Whenever Frances McDormand brought up the notion of her husband and frequent collaborator Joel Coendirecting her in her dream role of Lady Macbeth, he demurred – bluntly. “He said absolutely not,” she recalled; “I had no interested in theater,” he explained, and that was that.
“Doing something on the stage where there’s one sort of visual metaphor for the whole thing, which is a stage set, and that’s what you’re looking at – that’s not the way my brain works,” Coen said. “Movies are very much about where you’re looking, from where you are looking, and how long you’re looking.”
But when McDormand played Lady Macbeth at Berkley Rep in 2016, Coen sat in some of the rehearsals and began to see how he could adapt “the Scottish play” for the screen. “I didn’t want to abandon the notion of the play,” he explained at the press conference following the resultant film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” at the New York Film Festival. “It was taking a play and making a movie that was interesting, not trying to make the play into a movie. I didn’t want to hide the play” So he looked for ways to create a marriage of both: shooting in black and white (as “a way of instantly abstracting the image”), shooting in the squarer “Academy ratio,” using minimalists sets (“A lot of the motivating impulse in terms of design was taking things away”) and creating moods and spaces with abstract light and shadow.
Of course, for any filmmaker working in today’s peculiar cinematic ecosystem, there comes the question of if that is all for naught. Coen made “Macbeth” for Apple TV+, and his previous film (and, it seems, his last with brother Ethan) was “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a Netflix original. So how does he feel about expending his energies of impeccable designs and attentiveness to detail on a project intended, at the end of the day, for television, or laptops, or worse?
Coen offered a more nuanced response to this hot question than most. “As a filmmaker, you want the audience to see your movies in the best, most sophisticated, and biggest platform possible,” he explained. “The worst nightmare as a filmmaker is when someone says, ‘I saw your movie on an airplane.’
“But here’s the thing about streaming services from a personal point of view,” he continued. “When I first got into the movie business, it’s been almost forty years ago. The reason I was able to make movies with Ethan, the reason we were able to have a career, is because the studios at that point had an ancillary market that was a backstop for more risky films, which were VHS cassettes and all of these home video markets, which is essentially television. So the fact that those markets are sort of responsible for my career… I’m not gonna bust on them now because they’ve become very successful, you know, and they’re sort of overtaking the market. I mean, it’s the reason I’m here, and able to do this.”
“So, I have mixed feelings about it, obviously, which is, the first thing, you want people to see it on a big screen. But the other part of it is, that’s been part of the history of our movies since the very beginning.”
It also stands to reason that major studios these days are loathe to invest in things like a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation (c’mon, folks, it’s one of the original IPs!), even with one of the last traditional “movie stars” out in front. Coen and McDormand (who are also credited as producers) had a very short conversation about casting the lead before landing on Denzel Washington; Washington and Coen had an even shorter conversation before he agreed.
“This is a fascinating journey for me. I went to school a thousand feet from here,” Washington explained, gesturing towards the Julliard School of the Arts near Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. “And played Othello, at 20. Didn’t know what I was doing. So just… it’s been a long one thousand feet!” But he’s been no stranger to the stage or to Shakespeare, appearing in New York productions of “Richard III” and “Julius Caesar,” and reveling the opportunity provided, by this film, to rehearse the text like a play. “We were a company,” Washington said, “the way Joel and Fran led us… we came to be a company.”
And they were a company of various backgrounds, McDormand said. “There was the diversity in the in the dialects, in the background of theatre and film and training, was kind of exciting in that room.”
Harry Melling, who plays Malcolm, agreed. “The fact that we had three weeks or four weeks, everyone working towards the same vision – which is sometimes rare in films because everyone’s coming at it from a different angle, and to have those three weeks where we sort of set out the mission of what we want to achieve is just, I think, vital. And is why it’s such a striking piece.”
Moses Ingram, cast as Lady Macduff, put a finer point on it. “I think one of the biggest blessings for me in this process was just being in the room and watching,” she recalled. “I think people wait their whole lives to be in rooms like this one, to be in rehearsal, and it’s like… finding out everybody poops? Like watching them being in rehearsal, and figuring it out right in front of me and being very much just… not wanting to fuck it up, you know? But then just see free and so graceful. It was just a privilege.”
And that thrill of discovery, that love of exploring and performing, is part of what gives “The Tragedy of Macbeth” its particular, powerful energy. “It’s the ultimate challenge and the ultimate reward,” Washington said. “It’s where I started and where I want to finish.”
McDormand concurred. “The first thing I did, the first thing that got me hooked on wanting to be an actor for the rest of my life was the sleepwalking scene from ‘The Tragedy,’” she said. “And I did it when I was 14, and then the so I’ve pretty much been practicing, and rehearsing for it, for fifty years. So I feel like there was a kind of fated inevitability to it. And then it ended up being in this, and sculpted in this way seems like an absolutely perfect period.”