Exploring origins of 'Universe' with Team Todd


Team Todd: Driven by media exposure at the Toronto International Film Festival, every year sees movies springboard into the Oscar and Golden Globes races.

Among the films that could potentially emerge from this year's Toronto screenings from Sept. 6-15 is Julie Taymor's musical drama "Across the Universe" from Revolution Studios and Team Todd. The film, which features numerous Beatles songs from Sony's music catalogue, opens via Sony Pictures Entertainment in limited release Sept. 14 and goes wide Sept. 21.

Directed by Taymor ("Frida," "The Lion King"), "Universe" was produced by Suzanne & Jennifer Todd ("Austin Powers" franchise, "Memento") and Matthew Gross ("Joe Somebody") and written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments"). It was executive produced by Derek Dauchy, Rudd Simmons and Charles Newirth. Starring are Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson. The film's original score is by Elliot Goldenthal.

The PG-13 "Universe" is a gritty, whimsical and highly theatrical original romantic musical drama springing from Taymor's imagination and comprised entirely of Beatles songs. It's a love story set against a turbulent 1960s backdrop of anti-war protests, mind exploration and rock 'n roll. The film's story moves from the dockyards of Liverpool to the psychedelia of Greenwich Village, the riot-torn streets of Detroit and the killing fields of Vietnam. Guiding its star-crossed lovers (Sturgess and Wood) through the emerging anti-war and counterculture movements of the time are characters played by Bono and Eddie Izzard.

It all sounds interesting and I was happy to be able to explore the origins of "Universe" with Suzanne & Jennifer Todd. "The writers, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, brought to Revolution the idea of doing an original musical on The Beatles," Jennifer explained, "and Joe (Revolution chief Joe Roth) optioned the treatment they wrote and then he had the idea of giving it to Julie (to direct). At the same time, he gave it to Suzanne and I to come on to produce it. We flew to New York and met with Julie. She liked the idea of the movie, but she wanted to reinvent the story, which she did. So she rewrote the story with Ian and Dick and then they wrote the screenplay. She came on in January of '05. She sort of re-envisioned (the project). Most of it was sort of gutted and redone by the three of them."

At that point, Jennifer added, "it was only a treatment so it wasn't even fully formed. But I think she was very excited about the idea of using this music. Obviously, she's done a lot of musicals herself and the idea of having the Sony Catalogue of Beatles music to do covers of (their songs) spoke to her and she thought the idea of telling an original story through the music was really exciting. It think it was a very smart choice by Joe of going with somebody who's famous for being inventive and doing interesting and innovative things."

The film was shot, she said, "entirely in New York and then two weeks in Liverpool. We started in the fall of 2005 and wrapped in early '06. We had a long postproduction schedule. Julie was scheduled to direct an original opera, 'Grendel,' at Lincoln Center (in July 2006). So we had a couple of months built-in that we knew we weren't going to be (working on) finishing the film. We put post on hiatus. Then we came back and (got everything done)."

After the film was completed and screened for preview audiences in March 2007 Taymor and Roth made headlines because of their differences over how the film should or should not be cut. "I think in some of the early screenings there was concern from some people about the length of the movie," Suzanne noted. "It's always a process in postproduction. People have different opinions and the studio has an opinion. And Joe had an opinion. Julie was very committed to a version of the movie that some people from the studio and Joe thought was too long. So Joe went through a process where he sat with Julie and tried to do some editing with her, which sometimes happens in these situations.

"Julie didn't have final cut on the movie so it's always (a matter of having) these continuing conversations. I think we got to a point where Julie really felt like she couldn't go any farther and Joe had opted, as everybody has read about now, (to do) a cut of the movie on his own, which he did. That cut was seen by the studio and tested at a preview. And then after that Julie had come back to it and done some more work on her own on her version of it and everyone was very happy with the end product. The version that we're releasing now (is one that) everybody's happy with, Julie's happy with, Joe's happy with, the studio's happy with, we're happy with. So it wasn't a pleasant process at all those times for everybody, but in the end we got to a point where everybody's happy and so we think that's a good thing for the movie."

"It's all Julie because the whole thing is all Julie," Suzanne added. "When you see the movie, you'll see the breadth and the scope and (she) was a good choice for this movie because it needed somebody who could invent a world and bring life to these songs that have lived in people's minds for so long. Julie is so visual and so creative. It's quite a work of art."

As for the challenges of making "Universe," Suzanne said, "Musicals are generally a lot more difficult than making a regular film. In the process of recording and producing all the music and getting it ready even just to record on the day, we prepped about 16 weeks. (We brought) everyone in early to New York and we also had some choreography and dance in the movie, so we had a lot of prep on the film. And, also, we did something that we're all very proud of, which is that a lot of songs in the movie we recorded live on the day. We had a great sound mixer, Tod Maitland, who had just done 'The Producers' and was very familiar with doing a musical, and who was excited by the idea of that, as well.

"Julie was very happy about that because any time you can not lip synch and (instead can) record it live and reuse those recordings it just looks even better. You can feel the emotion coming directly out of the person's voice. All of those logistics (were challenging) plus the scope of what we had to shoot (was difficult). It's a period film. We were taking over blocks in New York. We were building crazy scenes from scratch -- you know, that kind of thing."

Needless to say, there was plenty to keep Team Todd busy on the production front. What do good producers do while their good director is out directing? "I think you're taking care of a lot of details," Jennifer replied. "The interesting thing about our film is that it stars Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess and some other faces you haven't seen before, but also Bono's in it (as well as) Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard, Salma Hayek. It took us a lot of coordination getting people in and getting them recorded. All of that was just a great deal of work and also trying to support Julie and give her feedback and a second opinion when she needed one. So there was a lot to do."

Creating a 1960s look in present day New York was difficult, Suzanne told me: "And we shot September to January so we were (having to shoot summer scenes in colder weather). I remember we shot these riots that were supposed to be taking place at Columbia University. We were shooting them at the end of November and it was freezing and we had these poor extras in T-shirts. It was a race to get inside! Then we had built our stages at Steiner Studios so we did a lot of our stuff then. They're those new stages at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They're beautiful. We had a really talented crew. Albert Wolsky (an Oscar winner for "All That Jazz" and "Bugsy") did our costumes. Mark Friedberg, our production designer, is a really talented New York guy who'd done 'Pollock' and 'The Producers,' as well. And Bruno Delbonnel shot it, who had shot 'Amelie' and 'A Very Long Engagement.' So we had an amazing technical group to help us."

The Todds, however, are no strangers to working in New York. "We love it. We've made a bunch of movies there," Jennifer said. "We made 'Prime' there and 'Boiler Room' and we just made another movie that comes out next year (via Yari Film Group Releasing) called 'The Accidental Husband' with Uma Thurman that Griffin Dunne directed. We just shot that there since 'Across the Universe.'"

"We like it there and we do know our way around," Suzanne observed. "And it's such a cinematic place to make a film and, thankfully, with the tax break (for shooting in the city) people are a little bit more open to it, which makes it nice. I'm happy to get to shoot there."

Asked how Taymor likes to work, Jennifer explained, "She does like to rehearse. She's very collaborative and she looks for inspiration and ideas anywhere she can. She worked very closely with all of the key people coming up and we were still sort of reconceiving ideas while we were prepping the film and dealing with what we could do logistically and not. The whole movie was conceived rather quickly from the treatment in January '05 to be shooting by September. She has an enormous amount of energy. She's a relentlessly hard worker. She's one of the hardest working people and directors I've ever seen. And when she devotes herself to something, she devotes herself to it a thousand percent and that's been her (way on) this movie for the whole length of it."

Talking about the challenges of production, Suzanne told me, "There's helicopters in Vietnam and underwater singing scenes and it really runs the gamut in terms of creativity. It's not like almost any other movie that you would see so there's a little bit of that kind of craziness in almost every scene in addition to singing live and all the musical aspects that made it harder."

"For instance, there's a scene in the song 'Because,'" Jennifer said, "that while we were filming Julie said, 'You know what we should do with the second half of this movie? I think they should be underwater. There should be a beautiful scene of them all singing underwater.' She meant all the main characters. So all of a sudden we sort of scrambled to figure out how to do that and we ended up shooting it in a swimming pool in Brooklyn. We had to send all the main actors to lessons in the swimming pool where they had to practice not only singing underwater with their eyes open, but trying not to let bubbles escape from their mouths while they were singing. It was pretty amazing. It was one of many examples of an idea that she had and it's beautiful in the movie."

The Beatles' songs are an important part of the way the film's story is told. In past movies that have used covers of Beatles music they were used, Jennifer pointed out, "needle drops of the covers. It wasn't the actors breaking into the song and the lyrics of the song actually being woven into the storytelling of the piece. And, actually, you have to follow along with the lyrics to follow the story of the movie."

Among the many Beatles songs Taymor uses in "Universe" are "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Let It Be," "If I Fell," "Hey Jude," "All You Need Is Love" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds."

The Todds also see the Beatles as a key element in the film's marketing campaign. "On any movie you're always looking for the angle when you go to market it," Suzanne said, "and obviously one of the biggest angles we have is the Beatles. We're hoping that people that like the music and people that are fans of the music (will come see the movie) -- and there isn't almost anybody in the world that isn't a fan of the music. What we've seen in the reaction from the preview audiences is they love the music so much that they love to see it in this new incarnation. They love to see this interpretation of it. It's interesting to them because the songs resonate so deeply in their own arts. So obviously we have the Beatles to sell. We have the vision of Julie to sell, which you'll see is just fantastic.

"When you look at the landscape of movies today it seems more and more that people are only willing to come out of their houses for something that's unique or special or tentpole or a reason not to wait for it on DVD. This certainly falls into that category of something that really has to be experienced on a big screen in the dark to have that moviegoing experience. That's the vision of Julie. And then we also have the lovely love story and the idea of what was going on at the time (in America in the '60s). A lot of things that you'll see in our story in terms of this young girl and the two men in her life -- her brother and this other boy that she falls in love with -- and what's going on with the war (in Vietnam) and how people feel about the war and what it does to our country. A lot of the people who have seen it in previews felt like what's going on right now (with the war in Iraq) really was a mirror for them and some of the things they feel right now about what's going on in the war are mirrored in what was going on back then and what we show in the movie. So there's a lot of different ways for different people to be interested in the movie and from a good marketing standpoint you always look at all of that."

There's also Bono's presence in the film to attract moviegoers. "Bono is in the movie and you would be surprised when people see him in the movie how interesting that is to (them)," Suzanne added, "in terms of another angle of what the like about it. He only has a small part in the movie and he sings in the movie. But it's interesting to me just in that idea of what Bono represents in the world now. He sort of transcends (other stars) because of his humanitarian work and his philanthropic work in addition to who he is as a rock star. You wouldn't want to play favorites to say what's the biggest draw of the movie, but certainly the Beatles, Julie Taymor and Bono and our other actors in the story are all right up there. People really respond very strongly to him being in the movie and they love him."

At the same time, the Todds have another interesting project on the horizon for early next year in "The Accidental Husband." "Griffin Dunne directed it," Suzanne said, "with Uma Thurman, Colin First and Jeffrey Dean Martin and that's going to come out in February (from Yari Film Group Releasing). It's a romantic comedy that we shot in New York. We did another movie with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep called 'Prime' (a 2005 romantic comedy drama). That was the second movie that we did with the director Ben Younger. We had done 'Boiler Room' with him, which was his first movie. And both of those were shot in New York.

"While we were working on 'Prime' with Uma and Meryl, Uma had a script that she had been developing herself that she had always wanted to do but couldn't really get it to that next level to get the movie made. But it was an idea that she really loved and had been working on herself for a long time. So we partnered up with her at that point when we were working on 'Prime' and 'Accidental Husband' is the result."

Before "Husband" arrives, another of Team Todd's productions will be entering the marketplace. "Our company produced a little film called 'Ira and Abby' that also shot in New York," Suzanne said, "that stars Chris Messina and Jennifer Westfeldt. Magnolia's distributing that. It's a smaller film that comes out (in mid-September)."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Oct. 2, 1989's column: "About the only thing we can say with certainty about 1992 is that it's getting closer, as is the economic unification of Europe. What the future may hold for Hollywood regarding quotas on American films and TV programs remains to be seen, but some observers are already worrying that it could be harmful.

"'I don't have a crystal ball, but my prediction is that (in the theatrical area) it will not,' observes attorney Dixon Q. Dern. After 21 years with the recently closed law firm Dern, Mason & Floum, Dern now is of counsel to Century City-based Kinsella, Boesch, Fujikawa & Towle, where he's developing, with several former associates, a new entertainment law unit.

"What accounts for Dern's optimism about how features will fare in the Europe of 1992? 'France has been the forerunner in trying to impose television quotas. I don't think that same impetus is there in the case of features. A lot of features already are done under co-production agreements so there's a lot of European involvement in them,' he told me.

"'Secondly, I think the Fortress Europe concern that some people have -- that they're going to keep our product out -- just doesn't apply to American features. There is such a great demand for pictures with American stars that I think it would run counter to the desires of the population if they tried to block those pictures out.'

"One aspect of the situation worth watching, he notes, involves the existing trade treaties between European countries: 'There's a French-British treaty and an Italian treaty and French Canada and English Canada both have treaties. French Canadians will produce under the Canadian French treaty what qualifies as a French film for their purposes and also qualifies for the quota system in Canada.

"'I assume that if, in fact, all treaty and trade barriers are to go down by 1992 that all of the co-production treaties between the European countries should go down. Say you've got a British and French production. British people working in France can qualify under those co-production treaties and they have more or less free access back and forth. That will change, I think, because now they can do it without the treaties. With the elimination of the barriers you could have an entire British crew go over and shoot a picture in France with no French crews..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.