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The Reeler Blog

Taymor Brings Universe to City

Julie Taymor discusses Across the Universe following a Tribeca screening Friday night (Photo: Christopher Campbell)

By Christopher Campbell

All you need is love. But all director Julie Taymor needs is love for her new movie, Across the Universe, a musical montage of the late 1960s incorporated with 33 Beatles tunes. Based solely on the concept, the trailer and the possibility that it could be this generation's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the film, not the album), the long-delayed Universe has already generated negative buzz in the months leading up to its Sept. 14 release.

And while her film is certain to polarize audiences -- if only because of the Beatles' divergent cults of fandom -- Taymor met with a seemingly approving audience Friday evening when the Tribeca Cinema Series presented a special advance screening of Across the Universe. Naturally, no one expects unfavorable comments to arise during a post-screening Q&A, but there was a genuine air of excitement, admiration and gratitude in the crowd as Taymor discussed the production and her choices. She first explained the genesis of the film, which had existed solely as a three-page treatment before she was hired as director.

"I went and listened to the 200 Beatles songs," Taymor told the Tribeca crowd. "I listened to their original renditions. I listened to many, many covers. And ideas for characters came out of listening to the songs. That's why there's very little dialogue. If we could tell the story through the lyric, we would tell it through the lyric. So, the songs propelled everything. They were the origin of every image, of every line of storytelling." Early on while developing the story with The Commitments screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Taymor decided Across the Universe was not going to be Beatlemania. "I knew that it's a danger," she said. "Many people could say, 'Well, it's not the way I feel about the song; it's not my memory. I'm angry at you for transforming it. What did you do?' On the other hand, what I felt was we had to do it anyway; we have to take the risk and do it."

In addition to the 33 chosen songs, the film includes a lot of references to other tunes, whether through literal imagery, silly puns or character names (Jude, Lucy, Max, Prudence, Sadie, etc.). While Taymor enjoyed playing with the audience's familiarity with lyrics, she wasn't out to cause damage with cheap jokes. "It is very literal," she said. "In 'Strawberry Fields (Forever)' there are strawberries there. On the other hand, what we do with 'Strawberry Fields' is not what anybody would expect that we would do. So, I feel that clichés -- everything is cliché in certain ways, so it's how you do the cliché. It's how it's treated. That's the artistry, how it's done. I think there are so many young filmmakers [who think] it's uncool to be too literal or too emotional. But there's a way to achieve both. You have to have emotional truth"

As with any Taymor production, onstage or onscreen, the production design is a primary draw. An audience member even pointed out that Taymor -- as much as was Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg -- was one of her own influences; the reference somewhat had to do with the Peter Schumann puppets used in the film, which recalls the filmmaker's past work for the stage. "I didn't do it because that's what I do -- because I do puppets,"Taymor said. "Honestly, I hate puppets! I mean, I love them, but I certainly don't want to be [that director who uses puppets]. If they're right, you use them."

Taymor added she hopes Across the Universe is not criticized just for being too unrealistic or artistic, which would be a problem for viewers looking for a traditional love story or even a traditional musical. "We're not trying to fool the audience," she explained. "This isn't Titanic, [which] has to look like they're really falling off a real boat. From the beginning, you set up your style. Audience, be prepared: We're going to go everywhere with this. Don't tell me it's not real. That's the joy. You're liberated. You're doing a musical. You have a team that wants to play. And it works. You cannot let fear get in the way."

Posted at September 10, 2007 6:32 AM

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