Not everyone likes musicals, but then not everyone has seen a Julie Taymor musical. Her award winning Broadway production of A Lion King is one of the most successful stage musicals around. Cinematically she's just as gifted. Frida, won two Oscars, and Across the Universe is just as visually and dramatically rich.
Set entirely to Beatles songs (33 in all) Taymor set out to "investigate the 60's". Her goal was to translate the passion and feeling of the era and have it resonate in a way that made it feel as contemporary as possible. The reason to make a film like this, in her mind, was the immediacy of the themes. "That erais explicitly important to our time now," says Taymor.
Starring Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, Running with Scissors) as Lucy and newcomer Jim Sturgess as Jude, Across the Universe is a tender love story set against the politically and socially charged 60's. Combining live action with animation and puppetry and featuring cameos by Bono, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard, Taymor deftly manages to combine singing with drama but never at the expense of story and emotion. It's an unconventional psychedelic re-imagining of the Beatles music that will hopefully, says the director, inspire conversation about how we can all take control and change our universe. Gaynor Flynn caught up with Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess, at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
Gaynor Flynn: Do people know you can sing?
Evan Rachel Wood: No, not really and this is why thiswas actually a dream of mine to do a movie musicalbecause I've been singing as long as I've been actingso I wanted to combine the two and that's why I'vedone so many music videos because those are my twofavourite things.
Gaynor Flynn: Have you ever had any formal training?
Evan Rachel Wood: No I just listened to stuff and tried to mimiccertain female voices that I liked.
Gaynor Flynn: Like who?
Evan Rachel Wood: Alanis Morissette kind of started it and its'kind of hard to sing like her so I'd have habits tobreak but then like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell andthen l love people like PJ Harvey.
Gaynor Flynn: Nice strong female role models.
Evan Rachel Wood: Yeah a lot of my role models are singers andthey're strong women and outspoken and they've gotopinions. Very rock n roll. (laughs)
Gaynor Flynn: Would you agree this is your first grown up role in a film?
Evan Rachel Wood: Yeah I think so.
Gaynor Flynn: Was that part of the attraction, because you often play younger.
Evan Rachel Wood: Yeah and I play younger in King of California aswell and in Bronte so I think nobody has seen this me.
Gaynor Flynn: Was it a difficult role?
Evan Rachel Wood: Yeah it was probably the hardest thing I've donebut I don't think I can call it that because it wasalso the most amazing experience of my life. So itwas incredible but it was very hard and stressfulbecause not only are you acting and the story line isgreat and its deep and emotional but on top of ityou've got to sing live. So you can't mess it up andon top of it they're probably the most famous songs inthe world so it just kept on piling on our shoulders. But I think it was so much pressure that it didn'tseem real and we could somehow get over it.
Gaynor Flynn: How did you come to be cast? Were you familiar with Julie Taymor's work?
Evan Rachel Wood: I love visually what she does its just insane butI still didn't realise how special she was until I mether and I realised that unlike most directors thatmake really good interesting work she's not reallysitting there going how can I make this different? Howcan I make this look cool. Honestly she is what shedoes it's a part of her so she would just sit thereand close her eyes and listen to these songs andwhatever came into her head that's what we would filmand it didn't matter what it was. If it was a postercoming to life or it was something floating in the skyshe's like I don't know how we're going to do it butI'm going to find a way so it was incredible.
Gaynor Flynn: Was the audition tough?
Evan Rachel Wood: Well it was weird. I went in and read for herjust one time and I was drenched in sweat by the endof it because I wanted it so bad and I was so nervous,it was insane. And she's kind of hard to readsometimes but she's so honest in a way that Iappreciate. So when I came out I was like that waseither the best audition I've ever had or the worstaudition of my life, I had no idea what was going tohappen.
Gaynor Flynn: Did you know Jim Sturgess beforehand?
Evan Rachel Wood: No not at all, but now we're good friends.
Gaynor Flynn: Jim was that really you singing and did you have any training?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah it was me singing. All of us sang our ownsongs. I hadn't had any training and I think that wassomething Julie was looking for. You know people whohadn't been trained out of their natural voices. I wasin a band back in London so I had been singing and Iwas into singing and music and stuff like that but asfar as being professionally trained I hadn't hadanything like that.
Gaynor Flynn: What kind of band were you in?
Jim Sturgess: I'd guess you'd call it an indie band, we werelike inspired by the bands of the Manchester scene inthe late 80's.
Gaynor Flynn: Joy Division?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah Joy Division and the Stone Roses and theHappy Mondays' and New Order and that kind of stuff.There were seven of us in that band so it was veryelectronic, big sound.
Gaynor Flynn: How was it singing Beatles songs, and were you a fan?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah I was a big fan of the Beatles before I didthe film. And I guess it's the same for everybody butcertainly coming form England everyone is very awareof the Beatles or at least I was and my friends were. Also a lot of the bands I would listen to were veryvocally inspired by the Beatles so it was just aprocess of finding the foundation of the music so Iwould listen to albums like Sargent Pepper's as earlyas maybe six years old. My parents certainly had therecords lying around the house.
Gaynor Flynn: What have you acted in? We don't know much about your background.
Jim Sturgess: I was just like a kind of jobbing actor like a lotof actors back in London. I was just trying to getwork anywhere. I'd done some short films and someindependent films and some TV stuff.
Gaynor Flynn: What was the experience to be in such a big production?
Jim Sturgess: It was mind blowing. It changed my lifecompletely.
Gaynor Flynn: And was it the same for Evan Rachel Wood?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah, I think we had very similar experiences. Idon't think anyone had ever done anything like thisbefore and I think everyone was just ready to justindulge and have the most incredible time theypossibly could because they knew it was real once in alifetime opportunity to just one be playing aroundwith Beatles music, some of the greatest music everwritten. Two to be working with a director like JulieTaymor who is one of the most visually stunningamazing people out there and then to just be with ayoung cast all living in New York at the time. We allmoved to New York and all lived in the Village and weall stayed in the same neighbourhood and we were allabsolutely best friends even with the crew and we justlived in this bubble, this Beatles camp and we'd justsing these songs all day every day.
Gaynor Flynn: You said the film changed your life, in what way?
Jim Sturgess: In the way that I was unemployed, living in Londonwith really not much to do and now I'm here, it's kindof a pretty mad roller coaster.
Gaynor Flynn: The film is premiering here at the Toronto International Film Festival is this your first film festival experience?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah and I didn't know what to expect. I'd neverbeen to a film festival, so it was great walkingaround and see all these people gather around thesecinemas and all these great films; it's an excitingthing. And we were walking past this hotel and therewas all this screaming and I thought god, somethingterrible has happened like an attack or something likethat and then we found out that Brad Pitt had just gotout of his car two blocks down the road, so it wasfun.
Gaynor Flynn: You said you didn't train as a singer, so did you train as an actor?
Jim Sturgess: No I wouldn't say I trained. I did a course inManchester. I moved there to be in a band but I wentto do this course. It was two year course infilmmaking, boom operating, video making, editing abit of acting and I really got into it when I wasthere and I was also hanging out with a lot of peoplewho were interested in acting and I ended up writing ashort play with three characters and I put that on ina small theatre in Manchester and that's when someonesaw me in that and recommended me to his agent back inLondon and that's how it started off professionally.
Gaynor Flynn: Bono, who has a small role in the film, said you have a great voice, so are you torn between the acting path and the singing path?
Jim Sturgess: No I mean I've always done both and music for meis so, self gratifying and you can sit in a room onyour own and play music and I enjoy writing music, andperforming music even if its to myself and I'm really,really enjoying acting.
Gaynor Flynn: Speaking of Bono, what was it like to work with him?
Jim Sturgess: It was amazing and for me it was great to havesomeone like him in the film, one he's a huge rockstar but two he carries the same ideas as the peoplefrom the 60's. He's very into changing the world andhe's a big personality with a big mission and he wasin our film and that was just the most incrediblething. And his message is really the same message asall these amazing people who came out of the time thefilm is based around. I've just been working with Bonoagain, me and Julie and Evan were just workshopping,just messing around for her because she's doing aSpiderman musical which is written by Bono and TheEdge. So I had to sing all these songs that he'dwritten, which is a whole different ball game. He canhit some f****** notes so you realise what an amazingsinger he is when you have to hit songs that he'swritten.
Gaynor Flynn: Did you have difficulty reaching those notes?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah well I was out of shape because I hadn't sungsince we had done Across the Universe cause I've beendoing a lot of acting so I hadn't had a lot ofopportunity to be singing. So I turned up and I sanglike two songs and my voice was shot, like I couldn'teven talk. Like when we were doing Across theUniverse we were singing all day, every day, 14-hourdays, which is unheard of. Even in a band you mightsing for like two hours and rehearse but to sing forlike 14 hours days like all day you rally have to getyour voice to a strong place.
Gaynor Flynn: What were your favourite parts of the film, to experience?
Jim Sturgess: There were two that really stick to my mind, onewas when we did the Strawberry Field scene, it was the25th anniversary of John Lennon's' death that day andJulie took me aside and she reminded me of that and wetalked about that and she said listen, this is yourstudio, and we're going to play the music and you'regoing to sing and you just do whatever you like,you're the artist, and this is your studio just singit as many times as you want and just get stuck in. Some and Don Nace the artist I'd been working with, weinjected all this red paint into these strawberriesand we had these huge canvases which they brought tothe set and they had three cameras rolling and thecamera guys were in these body suits because I wasgoing to get busy with the paint and they just playedthe song and I sang and it was very emotional becauseit was John Lennon's' death.
And the other was the peace march we did down 5thAvenue. As research we'd all watched so much footageof the 60's and so much footage of Vietnam protestsand we turn up on the set and I was like fuck itsexactly like how I've seen it on screen, with everyonewith banners and The Bread and Puppet Theatre Companythat did the parade and it was just so mind blowingand there were 500 to 600 extras that day. And me andEvan were at the front of the march and we startedmarching down 5th Avenue and 600 people were chantingthis chant behind us and then they kicked in the musicover this massive loud speaker and we had to startsinging and I remember my legs were like jelly andEvan was squeezing my hand so it was pretty amazing.
Gaynor Flynn: What's next for you? The Other Boleyn Girl right?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah with Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana andNatalie Portman. That was the film I did straightafter and its finished and its set in Tudor Englandand Henry the VIII and life inside his court and it'sabout the rivalry between two sisters and their lovefor the king and it's a beautiful story and abeautiful script.
Gaynor Flynn: And what's next for you Evan?
Evan Rachel Wood: I have a film called Bronte and we're supposed tostart in November. It's a film about the Brontesisters.
Gaynor Flynn: Which one do you play?
Evan Rachel Wood: Anne, the youngest.
Across the Universe is out 1st November