An Emperor's Odyssey
If you saw Alan Taylor in, say, Paris or Rome, you would never mistake him for a European. Despite a childhood spent in several countries, including Italy, Taylor's light hair, his trim, athletic build, and frank expression are as American as his khaki-colored chinos. Even the director's debut film, Palookaville, set in New Jersey, dealt with typically American themes. But his newly released The Emperor's New Clothes (from Paramount Classics), a revisionist story about Napoleon Bonaparte's exile, led Taylor in a different direction and, in many ways, back to his roots.
Taylor holds a graduate degree in European history, and he started out life thinking he would become a college professor. During the location shoot in Italy, his childhood lessons in Italian helped him communicate with his DP, Alessio Gelsini Torresi, and his largely Italian crew. "I can't actually speak the language any longer," Taylor explains, "but I understood what everyone was saying." The director drew on both his educational background, and his knowledge of European art, to rewrite the screenplay and to imagine a visual style for The Emperor's New Clothes.
Seated comfortably in a Lower Manhattan coffee shop, Taylor talks about the film's stormy beginnings. "Uberto Pasolini—he was also my producer on Palookaville—came to talk to me about the script," Taylor explains, referring to the first draft written by Kevin Molony. "We wound up having such fun arguing about it that we decided we should do it together." Taylor does not gloss over his thorny relationship with the producer, an Italian count and a descendent of Luchino Visconti. "Unfortunately," he explains, "we kept arguing through the rest of the movie." Filming got off to a turbulent start, too, when cast and crew boarded a vintage sailing vessel to shoot the scenes of Napoleon's escape from St. Helena. The sea was not calm, and Taylor never quite took to sailing. "I got sicker than anyone onboard ship, although a lot of the crew were sick. It's the worst feeling in the world."
The film's ingenious plot is adapted from a novel, The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Ley. It begins with Napoleon and his look-alike, a coarse deckhand named Eugene—both played by Ian Holm—trading places. Eugene is to declare himself a fake when the Emperor lands in Paris, but the plan fails when the deckhand refuses to reveal his true identity. "I see Napoleon as a guy who was living in the past and living in a kind of imagined future," Taylor says. "He has to be brought into the present. He comes to Paris, which is stuck, historically. It hadn't recovered from the loss of Napoleon, but it hadn't come up with anything new yet." Pumpkin, the fruit vendor who becomes Napoleon's lover, is the pivotal character. "I always thought of Pumpkin as the modern character who was too practical, too down-to-earth, too pragmatic, to get caught up in all this stuff. She was eager to shed all that historical baggage and just get on with her business and with life. She transforms the man she knows as Eugene."
The movie opens with a child gazing at slides of Napoleon's life through a magic lantern. "I wanted to capture the mystique of this man. I also think the story has a kind of dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it," the director muses. "I was hoping that with this creative device, the magic lantern, the whole story would take on the feeling of the magic lantern imagery and a bedtime story for children." The candle-lit magic lantern also inspired the film's visual style. "The reason I hired Torresi—he's a wonderful guy—was I knew that our film would have two light qualities. One was going to be soft, Vermeer-like light coming in from outside, lit from windows, and the other was to be candlelight," Taylor explains. "It's so hard to do that realistically and he was a genius at both. So we created that natural-light quality, where you always feel that the light is wrapping around things the way it does in a Vermeer painting."
Taylor never set out to make a costume drama, but rather to capture the irony of an epic figure living out his life as a common citizen. "It fit with my sensibilities as a filmmaker," the director explains. He points to a grandiose shot of a horse veering up on the crest of a hill, followed by a cut to Napoleon urinating against a tree. "Every time we used grand imagery, like that tableau, we tried to undercut or play against it because the intention of the film was always to find the little, human detail in this big man's story."
At first, Taylor admits, he was nervous about the prospect of working with Ian Holm, an actor he admires. He showed Holm one of his favorite portraits of Napoleon when they were discussing the character. "Napoleon's gazing into limbo, reflecting on the tragedies, like Waterloo," Taylor explains. "There's one scene where Ian is sitting in the tub, and I said, 'Action,' and he turned and became the face in the painting." The most spectacular shot in the film, and Taylor's favorite, comes when Napoleon discovers that Eugene has died, never having confessed his real identity. The shot begins on the back of Holm's head. "Even though no one ever sees the back of their head, there's something really naked about that. I think you get access to the vulnerable, inner world of a person when you highlight it. I realized the power of that kind of shot from Jane Campion in The Piano."
During the six years between films—Palookaville was released in 1996—Taylor has been directing award-winning television shows including "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos," but he says he has ambivalent feelings about TV. "I don't think directing television is real directing, but you learn a lot of things and you get paid lots of money. I try to do the kind of television that you can respect in the morning." Discussing his artistic hiatus, Taylor highlights one of the harsh realities new directors confront: "We won Best First Feature at Venice, but as a filmmaker starting out, it's really rough if you don't make a film that breaks some kind of box-office record. Then, it's hard to get from one to two." Taylor's private life has been easier: Eight months ago, he and his fiance, Nicki Ledermann—they met on Palookaville—had their first child, Ginger Annavera.