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Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo
Arts and Culture:
Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Julie Taymor
More on This Story:
Julie Taymor

MOYERS: How do you keep in touch with your artistic self in this commercialized world?

TAYMOR: Well, I don't know how to answer that exactly, but I think that I can only do what I do feel passionate about or what moves me or what daunts me. I really like to be challenged. I like to go into something not knowing if I can pull it off.

I'm not really interested in safety. When I did FRIDA it was so different from TITUS and THE LION KING and all my other pieces because it was supposedly a reality, a biography. And now all of a sudden I have to pay attention to cars of the period and buttons and lamps and truth, whatever that means. There's no such thing, but some semblance of truth.

MOYERS: You don't believe...

TAYMOR: No, because I think the truth is, as Frida would say, could be behind the eyes. What we call truth or reality, or literal reality, that's just an exterior reality. But it's really in the eyes of the beholder, it's subjective.


MOYERS: I'm a journalist. This is not supposed to happen, but I'm chilled every time I see that.


MOYERS: I do not know, I was going to ask you why. I mean, why is the hair cutting 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 much of Frida was about her physically, her hair, her braids, her clothes. So she cuts her hair off at that moment. And I found these paintings to be...because they're autobiographical, I could actually set them in the order. In the movie, I could put them when they happened.

So we used the hair cutting...I play with time, as you can see. She's, we cut her hair, then we're advanced in the party afterwards and she's just...not drunk but getting to be alcoholic and trying to be with other people, she's very sad and depressed.

And she takes the hair off that she knew Diego loved so much and she puts on her male suit and she plays with that other side of her, which is the masculine side of her.

But that particular shot, which is Selma Hayek in front of the mirror, Selma Hayek 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 Selma 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. That's a little teeny gesture, just the collapse. It's so subtle just to go, oh, my God, she's alive.

MOYERS: When I saw it I thought that my friend George Lucas uses special effects to take us into the farthest reaches of outer space.

TAYMOR: Yes, right.

MOYERS: You use special effects to take us into the deepest recesses of the inner life, what the ancients used to call the soul. I don't know how you do it, but it happens when I'm watching that film.


In almost everything I've seen of yours, there's a moment, a defining moment, usually a violent moment. You don't see the violence. That accident beautifully photographed, beautifully directed accident scene 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 that she never has...but you don't see grope with the consequences of violence not with the act itself.

TAYMOR: Well, I learned from Shakespeare about that.

MOYERS: Good mentor!

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

And all kinds of violence. When I did TITUS I was very aware this has been made into art. Whether it's the requiem mass, the crucifixion. How many times have we seen the most beautiful sculptures of Christ on the cross, the most violent, bloody, shocking thing that you could do to a human being. And yet there have been more sculptures, paintings of that that evoke compassion in the audience and emotion.

And we always write stories of tragedies because that's how we reach our human depth, that's how we get to our...the other side of us. We look at our cruelty, we look at the darkness and the horrific events that happen in our lives.

And then you find this ability to transcend. And that is called the passion, like the passion of Christ.

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 doctrinarily, but the experience.

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

I think that LION KING, some of the most beautiful experiences I've had with that show is when a family will come and say to me, we had a daughter, she died...this is one story. She died a couple of months ago, we had tickets to Lion King, she was a 10-year-old daughter, we brought our eight year old son to THE LION KING.

And when that moment happens where the child asks the father, will you always be there for me, and he sings the song, the father sings the song, Mufasa sings to Simba, I'll be there, we live in you, he lives in you, he lives in me, he's watching over everything we see, he sings about how he'll always be in the stars.

This little boy, this eight year old boy, turned to his parents at that moment and he said, "Sara is with us, isn't she?" His sister. "Sara is with us."

Now, I think that is absolutely essential to the act of theater, because that's what theater is, with film, it's with art, and always meant to do, is to take you through those passages.

That's its function. It's to take us through these moments. You just don't need to show the happy moments; you have to take people through those horrors.

MOYERS: That's what I really did like about your film, is that it doesn't deny anything including the triumph for the moment of joy, of ecstasy, of sharing...

TAYMOR: Oh, joy is deeper than sorrow, said Nietzsche. That is such a beautiful concept.

MOYERS: Don't you find that love really hurts? It's not...

TAYMOR: If it doesn't hurt it's not real, it's not going to be deep.

TAYMOR: And unfortunately the way human beings are the darkest...the worst tragedies are when true greatness and is born. And you can say heroes or whatever you want, but we use this 9/11 over and over again to say that. People come, the best of human beings rise to the surface when the worst things happen in the world.

MOYERS: What I sense in you is a seeker. That's what I mean by religious, pilgrim, sojourner, whatever. You're a seeker.

TAYMOR: And I do the...I'm often interested in the story of the outsider, because Elliott and I both do this, we're doing GRENDEL, which is the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view, we did JUAN DARIEN, which is about a jaguar that becomes human and then is tortured and abused for being a jaguar and killed.

We are very inspired by these stories because they allow us to reflect on our culture from a different point of view. And I think that definitely helps us see ourselves in a different light.

MOYERS: What was...what happened to you in Indonesia?


MOYERS: Something that was as defining in your life I sense happened there as what happened to Frida. I'm not saying.... I mean, you had a bus accident.

TAYMOR: I did have an accident. I had a horrific accident. And it's odd that when I was working on this movie I had no memory of the accident until someone brought my attention to it after. But I actually had an accident with my theater company in Bali.

I was there for two years, I had a company of Javanese, Balinese, Sindunese masked dancers and actors. And we were en route to Java and Sumatra on a night bus in Surabaya. And we crashed head on. I was in the front seat and glass embedded into my neck.

One of the actor's backs was broken, another leg was broken. It just practically demolished the spirit, because it was on the way to a six-month tour.

So can I tell you this little story of what we did?

TAYMOR: This is the story that I...moves me the most.

I was there for two years, and I was planning to stay longer and start a theater company. And I went to Bali to a remote village by a volcanic mountain, Batur, on the lake. And they were having a ceremony, that only happens every 10 years, for the young men.

And I was sitting...I wanted to be alone for a while and I was just listening to this music from all these different Balinese gamelans, from many villages that came. And I was sitting under a gigantic banyan tree in the dark, no electricity, just the moon.

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, Baris costume, there was nobody in this village square, I was alone, they couldn't see me in the shadows.

And they came out with these spears, and they started to dance. And they did, I don't know, felt like an eternity but probably a half an hour dance…with these voices coming out of them.

And they danced to nobody. Right after that, they disappeared and a young man came out with a propane Petromax, lamp, hung it up, the square filled up with people and we needed light now because the human beings were watching the performance and they did an opera all night long.

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. It was the most important thing that I ever experienced.

MOYERS: And the question for me is, obviously you took there, the capacity to be touched and moved by that, the imagination was insipiently there when you went, but what was it about the Indonesian culture, about that dance, about the masks, about the stories, the myths of Indonesia, that made your imagination what it would not have been if you had not gone there?

TAYMOR: I don't know what it is. I live in New York, but when I'm in Indonesia, I feel right.

When I travel to Africa in my imagination, and then when I finally got to go, there's home for me in many cultures, because if I can connect to what makes people create art, then it doesn't matter where you're from. It transcends culture.

So we just cannot understand in this world what should be so easy, to move back and forth and to communicate. We just don't get it.

And when I'm in a culture like Indonesia where this was 30 years ago where you have no television, no movies, and people, children, everybody's watching these theater pieces all night long, and you're watching it be political, be religious, be a social event.

It's incredibly moving because it's the original way theater was. It's the way it started as a tribal village event. And it functions in every single faction that it's supposed to, if that makes sense to you. It functions as education, as political, as honoring the village. Shakespeare was very much in that vein. That's why I'm very attracted to it.

MOYERS: How do you mean?

TAYMOR: Well, because he created plays that had many levels at which an audience could hook in. If you were the groundlings, you liked the bawdiness and the crude jokes and the puns and the clowns and the good story.

But if you wanted to plug in as an intellectual or as a more sophisticated theatergoer, you'd get great history, you'd get philosophy. And he wasn't an elitist that way.

MOYERS: No. These plays were...written for people in the street, the people who came into the pubs and would stay there for an hour and a half and watch it, just like Renaissance art. I was so moved when we did a film about it. Renaissance art was meant to be public art. It was meant to be out there on the square, on the corner.

TAYMOR: Well, I feel strongly about that as an artist, and 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 an effete, or whatever those Agnew things...[LAUGHTER] 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: Now that you are so popular, now that your work is...


MOYERS: No, I'm serious. Now that you're popular, now that your work is celebrated and people are seeking you, do you feel your creativity is threatened by that popularity or liberated by it?

TAYMOR: No, I think it's neither one. I don't do things any differently now than I would before. And you think that sometimes perhaps if I get a bigger budget for a movie, then it will just be the same thing...

MOYERS: Ruination. Ruination.

TAYMOR: No, because LION KING is a combination of high tech and low tech. There are things up on that stage that cost 30 cents, like a little shadow puppet and a lamp, and it couldn't be any better than that. It just couldn't. Sometimes you are forced to become more creative because you have limitations. I know that from the theater that I've worked and from my history, I've worked from $300 budgets and now I've worked on $20 million budgets. It doesn't really change. It's not about the technology. It's about the power of art to transform.

I think transformation becomes 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...almost cubistic, see all aspects at the same time.

And what that does for human beings is it allows them 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?

TAYMOR: Because in Indonesia, art at that time -- I don't know what it's like now -- was, is the most fundamental thing. To be able to dance in an all night topang performance in Bali is what you do to survive as a human being. You don't just do it to be in your leisure spare time.

And I was very age 21. I've been in theater since I was 11 years old. And I finally saw a culture where it really meant a complete difference, that these performances were the very act of devotion.

MOYERS: As I listen to you talk, so many of us live workaholic lives, going from one obligation to the other. We seem so devoid, so many of us, of this kind of passion, this kind of enthusiasm for the dance, as you say, for art. How do we get that back?

TAYMOR: I think it happens through [SIGHS] through people allowing themselves to be receptive, to be open. You have to encourage people to say, go out and let it happen to you.

MOYERS: It has to be nurtured, though.

TAYMOR: Yes, it does. You have to nurture it. Now we're in a society where everybody's frightened. When I was 13, my parents let me go to Sri Lanka. When I was 16 I lived in Paris alone. Do you think any parent would do that with a child now? They're terrified of it.

MOYERS: If we do that, the terrorists win. I mean, because the...

TAYMOR: Well, that's the problem. We're living in a time of terror, we're...

MOYERS: They're after our psyche.

TAYMOR: ...frightened of being exposed, of being challenged, of being in an uncomfortable situation.

I don't...I like that, because then I find out more about myself. If I'm in an uncomfortable situation, I either find that I have to make a bridge to somebody else and then the joy from that bridge is unsurmountable.

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

TAYMOR: Thank you so much.

IMAGE CREDIT "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" from 1937. National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

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