Taymor's previous feature films are Frida and Across the Universe, but The Tempest marks her second foray into Shakespeare for the screen, after 1999's Titus, which starred Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.
In the original play, Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, uses the wizard's tools of sorcery and witchcraft to yield omniscient power on a deserted island. In Taymor's film, Prospero is renamed Prospera and is a female wizard, played by Helen Mirren. “There are many things that hadn't changed but once Helen Mirren went into the role, it changed immensely, without changing a lot of the language,” Taymor says. “Not just because she's a great actress, but also because it's very different dynamics”.
Taymor says that there was no feminist agenda in her decision to transform Shakespeare's male wizard into a woman and witness the central themes of nature versus nurture through the prism of a mother-daughter relationship. “There was no mission. The idea of having a female was the idea of Helen Mirren as Prospero/a,” says Taymor. “I didn't have a male actor in mind who excited me as much as Helen Mirren”. She admits, however, that the shift does impact on the overall narrative. “A mother-daughter relationship is very different to a father-daughter relationship because when Prospera is testing young Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), it's not because she's in competition with him; it's because she knows her daughter (Miranda, played by Felicity Jones] could get hurt.”
Listening to Taymor speak in New York prior to the film's theatrical release, it's clear that she possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare's play, and that this knowledge emboldened her decision to cast Mirren. As she tells it, “The speech of Prospero/a where she renounces her magic is a direct lift from Medea. It's a female speech! It comes from a sorceress.” For Taymor, this demonstrates that it does work with a female in that role. At the same time, she contends that it is essentially about the performance. “In this day and age, it shouldn't be a big deal. I think it's just a great actor with a different feeling of the play.”
While Taymor is entirely comfortable with these changes to the role of Prospero/a, she approached the role of Caliban from a highly conventional standpoint. Taymor cast Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou as the enslaved Caliban, the only other human on the island of the Tempest. In the film, as in the play, Caliban is representative as being of the earth, of the island. “I take Shakespeare at his words,” says Taymor. “I'm very literal with Shakespeare. 'Thou Earth Thou Speak,' 'Mooncalf' — Caliban is made of the earth. Even in my other three productions an African-American has played Caliban or Africans play that role. It is a non-white role. If you want to be technical about it, his father is Algerian; his mother is a blue-eyed hag. He's got webbed fingers; he's got a blue eye. The two-toned skin was always the idea that he is mixed; he's half black and half white. He isn't a European in the white sense of European. He was the 'Other'.” Taymor admits “It was very touchy, this issue of putting a black man in a slave role, but it felt more honest. It's not politically correct, whatever that means.”
The Tempest is largely filmed on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai, a location that Taymor discovered more than 10 years ago. “I saw there is a garden of the gods, where Caliban carries the logs, giant red boulders—where the circle of fire is—and then I saw these giant cliffs and unbelievable forests that look like labyrinths. I thought this is the island of the Tempest! This can be done!”
The landscape of Lanai became a major player in the telling of the narrative. “If you do shoot in landscape you really do have to use the actors as the foreground,” she says. “Every piece of scenery is used to represent the inner landscape. The volcanic landscape that Caliban comes out of is the Big Island of Hawaii. Caliban says 'Here I am stymied in this hard rock while you do take from me the rest of the island' and you needed to show that it was a barren, unfertile landscape that he was made to live in — that was his cell. The idea of the volcano is profoundly part of the design. Not just in landscape but also in Prospera's costumes that Sandy Powell designed. That robe Prospera wears is volcanic shards. It's shaped like a volcano, she is a volcano!”
In contrast, one character of the island not literally part of the landscape is the spirit Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw. The actor was unavailable to shoot on location. What initially appeared to be a restriction became an advantage. “If he had been there he would have been on the ground,” she says. “The fact that he wasn't there made me have to come up with a concept. I almost wanted him to be able to be transparent.” Taymor's concept for Ariel was inspired by photographic techniques used in early films. “By not having Ben on location it freed us up to have him transform. He was air, he was water, he was fire, he was lava-dogs, he was frogs, he was heartbeats. I wanted it to be as real as possible. In post-production we could make him transparent. We were able to control the corporeality of his presence.”