A power-hungry Scot strides down a hallway, murder in his head. Is this another Macbeth edit I’m envisioning? Undeniably, yes, but Joel Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s age-old story is unlike any other.
It doesn’t hurt to have the acting powerhouses 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 boxy Academy ratio, we are transported into an eerie world of castles sculpted from light and shadow at angles sharp enough to draw blood.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” pushes audiences out of time and modern movie convention and looks like it could be 100 years old — closer to a play and at times more of a dream (or nightmare) than real life. As if you reached out to touch it, your hand would go through it.
Using the latest technologies, the film’s backward-looking, forward-thinking production design comes from 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) chatted about ideas for nearly a year. “I did not walk into this project in any way and said, ‘I have two words for you: ‘German Expressionism,'” he recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t walk up to Bruno and say, ‘Black and white, honey, what do you think?'”
“From the very beginning, (Coen) said he wouldn’t deny that the text was made as a play (and) theatrical construction,” he added. “We weren’t interested in making it a naturalistic film. He wasn’t interested in the route (Roman) Polanski went,” said the director’s 1971 film, shot around 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 frame
“It became a benchmark for me to understand how abstract we were going to become,” Dechant said.
The contributors also looked to the films of Carl Dreyer, Robert Mitchum, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and DW Griffith for inspiration, as well as sketches by avant-garde theater designer Edward Gordon Craig.
Left-right: a still from FW Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927) and Alex Hassell as Ross in a still from “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by Joel Coen. Credit: Alamy/Stefan Dechant/Apple TV+
“The continuous line simplifies the frame,” he explained. “It was almost like making a haiku out of images. It was, ‘How can we reduce it to the fewest elements and still be suggestive and immediate?'”
Macbeth’s ascent 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 the ‘idea of a castle’. How this manifests itself transports the film into the realm of metatext.
The rough edges and sparse decors are a nod to the set design, 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 worked out the details of their reign. The lack of imagination is reflected in bare walls, cold floors and high ceilings, these characters dwarf their position – a hollow castle before a hollow crown.
“There’s something ghostly, empty,” Dechant said. “I think Joel probably worked 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 doesn’t fit. There’s still a void. It’s but one man who seeks power, and his wife.”
Making old new again
A montage of illustrations and 3D virtual models of sets created for ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’. Credit: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant/Apple TV+ and A24
Sets were designed using 3D computer modeling, which allowed Coen and Debonnel to virtual walk through scenes and work out camera angles and movements before they were built. Some sets were roughly delineated on a sound stage or built with foam blocks and enlarged to serve the text.
Dechant recalled McDormand pacing down a mock hallway in preparation for a pivotal murder scene, reciting Macbeth’s accompanying monologue as she walked to make sure the space was long enough. It was vital to capture that scene—and one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages—especially since the production designer and director had conspired for a new interpretation.
The vision of a dagger Macbeth envisions in most interpretations of the play appears here in the form of a doorknob to his victim’s room before he takes up his own knife. Dechant said Coen showed him a 1903 portrait of banker J.P. Morgan sitting on the arm of a chair — except in the light, Morgan looked like he was holding a dagger. The production designer played with sculpting a metal door handle to achieve a similar effect. (Dechant eventually left the set with the finished product and a piece of the door as a souvenir.)
Left: Portrait of JP Morgan. Right: A movie still from “Tragedy of Macbeth”. Credit: Alamy/Stefan Dechant/Apple TV+
“(The room) has no historical relevance,” Dechant said. “It was designed for one purpose: to be a cauldron.”
Kathryn Hunter as the three witches in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’. Credit: Courtesy of Apple TV+ and A24
Dechant said two versions of the appearance room were built, one full-height for stunt performers and one with just the trusses for Hunter’s close-ups. Credit: Jason T Clark/Apple TV+ and A24
There were other details, too: When Macbeth sees his friend’s ghost in a hallway, Dechant designed each arc to “be out of balance, for that’s how Macbeth is in his madness.” The enemy’s fateful arrival at Dunsinane is foreshadowed by Dechant in the throne room, where columns were set up with the same proportions as a colonnade of trees through which the invading troops would later pass. The texture of the sets – emphasized by the absence of color – is designed to harmonize with the work of costume designer Mary Zophres.
Dechant, despite his proven track record, described his work in purely collaborative terms. He’s quick to give credit whether it’s Coen, Debonnel, the set builders who painted shadows on his sets to make the lighting pop, or the matte artists who painted landscapes to be inserted into post-production.
“Imagine you came to work and everything looked like a work of art when you walked in it?” he asked, smiling, as if he still couldn’t believe his luck.
The Crossroads – the largest in the film – acquired Studio 16 on the Warner Bros. property. Credit: Jason T Clark/Apple TV+ and A24
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” will be available on Apple TV+ on January 14.
Add to Queue: Five Brilliant Interpretations of Shakespeare
“Blood Throne” (1957)
Akira Kurosawa transported “Macbeth” to feudal Japan for an epic look at the warrior’s rise and fall. Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada star and bring the emotion all the way up. (See also: “Ran” Kurosawa’s take on “King Lear” and “The Bad Sleep Well” , his noirish adaptation of “Hamlet.”)
“10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)
Heath Ledger sings from the stands. Julia Styles’ tearful poetry reading. Joseph Gordon-Levitt annoys 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 an evil king and portrays it as a fascist coup in 1930s Britain. It’s worth watching Ian McKellen let loose as one of Shakespeare’s most dastardly characters and the brilliant use of location (Battersea Power Station is responsible for the Battle of Bosworth).
Another “Macbeth”, another original version. Vishal Bhardwaj performed the piece in Mumbai’s underground crime scene, while the late Irrfan Khan gave the troubled leader great world fatigue. Comparisons to “The Godfather” wouldn’t be misplaced.
“Chimes at Midnight” (1965)
Orson Welles shifted the focus 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 sly head start. And it wasn’t the last film to ramp up the character’s fame (see: David Michôd’s 2019 film, “The King”).