Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC lends a keen eye to Titus, a visually inventive interpretation of Shakespeare's most violent play..
Daring, flamboyant, and fearlessly experimental, Titus is the latest in a recent line of motion pictures that have attempted to reimagine the works of William Shakespeare for modern, visually sophisticated viewers. Like Richard Loncrane's Richard III (1995) and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), director Julie Taymor's new film takes its source material Titus Andronicus, generally regarded to be the Bard's most violent work and places it in a completely new and intriguing context.
While Richard III plays out against a "Fascist England" backdrop and Romeo + Juliet sets Shakespeare's famed romantic fable in a hip, streamlined futurescape, Taymor's Titus combines various periods into a timeless world in which Roman soldiers tool around on motorcycles and Goth princes dance to modern rock music and play videogames in the Emperor's palace. This approach hews closely to the aesthetic that Taymor, a renowned theatrical director, created when she staged Titus Andronicus as an off-Broadway play in 1994 (see Q&A on page 62).
A hit with audiences during Shakespeare's era, Titus Andronicus fell into disrepute in the 18th Century, when tastemakers disdained its Grand Guignol blend of murder, mayhem and black humor. The play eventually regained some of its reputation when Peter Brook mounted a landmark 1955 stage production starring Lawrence Olivier as the great Roman general Titus, and Vivien Leigh as his daughter, Lavinia.
As Taymor's screen version begins, Titus (Anthony Hopkins) is leading his troops back into the Roman Coliseum after defeating the northern Goths in a fierce battle that has claimed all but four of his sons. However, the general has managed to capture the Goth Queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), as well as her three sons and her Moorish lover, Aaron. Heeding the advice of his eldest surviving son, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen), Titus ignores Tamora's plea for mercy and hews to religious ritual by sacrificing one of the Queen's three offspring.
Tamora and her two remaining sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), vow to gain revenge, and they quickly get their chance. Spurning the sentiments of his family and friends, Titus declines the opportunity to be crowned emperor of Rome, and instead throws his support behind the devious Saturninus (Alan Cumming). In the resulting dispute, Titus kills one of his own sons. Meanwhile, Saturninus marries the seductive Tamora and installs the Goth contingent in the royal palace, where they scheme to destroy Titus's reputation and family.
Soon enough, two of the general's three remaining sons are framed for the murder of Bassianus (James Frain), the emperor's brother and the husband of Lavinia (Laura Fraser). Lavinia herself is tortured and maimed by Chiron and Demetrius, who chop off her hands and cut out her tongue. Seeking to save his sons from certain execution, Titus agrees to lop off his own hand in exchange for their safe return, but receives only their severed heads. Stripped of his power, with his family in tatters, Titus seems to disintegrate into madness before launching one final bid for vengeance.
In adapting her adventurous stage interpretation for the screen, Taymor sought out veteran director of photography Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC, who has lent his keen eye to some 70 motion pictures. No stranger to audacious cinema, Tovoli has shot a slew of memorable films, including Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (which made pioneering use of a remote-controlled camera in its famous final shot), Dario Argento's Suspiria and Tenebre, Franco Brusati's Bread and Chocolate and Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female.
When he was first approached by Taymor about Titus, Tovoli was unable to take on the project due to a prior commitment. Taymor hired a different cinematographer, but decided to make a change just two weeks into production. At that point, Tovoli was available, and he signed on despite the knowledge that he would be joining the shoot in midstream. "It wasn't the first time in my career that I had to start a film on such short notice, so my experience helped in that regard," the Italian cameraman attests. "I've also worked with a lot of different directors with different personalities, so I can adapt quickly to that type of thing. Once we started, though, everything magically went well."
Tovoli says that he was quickly able to grasp Taymor's unique aesthetic sensibility. "I was not really familiar with Julie's previous theater work, but I'd heard about her Broadway version of The Lion King. When I read the script for Titus, I thought it was very dramatic and interesting, but the mix of styles seemed very strange to me, and I wasn't sure how we could achieve it. When I met with Julie, though, she showed me some of her work on video, and I immediately understood what she wanted."
The cinematographer notes that he was impressed with Taymor's natural ability and confident demeanor, particularly since Titus was her first major feature project. "From the first day, I understood what kind of director I was working with. Julie immediately struck me as someone who was very focused and determined, with very clear ideas about what she wanted to achieve. Sometimes I work with directors who have too many possibilities in their minds, and they often have trouble choosing one. That can be very tiring for a cinematographer, and you're at risk of becoming lost. I prefer to work with directors who have specific ideas for the movie in their mind, because those types of filmmakers always put you in the best situation. When I was younger I worked with Antonioni on The Passenger, and it was very easy to collaborate with him; he knew what he wanted in terms of lighting, colors, and everything else, which made my job much easier.
[ continued on page 2 ]