Oscar-winning stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand were all smiles as they discussed the world premiere of director Joel Coen’s first solo outing, a highly anticipated screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s haunting and premonitory drama, The Tragedy of Macbeth at the 59th New York Film Festival. The festival continues until October 10.
“It’s a very apt punctuation point,” observed McDormand, who plays the manipulative Lady Macbeth and who also produced the film. “The first thing that got me hooked on wanting to be an actor for the rest of my life was the sleepwalking scene of the tragedy. I first did this when I was 14 and practically practiced this scene and rehearsed for 50 years, so I feel like I had an inevitable fatality and the fact that it ended up being sculpted in this way seems absolutely perfect.
Denzel then watched how his presence at the morning press conference on stage at the Walter Reade Theater at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on the famous Julliard School campus was, for him, coming full circle. “I learned to play Julliard,” he says.
In a way, he again observed, the Macbeth Project was a sum of the combined careers of all the principals on stage. “You have the Yale / Julliard Mafia running it here!” He exclaimed, which caused a great collective laughter from all.
Shot in austere black-and-white cinematography that made full use of every inch of the film’s 1.33: 1 Academy aspect ratio, writer and director Coen created a dramatic landscape that was both cinematic and theatrical.
“The design was to strip it. This project probably had the longest gestation period of any movie I’ve ever made. Black and white is a way to instantly abstract an image in a way that everyone understands. It was a bit like German expressionism. The darkness of it. The hardness of it. Everything was so simple, but beautiful.
Coen went on to explain his approach to the film and how he tried to deviate from past on-screen efforts. “There were other onscreen versions of Shakespeare that I was trying NOT to do. For example, how many times have you seen a movie where the actor recites a soliloquy, but you only hear it in a voiceover? In this movie, I wanted him (Macbeth) to speak in front of the camera and be in at least a near-realistic context rather than using another device. In this Macbeth, the soliloquies are part of real scenes.
McDormand, who also worked with Coen to produce the film, took it one step further. “In most of Macbeth’s films, the scenes all follow each other from beginning to middle to end, and they all follow each other dramatically,” she explained. “Whereas Joel transposed what was on stage and interspersed between scenes, because in the movie it just makes it more dynamic. For me, that was what was exciting about his adaptation.
“It’s interesting, because in the final scene of the play,” Coen observed, “Shakespeare, himself; at the end of the play does something that’s essentially a“ side-cut ”in the movie. goes from that scene to that scene and back, and they’re all supposed to happen at the same time. He does it theatrically, which I find really interesting. In the movie, we exaggerated that effect, because you CAN in a movie It was another example of how the play was adapted to the movie and how brilliant Shakespeare was as a playwright to anticipate that kind of storytelling.
Regarding Denzel as Macbeth, McDormand proclaimed, “You don’t make lists on who you want to play Macbeth on,” she said, motioning to her co-star sitting next to her. “One is born and you ask him if he will. “
Denzel intervened, “I said ‘Yes!’ right now. I will do it! “It’s a fascinating journey for me. I went to school a thousand yards from here and played Othello. I didn’t know what I was doing. So it’s a thousand feet long, but when you work with such men, I won’t say old people (.. also on stage) chasing us. But the cool thing is we were really a “Company” like Joel (Coen) and Fran (McDormand) led us.
“For three weeks we rehearsed. Which is unusual in the movies. We sat around the table and we each read different roles each time. Joel really threw us all under the bus and we had to sink or swim, and that’s what we, and I, as actors live for!
“This is the ultimate challenge. he said of his character, Lord Macbeth, “This is the ultimate reward. This is where I started and where I want to end.
No one at the press conference really asked about it, but the fact that the film is a shining example of a colorblind casting is a no-brainer. “The cast is diverse, obviously,” Coen observed. “But that’s also the way we presented it. Not only is there diversity in the cast, but there is also diversity in the dialect and in the background of the stage and the cinema that we all bring to it. It shows in what the audience sees on screen.
“The film pays homage to both the theatrical and cinematic traditions it was part of,” McDormand continued.
Harry Melling, who plays Malcolm, discussed the use of language in the film. “We were talking about dialect. You want the room to sound and what Joel did was really structural, in terms of removing things so that you can both ‘see’ the room and also realize what’s going on inside each of the souls. of the character. It’s really hard to accomplish, but I’m sure all this rehearsal time, just sitting around the table and allowing us to marinate in the atmosphere of the room was the key to it.
Moses Ingram, who plays Lady Macduff, said she was impressed with the heavyweight cast and the quality of their collaboration. “I came to the set a lot of days when I wasn’t working, just to see everyone. It was a privilege to be in the room and in 50 years it will always be something to be remembered.
“We had four colleagues who decided it would be an end to their careers,” McDormand said of the crew. “So we had a fake ceremony and made these very beautiful medals. We took out the sword and they knelt down (of course we had to help them up!). We made them knights and ladies. But, symbolically, it’s a perfect punctuation point for me, I know, as well as for several other members of the company.
“I was 56 when I played her at Berkeley Rep,” McDormand said of her role as Lady Macbeth. “I feel like there has been a process towards character for 50 years. I’m really delighted that we were able to capture this role on film that way and really bring our cellular structure to the mix.
“We’re not really doing anything new other than what we bring to it. We really had that in mind when we recreated these characters.
“There is a sense of urgency built in,” Denzel said of the film project. “This is it. This is the last round.”
McDormand then intervened. “That’s the other side of being an ‘elder’. I can’t believe we did this. I’m just smothered about this over and over again. For me, it’s really rewarding. It is really fabulous!
Well said. The premiere of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by Joel Coen on Christmas Day. Give it a gift by going to see it.