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Tempest in the tropics
December 11, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Vacationing on Lanai several years ago, award-winning stage and screen director Julie Taymor had a vision: Call it a tempest in the tropics.
Most honeymooners and other tourists who find their way to the remote island don’t get beyond the beaches, the golf courses and the drinks with umbrellas in them. But for the woman who created “The Lion King” on Broadway and would direct “Frida” and “Across the Universe” on the movie screen, the island felt like the perfect set for a work of literature created hundreds of years before the rest of the world even knew Lanai existed.
It was the exotic realm William Shakespeare conjured up in the most ethereal of his plays, “The Tempest.” Of course, the Bard of Avon’s concept of travel extended about as far as London. For him, such places as this existed only in the imagination.
It was “a bit of an epiphany” for Taymor, who had previously directed “The Tempest” twice on stage. “She felt she had seen an island that would be perfect for the film version,” said film producer Lynn Hendee during a phone interview from Lanai last week.
As Hendee spoke, Taymor’s vision was, in fact, becoming a reality. Hendee was calling from the film set laden with Academy Award-level stars and designers who were wrapping two weeks of shooting on Lanai before heading for 10 more days of production on the Big Island.
The location is practically a character in its own right in the Bard’s vaporous comedy about Prospero, the duke of Milan, ousted long ago from his dukedom with his young daughter, Miranda.
The play is set on the remote island where they landed. It’s a more conducive setting for the nobleman, since he preferred alchemy and contemplating nature’s mysteries to the treacheries of politics in the first place. To aid in his “research” and spells, the island has a healthy population of Spirits, along with assorted humans driven there by storms at sea.
Taymor had been attracted to the “magical, beautiful and surreal” aspect of Lanai, continued Hendee. But not in the usual postcard way.
“It’s Shakespeare’s most magical play, and she wanted the setting as magical and unique as possible. She often jokes that there will be no palm trees in the picture.”
The award-winning director had a similar breakthrough when it came to casting the play’s central character, Prospero. She had the perfect actor in mind — just not quite the way Shakespeare had written the part.
“The idea occurred to her, why not make Prospero a female? Helen Mirren, of all the people on earth, would be the perfect person to play her.”
And so Prospero became Prospera.
“It made it seem very fresh and exciting,” Hendee continued. “She looked at the play and realized how few tweaks would have to made, just a few pronouns.”
The change also introduced new dynamics, between mother and daughter.
Hmmm, a mother and daughter on an enchanting island … A similar notion made about a half- billion dollars worldwide for “Mamma Mia” this year.
Taymor’s “Tempest” is essentially the way Shakespeare wrote it, slightly edited, set in the time period when it was created. The play will mark its 400th anniversary in 2010, the movie will be released under the Miramax banner in 2009.
Mirren had not yet won her Oscar when Taymor picked her, but “The Tempest” surrounds her with players of similar stature: Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, Ben Whishaw and Felicity Jones.
Taymor is working with Honolulu-based TalkStory Productions, not only on the Hawaii location work but also on the financing of the project. It’s the first theatrical production for TalkStory, which produced the surfing-drama series “Beyond the Break” for television.
“Chartoff Productions and Julie Taymor came to Hawaii with ‘The Tempest” 18 months ago,” said TalkStory’s Jason Lau, one of the producers of the new movie. “They wanted to see if we could partner with them with financing as well as production.”
Bringing industry powerhouse, Miramax, into the project gives added clout.
Production on “The Tempest” should bring some $10 million into the state economy, according to Maui Film Commissioner Benita Brazier, who spent more than a year bringing the project to Lanai.
Early word is that Lanai rose to the challenge of starring on the big screen.
“It looks like another world,” said Hendee, “the extraordinary rocky cliffs and especially the Garden of the Gods.” She was referring to a dramatic rock formation, seven miles down a dirt road out of Lanai City.
The ironwood forests and a sisal forest of human-size plants also contributed to the mystical mood — as did the weather.
“Nature has been a major theme on our shoot,” commented Hendee with a laugh. “Julie wanted powerful, unusual nature.”
The company wasn’t affected by the big fire that threatened evacuation to some Lanai tourists a few weeks ago. But other natural forces added to the drama.
“The wind the island is known for was incorporated into the shooting,” Hendee explained. When rains came, “we had fantastic cooperation from Castle and Cooke. They bulldozed the road for us.”
Add those conditions — not to mention extra hours in makeup and wardrobe — to the psyches of such oversize theatrical talents, and you might expect different kinds of tempests on set.
It was just the opposite, according to producer Lau.
“For me, I was concerned that cast would get rock fever,” he said. “These guys are coming from LA, New York and London. There are great hotels, but not too much to do on Lanai.
“It was an unusual production in that everyone was living at the Four Seasons at first, but some of the crew preferred living in homes we rented for them,” he said.
But when the cameras weren’t rolling, “everyone got into the rhythm of the island. They just like to relax.”
From the beginning, “it was going to be an island shoot,” concluded Hendee. “Julie said, ‘I want to work with the most talented cast and crew available. But I also want nice people I want to spend time with.”
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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