Titus, Julie Taymor's film version of William Shakespeare's first, and bloodiest, play, is purposefully not set in any defined period. "It has nothing to do with historical authenticity," says Taymor, TCI and Tony Award-winning director and designer of The Lion King, along with such other theatre pieces as Juan Darien, The Green Bird, and, as it happens, Titus Andronicus. "The entire film is seen from the point of view of a 12-year-old child. In the opening scenes, he mixes his toy soldiers on the kitchen table, and they range from Roman and Goth soldiers up to G.I. Joes and Star Wars figures. So all manner of time is mixed."
"Julie wanted to make a movie where there were no specific, direct references to a period, but to create a world unto itself," says Milena Canonero, the Oscar-winning costume designer of Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire, whom Taymor enlisted for her feature film debut. "There are long-ago, faraway references like Roman and Etruscan, and also fairly recent references, like the wartime 1930s and 40s. That gives a symbolic relevance to the violence and revenge, makes it more eternal. Also, her vision is very witty, and we tried to get that across with the look of the movie."
The film, which Fox Searchlight released in December, stars Anthony Hopkins as the title character, a Roman general who after a resounding victory, kills the eldest son of defeated Goth Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange). Alan Cumming is Saturninus, the corrupt Roman emperor who makes Tamora his queen, thereby setting the stage for a series of vengeful acts.
The three characters represent the major groups Canonero had to deal with--Roman military, Goth, and Roman imperial class. "The Romans were inspired by Roman and Etruscan art,but in a very free way, not historically or academically accurate," the designer says. "The other cross references were the Italian Fascist era, and maybe the future. I call the look retro contemporary futuristic."
For the Goths, including Lange's striking body-sculpted pieces in gold, the guideline was more Germanic. "The inspiration was the Niebelungs and German Gothics, a bit Wagnerian in a way," says Canonero. "They come from the forests of the north, so they're in furs and gold leaf. And blond; the Romans were always dark." Indeed, Saturninus and his imperial crones are mostly brunette, and often clad in black leather.
One of the ways the film's look was unified was through strict control of the palette. "The colors had to be very basic," Canonero says. "Blacks, whites, grays, and reds, with touches of blue and brown for the Goths." Roman armor and other hard materials were in iron and cold metals, while silver and gold was reserved for the Goths. The designer says that, on this film and in general, her sketches are initially done in black and white, with other colors filled in later. "The palette is usually worked out with the director, along with the production designer," she explains.
Grabbing production design duties on Titus was Dante Ferretti, another one of what Taymor refers to as her " 'A'-list team." Like Canonero, Ferretti, whose estimable credits include The Age of Innocence and Interview With the Vampire, was inspired by Taymor's eclectic vision and dug up locations ranging from the ruins of Hadrian's villa and a Roman coliseum in Croatia to E.U.R., Mussolini's government center. Apart from the Croatian locations, most of the filming took place at Cinecitta Studios and elsewhere around Rome.
At Cinecitta, Canonero, who is Italian-born but had only once previously worked at the renowned facility, set up a workshop of costume makers, metalworkers, and plasterers. "The costumes were made from beginning to end, because you can't rent or hire this kind of thing," she says. "It wasn't an enormous amount of people, about 15 to 20 altogether. Everything was made from scratch, including the weapons and armor, but we came in under budget." The designers had a generous three- or four-month prep on the film, and the main actors were set early, which was a great bonus to Canonero.
Belying the film's often hard-to-watch violence, most people involved with the Titus production seem to have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. As with the costumes, the languages and dialects heard around the set represented a lively blend. "It was a mishmash of everything, from American and British to Italian and Croatian," says Canonero, who could speak English to Taymor and the actors, and Italian to Ferretti and the crew. "We were very happy to work like that."