WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It didn't occur to director Julie Taymor at first, all the ways in which her life is similar to that of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's.
"No," she says, shaking her head. "I didn't think about those things when I was making this film."
There were so many other technical and aesthetic problems to think about instead, such as how to rescue Kahlo from the feminist view of her as a victim overshadowed by a powerful older man ("Of course she suffered, but she also had a lusty life," Taymor says. "She made beauty out of these incredibly dark moments"); and how to re-create 1930s Paris and New York while shooting in Mexico on a tortilla budget (Taymor's solution: She created montages of period photographs and stock images and had the actors move through them).
It was only after Frida had been edited, after it had made its debut in movie theaters to a praising review in The New York Times, that Taymor began to wonder if her attraction to Kahlo's story was less straightforward and more complex than initially it had appeared.
"Who knows why you're attracted to do a project about a specific person?" she says. "There are many reasons on the surface, and also many reasons you may not immediately understand."
For instance, both Taymor and Kahlo were badly injured in bus accidents. Both suffered debilitating injuries to a leg: Kahlo in the accident, and Taymor when she nearly fell into a volcano.
Both became deeply involved, romantically and professionally, with another artist: Kahlo with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, and Taymor with her partner of more than two decades, the musician Elliot Goldenthal.
And then, of course, there is the most obvious similarity. Both Kahlo and Taymor have developed an idiosyncratic visual vocabulary, the former with paint and canvas, the latter in the theater and on film. Saturated with color and deceptively primitive, their creations are as startling as an ice cube placed against the back of your neck.
Artist Andre Breton famously described Kahlo, who died in 1954 at age 47, as a ribbon tied around a bomb. Her paintings are transparently and disturbingly autobiographical, with images of the fetus that she miscarried while in New York, her severed torso held together by a corset, her exposed heart dripping blood after she and Rivera briefly divorced.
As with Kahlo, Taymor's appearance also can be deceiving. She is long and slender-boned, and her willowy prettiness resulted in her being cast in ingenue roles until she stopped acting in a fit of frustration at age 21 and started directing. But Taymor also is the recipient of a 1991 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." And although it might be less obvious, Taymor's films tell her story as surely as Kahlo's paintings tell hers.
Taymor, 49, is perhaps best known for her stage adaptation of The Lion King, for which she became the first woman ever to win a Tony Award for directing a musical. Other directing projects include the opera Oedipus Rex, starring Jessye Norman; Juan Darien, a play about a leopard who changed into a boy (it played three sold-out runs on Broadway); and Taymor's Academy Award-nominated film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
Not for Taymor is the quiet little slice of life. She is drawn to the totemic, the mythic and the archetypal. Her productions often involve face and body masks that make giants of the actors. Others use puppets, which she sees as distilling and intensifying human traits. Taymor designs the masks and puppets herself, often basing them on exaggerations of her own expressions. So visually arresting are Taymor's creations that they were compiled in a one-woman show in 1999 that visited museums in Ohio, Chicago and Washington.
Taymor's stage work has been described as cinematic because she plays with scale to create the equivalent of close-ups and distance shots. Similarly, she describes her movies as theatrical, by which she means that they are not literal, but incorporate dream sequences and other flights of the director's -- and audience's -- imagination.
"I don't try to create a realistic perspective," she says. "I try to create a skewed perspective, so that members of the audience can see themselves in a different way."
What is most striking about Taymor is her intensity. For instance, she seems to speak with the slightest possible Spanish inflection, tending to emphasize the penultimate syllable, so that "miraculous" becomes "mir-ac-U-lous." Is this perhaps a result of 10 intensive weeks of filming in Mexico? Taymor grins and doesn't say yea or nay, but instead launches into a wicked imitation of Frida's star, Salma Hayek. And there's something about her manner that makes it easy for others to catch her enthusiasm, to feel as though they are being conscripted into a glorious crusade. It may be the way she leans close when she speaks, her brown eyes aglow, and punctuates her words with a light touch on your arm.