,
02:59
like a Charles Ives concert
03:02
as I listened to the gamelan music
03:03
from all the different villagers that came
03:05
for this once-every-five-years ceremony.
03:07
And I thought I was alone in the dark under this tree.
03:11
And all of a sudden, out of the dark,
03:14
from the other end of the square,
03:17
I saw the glint of mirrors lit by the moon.
03:19
And these 20 old men who I'd seen before
03:23
all of a sudden stood up in these full warrior costumes
03:27
with the headdress and the spears,
03:32
and no one was in the square, and I was hidden in the shadows.
03:34
No one was there, and they came out,
03:39
and they did this incredible dance.
03:41
"Huhuhuhuhuhuhuhahahahaha."
03:45
And they moved their bodies and they came forward,
03:48
and the lights bounced off these costumes.
03:52
And I've been in theater since I was 11 years old,
03:54
and performing, creating, and I went,
03:58
"Who are they performing for
04:01
with these elaborate costumes,
04:03
these extraordinary headdresses?"
04:06
And I realized that they were performing for God,
04:08
whatever that means.
04:12
But somehow, it didn't matter about the publicity.
04:15
There was no money involved.
04:19
It wasn't going to be written down. It was no news.
04:21
And there were these incredible artists
04:24
that felt for me like an eternity as they performed.
04:26
The next moment,
04:30
as soon as they finished and disappeared into the shadows,
04:32
a young man with a propane lantern came on,
04:36
hung it up on a tree, set up a curtain.
04:38
The village square was filled with hundreds of people.
04:41
And they put on an opera all night long.
04:44
Human beings needed the light.
04:47
They needed the light to see.
04:49
So what I gained and gathered from this incredible,
04:52
seminal moment in my life as a young artist
04:55
was that you must be true
04:58
to what you believe as an artist all the way through,
05:01
but you also have to be aware
05:05
that the audience is out there in our lives at this time,
05:09
and they also need the light.
05:12
And it's this incredible balance
05:14
that I think that we walk
05:16
when we are creating something that is breaking ground,
05:18
that's trying to do something you've never seen before,
05:21
that imaginary world
05:24
where you actually don't know where you're going to end up,
05:25
that's the fine line on the edge of a crater
05:29
that I have walked my whole life.
05:31
What I would like to do now is to tell you
05:34
a little bit
05:37
about how I work. Let's take "The Lion King."
05:38
You saw many examples of my work up there,
05:41
but it's one that people know.
05:44
I start with the notion of the ideograph.
05:45
An ideograph is like a brush painting, a Japanese brush painting.
05:48
Three strokes, you get the whole bamboo forest.
05:52
I go to the concept of "The Lion King"
05:55
and I say, "What is the essence of it?
05:58
What is the abstraction?
06:00
If I were to reduce this entire story
06:01
into one image, what would it be?"
06:05
The circle. The circle. It's so obvious.
06:07
The circle of life. The circle of Mufasa's mask.
06:10
The circle that, when we come to Act II and there's a drought,
06:14
how do you express drought?
06:19
It's a circle of silk on the floor
06:20
that disappears into the hole in the stage floor.
06:23
The circle of life comes in the wheels
06:27
of the gazelles that leap.
06:30
And you see the mechanics.
06:33
And being a theater person, what I know and love about the theater
06:34
is that when the audience comes in
06:38
and they suspend their disbelief,
06:39
when you see men walking or women walking
06:41
with a platter of grass on their heads,
06:44
you know it's the savanna.
06:46
You don't question that.
06:47
I love the apparent truth of theater.
06:49
I love that people are willing to fill in the blanks.
06:51
The audience is willing to say,
06:55
"Oh, I know that's not a real sun.
06:57
You took pieces of sticks.
07:00
You added silk to the bottom.
07:02
You suspended these pieces. You let it fall flat on the floor.
07:05
And as it rises with the strings, I see that it's a sun.
07:08
But the beauty of it is that it's just silk and sticks.
07:13
And in a way, that is what makes it spiritual.
07:17
That's what moves you.
07:22
It's not the actual literal sunrise that's coming.
07:23
It's the art of it.
07:27
So in the theater, as much as the story is critical
07:29
and the book and the language,
07:34
the telling of the story, how it's told,
07:36
the mechanics, the methods that you use,
07:41
is equal to the story itself.
07:44
And I'm one who loves high tech and low tech.
07:47
So I could go from --
07:50
For instance, I'll show you some "Spider-Man" later,
07:52
these incredible machines that move people along.
07:54
But the fact is, without the dancer
07:57
who knows how to use his body and swing on those wires,
07:59
it's nothing.
08:02
So now I'm going to show you
08:04
some clips from the other big project of my life this year,
08:07
"The Tempest."
08:11
It's a movie. I did "The Tempest" on a stage three times
08:12
in the theater since 1984, '86,
08:16
and I love the play.
08:20
I did it always with a male Prospero.
08:22
And all of a sudden, I thought,
08:24
"Well, who am I gonna get to play Prospero?
08:26
Why not Helen Mirren? She's a great actor. Why not?"
08:28
And this material really did work for a woman equally as well.
08:32
So now, let's take a look at some of the images
08:35
from "The Tempest."
08:38
(Music)
08:40
(Video) Prospera: Hast thou, spirit, performed to the point the tempest that I bade thee?
08:57
Ariel: I boarded the king's ship. In every cabin, I flamed amazement.
09:00
Prospera: At first sight, they have changed eyes.
09:09
Miranda: Do you love me?
09:12
Ferdinand: Beyond all limit.
09:13
HM: They are both in either's powers.
09:15
Trinculo: Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
09:17
(Music)
09:22
Looking for business, governor?
09:25
Caliban: Hast thou not dropped from heaven?
09:29
Stephano: Out of the moon, I do assure thee.
09:31
Prospera: Caliban!
09:34
Caliban: This island is mine.
09:36
Prospera: For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps.
09:38
Antonio: Here lies your brother no better than the earth he lies upon.
09:41
Sebastian: Draw thy sword.
09:45
And I, the king, shall love thee.
09:47
Prospera: I will plague them all, even to roaring.
09:50
Ariel: I have made you mad.
09:57
Prospera: We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
10:08
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
10:11
(Music)
10:15
JT: Okay.
10:21
(Applause)
10:24
So I went from theater, doing "The Tempest"
10:28
on the stage in a very low-budget production
10:30
many years ago,
10:32
and I love the play, and I also think
10:34
it's Shakespeare's last play,
10:36
and it really lends itself, as you can see, to cinema.
10:38
But I'm just going to give you a little example about
10:42
how one stages it in theater
10:44
and then how one takes that same idea or story
10:47
and moves it into cinema.
10:51
The ideograph that I talked to you about before,
10:54
what is it for "The Tempest"?
10:57
What, if I were to boil it down,
10:59
would be the one image that I could
11:02
hang my hat on for this?
11:04
And it was the sand castle,
11:06
the idea of nurture versus nature,
11:09
that we build these civilizations --
11:12
she speaks about it at the end, Helen Mirren's Prospera --
11:14
we build them, but under nature, under the grand tempest,
11:17
these cloud-capped towers, these gorgeous palaces will fade
11:23
and there will -- leave not a rack behind.
11:28
So in the theater, I started the play,
11:32
it was a black sand rake, white cyc,
11:35
and there was a little girl, Miranda, on the horizon,
11:38
building a drip castle, a sand castle.
11:41
And as she was there on the edge of that stage,
11:44
two stagehands all in black
11:47
with watering cans ran along the top
11:50
and started to pour water on the sand castle,
11:55
and the sand castle started to drip and sink,
11:59
but before it did,
12:02
the audience saw the black-clad stagehands.
12:04
The medium was apparent. It was banal. We saw it.
12:08
But as they started to pour the water,
12:12
the light changed from showing you the black-clad stagehands
12:15
to focusing, this rough magic that we do in theater,
12:19
it focused right on the water itself.
12:23
And all of a sudden, the audience's perspective changes.
12:26
It becomes something magically large.
12:30
It becomes the rainstorm.
12:34
The masked actors, the puppeteers, they disappear,
12:36
and the audience makes that leap into this world,
12:40
into this imaginary world of "The Tempest" actually happening.
12:43
Now the difference
12:48
when I went and did it in the cinema,
12:49
I started the actual movie
12:52
with a close-up of a sand castle, a black sand castle,
12:54
and what cinema can do is,
12:59
by using camera, perspective,
13:01
and also long shots and close-ups,
13:05
it started on a close-up of the sand castle,
13:07
and as it pulled away,
13:10
you saw that it was a miniature sitting in the palm
13:12
of the girl's hands.
13:15
And so I could play with the medium,
13:16
and why I move from one medium to another
13:18
is to be able to do this.
13:21
Now I'm going to take you to "Spider-Man."
13:23
(Music)
13:25
(Video) Peter Parker: ♪ Standing on the precipice,
13:56
I can soar away from this. ♪
13:59
JT: We're trying to do everything in live theater
14:03
that you can't do in two dimensions
14:06
in film and television.
14:07
PP: ♪ Rise above yourself and take control. ♪
14:10
George Tsypin: We're looking at New York from a Spider-Man point of view.
14:14
Spider Man is not bound by gravity.
14:18
Manhattan in the show is not bound by gravity either.
14:20
PP: ♪ Be yourself and rise above it all. ♪
14:23
Ensemble: ♪ Sock! Pow! ♪
14:27
♪ Slam! Scratch! ♪
14:31
Danny Ezralow: I don't want you to even think there's a choreographer.
14:34
It's real, what's happening.
14:36
I prefer you to see people moving,
14:37
and you're going, "Whoa, what was that?"
14:40
(Music)
14:42
JT: If I give enough movement in the sculpture,
14:54
and the actor moves their head, you feel like it's alive.
14:57
It's really comic book live. It's a comic book coming alive.
15:00
(Music)
15:03
Bono: They're mythologies.
15:10
They're modern myths, these comic book heroes.
15:11
PP: ♪ They believe. ♪
15:15
(Screams)
15:21
(Music)
15:24
(Applause)
15:42
JT: Ohhhh. What was that?
15:44
Circus, rock 'n' roll, drama.
15:49
What the hell are we doing up there on that stage?
15:51
Well, one last story, very quickly.
15:54
After I was in that village, I crossed the lake,
15:57
and I saw that the volcano was erupting
16:00
on the other side, Gunung Batur,
16:03
and there was a dead volcano next to the live volcano.
16:04
I didn't think I'd be swallowed by the volcano,
16:08
and I am here.
16:10
But it's very easy to climb up, is it not?
16:11
You hold on to the roots,
16:15
you put your foot in the little rocks
16:17
and climb up there, and you get to the top,
16:20
and I was with a good friend who was an actor,
16:22
and we said, "Let's go up there.
16:25
Let's see if we can come close to the edge
16:27
of that live volcano."
16:29
And we climbed up and we got to the very top,
16:31
and we're on the edge, on this precipice,
16:34
Roland disappears into the sulfur smoke
16:36
at the volcano at the other end,
16:39
and I'm up there alone
16:41
on this incredible precipice.
16:42
Did you hear the lyrics?
16:45
I'm on the precipice looking down
16:47
into a dead volcano to my left.
16:49
To my right is sheer shale. It's coming off.
16:51
I'm in thongs and sarongs. It was many years ago.
16:55
And no hiking boots.
16:59
And he's disappeared, this mad French gypsy actor,
17:01
off in the smoke, and I realize,
17:05
I can't go back the way that I've come. I can't.
17:08
So I throw away my camera. I throw away my thongs,
17:12
and I looked at the line straight in front of me,
17:17
and I got down on all fours like a cat,
17:20
and I held with my knees to either side
17:23
of this line in front of me,
17:26
for 30 yards or 30 feet, I don't know.
17:29
The wind was massively blowing,
17:32
and the only way I could get to the other side
17:35
was to look at the line straight in front of me.
17:38
I know you've all been there.
17:40
I'm in the crucible right now.
17:42
It's my trial by fire.
17:44
It's my company's trials by fire.
17:46
We survive because our theme song is "Rise Above."
17:49
Boy falls from the sky, rise above.
17:53
It's right there in the palm of both of our hands,
17:56
of all of my company's hands.
17:58
I have beautiful collaborators, and we as creators
18:00
only get there all together.
18:04
I know you understand that.
18:06
And you just stay going forward,
18:08
and then you see this extraordinary thing
18:10
in front of your eyes.
18:13
Thank you.
18:14
(Applause)
18:16

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About the Speaker:

Julie Taymor - Director, designer
Julie Taymor is a film, theater and opera director. She is known for lavish movies such as Frida and for her hit Broadway musicals, The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Why you should listen

Working in musicals, Shakespeare, film and opera, Julie Taymor is a wildly imaginative and provocative director and designer. She is well known for having translated the film The Lion King to Broadway, a still-running show for which she also designed costumes, masks and puppets -- and won two Tony Awards. (She was the first woman to win a Tony for directing a musical.) She has received multiple awards for her work, and given both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.

In 2005, she worked on a lavish production of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, and in 2006 she co-wrote a version of the story of Beowulf, Grendel. Meanwhile, she has developed a fascinating career in the movies. She directed Across the Universe, a romp through the music of the Beatles, Titus, a 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and the glorious Frida, the 2002 film about Frida Kahlo for which she received an Oscar nomination. More recently, and most dramatically, Taymor collaborated with musicians from U2 on a Broadway stage version of Marvel Studios' Spider-Man.