When production designer Stefan Dechant (“Pinocchio”) got a surprise call to meet Joel Coen on a whim to discuss “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” his Shakespeare’s adaptation of Murder, Madness and chaos with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, Dechant immediately hooked.
The look and design were explicitly on display in a photo album Coen shared with Dechant, after the director spent a year refining his black-and-white vision with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. He shouted at German expressionism, with images from films (“Siegfried”, “La passion de Jeanne d’Arc”, “Sunrise”, “The night of the hunter”), of architecture (Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City, with its square tower with two very black walls), photography (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s monochrome and fuzzy print of the Barragan house) and theater (modernist set designer Edward Gordon Craig uses large geometric blocks). Inspired by the plan, the chief decorator set to work on the very uncluttered building of the Shakespearean world, entirely shot on the sound sets of LA.
“When we sat down, Joël had a very strong vision [for the look and choreography]: black and white, Academy ratio [1.37:1], German expressionism, and it was abstract, so he embraced the theater, but you never deny the cinema, ”Dechant said. It was a visual design that expressed Macbeth’s troubled state of mind after conspiring with his wife to assassinate King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and seize the Scottish throne. The decorations were therefore carved out of light and shade to adapt to Delbonnel’s lighting system. In addition, the arches were built on wheels and moved so that the camera creates a feeling of insanity.
Courtesy of Apple
“You reflect the text as images and Joel has it all organized,” Dechant added. “He spoke of Inverness as the feeling of a castle [where Macbeth lives]. They were always block shapes and that’s where Casa Luis Barragan came in. Then he spoke of Dunsinane, which is the seat of the throne, as the place where you bring that verticality. The stairs in Inverness had the same layout as Dunsinane. It was intentional and was part of Macbeth’s psychology as well. Then, woven through all that repeats the imagery of the original text: birds, blood, night.
“We talked about Murnau and the creation of an artificial environment. We therefore considered the lake and marshes of “Sunrise” as a touchstone that influenced the grasses along the ruins. And ‘Night of the Hunter’ because Charles Laughton [as director] did the same: he looks at DW Griffith and then brushes aside the night scenes with the twinkling stars. These became the stars behind Duncan. I did some illustrations of the ruins and for me they were too real so I went deeper into this world of Laughton. [‘The Passion of Joan or Arc’ director] Carl Dreyer always talked about all you can pull off and having the actor there. “
Courtesy of Apple
The sets were large and built in sections, and the production designer relied heavily on flat paints to create the settings. For him, it was a direct return to the multi-shot ingenuity of “Citizen Kane”. The opening sand beach with the Three Witches (played by Kathryn Hunter) quickly gave way to the recreation filming schedule of Birnham Wood Forest in Dunsinane, which spells the death knell for Macbeth. This posed one of the biggest challenges.
“In the throne room, these columns are the same distance as the trees in Birnham Wood,” Dechant said. “They are arranged to reflect the avenue of trees. So when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, the doors open, the leaves come in and flood the ground. Originally, it was going to be that. But it was Bruno who had the brilliant idea of bringing in the forest. So we introduced the matte paint on the sides.
Courtesy of Apple
Another highlight of the design was the second encounter with the witches, which further sealed Macbeth’s tragic fate. “When the apparitions appear a second time, they sit on the wooden beams on the ceiling and there is only a decanter, a small potion and a glass,” Dechant said. “And the space accentuates the emptiness of Macbeth’s life during this ordeal.”
The final scene with a horseman returning to Scotland to fulfill the witches’ final prophecy was the only on-site tour to an LA ranch. It also turned out to be one of the most difficult, with the emphasis on matte painting. “We worked on this latest plan for three months,” Dechant added. “The matte painting has been reiterated. We turned a plate with the rider coming down. And when Joel decided to break that camera movement and take it a step further, it became his own thing. Bruno came up with the idea of clouds passing through the grass, and we used “Citizen Kane” style multi-plane matt paints. Then it all came together.
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