This story about “The Tragedy of Macbeth” first appeared in a feature about black-and-white cinematography in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“It was the obvious choice,” cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel said of the decision to shoot Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in stark black-and-white. Delbonnel had never before shot a film in the format: The first of his five Oscar nominations came 20 years ago for his rainbow-lollipop photography of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film “Amélie,” and in the decades since, his zeal for bold colors has transmuted into desaturated, moody projects such as “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Darkest Hour” (each Oscar nominated as well).
But for the bold new Shakespearean adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as drama’s greatest murderous couple, the decision was never in question. “First, a play feels more like a movie when it’s shot in black-and-white,” Delbonnel said. “Joel wanted to shoot on sets, with very little furniture and no ornamentation. And black-and-white brings with it a level of abstraction. It disconnects you from reality in interesting ways, and we liked that idea for this.”
The film’s aesthetic is magnificently spare. One scene opens with a white dot on the screen, which is slowly revealed to be an overhead shot, looking down at a point of light. “We discussed the idea of haiku, that great Japanese poetry,” Delbonnel said. “In three sentences, you have a world. Everything for us was about describing the environment as simply as we could. So in our film, a castle is just a room with four walls.”
Washington’s Macbeth is told by the Witches (all three are played in this version by American-born British stage actress Kathryn Hunter) that he will not be defeated “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.” Coen’s film interprets this in an astonishing moment, as the castle windows open and a tsunami of leaves cascade in. “Going with the haiku again,” Delbonnel said. “The forest inside the castle doesn’t make any sense but it works. It simply means that the forest is the English army and the army has arrived there. But why not use some imagination to show that?”
In addition, Coen and Delbonnel were guided by the 400-year-old prose of Shakespeare. “My Elizabethan English is not that good,” the French cinematographer said, “but in the play, the characters are always talking about night and day and not knowing which is which. So color would obviously be very obstructive. Following Shakespeare’s lines motivated the decisions we made and helped us to pick the best moments which would be just gray. Then the sudden move to more contrast would be more powerful.”
That use of contrast is a nod to German Expressionism, marked by sharp architectural angles and Gothic dread. To prepare, he and Coen watched scenes from Fritz Lang’s two-part 1924 silent film “Die Nibelungen.” “That big castle shape with the two towers in Lang’s film?” he said with a laugh, “Yeah, that we stole.”
They also screened Orson Welles’ 1948 “Macbeth” and Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation “Throne of Blood,” both rich with black-and-white atmosphere. Other B&W classics that he and Coen watched for inspiration: 1928’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (“for the closeups”), 1955’s “The Night of the Hunter” (“for that incredible white line in the sky”), F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic “Sunrise” (“for one scene where a guy walks in a swamp to meet a woman”) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film “Ivan’s Childhood” (“for that little hut with the rafters at the crossroads, which is an important location in our film”).
“Macbeth” is, of course, is the most cloaked-in-superstition play of all time. Fearing bad luck, actors avoid speaking the title in a theater. Delbonnel dismissed that history – until Friday the 13th of March 2020. “We were minutes away from shooting the Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene,” he said. “And then we were told that the studio was shutting down due to COVID and we had to leave right away. Suddenly we thought to ourselves, ‘Oh, damn, we should not have touched ‘Macbeth.’”
Instead of flying back to his homebase Paris, he stayed in Northern California for five months of lockdown, joining Coen as a guest in the editing room, until rigorous testing protocols allowed the crew to resume filming. “I’ve been on some adventures in my career,” Delbonnel said. “But this one, working in black-and-white, collaborating with Joel and the actors, this experience was unforgettable.”
Read more from TheWrap’s four-part feature on black-and-white cinematography here: