Oprah: When we talked in 2001, one of the things that struck me was your saying that you never take on a project unless you can figure out a core idea that moves you. What in particular excited you about Spider-Man?
Julie Taymor: Well, with this project I have to say that Bono and the Edge were a really good draw.
O: I heard they wouldn’t sign on unless you were involved.
They were hired first, and they called me, yes. But I didn’t want to do something that would basically be just another episode in a series. I wanted to do something different, so I was asking myself, “What is the essence? Why is this such a popular myth?”O:
Had you been into the story before?
JT: No, but you know my background is mythology and folklore. So I started to look at the comic books, and on page one of Ultimate Spider-Man, I found the story of Arachne. In Greek mythology, Arachne is a young girl who’s full of hubris—that attitude of “We’re better than the gods.” She was a great weaver—she wove all the stories of the gods’ misdeeds. And basically, the goddess Athena got pissed and challenged Arachne to a duel at the loom. The two female powers, the human and the goddess, wove, and Arachne’s tapestry turned out better. Athena got so angry that she destroyed it—and Arachne hung herself on a single thread. Athena was so taken with this act that she transformed her into a spider and made her immortal. Really, she was dooming her to loneliness, cursing her to weave her webs in the darkness, inspiring fear and terror everywhere.
O: All that was on the first page of a comic book?
JT: Well, I’ve probably told it a little more dramatically, which is my way. But one morning I woke up at 5—that dream time when a lot of solutions come for me—and I had the whole concept. I went, “My God, that is the essence, isn’t it?” And then of course there’s Spider-Man, this teenage boy Peter Parker, who’s an Everyboy. You know, Superman came from Krypton, and Batman had rich parents—both of them were singled out. But our boy from Queens could be a white boy, a black boy, a Chinese boy, a Japanese boy, a girl—anybody. He’s a regular Joe. He has been given this power by a spider bite, and now he has to rise above his normal life and take that on. When I thought about Bono and his life, I went, “Oh my God—there’s Peter Parker, right there.”
JT: The reason Bono and Edge can write these songs is that they get the dilemma, which is: How do you be a superhero, save the world, and also be a dad and husband and drink in your pub and just be a guy? How do you balance those identities?
O: And don’t they do that well?
JT: They do. So here you have this regular boy who’s bullied in school. Who can’t get the girl next door. He doesn’t even have parents—just an uncle and an aunt. And he’s been given this gift, this power, whatever that means in our times. It’s a contemporary myth, but it’s connected to the ancient myths, too.
O: Which you’re a student of. It’s fascinating to me that you haven’t wasted a moment. Every single experience you have, you use to fuel your creativity, don’t you?
JT: I try to. Mythology, folklore, the different places I’ve traveled—all of it feeds me. But I also have very good people around me. I tend to collaborate with the same people over and over. The set designer, George Tsypin, has done six operas with me. My lighting designer started 14 years ago and did The Lion King and every show I’ve done since. I do have a new costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. I love doing costumes, but that would have been too much for me to handle.
O: You did all the masks for this show, though.
JT: Most of them. There aren’t that many—12 or 14.
O: And you did the directing.
JT: And co-writing.
O: But you have a sense of when enough is enough and too much is too much?
Here’s what I always wonder about you: Are you always out-of-the-box? Is your imagination and your sense of creativity always on, in every facet of your life—or do you have times of plain old normal existence?
JT: Well, I have a dog now.
O: You have a dog.
O: So that’s some normalcy.
JT: And every night I go home to Elliot. I’ve been with him 25, 30 years. We’re not married. We say we’re happily unmarried.
O: He’s a composer.
JT: A brilliant composer; he did the score for The Tempest, and it’s stunning. We travel and we work together all the time. That’s how we met; we spent five years working together and then fell in love. He’s never envious of the time I spend on work. We adore each other in work mode.
O: You adore each other.
JT: And inspire each other. We didn’t have children. That was very personal. We sort of tried. It was Lion King time and it didn’t happen, and probably it’s okay.
O: Yes. Because you wouldn’t be able to do all this with the intensity that you’re doing it with.
JT: No. I wouldn’t. So two years ago, we got a dog. I know that’s hardly a substitute for a child, but it’s completely fun to go home and play with her. She’s black-and-white, and she was born on Halloween. Her eyes move independently, like sickle moons, and we named her Luna because she’s insane. We also play in the morning. It’s a small thing, but it’s very joyous. And I understand why people need and have children, because it gives you that “get off yourself for a moment” feeling—a reprieve from your egocentric, narcissistic blah blah blah.
O: A reminder that it’s not all about you.
JT: Exactly. Although what I’m doing right now, of course, is pretty much 24/7 for me.
O: Getting back to what you’re doing right now: How did you deal with the challenge of making the musical different from what movie audiences have seen? Had you seen all three Spider-Man films when you started?
JT: When we started, only the first movie had come out. This was right after 9/11, so all of that was on our minds. But the fact is, our idea came out of the Arachne story. In our version, she falls in love with her protégé, Spider-Man—who, at the top of act 2, starts becoming world famous. Suddenly there are Spider-Man hot dogs, hero sandwiches, underwear—everything. And he no longer has time for his girlfriend or his aunt. He’s failing as a human being and rising as Spider-Man. And that’s when Arachne says, “Save me.”
O: Yes, yes, yes.
JT: She says, “You are Spider-Man, you’re the one” and “Together we can weave worlds of ecstasy.” Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Mary Jane, has had it: Peter is always disappearing, he’s full of secrets, and she’s had enough. So she breaks up with him—at which point he throws away his Spider-Man suit. That’s when Arachne goes ballistic.
O: How did you figure all this out? What was the process like?
JT: Once I got the idea of Arachne, I realized that this would be a love triangle. And that it would be a great thing for a musical. Because you have to have a dilemma. What is Peter singing about? He’s an action hero when he puts on the suit, but when he’s Peter Parker when the costume is off and no one knows that he’s Spider-Man, he’s a troubled teenager.
O: Trying to find his way.
O: Just like everybody else.
JT: Trying to have a normal existence like Bono and all these rockers. And really trying to balance out his life. So there is a lot for him to be singing about. There are many other characters who sing, but for Peter and Mary Jane, it’s their love story.