Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for THE GLORIAS

Geri speaks with acclaimed screenwriter, dramatist, and director Julie Taymor—co-writer and director of the new biopic THE GLORIAS—about her approach to storytelling, how projects can be shaped by limitations, how established creators like her still have to fight to get films like THE GLORIAS made, how travel has been the best education, and much more.

Celebrated for her work on stage and screen, Julie Taymor’s writing and directing credits include the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, FRIDA; the Beatles jukebox musical, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE; and one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time, THE LION KING, which received three Drama Desk and two Tony Awards in 1998.

Her latest project, THE GLORIAS, is a biography of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Julie and co-writer Sarah Ruhl adapted the screenplay from Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road. The film was released on September 30, 2020, and is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Season 7 of OnWriting is hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.

Geri Cole: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East, I’m your host, Geri Cole, and each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news, break down everything from the writing process, to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to speak with Julie Taymor, co-writer and director of the new feature film, The Glorias, a biography of feminist icon, Gloria Steinem. Julie adapted the screenplay with Sarah Ruhl from Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road. Acclaimed for her work on stage and screen, Julie has written and directed everything from the Frida Kahlo biopic, Frida, the Beatles jukebox musical, Across the Universe, and one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time, The Lion King.

I spoke with Julie via Zoom about how established creators like her still have to fight to get films like The Glorias made, her approach to storytelling and how projects can be shaped by limitations, and how travel has been the best education. Well, Ms. Taymor, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s very exciting to get to talk with you. I guess I want to start by talking about how you’re holding up, if you’re able to find a creative spark during this time, during the quarantine.

Julie Taymor: Well, actually I think, as the writer side of me, this is what you can do during this time. I spent the first couple of months working, well, on two projects, two writing projects. One, as a director guiding a young screenwriter, Marissa Goodhill, on a project that hasn’t been announced yet, but we’re working together on it, and it’s not uptake of a book. We have our script now through the process of about two or three drafts. I’m very excited about that. I think that we probably will wait till … actually, production wouldn’t be for another year, because we have to do all … We have to raise the money, we have to cast it, all of that. But the other big, exciting thing for me right now after getting The Glorias out, which there was a lot to do during the COVID shutdown. I had to do the end credits.

I actually, the main on end, I colorized myself and we had a lot of press to do and organizing and all that stuff. The other thing is a major original screenplay that I’m writing that I started before The Glorias. I started it when I was asked to create a new original theater piece in Korea, in Seoul, and we were starting it, and it was a big project, the biggest I’ve ever done based on mythology and futurism that I … They asked me to come up with an idea and I decided to draw from Korean culture, which is something I didn’t want to just impose a story. I said, they brought me there, the producers CJ ENM, big company, and they were going to build a theater. We were building a new kind of theater that combines film and theater in an unusual way, and then Trump got elected.

What happened is that the money fell out because the tourist industry fell out. A bomb might fall. I blessedly had The Glorias to do. I had to finish the script, I was working with Sarah, Sarah Ruhl. We were also in a lot of preparation for The Glorias, including a lot of documentary footage to be shot, so I shifted. Now, when COVID started, I was able to go back to my project, which now has transformed from theater to film. I do have a big company interested, but I didn’t … As a writer, I’ll just tell you. They loved the pitch. I had a very thorough draft, and they were offering the money to pay for it, and I decided not to take the money because I could feel the lack of control, that if I would take the money upfront, I would lose what I really love about the film.

Now, that doesn’t mean they won’t do it when it’s finished, but I didn’t feel like the amount of money was worth giving up the story, worth giving up control of the story. My lawyer, at that time I didn’t have an agent, now I do, John Burnham at ICM, but I just didn’t feel comfortable letting it go on a treatment, on a thorough treatment. I’m very excited. I’m on page 60. I know you, but you go through this, and I’m going, I don’t know if I can get past 70 pages because I already know it’s over two hours. It’s very, very visual. It’s very active. It’s got action, and it’s got dialogue, but it’s not a dialogue-driven story. It’s a character driven story, but it’s also very, very visual.

Geri Cole: Man. I have so many follow-up questions. One, because it sounds really unfortunate. Because that sounds like an amazing immersive theater experience that you were going to build, and hopefully that still happens.

Julie Taymor: Yeah. Let me just answer that my ideal, and I am talking to people like this in Japan and other places, it’s a very Pan-Asian story. You know I’ve spent a lot of time in Indonesia and Japan, and now China and Korea. I would like to do it simultaneously as both, because the theater part of it is going to have a lot of dimensional film, and I would have to create these pieces. It’s a new kind of theater. It’s not using film as backgrounds. It’s not projections. It’s actually, the theater surrounds you. Even for film, it’s 180 degrees of projection, but the projection is dimensional with … like imagine 3D live theater, which it is, it already is 3D with 3D film with fil. I’m trying to use the latest technologies that aren’t even formed yet.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Julie Taymor: My ideal would be not to do it as a film and then adapt it to theater like The Lion King, or go from theater and adapted to film like most musicals are, which is really … It’s better to conceive of musical theater on film, because then there are no limitations. Do you know what I mean by that? Across the Universe has 150 scenes. That’s impossible to do in theater. You have to re-conceive it and really, really think of how … Even The Lion King, most people, how do you do a stampede on stage? Well, through puppetry, frankly, that’s how. You can’t do it with live animals and there’s no CGI, and you’re not doing that. I would love to do this simultaneously, but that’s never done, but think about it.

If you’re going to have the live experience, say somewhere in Asia, that’s only for that particular place. Why not have the film at the same time, because film does not stop people from wanting to see theater, and vice versa. I think they’re mutually inclusive. I kind of have a dream of working on them both. It’s like who comes up first with the support. Yeah, but also I have to say, my screenplay is not a theater play. The theater version of it, which I’ve already written, is more poetic and it’s music … It’s sang, a lot of it is sang. The film version there is singing, but it’s not a musical.

Geri Cole: You’re actually answering my next question, which is like, how do you determine? I feel like you go back and forth between theater and film so much. Is it the story that tells you whether or not it should be theater or film, and/or what are the differences and pros and cons of each of being able to tell a story in the different formats?

Julie Taymor: Well, I have another project, The Grand Delusion, which is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s, The Transposed Heads, which I did originally in 19, I think ’84 as a off of Broadway play, not as a musical. Then Elliot Goldenthal, my other half and the composer who’s done all my films and most of my theater and an opera with me, Grendel. We were commissioned to create it into a musical theater with a writer, Sidney Goldfarb. So, Sydney and I worked together, and we did it at Lincoln center and the American Music Theater Festival. It was semi-successful. I’m not even talking about audience. Audiences liked it, but we weren’t completely … We had to write it too fast. We got a commission, we want to do a musical, you’ve got two months or three months, you can’t do a new musical in that limited amount of time. We put it to bed to rest.

Then Elliot and I were asked by Disney, this is when different people were running Disney. Not only in Bob Iger, but I mean, Nina Jacobson was there, and there was another big head who said, “We want to do a movie musical with you.” Elliot and I had finished Frida. This was back then. We had just finished Frida. We had seen West Side Story at the, I think it was at the Chinese Mann Theater in Hollywood. They’d had a beautiful lush reopening, and Elliot and I said, why are we working on The Transposed Heads as just a straight movie? Because Bob Chartoff wanted to do it, Lynn Hendee and Bob Chartoff. So, we started to write it as a plain straight movie. I completely threw out the original script and took it from all India. It was all in the original story by Thomas Mann, it was all set in a kind of mythic India.

Even in the theater, the original, it was kind of in … and it was in an Indian setting, kind of fable setting because it’s magical realism. When I started to think of it as a movie, and this is how you go from theater to film, I said, well, I think I want to bring it up to date and set it in contemporary New York, contemporary India and mythological India. I started to work on a straight movie script with Sidney Goldfarb and co-writers, and then we saw West Side Story again. Elliot and I said, nah, we got to go back to making it a movie musical. That’s when Disney came in. They paid for the development of six or seven new songs. We completely made it New York, like I said, and so it’s incredible music. It’s Elliot Goldenthal, but it’s very original. It has Indian rhythms and sounds and instrumentation, but it’s through Goldenthal, through … it’s also the three leads.

One is from Jamaica, and he’s got Indian and African-American race. He’s a mixed race. One is a white guy, goes to school in Columbia University, and one is a full-out Indian woman from Southern India, from Kerala, so our three leads are very mixed. When we started pushing this out, I have to say, Geri, there was no openness to this kind of story. None. I feel like I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of, we don’t want that, we’re not interested, and now everybody is interested. But still, I am a white woman dealing with stories from outside of “whatever they think my own culture is” because frankly, I wouldn’t call my suburban white neighborhood outside of Boston my culture. I have no identification with that whatsoever. I spent more of my life in Asia and Latin America and where I feel moved and Africa, frankly, with The Lion King and the kind of things I’ve done with that all over the world.

The identity politics has to take a couple of steps further. I know where we are now. There’s a certain first step that has to be taken, which I get, and I understand, but I think there was a beautiful article. I’m segueing here, but do you remember the article about the fact that, I think Ron Howard is directing a Chinese a story about Ling-Ling, or the piano. Am I correct?

Geri Cole: Oh, I missed this.

Julie Taymor: Oh no, no. It was really interesting because he got criticized for being a white guy telling a Chinese story, and it took an African-American to answer that. I think it’s a phenomenal article with a lot of questions to be asked. I don’t want to lay down that now, because we’re not talking about that. But I think, as writers, if you’re a woman, can you tell a man’s story? If you’re an African-American, can you tell a white person’s story? Of course, we need to hear people tell their own stories. That’s kind of 101. Of course, that’s true. On the other hand, if you are compelled and moved to tell a story, either as a director or as a writer, you should tell it. All points of view are important.

Geri Cole: Absolutely.

Julie Taymor: All points of view.

Geri Cole: I think that the concern is that there hasn’t been space for people to tell their own stories, but once we get to the point where there are space for people to tell their own stories, then I … but I also absolutely agree that people are able to tell other types of stories. I was watching this talk with Bo Burnham, and they were talking with him about how he wrote and directed eighth grade about how he so accurately portrayed an eighth grade girl. He was like, well, I know anxiety, I know insecurity, I know … these universal human feelings that like … I can tell those stories through that lens. Obviously he collaborated a lot with the actress who portrayed the character, but I just thought that was a really beautiful way. It was like, well, I know these natural human emotions, and so that’s the story that I’m telling.

Julie Taymor: It’s an ironic time right now because we’re so, as you hear from Biden and Harris and all, we’re such a divided nation, and what we need to do is to unify. Ultimately, that is the next step. Isn’t it? The first step is hear these voices and produce these voices. Produce them. There are people who’ve been writing their stories for a long time. It’s just getting them out there in the marketplace, getting them supported. We got no support for The Glorias from Hollywood. None.

Geri Cole: Really?

Julie Taymor: The money was not raised. It was not-for-profit. The money for The Glorias was raised through a philanthropist couple whose names are not on the credits, because they’re not filmed people. They give money to women’s causes all over the world, and through Gloria Steinem, when we were rejected. Well, we were offered some money, but not enough for this epic story. Do you understand what I mean? This is a wide canvas. She travels all over, including India. I wasn’t going to tell an 80 year life story with all those decades and all these actors for a pittance. It’s not right. Why does all the money go into …

Geri Cole: Superhero.

Julie Taymor: Famous men and superheroes. We’ve got a living hero here, and she’s also the composite of many other women. If you’ve seen the movie, which I’m hoping you have, through Gloria, her book, we get to see Flo Kennedy. We get to see Bella Abzug and Wilma Mankiller. We get to be introduced to women that I didn’t know before I read her book. I mean, I knew who Bella Abzug was, but did I know who Flo Kennedy, or Dorothy Pittman was? No. So, I felt when I tried to raise the money, even with Julianne Moore attached, even with the best seller and myself, we could not. It wasn’t that they called it a chick flick, but that’s the underlying thing.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Julie Taymor: No, I know. People don’t know because it doesn’t say who gave us the money, but we went to this philanthropist and they gave us the money, not for profit. It’s under one of those files. If there was recoupment, which there won’t be now because it’s streaming … This was Roadside, a wonderful company. They bought the film after Sundance and they wanted to release it in theaters, and not, up until August, there was that hope, but it clearly became obvious, unless you have gobs of money. Even if you do tenet didn’t get out there.

People aren’t going to movie theaters. We urged them and they agreed that we would try to stream it five weeks before the election so that we would … we were Gloria and me, and Julianne, and Alicia and anybody else of the past was going to be on a Greyhound bus right now, touring the swing states, showing our movie, cross partisan lines, inspiring young people to say, “Listen, don’t give up. Please, as Gloria says, look to the upside of the downside.

So, we’re sad that we didn’t get out there. We’re just hoping that a lot of people will see it on Amazon Prime and all the other platforms and pass it on, so that if you’re concerned about your lack of voice, you’ll see that women, black women, and native American women, they never had a voice. It was their voice. You got to bring your voice. We talked about Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week. Without The Glorias, as I call them, the women who are, not just the white women, but the African-American women who were there before the white women, frankly. You’ll see that, that Gloria was brought into this movement … not brought in, but helped given a voice through them, that if those women, all of them didn’t keep out in the streets, in the talking circles, on the pages of Ms., there wouldn’t be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg hearing them to change the laws.

It’s a two-part process. Our movie, I hope it’s entertaining. I think it’s fun. I think that there’s a lot to see. Yet, I also … we did it for a mission as well. It changed, because we started it before the last election. It could have been a celebration, right? It could have been a celebration of the first female president or the woman whose presidency was stolen.

Geri Cole: Yeah, because she did technically win.

Julie Taymor: She did win, and she would have won if Comey hadn’t done the October surprise one week before.

Geri Cole: One of the things that I want to make sure to touch on is like, I feel like I grew up the beneficiary of these women’s work, and it amazed me how I’d never really heard the story before. I just wanted to talk a little bit about that, about yeah, how all these amazing women that I had maybe heard names of, but hadn’t seen a movie or many stories about the women’s liberation movement, even though it was literally just a generation ago. Again, I feel like I’ve been the beneficiary of all of this hard work, but it sounds like, even now, even today, you were having trouble getting the story told, which is amazing.

Julie Taymor: Yeah. It’s crazy. Look what’s on the chopping block. Roe V. Wade. Look at the systemic racism that has been exposed, but it’s getting worse. Just look when Flo Kennedy says sexism and racism are intertwined and cannot be separated. This is a thing that Gloria, going on speaking tours with these extraordinary women, she learned. What I felt was important in the movie, in the book, and that I wanted to bring into the screenplay was the fact that yes, there are the women who are out there and who are unknown, but will get more known like Shirley Chisholm is known, and now there’ll be a movie on Shirley. Even talking about Fannie Lou Hamer, that’s one of my favorite, favorite, favorite speeches now. I suppose I’ve lifted it whole from her. I don’t take credit for that.

I lifted it whole from Gloria’s book. There’s a true adaptation from the book. She’s a great writer, but she also remembered what these women said to her. So, I put it in there. It’s not a famous woman. It’s a woman who’s marching next to the young Gloria in 1963 in the March on Washington, and she talks about Fannie Lou Hamer, or she talks about why aren’t there any women speakers on the platform. I had already used, in black and white, the Martin Luther King speech, pieces of it, in Across the Universe. It’s when, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, it’s during that whole section. But this point of view, which is what is so important about this film, his point of view, which I think is really a writer’s … That’s what we have to all decide. What’s the point of view? You’re not just telling a story.

What’s the subjective point of view. This thing that this woman, Mrs. Green said to her, really altered how she saw her power. When Mrs. Green says, if you white women don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else? Because Gloria is saying, “No one listens to me. They listened to the man to my right at the table because they take him more seriously.” And Mrs. Green is saying, she goes right up to her delegation leader and says, “Why aren’t there any women on the [inaudible 00:20:03]? And he says, “Oh, there’ll be. Mahalia Jackson is going to sing, and Marian Anderson’s going to sing in a minute. She says, “Singing ain’t speaking.” It’s her and the little girl in the barbershop, right at age 11 or 12, who invites her in with no prejudice, with no fear.

The adults there, the men, they’re like, what the hell is going on here? But the little girl sees another little girl sees the alliance in the tap shoes, sees the comradery and the tap shoes. This is Gloria’s education. Then of course, the biggest one early in her life is India, where she was exposed to Caste riots and to Gandhi’s technique, which was told to him by women, talked to him by women of talking circles around the fire. Yeah, I’m very excited if there will be a Flo Kennedy play and a Flo … Lorraine Toussaint should do it. No matter what, Lorraine Toussaint should play Flo Kennedy in a more expansive version. I think a book is coming out about Flo, another book, but a book, a biography, so Lorraine should do it. Dorothy’s having a book come out, and we just did a happy birthday to Dorothy Pitman Hughes in Lumpkin, Georgia last week with Gloria, and about 30 members of Dorothy’s family were there and singing, all a Zoom call.

Gloria got a plaque in Lumpkin, Georgia, a big plaque to Dorothy Pitman Hughes about what she did as an activist and celebrated her. Yeah, well, that’s Gloria.

Geri Cole: It’s incredible, specifically in Glorias story, how did you decide, like what would make it in and what would get left in the cutting room floor, and were there things left on the cutting room floor that you regret or that you wish you could have …

Julie Taymor: Well, there’s things left on the writer table floor, meaning it was in the script and I had to make cuts. They were the things that I had liked best about the book, ironically. Ironically. This is the trick with adapting the book. When I first read it, I said, this is not a movie. It’s not even remotely dramatic. It doesn’t have a three-part structure. It’s all over the place. It’s chapters on taxi rides, canvassing for this person, stories here. She doesn’t even talk about the Bunny’s experience, because she really wanted to put that into the background. That’s not in her book. I had to ask her if I could do that, I felt it was important. But her childhood, her mother in the future, it’s all mixed up, and it’s 80 years. I put it down, I read it for entertainment.

I read it to know because my best friend told me to read it on a beach, and then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew Gloria, not deeply, but I knew her. I called her and I said, “Can I adapt this?” She was shocked. She said, “I don’t know. Well, sure.” She loved Across the Universe, and she loved my theater work and Frida and the films, all of them. She said, “I trust you, go ahead.” Now, the big thing was, in adapting it, was that I wasn’t going to just, like Frida, I wasn’t just going to go from young to old. First of all, I knew that, that would take multiple actors. We started out with a young girl, but six and 12 are miles and ages apart. I knew I had to have more than one. Then Alicia plays 20 to 40 and Julianne was always slated for 40 to 80, and then I won’t spoiler alert, but so there are four Glorias.

But I didn’t want to do a linear story. So, it took me a while. But the way that I work as a director, a writer and designer, sometimes, not designing and movies, but when I’ve done it in theater, is I look for the ideograph, the ideograph of a story, or, well, let me explain what that is. It’s a kind of abstraction. It’s like pulling everything down to one image. It’s like a Haiku, that’s what it is. If you’re painting a whole bamboo forest, how do you do it in three strokes, with a beginning of middle and an end? What is that? The three brush strokes. It’s very easy for people to understand. In The Lion King, it’s a no brainer. It’s the circle. You have the sunrise, you have the circle of life, and even with the designer, the set designer, how Pride Rock came out of the floor was in a circle. The gazelle wheels are bicycle wheels. Mufasa’s mask is a circle.

The circle of drought. It’s how I did drought. I saw it in the movie. Now, how do I put drought on a Broadway stage, a circle of silk that’s got waves painted on it. It’s pulled through a teeny hole, but it’s a circle. Without the audience going, oh my God, there’s a circle, circle, it’s a theme. It’s like a light motif in music. I live with the composer. I understand the repetition. It’s the hat on what you hang, everything else. It’s the structure. So, getting to the Glorias, after a while, the idea came to me that the ideograph for this travel, for this … this is a road picture. It’s a road movie. Obviously the road, but the Greyhound bus. The Greyhound bus is the archetypical image in America. It’s so American, of running away from home, escaping, going to visit relatives, talking to people, going to a march, taking the freedom riders to the South.

There are so many images that come out of a Greyhound bus. I thought, all right, I’m going to find a way that these four Glorias can interact. Now, what does that mean in the story? This is before I actually met with Sarah. As I started the script, it was finding this, that was the kind of key to getting into the script. I knew that what I had loved about Gloria’s book was when she would question herself. When she visits her mother in the old age, kind of it’s a home for women who have had mental problems, and her mother’s better, but she’s older, and Gloria has just done the Bunny’s article, and she’s very upset about being identified that way. She speaks with her mother. And then we cut from that in the middle of this meeting to the bus out of time, as I call it. It’s in black and white, which differentiates itself from the color part of the film, which is “realism,” “naturalism.”

This is an inner travel log. This is an inner experience on the bus. That’s why what’s outside the window is intangible. It’s moving, it’s whitish black, it’s fields, but you can’t see them. It’s trees or mountains or signs or buildings, but you don’t know where you are. On that bus, we cut from inside that hospital room with the mother to the younger Gloria saying to the older Gloria, Alicia saying Julianne, “Why didn’t she leave? I wanted to ask her, why didn’t she leave my father, our father? Why didn’t she go to New York and become a journalist?” The older Gloria who has a little more knowledge and feeling and is empathetic, but also sympathetic to her younger self says, “Then I would never have had you.” Then the younger Gloria says something like, “I didn’t even ask,” and then we cut back to the scene.

Now, when we cut back to the scene, and we know that’s what’s in her head and she’s looking with her eyes into the eyes of her mother, we have that. The sympathy you feel in her face to her mother is filled with all of the unsaid words that we know were said. Well, I do this a number of times with the bus, but I also do it with the surreal scenes in the story. The bus is the ideograph, and it’s the structure upon which all of these journeys can be hung. Also, is the interstitial connecting material there. Finally, it’s to every march, it’s the bus that goes how many times to Washington DC, how many times does it go to a protest or a meeting or a speech she’s giving at a graduation? That’s how I started the screenplay.

Geri Cole: That scene really got me when she says like, but maybe she would have given birth to herself, sort of like what your mother sacrifices so that you can have the life that she didn’t necessarily have. Man, okay, so I’d like to talk a little bit more about your process, which I feel like you’re just leading me to all of the questions that I want.

Julie Taymor: I didn’t answer you on that. Yeah.

Geri Cole: A little bit in terms of where you were focusing the story around this ideograph.

Julie Taymor: Well, the ideograph isn’t the first thing. The first thing, it was the solution. I had to bang my head and go to sleep and have nightmares and dreams and all kinds of things before I came up with that bus, but it was because I kept going back. What I guess many of us do when we’re adapting a book, as you pull out everything that seems cinematic, not just visual but dramatic. The father and the mother and the little girl, all those scenes were almost like paper moon to me. They had that resonance of that relationship and how much this little girl idolized her father, but then how you saw the father holding back the mother, and why the mother started to take the drug. All that felt real movie stuff to me. That did not feel difficult, or it was there.

When I started to really go deeply, that’s when Sarah came on and she started to help writing those scenes, I wanted a partner in some of that stuff, but in the actual pulling out, I did that. What are the scenes that I really want to be in this movie? I wanted to India, I wanted the traveling. I knew it was going to be a lot in taxis and trains and airplanes and buses. I needed that because travel is the best education, is the motto of her father and is what she grew up by. There are a lot of these kinds of things that gave me indications. The book gave me indications. You do that and then in a way you start kind of writing those scenes, and Sarah started writing them. Also, we looked at a lot of documentary footage, tons, because there is, but mostly, it’s of Gloria past age 40. It’s once Ms. Magazine, is when she became famous, like the HBO thing.

But some of those scenes with the interviewers, the TV interviewers, all of those, they were also taken from David Susskind, is directly from David Susskind. We also decided, I decided I wanted to use archival material mixed with dramatic reenactments or enactments, not reenactments, because we made up stuff. When it wasn’t right, I had Gloria there. She’s an executive producer. I’d say, “Listen, Gloria, you told me that your house was in East Toledo, that it was an old farmhouse that had a highway right in front of it. A highway just came right down, you walked down the front steps, but that’s CGI, am I going to …” Kim Jennings is my extraordinary production designer, located an amazing neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, where we shot 90% of this movie. I don’t want to have to CGI if I don’t have to.

I think the neighborhood says it all, that this is an old farmhouse in the midst of these rundown houses, and she said, Julie, all that matters is emotional truth. Because even the scene that’s in Houston, between Dolores Huerta and Gloria about abortion and choice, that never happened in that. Now, I’m spilling the beans here, but that did not happen in that hotel, nor at that time. Yes, Gloria did have these conversations with Dolores, and Dolores, because I asked Gloria to ask Delores if this was okay, because I wrote the scene and I wanted to have Dolores who was Catholic and had 10 children and was very anti-abortion. She did a change, and our change came through her relationship with Gloria Steinem. I thought, I want to show someone who is deeply religious, but comes to this evolution of understanding what choice means, that you could be anti-abortion and pro-choice, that it’s up to the women, it’s there right.

We don’t want to nationalize women’s bodies. I asked Gloria if it was okay, because as screenwriters, we have to economize our locations and it felt right, because we showed the real Phyllis Schlafly, and so we put … she was there, Dolores was in that room, listening to Phyllis Schlafly while the women’s conference, the Houston Women’s Conference was going on half the city away. So, she said, Dolores is fine with it. I’m fine with it. The content, the way you wrote it, it is correct. That was a great experience, because with Frida, Frida wasn’t alive. When the writers, I didn’t write that, I did the visual paintings coming alive, but there were many writers, Edward Norton actually did the draft that I worked from. He doesn’t get credit, but he did the draft. He did the final draft. Anyway, we had Chavela Vargas.

She was alive and she’s in the movie and she was a lover of Frida’s and she knew this, but the rest was all done by wonderful biography, but nobody that we spoke to directly will hear I had Gloria. Yesterday, Gloria just sent me a letter from Bella Abzug’s daughter who loved the movie and said that Bette Midler is the best Bella ever, and said it’s very hard for her to like portrayals of her mother, but she really did think that, that was special, and Bette got her.

Geri Cole: Obviously music is a large part of your work.

Julie Taymor: Huge. Yes.

Geri Cole: What’s your relationship to music? You said you live with a composer. Do you listen to it while you write? Is that a part of your process? Do you have specific songs or tunes in mind as you are creating different scenes and/or projects in general?

Julie Taymor: No. This one, on Glorias, Elliot Goldenthal, who did Frida, won the Academy Award. I’m so proud of him, and has done Titus for me, all of my films, all the Shakespeares, everything. Every film I’ve done, Elliot’s been the composer. He also has done most 90% of my theater. I do also Mozart, Bologna and Stravinsky, but if I have a choice, he also did an original opera with me, Grendel, which is the Beowulf legend, from the monster’s point of view, which we did at Los Angeles Opera and at the State Theater in New York, an original opera back in, right when I was doing Across the Universe, they were overlapping, which is the way life is. In this case, we talked a lot ahead of time. We knew that it would have to spend and feel an orchestration eight decades.

The only thing is that, for instance, when there’s a dance, at our 50th birthday party, I used Chet Baker as the temp music. Then we put that away. It was just the temp score. Elliot took the tune that is the father and daughter traveling in the car that’s kind of a Django Reinhardt type of tune. If you really listen, and his score is now out, it’s phenomenal. It’s my favorite score since Titus. I like Titus as well, but he took that melody and then orchestrated it with saxophone and made it a slow down, beautiful, sexy, jazz number to dance to for the party. But because we had musicians on the stage, of course we needed to have something that they were playing to that would be in the same tempo and rhythm that later Elliot could then put his own score to.

The rest is him responding from the get-go in the edit. Then the editor responding to his music when we worked together, Sabine Hoffman, who was my first time I’ve worked with Sabine, but Sabine was editing right through the shooting. This was very exciting, new relationship for me. I had worked with Françoise Bonnot on four of my other films, and Françoise Bonnot, who really was, my God, she was so important to me. It was very hard to think of working without her. She won the Academy Award for Z, for Z, but she passed away. I found Sabine, and I found it really wonderful working with her. Every week I would get my dailies cut. We actually edited this movie very fast when I finally got home. I think it may be, it took six or seven weeks to edit, and then the visual effects take forever. Put that aside, we still had to spend the requisite amount of weeks finishing the movie, but not in finding the story, not in finding it. She was doing that every week with our dailies.

Geri Cole: I’d like to talk a little bit about your inspirations and what’s in your cultural diet. What do you consume regularly? And then what you’re inspired by currently and/or historically throughout your life.

Julie Taymor: Oh my God. That’s such a huge question.

Geri Cole: I’m sorry. Yeah.

Julie Taymor: Well, I think if anybody knows anything about my past, I’ve traveled since I was a really young girl, and I would even say like Gloria, I went outside of my neighborhood when I was eight years old to Boston and worked in Boston Children’s Theater, professionally, doing shows as an actor with kids from the projects, from Dorchester, Roxbury. Culturally, they were as far away from my neighborhood … I went to public schools, so it was mixed racially, it was mixed socioeconomically, but not as much as when I went downtown and worked with these kids and became friends. That started young, but then when I was 14 or 15, I went to Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon on the experiment in international living for two or three months and lived with a family, and traveled in India and Ceylon.

Again, I graduated, I’m going to do this really quickly, I graduated high school early and went to Paris for a year when I was 16, 17, and studied mime in Paris. Now, this is where I began to see movies, really see movies for the first time. I didn’t speak French very well, and you didn’t have to. I was in a mime school. I would go to the Cinematheque almost every day and watch myriad of films from all over the world. Can’t say foreign films cause I was in France, but it’s where I saw what I would say is the film that really influenced me more than any other, and that would be Kurosawa’s Rashomon, because Rashomon blew my mind as a young creative person, I can’t say writer at the time. I can say creator, because I was, then very shortly after that, I created my own shows.

I worked in theater companies where there were no writers, and the actors developed material themselves. Rashomon is, very quickly, it’s a phenomenal film by Kurosawa, black and white, that tells a story of a rape and murder, and everybody who’s part of that event tells the same story when they’re interrogated from their point of view. So, it’s all about point of view. It’s all about objective and subjective experience, and that’s what to me, when you see The Glorias, the objective experience, or in Frida, are the things that happened, and the places she went, and the people she met, and how she talked, and how they talked and what happened. The subjective is what is she thinking? What don’t you hear her say?

The whole tornado experience that people either love or hate, believe me, that is what she would say, if she dared say it, not exactly, but it’s really only three seconds of time that I created this expanse of hallucination of a whimsical menacing of this sexist interviewer.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative), of what women are actually feeling.

Julie Taymor: Yeah. You know what? I’ve been in interviews this past two weeks, people say, well, what was that? Or even, if that’s the scene that the New York Times picked for the anatomy of a scene, and I said, “Well, think about Hillary Clinton.” Think about Hillary in the debates four years ago, when that big red menace was stocking behind her. In her documentary, Hillary, she’s even asked this. What was she thinking when that was happening? What didn’t she say? I find that to be a landscape, especially in stories of women or minorities or anything, what aren’t they saying? Because if they open their mouths they will get the big BW, if they’re a woman, bitch witch. If they’re African-American, look at how Obama was able to not be the angry black man. You know what I mean? And women, Kamala doesn’t even have to open her mouth, and she’s the … you know what I mean? The stereotypes.

I wanted to show how … The thing about Gloria is she’s non-confrontational, she doesn’t like confrontation. You see that in a scene with Bella Abzug, but also, she laughs at the ends of her sentences. Watch very closely Julianne Moore. She laugh, when she gives criticism or says something that’s astounding, she almost laughs on all of it, and then says, “Right.” Then she can be critical and say, “Well, this is my uniform, black t-shirt and black jeans and black boots. It’s more comfortable than your uniform.” The tie pinching you, and she’s smiling, and those cuffs, you go up and down. But then I go into a hallucination, the room turns red, and I let it spiral into a kind of Mac Beth witches and Harry Potter witches and the Handmaid’s Tale and the Wizard of Oz. really, when you come back to reality to the objective experience, you realize that actually she didn’t say anything.

But as a writer and director, what that scene allowed me to do was to transition from the Alicia Vikander, younger Gloria, who can’t find her voice, hasn’t yet found her voice, is finding her voice, to the 41 year old Gloria Steinem who decides enough is enough, let’s start Ms. Magazine, and is that a good idea? She does it with Flo and Dorothy and the other women who are the editors. They start to create a magazine to put their voice out. So, it functions in the script kind of midway, and its purpose is to also help make that transition, because at the beginning of the scene, it’s Alicia Vikander in the interviewee chair, and at the end, it’s Julianne Moore, and now we … not that they don’t enter each other scenes throughout the movie, but the bulk of the story now we’ll move into Ms. Magazine and onwards.

Geri Cole: Of where she finds her voice.

Julie Taymor: That’s what I was saying about me. I’m always traveling. I spent four years in Indonesia. At the same time, Gloria, when she graduated Smith and went to India for two years, I graduated Oberlin on a traveling fellowship in visual theater and went to Indonesia, Eastern Europe and Japan, and I spent three months in Indonesia, decided to stay and start a theater company and wrote, and created two original theater pieces there and toured throughout Sumatra, Java and Bali, and wrote my first screenplay about that. Never got produced, went to Sundance. Yeah, never got produced.

Geri Cole: Could still. I’d love to see that.

Julie Taymor: I have it somewhere. I know what the title was. It was On Sandia. I did it as theater then. I took the screenplay and did it as theater and toured throughout Indonesia with it and brought it to LA MaMa in New York, did it with Bill Irwin and a lot of Indonesian performers, but I never transformed it back into a screenplay. No one was interested in Indonesia. They were interested in China. I said, “It’s the fifth largest population in the world,” but no one cared. No one cared. A lot of my interests though, like I told you about the grand delusion is the updated Transposed Heads, which is an Indian legend. I’d love to do that as … it is a movie musical script. We’re dying to find producers for that.

I’m doing one, the screenplay that I’m writing now is Pan-Asian, it’s Korean-based, but it’s also futuristic, so it’s non country, every kind of race is in it. But it would be more Asia because the inspiration is from Asian mythology, Korean mythology. I have another one I’m adapting with Olivia Hetreed is the writer, a fabulous writer from England, Erica Jong’s book, Fanny, and it’s called Hackabout. This is my first TV series. We don’t necessarily have the company to do it, but we have the two first episodes, which I think are brilliantly written by Olivia. In that case, I worked as the person who got the book and wanted her to write it. This is a kind of language that wouldn’t come necessarily naturally to me. My first movie I wrote, Fool’s Fire, it was done for American Playhouse, adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe, Lindsey-Lowe produced. Sometimes I’ve written my own, quite often I co-write and now I’m writing on my own, but I go back and forth and all around.

Geri Cole: We’ll call this a two-part question. I’m curious as to what success looks like to you, how that may have changed over the years. In that, I’d also like to talk about any hard lessons that you’ve won through the years of something that you appreciate now that you wish you had appreciated before.

Julie Taymor: Well, I mean a real Gloria kind of look back, right?

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Julie Taymor: Well, women don’t brag, so it’s hard to do this, but what can I say? The Lion King’s the most successful entertainment in the history of all entertainment. Now, if I were Trump, I’d be beating my chest at the same time. What I can say about that is that it makes me very proud. I adore my collaborators. Disney has done a great job putting it out, getting it there. It’s on hold right now. 90 million people have seen it live theater. We’ve been on every continent except for Antarctica, and frankly, the penguins could care less, but I think it might be playing in Japan right now. Two companies have been there 22 years. It’s a project that I adore still. It still gives me, but it’s a two-fold success.

One is, it’s given me monetary freedom, which means I only do projects I really want to do, because a project is not for a writer, director or creator. It’s not less than two years. Most often is five. With some of these screenplays that I have that I want to do, it’s 10 and even 20 years, then I know that they’re good because they last. But the other side of it is the emotional, spiritual gratification of having people all over the world be effected by a show that … it’s what you were saying in the very beginning, there is a common story to The Lion King. Our version, I’m surprised that the movie, and I probably shouldn’t say this, the updated movie didn’t keep Rafiki as a woman. After twenty-five years of most of the people growing up with Rafiki as a female, and now his story being developed quite a lot in the Broadway musical.

In a way, I’m glad because now there’s still room to do the movie musical of The Lion King, which I’ve been wanting, and Tom Schumacher, we’ve been wanting to do for years and years, but we’re okay with waiting because the theater is still out there, but it is a musical that it’s not African, it’s not American. The creators are from South Africa, from the United States, from Jamaica, from great Britain. We’re from various places, but the story is a prodigal son archetypal story that belongs to every culture. It’s a coming of age story. It does not belong to one culture. When we do it in Japan, they get it as much as they do in Shanghai. When I go to each of these countries and we adapted into the local language, I find out the hardest thing to adapt is humor. Humor is local. Humor is local.

You can have Nathan Lane in the movie, and the original movie have Borscht Belt Jewish humor, it ain’t going to translate to French.

Geri Cole: It doesn’t travel.

Julie Taymor: It doesn’t travel. When we did it in Shanghai, which I adored working there in Mandarin, we saw that the relationship between the hyenas and the lions that was inner city in America, which didn’t play well, even in England. There is a line you can cross that becomes racist for people. On the other hand, there’s a truth to certain things, so you do it. But in China, it was Shanghai versus Beijing. Or in Japan, it was Osaka versus Tokyo. The Tokyo Heights look down on the Osakans, and vice versa. There’s a class difference, there’s a dialect difference, and this caused eruptions of laughter that we, the creators, wouldn’t get, but we trusted our Chinese counterparts who helped do the adaptation to say, This is really funny.” Oh, is it?

Then, in China, I added one new character. This was after 20 years of not having new characters added. I added monkey, because monkey in China, the Monkey King is like one of the greatest trickster characters, and so in the trickster section of The Lion King, I just can’t wait to be King. There was monkey added to it, and monkey, I designed the costumes and I sculpted the masks. I made a character that was also … had a combination between Beijing picking opera style and African fabrics. It was a really and high style makeup and the picking opera style. My joy is seeing and learning. I could tell you many stories about what happens when you take this Broadway show, but you’re doing it … like in South Africa when we went back and did it there, in America, Timon and Pumbaa usually are played by Caucasian actors.

There’s like three or four roles that white people can play, let’s put it that way. It’s reverse racism. Okay? We acknowledge it. But this was 25 years ago when we did it, and frankly, having a lot of African-Americans onstage and Africans that wasn’t about racism, a show that was not about racism, was revolutionary and it was a first. It was before Obama, so you were too young, but you have to think about this. No kid had seen, no black kid, African-American kid, had ever seen a African King or a black King on stage with a white brother who’s the bad guy. That hadn’t been done. Now we’re in South Africa, years later, doing it. Even though Timon and Pumbaa are a mere cat and a warthog, one’s purple and one’s green, literally, the actors who performed them, though they have makeup on their faces, you can tell what race they are.

A white South African Afrikaners played Pumbaa, and a black South African from Cape town, from the townships in Cape town, which I have to tell you, is like, if you know what apartheid was, these two actors playing those parts was part of the story. This is what moves me as a director. I get to see how, in the rehearsals and in the translation or adaptation, who the actors are playing, it brought as much meaning to the script or to the event as the script itself. Because think about it, Timon and Pumbaa are outcasts. They’re outcasts. They were out of the city. The way I interpret it for these actors, I said, “You missed apartheid. You didn’t know you were best friends. You were on the fringe. You were out there. You didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be best friends,” and that’s how they played it.

When the audiences came in to see this, they were astonished, because there was a story within the story, and that’s what live theater can do. That’s the exciting thing live theater. That’s why you asked me about moving back and forth in between. I get something out of each medium. I do cinematic theater in the theater, because of course, Lion King is very cinematic. You start with a wide shot, which is the circle of life, and you cut to the little mouse, which is an extreme closeup. How do I get focus? In movies, which are very movie-like, the things that I do in The Glorias, can’t be done on stage. A lot of it is CGI. It takes a lot of time, but I also try to be very visceral, very handmade in my visual effects. You’ll see that, I use animation, but the scene where Julianne Moore, Gloria is running on a conveyor belt, which is a highway, she’s running on a conveyor belt.

We took that and then we painted in the highway, and I want it to look very handmade. A lot of Across the Universe is extremely handmade looking the combination. So, it has a theatrical feel to it, but can I do that in the theater? No way. I love in cinema to write and create imagery that I can only do in cinema. I would find a way to do it in the theater, but it wouldn’t look like that. It would be … one of my favorite surreal scenes is when the 12-year old Gloria comes home from the barbershop in the police car and she’s going through her dark depressed neighborhood, knowing she’s going back to a mother who is hysterical and screaming. Hysterical in a mental way, not in a funny way, and she’s dying to go to Hollywood and be a dancer. I wanted people to see that about Gloria.

She wants to be a tap dancer. So, her neighborhood starts to transform in her eyes into, this is the 1940s, into the heyday of the ’30s in Hollywood, and we get to see Hollywood reflected on the glass, and she becomes the Gloria on the bus now. She’s the Gloria on the bus, and you see Fred Astaire leaping off of a marquee tap dancing on her window. I couldn’t do that on the stage.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Julie Taymor: I could do tap dancing, I could do flashing lights. That’s pretty Broadway, but it would come off differently. I would say that’s highly theatrical filmmaking, and in The Glorias, you get three different kinds. You get the archival, which is … that’s documentary footage. A documentary, we shot the woman’s march. That’s our footage of Gloria, mixed with other footage that we had to license. But then you have the acted scenes and Rodrigo Prieto, who is a DP, who I’ve done three movies with now, beginning with the Fridas, lighting, the whole shebang. You’re making those scenes, and then you get the surreal moments, which are kind of the way that I look at inner storytelling. That’s the way I get to another level, which I think cinema offers. I love the early filmmakers like Murnau and Melies, and Fritz Lang. I love, before they could take a camera and go out on location, they were creating their locations.

It was German expressionism or impressionism, and it was very theatrical, but cinematic. Sunrise is one of the most beautiful movies that you’ve ever seen, and that is because of their limitations. In a way, limitation was freedom. In Frida, we had a low budget, I think it was $11 million, and in the screenplay, it said they have a scene on 5th Avenue, walking, Diego and Frida are walking down 5th Avenue looking at the store windows. Then there’s another scene, she’s in Paris and all this stuff in Paris. We didn’t have the money. Thank God, Because what happened was my fabulous production designers was a Mexican team, Felipe Fernandez, we created our own version of a walkthrough New York, through archival material, screen screening Frida and Diego walking through a collage, Allah, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo style painting, and it made it much more expansive.

With limitation, we had a broader perspective shown. For Paris, I noticed that in Puebla and Mexico City, there was a lot of iron work like New Orleans that looked very French, the architecture. By limiting the color palette in the French scenes to pastels and only shooting in these environments, I could create Paris. In the New York sequences, it’s all black, white and metallic colors and we created art deco scenery, the art director. Though the screenplay called for real locations, we didn’t have the financing to do that. Same with The Glorias, except for India, we really went, most of the movies shot in Savannah, so we had to create Sturgis and the biker thing. We had to create these backgrounds and the taxis through archival, but also sometimes through layering. I find that exciting. That’s what filmmaking can do.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That working within certain limitations actually opens up possibilities that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Julie Taymor: Yeah. When people have a lot of money, too much money, sometimes they try, and I’m not talking about Spider-Man here because you also asked a question I should answer about difficulties, bad experiences or good bad experiences, but Lion King, there was never a question of you’re spending too much, you’re not spending … we never talked about money. Still, one of the most successful transitions is going from this giant wide shot of the circle of life to a cutout of cardboard, a little mouse with a stick and a flashlight lit as a shadow. It costs about 50 cents moving across the big screen, the big drop with light. It doesn’t need money. It’s a concept. It’s how you use the tools that you’re given. And why do you use a mask, and why do you use a puppet? Or why would you use a human?

I don’t always use masks and puppets, only when it’s necessary. That’s a whole nother discussion, but I have had some deeply success, positive freedom speaking around the world, affecting people’s lives, all of it. That’s what we love as artists, the shamanistic experience of really moving people. Perhaps, I remember with Frida, one digression, when Frida open in Australia, I was there opening The Lion King, and a woman came up to me and said, “I just saw the movie Frida, and I have cancer, and I know I’m going to die within six months. Your movie of Frida and how she treated pain in her life has given me a whole different perspective or idea,” I don’t know what her words were, “of how to deal with the joy and the beauty and the color in my life.”

Now, if we, as artists can even have one or two of these kinds of experiences of touching someone deeper than just, oh, that was fun, oh I could … then we’ve done our job, then we’ve done it. Entertainment is really important. But I lament the fact that people are watching The Glorias not in a big group, because we had 1,000 people on opening night, our premiere in Sundance, and the visceral feeling of a large audience, the communal experience of people laughing together, especially when there’s humor, and there’s a lot of humor and Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug. That’s sad. But anyway, so I was going to answer your question, because I truly digressed, is that Spider-Man was the darkest experience I’ve ever had, because it was … I didn’t see it right away, but the misogyny was palpable, and Gloria helped me see that because she loved the version that was the script.

The script was co-written and then the writer basically ditched it. I don’t want to talk about it, I’ve never really talked about it publicly, but what happens when … We were so famous, me, Bono Edge, Marvel, Spider-Man that, I hate to say it, but Ben Brantley had the knives out before even a script was written. He called it vulgar. He called it vulgar, the concept of bringing Spider-Man to Broadway. Now they’ve done how many comic books and stuff like that. Our script, which I still think was a great script, we just never got to finish because people choked, they got scared. We never finished it. It never got out on stage. Knowing that and all the falsehoods and all the crap that was in the paper, I’d never experienced that kind of witch hunt before.

It took my African-American colleague and friend, the actor, Harry Lennix, who from a distance from LA said, “Julie, if you were a black man, this wouldn’t have happened to you. You have to understand that. You’re not looking at what I’m seeing here.” I didn’t, because I put blinders on. I couldn’t work if I had to say, oh, this is happening because I’m a woman. I didn’t, I just do the work, but later on hindsight. Now the thing about it is that my Trial by Fire wasn’t Spider-Man, it was living in Indonesia at age 21. It was dealing with an interrupting volcano, it was dealing with a bus and truck accident when my company was on route to our first performance in Sulawesi, Java, and we crashed. It was dealing with being a woman and a foreigner in a country for four years.

It was dealing with these incredibly catastrophic things that happened, and we got through it. It was amazingly difficult. After time, when I am in the midst of something like the debacle of Spider-Man and how it seemed like you’re drowning, I just kept stepping outside of it. Looking at it from above and going, okay, this will be a huge scar, but nonetheless, it will be a warrior scar. If I can just stay above it or out of it and look at it as not the end of the world, but as part of a life experience, and there was this … I was at a Ted conference, right in the midst of the highest point of chaos, and not everybody knew this was happening, but an incredible woman came up to me, an Indian woman, at the conference and she said, “I want you to come to speak at Ted India next year.”

I said, “I’m going through this shit right now.” And she says, “You got to go to India. You’ve got to come and you will see how this fits into the entire life experience, that you can see it in a valuable way.” She was right. You see, this is the thing. I don’t want to go into the Spider-Man stuff now, but it is an amazing story, and it’s something that does teach you ultimately, even as painful and as dire as it was, and I feel sad just that people didn’t get to experience what we had been working on, that it got aborted.

Geri Cole: Well, I’d still like to see that film about your experience in four years in Indonesia and your theater company, so I hope that you’re still planning on hiding that because that sounds like an exciting story of yes, a young woman in a foreign country. It sounds incredible. I know we are out of time. I just wanted to say thank you so much again for talking with us today.

Julie Taymor: Oh, thank you so much, Geri. Have a great day.

Geri Cole: Thank you. You as well. That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at, and you can follow the Guild on social media at WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening, and ride on.


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