Julie Taymor flies ‘Across the Universe’

Renown theater director tackles Beatles saga

Think Orson Welles.

That’s who Julie Taymor most resembles. She’s a fierce artist from the theater who believes in the power of her visual imagination. She will fight to the death to protect her art. And, unlike most Hollywood players who worry about getting their next payday, she’s willing to bite the hand that feeds her.

That’s because she has another life in theater (her follow-up to the Tony-winning musical “The Lion King” is Broadway’s “Spider-Man” musical) and opera (“Grendel,” “The Magic Flute”), where art and commerce are partners.

But in Hollywood, art and big-budget movies don’t mix.

Revolution Studio chief Joe Roth was so wowed by Taymor’s take on the Beatles musical “Across the Universe” that he backed it to the tune of $45 million. But after his experience with “Gigli,” which bombed after he gave helmer-scribe Martin Brest final cut, Roth wasn’t going to go that route again.

Taymor pored through Sony’s 200-title Beatles songbook, working closely with screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“The Commitments”), who had come up with the original concept. They concocted a ’60s period love story that captures the crazy polarities of the time — the music, the psychedelia, the anti-war fervor.

While “Across the Universe” brooks some comparison to the Milos Forman/Twyla Tharp film adaptation of “Hair,” Taymor feels it’s “very different.”

Taymor cast Evan Rachel Wood (who boasts a lovely soprano) and an ensemble of unknowns who could not only perform 33 Beatles songs live but also act as they sang, advancing the emotions of the story.

She embraced the era’s theatricality, mixing a realistic live-action narrative shot on 70 locations with outrageous eye-popping imagery using 5,000 costumes, 300 dancers, giant puppets, masks, choreographed dance numbers, fanciful sets, CG effects and animation. (By contrast, “Moulin Rouge” exists strictly in a stylized theatrical setting.)

In short, Taymor took the risky bet that audiences who love their MTV would follow her down this yellow brick road. People tend to either love “Across the Universe” (Oprah is devoting an upcoming show to the film) or hate it. “The Beatles mean a lot to so many,” Taymor admits. “It was a challenge to put it in a literal setting. But as a director I have to put it on film.

“Remember,” she adds, “this piece originated as a movie musical, unlike ‘Hairspray’ or ‘Dreamgirls’ or ‘Chicago.’ People open their mouths and sing their dreams, fears and inner thoughts. They step outside reality. We created this for the cinema.”

Roth chased her to direct the movie, he says, because “Julie Taymor is a creative genius. Her sense of style, costuming, choreography and casting make her a unique talent.”

Roth gave her “license to play,” she says. “Part of asking me to do this was asking what my vision and imagination can contribute.”

What she shot wasn’t necessarily in the script, she admits. She took away dialogue — there’s only half an hour of actual talking in the movie — while adding characters to the central leads who could sing a wide range of Beatles music — not just love songs like “All You Need is Love,” but songs about confused sexuality, ambition, politics, war, race riots and psychedelia.

Taymor borrowed from her own family history in suburban Brookline, Mass., including her radical sister (who was a member of SDS) and her cab driver/musician brother.

Mainly, though, Taymor relies on the Beatles lyrics to carry the movie. “Sadly, the movie reflects the state we are in with the Iraq War right now,” she says.

“I Want You” is sung by an animated Uncle Sam overlooking naked inductees facing a factory line of military men in masks; then soldiers in their underwear carry a gigantic Statue of Liberty through Vietnam’s jungles singing, “She’s So Heavy”; then Taymor returns to the love song the Beatles presumably had in mind.

“It’s satirical and ironic,” says Taymor. “It’s humorous and dark at the same time. It doesn’t have to make sense. We’re liberated because it’s a musical.”

When Roth saw Taymor’s 128-minute cut, he balked. He tried to show her a way to cut her extravaganza by some 20 minutes and screened his proposed edited version. She freaked.

Taymor did exactly what she did on her ambitious first film, “Titus,” an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge tragedy starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, filmed under harsh physical conditions in Croatia.

She did exactly what she did on her second film, “Frida,” a biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo starring Salma Hayek. Miramax Films released her cut, which featured hallucinatory images of Frida holding her own heart.

She went ballistic to save her child.

And, as in the past, she prevailed.

In late 1999, Fox Searchlight released her cut of “Titus,” which featured a vicious rape, a beheading and hacked-off limbs. It grossed $1.9 million.

Miramax Films released her cut of “Frida,” which featured hallucinatory images of Frida holding her own heart. It grossed $25.8 million domestically and another $30.4 overseas, her biggest hit to date.

Finally, Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal and Roth saw fit to back Taymor’s version of “Across the Universe,” which Taymor cut by four minutes, and made peace with her.

“Four minutes was a lot about pacing,” says Taymor. “That was fine with me. If you were going to suggest radical cuts, you were going to make another movie. I stuck to my vision of this film. I never went into the histrionic scenes I heard about. I think women get that more than men.”

Taymor has no kids with her life partner and musical collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal. She puts her heart and soul into every frame of her movies, living and breathing her work 24/7. Taymor is delighted to share the thrill of the creation of “Across the Universe.” But she is still pained by the negative press she got when her battle with Roth over the movie’s final cut was leaked.

Word is, Harvey Weinstein has never forgiven Taymor for their dispute over “Frida.” For the record, he responds: “Julie’s a superb filmmaker and I have tremendous affection for her professionally and personally.  We had a fight, I apologized and it led to a great collaboration. Julie invited me into the editing room and we worked together to come up with a cut we both loved.”

The dialogue over the final cut of a movie is often fractious. But most Hollywood players keep their struggle out of sight because they want to work again.

“Everyone goes through this process with big-budget movies,” Taymor says. “I don’t understand why the press had to be part of it.”

Sony is giving “Across the Universe” a careful platform release on 24 screens in 12 cities on Sept. 14 followed by a slow rollout on Sept. 24 to 24 cities and 400 screens. “It’s not a small movie,” says Sony vice chairman Jeff Blake. “It’s a combination of cool runs and commercial runs.”

“It needs to build,” adds Columbia/TriStar motion picture marketing president Valerie Van Galder, who loves the TV spot with each character singing one line of a Beatles song. “Audiences need to see it in a full theater and feel like they’re getting in on something cool. The Beatles cut across all generations. We’re aiming at more of a psychographic than a demographic.”

But going into the Toronto Film Festival, “Across the Universe” carries some baggage. Which is unfortunate, because the movie is so unusual that it will challenge most audiences.

Sure, there might have been an alternative scenario where someone could have coaxed Taymor into making some judicious trims in her complex musical narrative. So far, Taymor has yet to find a producer/collaborator she trusts, other than her musical muse, Goldenthal, who worked with T-Bone Burnett to bring together the music on film. As is stands, “Across the Universe” is memorably inventive and visually and musically rich, from multiple Salma Hayeks dancing in a vets’ hospital in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” to Bono’s Merry Prankster singing “I Am the Walrus” at a psychedelic ’60s cocktail party.Before shooting Wood’s first song to Jude (breakout Brit newcomer Jim Sturgess), “If I Fell,” Taymor told her she would not be lip-synching. “She was shocked,” Taymor recalls. “I wanted it to be as real as possible, with all her vulnerability and fragility exposed.” Taymor stands by her epic love story.

“Everyone has a different opinion about which Beatles songs they like,” she says. “Some like early Beatles, some like psychedelic Beatles, or just love songs. What will happen with this movie is what happens with the music.”