‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ Artisans on How They Delivered Joel Coen’s Shadowy Study of Ambition

·3-min read

Filmmaker Joel Coen wanted “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” his adaptation of the Shakespearean staple about the ambitious Scottish king, to be rooted in theatricality but to avoid looking like a filmed play. For his first solo movie as a director, he chose to shoot in the stark black and white of classic expressionist works. The A24-Apple Original film, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth, opens in theaters Dec. 25 prior to streaming.

Production designer Stefan Dechant collaborated closely with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who started prepping with Coen almost 18 months before shooting began. Dechant explains that the stylized sets, more than any he’d seen, were built to contrast “where shadow and light fall. Going back to abstraction, we started painting in shadows.”

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Reference images came from the austerity of director Carl Theodor Dreyer, Charles Laughton’s influential 1955 noir “The Night of the Hunter” and even the opening of David Lean’s “Oliver Twist,” which includes a thunderstorm.

Dechant says for the castle design, “Joel never wanted a castle but the idea of one.” Dechant favored texture over color. His work was more about creating shapes and differentiating the environments made up of simple blocks and structures with Gothic arches. Everything was geometric without a lot of embellishment. “We also didn’t set up any establishing shots,” he says.

To enhance the arches, he darkened them and painted shadow lines, always turning to Delbonnel for final approval. All ornamentations were removed — there were no carpets, no torches and no flashy chandeliers. Delbonnel says,

“It’s an homage to the language and Shakespeare.” Delbonnel says the lighting patterns he chose were on occasion unreal: “Sometimes the light doesn’t follow any natural reason. It’s a shape that either follows the lines of emotion or was in contradiction with it.”

Costume designer Mary Zophres latched on to Dechant’s idea of clean lines with little embellishment in her designs, choosing textured pieces and fabrics. She began with Lord and Lady Macbeth’s silhouette as her foundation, which would then influence the other characters. The look for Washington’s Macbeth was powerful, masculine and virile. So Zophres dressed him in a doublet jacket loosely influenced by medieval times, with an inverted “V” at the top and waist.

She kept her palette simple. “In black and white you can use a multitude of colors to create depth,” she says. “But Coen and Delbonnel felt strongly that it had to work in person. Joel didn’t want magentas and purples. He wanted something calming and soothing and not something that was a distraction on set.”

Lady Macbeth’s silhouette influenced other characters - Credit: Mary Zophres
Lady Macbeth’s silhouette influenced other characters - Credit: Mary Zophres

Mary Zophres

For Lord Macbeth Mary Zophres dressed him in a doublet jacket loosely influenced by medieval times. - Credit: Mary Zophres
For Lord Macbeth Mary Zophres dressed him in a doublet jacket loosely influenced by medieval times. - Credit: Mary Zophres

Mary Zophres

There was also plenty of room for Debonnel’s compelling close-ups. The DP shot in the Academy aspect ratio used in the 1930s. “It really filled the frame,” Delbonnel says. “Denzel and Frances have fantastic faces, and their presence is almost scary but so powerful.”

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