deep dives

Evan Rachel Wood and Julie Taymor on Why Across the Universe ‘Scared the Shit Out of People’

Evan Rachel Wood in Across the Universe. Photo: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Beatles have always had a cinematic presence, from the 1964 faux-documentary A Hard Day’s Night to the experimental shorts of John and Yoko. But no director has ever used the Beatles’ music as inventively and audaciously as Julie Taymor, whose 2007 film Across the Universe is being rereleased in theaters for three days by Fathom Events. Using 33 Beatles songs and minimal dialogue, Across the Universe tells the story of three young adults in the late 1960s: Lucy (then 17-year-old Evan Rachel Wood), an all-American girl who wants to change the world; her brother Max (Joe Anderson), a rebel who gets dragged into Vietnam; and Jude (Jim Sturgess), a working-class artist from Liverpool who follows his dreams across the ocean. Their stories coalesce in New York City, where they befriend blues musicians, acid heads, radical extremists, a closeted lesbian, and Bono in a ridiculous mustache. Fictional characters become entangled in real events (the Detroit riots, the Columbia student protests), using songs from every Beatles era to express a nation’s political and psychedelic awakening.

Taymor’s film is as visual as it is musical. The magical-realism elements Taymor brought to her Oscar-winning film Frida and her Broadway hit The Lion King are blown to epic proportions in Across the Universe. “I Want You” becomes a nightmare ballet about Max’s recruitment and subsequent dehumanization in Vietnam, ending with an image of soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty as they crush villages underfoot. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a psychedelic circus featuring collage animation and 20-foot puppets. “Because” scores an underwater love-in. Even in more traditionally constructed scenes, the scale is breathtaking; the entire film was shot on location and, according to Taymor, employed 5,000 extras.

Across the Universe also runs well over two hours — not a big deal in this age of bloated superhero adventures, but in 2007, the length of Taymor’s cut alarmed Sony executives. Without her approval, the studio test-screened an alternate cut that eliminated much of the film’s political content and minimized the nonwhite supporting characters. Taymor fought back hard, and while she won final cut, she was smeared in the press (industry publications used words like “ballistic” and “hysteria”) and, she says, torpedoed by Sony’s marketing department. The film polarized critics (Roger Ebert loved it, Ann Hornaday hated it) and opened to limp box office, failing to recoup its budget.

And yet — in the past decade, the audience for Across the Universe has grown, its inevitable cult-classic status realized. At the present moment, the film’s portrayal of ’60s activism and art as weapons against government oppression seems especially resonant. In the lead-up to the Fathom Events release, Vulture had a candid conversation with Taymor and Wood about the unusual process of making the film, the bizarre logistics of Wood’s first nude scene, the ongoing challenges facing female directors, and the potential influence of Across the Universe on millennial activists. (Given the timing of the interview, we also threw in a few Westworld season-finale questions.)

There’s no film quite like Across the Universe, so I’d imagine making it was a unique experience. 
Evan Rachel Wood: It was one of the best experiences of my life. I was 17. Once I heard Julie was making a Beatles movie, I remember just thinking, “There’s nobody else that can do this. And I won’t let anybody else do it!” It just had to be. And then I got the part and we all spent about seven or eight months in New York together.

Julie Taymor: We rehearsed it like a normal musical in theater … and it bonded everybody. I’ll never forget Evan walking in the hallways with this Bowie T-shirt, because at one point we’d asked David Bowie if he was going to play Mr. Kite. And I think that at the moment Evan was really like, “Bowie, Bowie!”

ERW: Well, yeah, I mean I’m always like, “Bowie, Bowie.” But I was also all about Eddie Izzard.  I was always doing Eddie’s stand-up in the hallway.

JT: One of the things that I remember profoundly — this was during the Iraq War right? And it was really touchy subject. When we did the march down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, the anti-Vietnam War march with the Bread and Puppet Theater puppets — everybody thought they were marching against the Iraq War. Now this is what I wanted to say: When Across the Universe came out ten years ago, it was right before Obama. And maybe this is just my own feeling, but I feel that this movie was very popular amongst young people. And I think people were very inspired by what the youth of America did in the 1960s, how they really made things change.

ERW:  I even remember  that a lot of people in the neighborhood wanted us to leave up the peace signs and protest signs, because it was relevant.

I have a vivid memory of going down to the Lower East Side when you were filming and seeing a whole block transformed into a 60s fantasy of New York City. It was magical, like stepping into a dream. Were there any moments that felt like that to you as you were making it?
ERW: Oh my God, all of it. Certainly the scene where we stumble upon the puppets and the blue meanies and Eddie Izzard started coming out and singing. That was when I was really on a different planet.

JT:  We shot that in Garrison, New York, and all of those were papier-mâché handmade puppets, giant puppets. There is almost no CGI in that section. It’s all real.

ERW: I think “I Want You” is one of my favorite numbers in the movie.

JT:  I was walking on a beach in Mexico when I came up with the idea — I’d done the Haggadah at the Public Theater years before, where the slaves are carrying the pyramids across the sands of Egypt. And I got the idea of all the young boys in their underwear and their army boots supporting [the Statue of] Liberty, and the image of Liberty charging through the jungles of the Third World, mashing and stepping and destroying all the trees. You know, the irony of us being this country that says we’re bringing Liberty, at the same time we’re bringing it at the expense of many people.

Evan, what was involved in the scene where you and Jim Sturgess are singing “Because” and making out underwater?
ERW:  Speeding up the songs, and then learning how to sing them really fast. So the scenes were like, [sings] “becausetheworldisrounditturnsmeon…” And then she slowed it down so that it looked like it was in real time. So we filmed underwater all day. We would just take a deep breath and dive under and then try to get the song out as quickly as possible.

JT: And she also had to work hard to hide her breasts, right Evan?

ERW:  Oh, I always had to hide my breasts. I could only show one boob because it was PG-13. Two made it an R but one was fine!  And that was my first nude scene.

Julie, you fought the studio to get final cut on this film, when Sony wanted to shorten it. I was reading some of the press from that time, and I was noticing how gendered the language is when they write about you and this movie. There’s a Variety article that says, “She went ballistic to save her child.”
JT: Thanks for reminding me. I’d almost forgotten how awful that was.

I’m sorry to bring it up! But I think it’s important to acknowledge that double standard.
JT:  You know, for me, I’ve been through it.  Being a successful director on Broadway brings out all kinds of knives and hatred. But the misogyny business is true. And I put blinders on and just tried to do the work. I think every director, male and female, has babies, you know what I mean? It’s not just women. But you’re right. It is sexist dialogue. We loved our movie. And it wasn’t that it wasn’t working. It was working. They just smelled the money and thought if we dumb it down, literally, and get rid of the politics — I saw a cut where they got rid of the Detroit riot. There was no black child who was killed.

ERW:  Prudence wasn’t even gay!

JT: Yeah, they cut “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” so many of the things that I knew young people and everybody would love. Evan had a line — this was one of the first signs of the kind of difficult road that would come. Lucy, who’s 16 or 17, is walking home from school and her best friend says that one of their friends got pregnant. And Lucy says, “I’m never having children. Having children is narcissistic, like putting out carbon copies of yourself.” I remember my best friend, when I was 16, telling me that. I mean, that line came from experience. But the studio said at the time, “Oh, Lucy can’t say that, it will make her so unlikable.” No, will make her likable! Because you have that sign that when she’s a high-school student, that she will become someone like Gloria Steinem or Jane Fonda, that she’s going to become an activist.

The other thing is the poster. The poster that we’re releasing it with now is the underwater poster, the psychedelic poster of them kissing. The one that they put out, the strawberry, everybody who made this film hates. Well, if we’re being honest! [Laughs.] The problem with it is, I think what happens in Hollywood is they think that you can only market to 14-to-15-year-old girls. And we always said this movie, even if it’s PG-13, will appeal from 10-year-olds up through the parents. I mean, the Beatles appeal to all ages. If you watched the karaoke James Corden video with Paul McCartney in Liverpool, all these people in the bars were from 16 years old up to 80. And I’m hoping that with this rerelease this summer, we’ll see the teenagers and the young adults, and also the families.

Evan, you tweeted recently that you’ve been struggling to sell a movie that you will direct with a script written by women.
ERW: Oh my goodness, the responses are just breathtaking. I mean, split down the middle: Some people totally get what I’m saying and some people are so angry with me! But the thing is, what I was trying to say was not a sense of entitlement like, “I should have this,” even though I do believe that I could make a really great film. It was just to expose what these rooms are like that you walk into over and over and over again. And until you have the more inclusive pitch rooms with women and people of color and LGBT representation, then you’re not going to see this movie.

And I hear people saying all the time, “Why aren’t there more female directors, why aren’t there more stories about women?” So I wanted to say, “Hey, just so you guys know, I’m really trying. And nada.”  I’m starring in the film, I co-wrote it, I’m directing it, I had an amazing cast, I had amazing DPs, an amazing crew. So everybody that read it was like “absolutely,” but the only people that are wishy about it are financiers, because it is very female-driven. And I do believe that they just don’t understand this film. So that’s what I was trying to say.

You did get a number responses that are just people saying, “ I want to see that film.”
ERW: And I did get a lot of inquiries after that tweet. But also lot of people saying my idea is probably not very good, and you’ve never directed anything, and how dare you. I do believe that if I was a man with 25 years’ experience in the industry, who’s worked with some of the greatest directors in the history of film, and who’s lived and breathed it since I was a child — to say that I would have nothing to offer, when I know there are other people with a penis, with less than I have backing me up, that get green-lit, that’s where I’m taking issue. [Laughs.] Because it does seem like there’s an imbalance and it’s unfair. And that’s what I was trying to call out.

Julie, do you have any advice for Evan in this situation?
JT: Listen, I’m going through the same thing after 40 years. Evan knows, there’s a movie that I wanted to make with her, a female-driven epic love story. Haven’t been able to do that one. I mean, we still try, and I’m doing [a film adaptation of] Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road that will be extremely female-driven! And we will be making it this fall. But I have a number of films that have not gotten off the ground and things that I’ve wanted to do. And it probably has a lot to do with the ballistic-baby concept. Even if people realize that the press has misogynistic writing or fear of a powerful woman, unless they meet you personally — and then I often get people being so surprised! [Laughs.] But I work with a lot of the same people over and over and over again, so I have a very good team and very good friends and collaborators. Evan and Jim, all of the kids on Across the Universe, we’ve stayed close.

Quite honestly, ten years ago, when women were in big positions, they were not supporting other women. They were terrified of losing their job and they had to support the boys’ films. I don’t need to name names, you can all go look at it, but it wasn’t necessarily better that women were at the top because they were frightened of making a mistake and that they would then be called out for having supported chick flicks or women’s things. It was fear. For me it’s more. I have the scarlet letter of “A” on me — not “adultery,” but “art.” Even though The Lion King is the most successful entertainment in the history of all entertainment. [Ed. note: Broadway’s The Lion King has grossed $8 billion to date, more than all the Star Wars movies combined.]

ERW: And Across the Universe is a masterpiece.

JT: And it’s also been very, very successful without a whole lot of press. I mean, Frida didn’t get press either.

ERW:  We even said that when we were making it: “This is going to be a cult classic, this is going to be something that throughout the years will continue to grow and grow.”

JT: The studio is all new people now, and they love it. And they’re very supportive. But I think it’d be great if they would just rerelease the film completely, because it didn’t go out enough as a movie. But they’re dipping their toe in with Fathom. If it does really well this summer, maybe they will do a real rerelease, which would be amazing because I do feel like it’s time. The success of La La Land — well, that had two very big stars in it, but it really comes on the heels of what Across the Universe did ten years ago.

ERW: I want to add about Julie, that she has such a strong vision and she holds true to her conviction. She’s a real artist. And yes, that does scare the shit out of people, because they don’t understand.

JT: Well, they think I’m not interested in commercial success. You gotta be kidding, of course I am!

ERW: Exactly. They underestimate what people want and how art moves people. I mean fuck, look at the Beatles, they changed the world. But I’ve worked with male directors that are complicated and have the same kind of conviction and they’re kind of hailed for it. But when you’re a woman, and you say, “I’m not going to do that, it’s not right,” they’re like, “Well she’s crazy. She’s difficult.” Julie is not crazy or difficult. She’s an artist. And I’ve worked with male artists that are similar that don’t get any shit for it.

JT: Well, thanks Evan. The thing is that we all knew what the movie was, and we presented it all. Maybe the falling Vietnamese ladies surprised the producers because that was the first day of shooting. That I can understand, kind of gulping for a moment. But the rest of it, we did what was on paper and what we rehearsed. I didn’t change anything. I just did what I intended to do. I remember Amy Pascal jumping up and down in the first screening at Sony, just going, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.” And the marketing woman was thrilled. Somebody else got in there and just smelled the money. But at any rate, you heard that already. And yes, I have gone through it and I will continue. But there’s enough great people wanting the kind of films that I want to make and the theater that I want to make. So you know, I’m not dying here.

All right, I know I can’t wrap this up without asking some Westworld finale questions. Evan, is that okay with you?
ERW: Ha! Of course.

How much time did you and Tessa Thompson spend practicing Dolores together?
ERW: That is so funny. You know it’s hilarious because we became really good friends at the beginning of season two, and then we started hanging out, and then all of a sudden we realized that we were gonna be the same person [laughs] and it was very strange! This show is so funny. Because they didn’t tell us anything.

But I thought she did an amazing job. I would send her recordings of myself doing the dialogue, and then she really sold it. I thought it was great. But you know, we weren’t really doing scenes together and I was basically playing a different character this season. So when she found out she had to kind of be me, she came to me and said, “Wait — what have you been doing?” [Laughs.] I’m like, “OH! Oh right! Yeah, I’ve got to do the voice for you and everything!” So I just made recordings and she really made it her own, it was good.

Ed Harris told us he has no idea what’s going on in the show while he’s making it. Have you had a similar experience?
ERW: I had no idea what was happening in season two. At all. And we shot out of order, so most of the time — I mean, it was insane to be an actor on season two. I don’t know how I feel about it. [Laughs.] But it was a ride. We stopped reading the call sheets. We would show up and Jeffrey and I would ask what episode we were in. It was kind of that level of — we just lived in the moment in whatever scene that we were doing, and that’s how we made it.

Evan Rachel Wood: Across the Universe ‘Scared People’