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NOW with Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers Interviews Julie Taymor


MOYERS: Every now and then a movie comes along that truly changes how we see the world or shows us something about the world we had never quite seen before.

Such a movie opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, and next Friday across the country. The name of this movie is FRIDA for the artist Frida Kahlo. She was hardly known outside her native Mexico when she died in 1954. But today her paintings bring record bids at auction.

More than 100 books have been written about her in Spanish and English, and she's the first Latin woman to be honored on a United States postage stamp.

Quite a remarkable celebrity for someone who lived in constant pain after an accident that almost killed her when she was a girl in school. Here's one of the many vivid scenes in FRIDA, starring Salma Hayek.

>> MOVE IT!

MOYERS: That scene, this movie, FRIDA, was directed by Julie Taymor. She won two Tony awards for the LION KING on Broadway. It was her film version of Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS, all about blood feuds and vengeance, that prompted me to interview her last year after the massacre on September 11.

Julie Taymor is back this evening. And I welcome you to NOW.

TAYMOR: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MOYERS: What was there about the life of this woman that made you want to tell her story?

TAYMOR: Well, her life seemed to transcend her pain, both her this was a woman who shouldn't have lived after this horrific accident that skewered her.

And yet she was in bed for two years, her father put a mirror under the canopy of the bed, and she started to paint herself. And through her life she seemed to be able to make... To create art out of the worst circumstances. And that's an incredibly inspiring story.

On top of that, it's an amazing romance, the rockiest romance I've ever come across, ever, between her and Diego Rivera.

MOYERS: And the most unlikely.

TAYMOR: Oh, it's unbelievable. He was 250, 300 pounds; she was 5'2". He was big. Their differences were huge. He was a very famous painter at the time, hugely famous, and phenomenally famous for womanizing. And she knew it when she married him.

So you had infidelities all over the place, and yet this woman loved Diego. And it was a tremendous relationship, divorce, come together, fall apart.

MOYERS: She was a revolutionary in so many ways: artistically, politically, sexually. What did you identify with her as a woman?

TAYMOR: Well, this woman painted not to make money. Not that I haven't made money.

But she painted what she painted because she had to, because she was passionate about it. She didn't care at all if people bought her paintings. As she said, she painted her reality.

I find that I make as an artist the kind of choices that I have to be impassioned about. I'm not going to spend two years on a film or four years on an opera if I don't feel like I can put my own self into it. That doesn't mean it has to be about myself. That's a difference.

Frida painted her own reality, her life. I'm a director and I paint many other people... Other people's realities. But I do have to invest in it. And the other thing that I found compelling is that Elliot Goldenthal, who did the score...

MOYERS: The music.

TAYMOR: ...We have a long 20- year collaboration. And I love that Diego and Frida were these incredible artists who supported each other in their work, in their art.

MOYERS: He is your significant other.

TAYMOR: Oh, yes. Yes.

MOYERS: For 20 years?

TAYMOR: Twenty happily unmarried years.

MOYERS: So there was more to her than being an artist. I mean, there was a... You could identify with her.

TAYMOR: No, I like that, but she got... She also really wanted to have a family and children and she had no luck at that either with miscarriages and because of her accident. The body was not capable.

MOYERS: She could easily have been a victim. Yet as I said in the opening in the 1980s there was this explosion of interest in her. Why do so many women see in her the hero's journey?

TAYMOR: Well, I think there's a difference between how she was perceived in the '80s and how we are trying to deal with her now. Because she was used as a... Whatever the word feminist means to you, she was used as an icon of pain and suffering, really a woman who had tremendous abuse from her husband and survived, as I said, these accidents.

But I don't think that really is the heart of what Frida is. I think now what we can see as women is a woman who was outrageous, unique, talented, single minded, tenacious, and very feminine. Very caught up with her man. Very vulnerable. Very obsessive about her love for her guy.

So there was this... There is, this incredible balance that's attractive to women and to men I think who see this story, of someone who can do both, where you didn't have to say, "I'm a woman, so I'm going to be independent, and I don't need you as a male, and I can stand on my own." There's that. I mean, that's fine.

But I also think that Frida, she knew how to lay a table, she knew how to put flowers in her hair. What's mysterious about her is her gender bending, her bisexuality, her ability to be both macabre, grotesque and exquisitely beautiful, sublimely beautiful.

MOYERS: Let me show the audience one of the many powerful scenes in the movie.

SCENE FROM FILM: Get out! Get out! Get out!

MOYERS: I'm chilled every time I see that.

TAYMOR: Why?

MOYERS: I do not know. I was going to ask you why. Why is the haircutting so significant?

TAYMOR: Well, that particular scene happens after Diego has done the ultimate act of betrayal: he's made love with Frida's sister. And she leaves him. Frida leaves him.

And she... So much of Frida was about her physically, her hair, her braids, her clothes. So she cuts her hair off at that moment. She plays with that other side of her which is the masculine side of her.

But that particular shot which is Salma Hayek in front of the mirror, completely painted. We painted her face. We painted her clothing. We forced perspective. When you talk about the theater, that is a forced perspective set. There's nothing computer generated in this at all. This is almost totally theatrical.

You use motion control, which means your camera moves once with the real Salma here, then you do the same action again with there, and you can then put them together.

But it's so shocking to people because it looks like a two dimensional painting for a moment, and then you feel that it's a human being coming alive.

MOYERS: I'm chilled I think because of that and chilled because suddenly as you talk I think of... I'm seeing the melancholy.

I mean, feeling the melancholy, the cut hair, the something lost, something gone, something that she loved, she shears. And then suddenly this figure comes alive for a brief moment and then lapses into the most utmost posture of despair and melancholy.

TAYMOR: And it's a little, little gesture. I was talking about this earlier today. That's a little teeny gesture, just the collapse. It's so subtle just to go, "Oh, my god, she's alive." You know.

MOYERS: Let's look at that scene when for the first time Diego is about to seduce her or she's about to seduce him.

TAYMOR: Exactly.

FRIDA: What is this?

DIEGO: Well, the benefits of being party leader, you can arrange for the drinking to be done close to home.

FRIDA: If you think I'm going to sleep with you just because you've taken me under your wing, you're wrong.

DIEGO: Me? I was painting murals and womanizing in peace when you came along. I have a proposal. We will not sleep together. We will solemnly swear right here, right now that we will be friends only.

FRIDA: Fine. Did you arrange for that?

DIEGO: Cost me a fortune.

MOYERS: I wasn't prepared for the light to come on. I loved that, it was quite a touch.

TAYMOR: Yes. Yes. I think that's part of the myth of stories.

MOYERS: Later they do marry. She takes him on knowing that he is a compulsive womanizer. Why did she do that? You studied her life. Why did she do that?

TAYMOR: She just thought he was worth it. She just thought it was more bigger than that.

Also we have a scene and I think it's the crux of the movie, really, which is, what is the fine line between fidelity and loyalty? When she... When he proposes to her she... He says he can't be faithful. And she thinks about it. He says, he's physiologically incapable of fidelity.

And she thinks about it and she says, "can you be loyal?" And he says, "to you, always." Well, what is the difference?

MOYERS: My favorite line in the movie is after they've been divorced and they've been separated, they've been apart. They've been in California. He comes back and she says to him why? And he says because I miss us.

TAYMOR: Us.

MOYERS: And Joseph Campbell once said, you know, "That the commitment is to the relationship in a marriage."

TAYMOR: That's true.

MOYERS: And he missed whatever they became together.

TAYMOR: Diego and Frida. Frida and Diego. Diego and Frida.

There's a whole feeling that this... These two became an item, even in the public eye, even in a social or celebrity circle, they were a unique couple.

And I don't think that that's probably what he meant, but obviously she gave him something that he needed to be with.

MOYERS: His art is overtly political; hers is very, very personal.

TAYMOR: From the beginning of her painting she was her own subject. She just stayed on that. That's what she could paint. She painted, as she said, her inner reality. She painted from inside. He painted the outside.

MOYERS: All I know, she said. She said, it's all I know.

TAYMOR: Yes.

"That's all I know, that I paint my reality." She didn't even think she was a Surrealist, that we call it, Breton called her Surrealist.

But for her that was reality, when you see her inside of her heart pumping blood or you see her exposing... Oh, even the miscarriage, some very dark and difficult paintings, and you see the fetus... These items that are shocking for most people, that's the truth of her life.

MOYERS: Something else that struck Judith, my wife and me as we watched that scene with Trotsky and his wife and their friends around the dinner table we heard echoes of our own gatherings in the 1960s, so much passion for politics. So much commitment to a cause.

I mean, did that have to do with Frida's time and place and those particular people?

TAYMOR: Those people were actually so powerfully effective as artists politically. They did make a difference. Their work was political, it was fashioning the thinking of the time.

MOYERS: But what's happened to the passion for politics in this country? Many people don't want to talk about politics, and if they do they don't bring the passion.

We don't bring the passion to it that we used to. What has happened?

TAYMOR: Well, the commercialization of art is phenomenal, and that's for the movies as well.

I mean, it's very, very hard for people to feel like their voice could be heard unless it makes... Unless it gets, it's wide, it's on TV and if you get to that point, then it has to be commercial. Or people don't want to put it out there. So...

MOYERS: And you think this affects politics?

TAYMOR: I think politics itself, I think that people are just in a terrified state right now to be critical of anything. But I do think art still affects us socially in this country, tremendously. What's on television, what's on HBO. The kind of movies. It does.

A movie like this, as you said, people will go out and they'll discuss marriage, they'll discuss loyalty. That is an effective political, social act, if you get people to think. If you can provoke them. I'm an entertainer, but I also firmly believe in provoking.

MOYERS: In almost everything I've seen of yours there's a defining moment, usually a violent moment. You don't see the violence.

With the falling gold dust and the falling glass and the falling oranges, there's also that pipe there that we know later is going to enter her back and vagina and means she'll never have children. You don't see that act.

TAYMOR: No.

MOYERS: You grope with the consequences of violence not with the act itself.

TAYMOR: Well, I learned from Shakespeare about that. I learned.

MOYERS: Good mentor.

TAYMOR: Yes, I did. And I think that people's imaginations are richer sometimes than the reality. And also the reality, if you show the act, you have the danger of putting the audience off so they can't enter into it.

We always write stories of tragedies because that's how we reach our human depth. How we get to the other side of it. We look at the cruelty, the darkness and horrific events that happened in our life whether it be a miscarriage or a husband who is not faithful. Then you find this ability to transcend. And that is called the passion, like the passion of Christ. You could call this the passion of Frida Kahlo, in a way.

When I talk about passion, and I'm not a religious person, but I absolutely am drawn and attracted to the power of religious art because it gets at that most extreme emotion of the human experience.

MOYERS: Excuse me, I have to tell you that I think you are one of the most religious people I see working in the...

TAYMOR: Well, yes, but not an organized religion.

MOYERS: No, no, not...doctrinaire. But the experience.

TAYMOR: No, I agree with you. I believe in it profoundly.

MOYERS: What I sense in you as a seeker, a pilgrim, soldier, whatever. You're a seeker.

TAYMOR: I am often interested in the story of the outsider. You know I lived in Indonesia for many years.

MOYERS: What happened to you in Indonesia.

TAYMOR: This is probably it for me. This is the story that moves me the most. I was there for two years and I was planning to stay longer and start a theater company. I went to Bali to a remote village by a volcanic mountain on the lake. They were having a ceremony that only happens only every 10 years for the young men. I wanted to be alone.

I was listening to this music and all of a sudden out of the darkness I could see glints of mirrors and 30 or 40 old men in full warrior costume-- there was nobody in this village square. I was alone. They couldn't see me in the shadows. They came out with these spears and they started to dance. They did, I don't know, it felt like an eternity but probably a half hour dance. With these voices coming out of them. And they danced to nobody. Right after that, they and I went oh, my God. The first man came out and they were performing for God. Now God can mean whatever you want it to mean. But for me, I understood it so totally. The detail on the costumes. They didn't care if someone was paying tickets, writing reviews. They didn't care if an audience was watching. They did it from the inside to the outside. And from the outside to the in. And that profoundly moved me then.

MOYERS: How did you see the world differently after you were in Indonesia?

TAYMOR: Well I understood really the power of art to transform. I think transformation become the main word in my life.

Transformation because you don't want to just put a mirror in front of people and say, here, look at yourself. What do you see? You want to have a skewed mirror. You want a mirror that says you didn't know you could see the back of your head. You didn't know that you could amount cubistic see almost all the same aspects at the same time. It allows human beings to step out of their lives and to revisit it and maybe find something different about it.

I think that's why travel was so important to me. I did it at a really young age, because you go outside and then you look at your own country, your own culture, completely differently.

I remember back then I used to say that arts were talked about in the arts and leisure page. Now, why would it be arts and leisure? Why do we think that arts are leisure? Why isn't it arts and science or arts and the most important thing in your life? I think that art has become a big scarlet letter in our culture.

It's a big "A." And it says, you are an elitist, you're effete, or whatever those things...do you know what I mean? It means you don't connect. And I don't believe that. I think we've patronized our audiences long enough.

You can do things that would bring people to another place and still get someone on a very daily mundane moving level but you don't have to separate art from the masses.

MOYERS: Thank you very much, Julie Taymor, for being with us tonight.

TAYMOR: Thank you so much.