Director's Notes on 'Titus'


Julie Taymor

Fox Searchlight Pictures and Clear Blue Sky Productions present in association with the Overseas Filmgroup, "Titus" the feature film directorial debut of Julie Taymor, who also wrote the screenplay. Produced by Jody Patton, Conchita, Airoldi and Julie Taymor and executive produced by Paul G. Allen, the film stars Academy Awardä winners Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, as well as Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfadyen, Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Ellen Little, Robbie Little and Stephen K. Bannon are co-executive producers.

Taymor, an Emmy and OBIE award-winner who earned two Tony Awards for the Broadway version of "The Lion King," first staged her version of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" in 1995 to New York theater audiences who were mesmerized by her surreal and time-bending fusion of costumes and settings from many eras. This comic tragedy begins with the great Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), returning home victorious after a long and brutal war with the Goths. His first act is to ritually sacrifice the eldest son of the Goth Queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), his prisoner. But when the corrupt Saturninus (Alan Cumming) is made emperor and surprisingly makes Tamora his queen, a new battle ensues as Tamora, and then Titus, enact a tale of double revenge.

To bring Taymor's vision to the screen, she has assembled a talent creative team including the five-time Academy Awardä -nominated production designer Dante Ferretti ("Kundun," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"), two-time Oscar -winning costume designer Milena Canonero ("Chariots of Fire," "A Clockwork Orange"), two-time Academy Awardä -nominated composer Elliot Goldenthal ("Interview with the Vampire," "The Butcher Boy"), director of photography Luciano Tovoli ("Reversal of Fortune," "Before and After") and Oscar winning editor Francoise Bonnot ("Missing," "The Year of the Dragon").

Director's Notes

Please Note Before Reading or Seeing the Film that Significant Plot Points Are Revealed in the Following Introduction

For centuries "Titus Andronicus," Shakespeare's earliest play, has been the subject of hot debate. Regarded as his most successful potboiler in his own day, the polite centuries, before our own, were shocked by the juxtaposition of heightened drama, ruthless violence and absurdist black comedy. It is precisely these characteristics that fascinated and convinced me that the play was ripe for adaptation to film, speaking directly to our times; a time whose audience feeds daily on tabloid sex scandals, teenage gang rape, high school gun sprees and the private details of a celebrity murder trial. And equally a time where racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide have almost ceased to shock by being so commonplace and seemingly inevitable. Our entertainment industry thrives on the graphic details of murders, rapes and villainy yet it is rare to find a film or play that not only reflects the dark events but turns them inside out, probing and challenging our fundamental beliefs on morality and justice. For "Titus" is not a neat or safe story, where goodness triumphs over evil, but one in which through its relentless horror, the undeniable poetry of human tragedy emerges in full force, demanding we examine the very root of violence and judge its various acts.

War, ritual sacrifice, infanticide, rape, nihilistic torture, honor killing, suicide, and vengeance: the ferocious, cynical and wickedly witty voice of the young Shakespeare has created a condemning dissertation on this addiction and basic nature of mankind. The glory and victory of war for one nation is grief and devastation for another. Though at times arguably necessary, once one form of violence is accepted and justified the floodgates are opened and the reverberations flow into a never-ending vicious cycle.


The great general Titus Andronicus is a fascinating and unnerving protagonist. At first glance he could be our Colin Powell or General Schwarzkopf. The Roman people, in their love and reverence for their triumphant war hero, beg that he become their emperor in a time of chaos. He is an honorable man, a strict but loving father who respects traditions and the law, but whose fatal flaw is, ironically, this rigidity and inability to adapt to the emotional climate around him. According to religious ritual Titus mercilessly sacrifices the eldest son of the captive Goth Queen. This first act is the catalyst for the rest of the events that spiral out of control. From great war hero Titus descends into a madness that rivals King Lear's. The armor of his world view shattered, Titus, in his insanity, is finally able to see the world as it truly is. In a bittersweet and wonderfully absurd scene he acknowledges that the Goddess of Justice has fled the earth, so he wraps letters around arrows, shoots them to the heavens, soliciting the Gods to right his wrongs. Ultimately Titus weds his sorrow with vengeance and in a final act of retribution this great General evolves into a mythic pastry chef, serving up his enemies in the form of pies to be devoured by their mother.

Tamora, the Goth Queen could be the precursor for Lady Macbeth. In fact she is much more dimensional and psychologically comprehensible than Shakespeare's most famous villainess. First seen as captive, she witnesses the brutal sacrifice of her son. After her pleas of mercy fall upon deaf ears she cries out with searing venom, "Oh cruel, irreligious piety!" From this moment onward we understand her motivations and we watch in horror as the lust for vengeance transforms her into the Goddess of Vengeance incarnate. Along the way this extraordinary character moves us as a mother, seduces us as a sexy and sly lover and confounds us with her brilliant and cunning control as the powerful Empress of Rome.

Tamora's slave, lover and cohort in evil is Aaron, the Moor. Perhaps the most disturbing and yet contemporary of all the characters, Aaron begins as an enigma. His story unfolds as we watch in shock his master manipulation of the awful events. His nasty sense of humor and asides connect the audience to him in the same manner as an Iago or Richard the Third. But what sets him apart from those arch villains is that Aaron is black. Shakespeare has painted a picture of racism that is unparalleled in his other plays. The speeches of Aaron that reflect his fury at the bigoted world surrounding him, and the vile words that spew at him from others, allow us to reflect on how and why he became this godless soul. Nihilistic, atheistic, cold and calculating, this dark figure emerges as the mirror image of Titus. Titus begins as the good man, acting upon honor and a sense of morality. Aaron is the artful and selfaware devil who revels in horrific acts of atrocity without conscience. But by the end, Titus' turn as the cook closely resembles an Aaron act in its cruelty and creativity, while Aaron, the loner, evolves into a loving father, ready to sacrifice himself for the life of his child.


In adapting "Titus" to a screenplay the challenge was to maintain the contrasts and scope in Shakespeare's vision: his story and language is at once poetic and very direct. It shifts between graphic, base emotions and ephemeral, mythic revelations. Though I was committed to creating a film whose world would be grounded in a sense of possibility and reality, I was also committed to the ideas I had formulated in the theater that juxtaposed stylized and naturalistic imagery.


Modem Rome built on the ruins of ancient Rome, offered the perfect stratification for the setting of the film. I wanted to blend and collide time, to create a singular period that juxtaposed elements of ancient barbaric ritual with familiar, contemporary attitude and style. Instead of recreating Rome, 400 AD, the locations of the film would include the ruins of Hadrian's villa, the baths of Caracalla, the Coliseum etc., as they are today, with all their corroded beauty, centuries of graffiti and ghastly, ghostly history. As counterpoint to the classical architecture, Dante Ferreti, my production designer, introduced me to E.U.R., Mussolini's government center, whose principal building is referred to as the "square coliseum" because of its myriad arches. Built by Mussolini to recreate the glory of the ancient Roman Empire, this surreal -- almost futuristic architecture was a setting which perfectly embodied the concept for the film.

To frame the narrative I chose an architectural structure to function in a symbolic manner: the Roman Coliseum; the archetypal theater of cruelty, where violence as entertainment reached its apex.

The film opens with a prologue that encapsulates the spectrum of "violence" as it transforms, in a matter of seconds, from innocuous entertainment to horrific reality. As the child's innocent play with his toy soldiers escalates into a palpably thunderous explosion of bombs, the boy falls through an "Alice in Wonderland" time warp, right into the Coliseum. Magically his toy Roman soldiers have become armored flesh and blood, covered in layers of earth; Titus and his armies returning from war with a triumphant march into the arena. The conventions of the film are set in motion: archaic armor and weapons, motorcycles, tractors, tanks and horse drawn chariots, comfortably jumbled together like the toys on the boy's kitchen table. As to the spectators in the bleachers, there are none. Only the sound of their cheering, as if ghosts of past centuries were being awakened. The boy takes his part as young Lucius, Titus' grandson, and it is through his eyes we witness this tale of revenge and compassion.

The Crossroads and the Swamp are two examples of how location functions as ideographs for the thematic essence of a scene.

The Crossroads: At a certain point Titus realizes that his actions have resulted in his responsibility for the potential execution of his own sons. His self-awareness places him at a crossroads in his life, where his world view begins to unravel. Literally and figuratively, his armor is gone, he is vulnerable. The physical crossroads with its limitless vanishing points underlines his state of mind and his relationship to his family and Rome.

The Swamp: Shakespeare's words suggest it all. "There stands the spring you have stained with mud "Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands Have lopped and hew'd and made thy body bare Of her two branches.

The swamp is a metaphor for the ravishment of Lavinia. She stands deserted, on a charred tree stump, surrounded by muddy waters that gurgle with sulfur springs. Where once were hands are now gnarly twigs. The result is surreal and poetic, thus keeping with my vision of the work and not falling into the trap of utter realism. There is a danger in a literal and graphic portrayal of an image such as Lavinia's dismemberment. It is easily too grotesquely horrific and can upstage the larger picture of the event.


My cue came from Shakespeare himself. The genius of his drama is that he juxtaposes very direct, simple and visceral actions with immense poetic verbal imagery, allowing neither direction to overindulge in either gratuitous action or sentimental poeticizing. In contrast to Lavinia's fate, the gruesome action of Titus' hand being lopped off by Aaron with a meat cleaver, is in full view: the pain, the scream, the mess of blood, the rags to stop the bleeding; all matter of fact and no fancy. Throughout the film there is a tension between the real and the surreal, the poetic and the graphic, thus hopefully allowing the adrenaline to rush while the heart and mind is challenged.

Within this very gritty drama there is a constant referencing to Latin and Greek mythology as well as to animal and nature's symbolism. We see the teeth of cruelty and then hear that, "Rome is but a wilderness of tigers . . ." Lavinia, Titus' daughter, is often referred to as a doe, and the rape and mutilation which overcome her are direct parallels to the story of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphosis. These images became quite concrete in my mind and seemed crucial in the physical telling of the tale. Verbal motifs would become visual ones. The image of Lavinia, the doe, being ravished by Chiron and Demetrius, at once the sons of Tamora and ferocious tigers, had to be realized.

The concept of the "Penny Arcade Nightmares" was devised to portray the inner landscapes of the mind as affected by the external actions. These stylized, haiku-like images appear at various points throughout the film counterpointing the realistic events in a dreamlike, and mythic manner. They depict, in abstract collages, fragments of memory, the unfathomable layers of a violent event, the metamorphic flux of the human, animal and the divine. By the last of these surreal sequences the line between illusion and substance becomes blurred. -The nightmare takes over ... madness becomes clarity and the unimaginable is realized.

The finale banquet slaughter, which mirrors the opening carnage at the boy's kitchen table, ends with Lucius aiming his pistol at the emperor Saturninus. We are in an interior set, Titus' dining room. With the reverberating blast of gunshot, the camera quickly zooms out from the table to reveal the entire scene, minus the walls, now sitting in the center of the coliseum. This time, the bleachers are filled with spectators. Watching. They are silent. They are us.

As counterpoint to Shakespeare's dark tale of vengeance is the journey of the young boy from childhood innocence to passive witness and finally to knowledge, wisdom, compassion and choice. As the drama comes to its end young Lucius, the boy takes Aaron's baby in his arms. Holding his "enemy," the young Lucius begins to move toward the exit arch of the coliseum. As he walks, the infinite night sky within that single archway slowly gives way to dawn. The boy keeps moving toward the exit, toward the promise of daylight as if redemption were a possibility.


Following her triumph on Broadway with "The Lion King," Julie Taymor has transformed her 1995 stage production of Shakespeare's early tragedy, "Titus Andronicus" a play which the respected Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate says, "Titus is characterized by a bold combination of high tragedy and black comedy, of pathos and grotesquerie, of love-language and bloody spectacle."

A hit with audiences in Shakespeare's day., "Titus Andronicus" fell into disrepute in the eighteenth century -the era that re-wrote "King Lear" to give it a happy endingbecause its blend of horror, pathos and nightmare hilarity did not conform to canons of classical taste, or indeed to any known theatrical esthetic since the first tragedies of Greece and Rome. The play came into its own again in our century, the century of Auschwitz and Beckett, beginning with Peter Brook's landmark 1955 production starring Laurence Olivier as Titus and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia. "'Titus,"' wrote Brook, "is about the most modern of emotions -- about violence, hatred, cruelty, pain..."

"Such a Shakespeare belongs to the renaissance, and at the same time is most modern indeed," wrote critic and scholar Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary after seeing Brook's production. Praised by influential critics like Kenneth Tynan and Leslie Fiedler, the play has been rediscovered by other Shakespeare scholars who now view it as one of the playwright's great experiments, and the blueprint of his tragic imagination.

"The characters in 'Titus' are very complex and three-dimensional," says Taymor. "There are ten principals, and every one of them is interesting. A lot of this play is the inspiration for future Shakespeare plays: you see Lear in Titus, you see Iago and Richard III in Aaron, you see Lady Macbeth in Tamora."

Titus Andronicus, the great Roman general, returns home victorious from a long war with the northern Goths during which all but his four remaining sons have died. Lucius, the eldest son, reminds Titus that part of the victory ritual is the human sacrifice of an enemy prisoner. Titus chooses the eldest son of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, who has been brought back to Rome as a captive with her three sons and the Moor, Aaron. Though Tamora pleads for her son's life, Titus carries out the ritual, not out of cruelty but out of what he conceives to be religious devotion. Tamora and her two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius, vow revenge. With that, the tale of double revenge begin -- first Tamora's and then Titus'.

To the dismay of his family and friends, Titus faithfully supports the new emperor, the spoiled and corrupt Saturninus, who surprises everyone by taking the seductive and alluring Tamora for his wife -- an act that shocks and unsettles Titus and further enrages Titus' family, causing the disoriented Titus to kill one of his own sons in the' dispute. Now the enemy is in a position of power and, through a truce is feigned by Tamora, the battle truly begins.

During a hunt in the forest, Aaron, the Moor, plots with Tamora and her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to kill Bassianus, the emperor's brother and the husband of Titus' only daughter, Lavinia, who is dragged away mercilessly by the boys. Aaron frames two of Titus' sons for Bassianus' murder and, in spite of Titus' pleas, the Emperor condemns them to be executed and orders that Titus' eldest son, Lucius, be banished from Rome. Just as Titus laments this terrible turn of events, his brother, Marcus, brings him the maimed Lavinia.

Aaron appears with the message that if Titus cuts off his own hand and sends it to the emperor, he will have his condemned sons back. Titus lets Aaron cut off his hand, but realizes how cruelly he was deceived when he receives in return his sons' severed heads. Vowing revenge, Titus sends his only remaining. son, the exiled Lucius, to the Goths to raise an army against the Roman emperor. When Lavinia finds a way to write the names of Chiron and Demetrius in the sand, Titus continues to plot his vengeance.

Aaron turns his back on Tamora when she asks him to destroy the child she has secretly born him -- for he and Tamora have been lovers all along -- and he escapes from Rome with his son, only to be captured by Lucius and the Goths. In an effort to save his son, Aaron confesses all to Lucius.

To his family and all of Rome, Titus appears by his eccentric behavior to have gone completely mad. Tamora is overjoyed, but Saturninus, insulted and outraged, demands that the Senate take action against Titus. Then they hear the bad news that Lucius is bearing down on Rome with an army of Goths. Although Tamora tries to "trick" Titus, he outwits her and captures her two sons, revealing to them how he will take revenge on their mother at a feast he is preparing.

The feast begins, deceptively cordial, painfully tense. And, all are present but Chiron and Demetrius...

Taymor's daring stage production of "Titus Andronicus" comes to the screen transformed by the director into a totally cinematic experience, with elaborate sets and the grand scale of real historical monuments from the Roman Empire and the Mussolini era.

As in the stage production, Taymor conceived the costumes to express the personalities of the characters and the nature of the events rather than to establish. time. Titus progresses from ancient battle dress, completely black, to Eisenhower jacket, to a baggy gray sweater and loose-fitting corduroy pants, to a terrycloth robe, to finally, his cook's outfit, all white. While Tamora could have come out of the 1930s, and Lavinia -- "the jewel of Rome" -- is dressed like Grace Kelly. "These references are not literal," says Taymor, "but suggestive, playing on archetypes."

"While the theater allows for a more minimal and emblematic approach to setting, employing the imagination of the audience to fill in the gaps," says Taymor, "film is a more literal medium, able and expected to transport the viewer to a variety of locations."

"In the theater production I directed the actors to find a balance between heightened choreography and naturalism," says Taymor, "in the film I wanted them to make their characters and actions natural without sacrificing the poetry." Thus, Taymor had a three-week rehearsal period before the start of the shoot, during which the text was dissected and made as comfortable as possible on the tongues of those with little or no Shakespeare experience. It was also invaluable in, allowing the actors to get a sense of the arc of their parts.

Playing the honorable but deeply flawed hero, Anthony Hopkins. He is joined by Jessica Lange as Tamora, who is driven to acts of terrible vengeance by Titus' sacrifice of her son. Alan Cumming is Saturninus, the envious, weak-willed heir to the throne, who repays Titus' loyalty with spite and cruelty.

Harry Lennix plays Aaron, one of Shakespeare's most fascinating villains -- the captured Moor who uses the lusts of Tamora and her sons to wreak havoc among his enemies, then undergoes a transformation as startling as Titus'. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys are Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius, whose crimes evoke a ferocious retribution, and Laura Fraser is Titus' daughter Lavinia, whose sad, fate makes her a living reproach to the men whose brutal actions drive the story.

Colm Feore plays Titus' younger brother, the politician Marcus, while Angus Macfadyen plays Titus' oldest son, the warrior Lucius. His son, Titus' grandson, the young Lucius -- the innocent witness to this tale of righteous and tragic revenge -- is played by newcomer Osheen Jones. James Frain is Bassianus, the decent younger brother of the unscrupulous emperor, Saturninus.

The production design for the film is by five-time Academy Award-nominee Dante Ferreti, costumes are by Milena Canonero, a two-time Oscar winner for "Barry Lyndon" and "Chariots of Fire." Cinematography is by Luciano Tovoli, best known for his work with Barbet Schroeder on "Reversal of Fortune" and "Single White Female," and the editor is Francoise Bonnot, who won an Oscar for her work on Costa-Gavras' "Z" and subsequently collaborated with Costa-Gavras on "Missing" G and Michael Cimino on "The Year of the Dragon." The score is by Taymor's frequent collaborator in the theater, two-time Academy Award-nominee Elliot Goldenthal ("Interview with the Vampire," "Michael Collins"), whose other films include such major Hollywood productions as "A Time to Kill," "Batman Forever" and "Heat," and most recently "The Butcher Boy."

Julie Taymor
TM© Searchlight Pictures, Fox.

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