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“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

A power-hungry Scotsman walks down a hallway with murder in mind. Is this another adaptation of Macbeth that I see in front of me? Undeniably, yes, but Joel Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s age-old tale is unlike any other.

It doesn’t hurt to have Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand on board as Lord and Lady Macbeth, but the setting in which Coen places them also draws attention. Shot in black and white in the Academy’s square report, we are transported to a strange world of castles sculpted in light and shadow at angles sharp enough to spill blood.

Moving audiences out of time and modern cinematic conventions, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” appears to be 100 years old – closer to a play and, at times, more of a dream (or nightmare) than film. real life. As if you were reaching out to touch it, your hand would go through.

Using the latest technology, the film’s retrospective and avant-garde production design is courtesy of Stefan Dechant, whose eclectic resume includes “Avatar”, “True Grit” and “Jurassic Park”.

Dechant joined the film after Coen, cinematographer Bruno Debonel and McDormand (producer and Coen’s wife) exchanged ideas for almost a year. “I did not go into this project in any way and I said: ‘I have two words for you:’ German expressionism ‘”, he recalls, laughing. “I did not approach Bruno for him. say, ‘Black and white, baby, what do you think?’ “

“From the start, (Coen) mentioned that he didn’t want to deny that the text was created as a play (and) a theatrical construction,” he added. “We had no interest in making a naturalistic film. He was not interested in following the road that (Roman) Polanski took,” quoting the director’s 1971 film, set in the British Isles.

Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth in a scene from “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. Credit: Courtesy of Apple TV + and A24

Simplify the framework

Inspirational references were plastered all over an office in the form of 3 x 5 inch prints of film stills, architectural plans and photographs of Debonel’s own making. The key image was taken by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto of the Luis Barragán house in Mexico City. Built in 1948, the late architect’s former home – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is captured in the photo as an assemblage of clean lines and hard surfaces slightly softened by focus.

“It became a benchmark for me to understand how abstract we were going to become,” Dechant said.

The collaborators also drew inspiration from films by Carl Dreyer, Robert Mitchum, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and DW Griffith, as well as sketches by avant-garde theater designer Edward Gordon Craig.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

Left to right: A still from the film “Sunrise” by FW Murnau (1927) and Alex Hassell as Ross in a still from “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by Joel Coen. Credit: Alamy / Stefan Dechant / Apple TV +

“The through line simplified the frame,” he explained. “It was almost like creating a haiku of images. It was, ‘How could we keep it to a minimum while still being evocative and immediate?’”

Macbeth’s ascension to the throne takes him from a battle camp to his castle in Inverness and finally to a castle in Dunsinane. Coen asked Dechant not to think of a castle, but of “the idea of ​​a castle”. How it manifests itself transports the film to the realm of the metatextual.

The raw edges and the sparse decoration of the sets are a nod to the scenography, but the incompleteness of these spaces also becomes an extension of Lord and Lady Macbeth. These are characters who imagined themselves on the throne, but never fleshed out the details of their reign. The lack of imagination is reflected in the bare walls, cold floors and high ceilings, these figures eclipsed by their station – a hollow castle for a hollow crown.

“There is a haunting, empty quality,” Dechant said. “I think Joel was probably working at that level, in terms of (Inverness is) not a home, because they can’t have heirs. And then you go to (Dunsinane) and it’s ill-suited. There is always a vacuum. There is only one man who seeks power, and his wife. “

Redo the old new

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

A montage of illustrations and virtual 3D models of sets created for “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. Credit: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant / Apple TV + and A24

The sets were designed using 3D computer modeling, allowing Coen and Debonnel to take virtual tours of the scenes and determine the angles and movements of the camera before their construction. Some sets have been roughly traced on a soundstage or constructed with foam blocks and augmented to serve the text.

Dechant recalled that McDormand was pacing a fictional hallway in preparation for a crucial murder scene, reciting Macbeth’s corresponding soliloquy as she walked to make sure the space was long enough. Nailing that scene – and one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages – was vital, especially since the designer and director had conspired on a new rendition.

The sight of a dagger that Macbeth sees in front of him in most renditions of the play appears here as a doorknob to his victim’s chamber, before he picks up his own blade. Dechant said Coen showed him a 1903 portrait of banker JP Morgan seated holding the arm of a chair – except in the light, it appeared Morgan was actually holding a dagger. The production designer had fun carving a metal door handle to achieve a similar effect. (Dechant eventually left the set with the final product and a piece of the door as a memento.)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

Left: Portrait of JP Morgan. Right: a still from the movie “Tragedy of Macbeth”. Credit: Alamy / Stefan Dechant / Apple TV +

Another departure from Coen is his casting of stage star and contortionist Kathryn Hunter to play the three iconic witches in the story. At the height of the film’s inventiveness, when the witches return to Macbeth and recite their famous song, they do so inside Dunsinane Castle – perched on top of rafters in a Spartan room – as the water ( all digital, admitted the production designer) floods the space.

“(The play) has no historical relevance,” Dechant said. “It was designed for one purpose: to be a cauldron.”

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

Kathryn Hunter as the Three Witches in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. Credit: Courtesy of Apple TV + and A24

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

Dechant said two versions of the spawn chamber were built, one full height for the stuntmen and one with just the rafters for Hunter’s close-ups. Credit: Jason T Clark / Apple TV + and A24

There were other touches, too: When Macbeth spots his friend’s ghost in a hallway, Dechant designed each arch to be “unbalanced, for Macbeth is too in his madness.” The fateful coming of the enemy to Dunsinane is foreshadowed by Dechant in the throne room, where columns were arranged with the same proportions as a colonnade of trees that the invading forces would later pass through. The texture of the sets – underlined by the absence of color – was designed to harmonize with the work of costume designer Mary Zophres.

Dechant, despite his proven track record, has described his work in purely collaborative terms. He hastens to pay homage, whether it is to Coen, Debonnel, to the decorators who painted shadows on his sets to make the lights burst, or to the matte artists who painted landscapes to be inserted in post-production.

“Imagine if you came to work and everything looked like a work of art when you walked in?” He asked smiling, looking like he couldn’t believe his luck.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare Adaptation is Like No Other

The Crossroads set – the largest in the movie – took over Studio 16 on the Warner Bros. lot. Credit: Jason T Clark / Apple TV + and A24

“The Macbeth Tragedy” is available on Apple TV + on January 14.

Add to Queue: Five Awesome Performances of Shakespeare

“Throne of Blood” (1957)
Akira Kurosawa transported “Macbeth” to feudal Japan for an epic vision of the rise and fall of the warrior. Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada play the main role and raise the emotion to the end. (See also: “Ran” [1985], Kurosawa’s take on “King Lear” and “The Bad Sleep Well” [1960], his black adaptation of “Hamlet.”)

“10 things I hate about you” (1999)
Heath Ledger sings from the stands. Julia Styles tearful poetry reading. Joseph Gordon-Levitt annoying everyone in sight. Gil Junger’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew”, with its American high school setting, had it all.

“Richard III” (1995)
Richard Loncraine’s adaptation takes the rise of a bad king and imagines it as a fascist coup d’état in 1930s Britain. It’s worth watching to see Ian McKellen let it rip. as one of Shakespeare’s most despicable characters and his brilliant use of location (Battersea Power Station replaces the Battle of Bosworth).

“Maqbool” (2003)
Another “Macbeth”, another original take. Vishal Bhardwaj has placed the play in Mumbai’s underground crime world, while the late Irrfan Khan brought great weariness to the struggling leader. Comparisons with “The Godfather” would not be out of place.

“Chimes at midnight” (1965)
Orson Welles diverted the attention of the royal family in “Henry IV” and put the spotlight on Sir John Falstaff. Welles certainly looked like the knight and troublemaker, but also gave him a crafty edge. And it was not the last film to increase the notoriety of the character (see: David Michôd’s 2019 film, “The King”).