The director and his team relay the secrets of breathing new life into one of the most hallowed texts in all of history.
For his first solo mission away from his brother and creative partner in crime, Ethan, Joel Coen has decided to offer up his version of the most scared text in the history of drama: Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. This expressionist monochrome fever dream has Denzel Washington as the Thane of Cawdor and Frances McDormand as his violently manipulative other half. Here, Coen and a clutch of below-the-line collaborators explain how they were able to pump new blood into this canonical tale.
Joel Coen, Writer/Director: “I’m not a Shakespeare guy. I’ve seen lots of Shakespeare over the years. I’ve seen lots of productions of ‘Macbeth’. I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare, but it’s not really my background. One of the most interesting things about The Tragedy of Macbeth was the idea of taking a very deep dive into a particular work. I spent a lot of time with friends of mine who do know a lot about Shakespeare, asking them about the production history of the play and all the productions that were done on film. I was interested to see in what ways the play had been edited, because the ambition of this particular project was really to give it a rhythm and a pace that was very, very relentless. You can really get into the weeds on all of this stuff.”
Stefan Dechant, Production Designer: “From the beginning we talked about wanting the imagery to be very abstract. We discussed what German Expressionism had meant for filmmaking, and how it influenced people like Charles Laughton when he was making The Night of the Hunter. We looked at Carl Dreyer and FW Murnau, and we also looked at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of architecture, and Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico, which is just two slab walls and a square tower. Joel was immediately saying ‘I think that could be Inverness’. That then led us onto a conversation about a 20th century theatre designer named Edward Gordon Craig, who created these very abstract, geometric designs. That was just our first conversation.”
JC: “I saw the Orson Welles version and I think it’s a very interesting movie but it was a very stressful movie for him. He was trying to prove that he could make the movie on schedule and budget, ’cause he had this reputation, and so there are things in it that are fast and sloppy. I think it’s one of the most bizarre exercises in costume design I’ve ever seen; he does some very weird things in terms of combining and editing and inventing new characters. So in terms of influences or inspirations for this film, there’s a little James Turrell in there – although not really consciously – and some Sugimoto. We looked at a lot of Dreyer, and Murnau’s Sunrise; not so much the Germanic stuff, more the exteriors,