Sold to a bitter old man, Katherine suffocates in a loveless marriage. She is forbidden to leave her house and spends her days frustrated and bored, attended by the diffident Anna. When Katherine’s husband is called away on business, she defies his orders and escapes to the wild world outside, bringing its savagery—and a new lover—into her home. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (later made into an opera by Shostakovich, which was denounced by Stalin), William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is ghastly and beautiful, horrific and ecstatic. •Availability: Opens NYC, Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and L.A. July 14, with national rollout to follow. •Thanks to Keaton Kail and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.•
DT: There are some horrific scenes in the film, but some scenes are very, very beautiful. How did you approach blending those two elements?
WO: We were dealing with a lifeless, airless, and austere environment. Running through it were very raw and visceral emotions, so this is the contrast we wanted to play with. We brought it out with the design, looking at these simple rooms and trying to enhance that by emphasizing the austerity and the sense in which it might be like a vacuum for Katherine. Jacqueline Abrahams, our production designer, brought in a whole series of images to reference that. She designed The Lobster, which also has a simple and beautiful aesthetic.
She called the series of images she brought in “viscera”: they were basically biting, scratching, cuts, bruises, drowned things, dead animals, wounds. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There was something so interesting about seeing the formality and the simplicity and the sparsity [of the images] contrasted with these scratches and bites and scars. So that became the basis for our work, that became a sort of palette; it came out of that. And they were things that existed in nature as well. It felt very symbolic of the story as a whole. When Katherine runs in after Sebastian has been beaten, she immediately licks his wounds, like an animal. I loved that because it feels very different from expected behavior of Victorian Englanders.
DT: Although that combination of viscera and austerity is almost how I think of that era. We don’t have that viscera today.
WO: It was there…we know it was there because we read the books now, but at the time it was not spoken about. The sacred and profane of Victorian England: how many churches were built in Victorian England? More churches were built in Victoria’s reign than all of the churches that had been built up to that point put together, then you think how many whorehouses and opium dens there were in Victorian England underneath that. There was a huge number of prostitutes.
DT: Both you and your screenwriter had major careers in theater before entering the world of film. What surprised you? What didn’t you anticipate?
WO: The first surprise was that in preparation for the film, all the financiers kept asking me how I was going to get into the point of view of the character. How do you get into POV? I thought that was such a strange idea, because in theater you don’t need to worry about getting into POV. When I put on a play, there are the words, the actors know the words, they perform it, and the audience can choose where to look. But when somebody said to me, “How are you going to get into Katherine’s mind? How are we going to see this story from Katherine’s point of view?” I thought, ‘God, I have no idea.’ And suddenly I realized that as a director of film, I had to choose where people looked, against the idea that an audience essentially self-edits in the theater.
So when they said, “How are you going to get us into Katherine’s point of view?” I said, “Well that’s a good question.” I had to teach myself. Realizing as a director you’re responsible for choosing where the audience looks, as opposed to theater, where they look for themselves, was a big, big thing to learn. Control: I suppose what you realize is that people will believe whatever you tell them to believe. Actually the medium of film is quite manipulative.
One other thing I suppose I learned is that you really try to capture thought in cinema…the spoken word is not as important. It’s not a priority, in the same way that in theater it’s the engine; the spoken word is the thing that drives the scene. Also in theater scenes complete, then you move on to another scene, whereas in cinema you don’t need to complete a scene. You just need to basically make sure that a thought will carry across into the next moment, next beat, next scene. These are all things I learned through the process of making and also editing the film.
DT: How did you learn what you needed to know?
WO: Very naively I thought POV meant you’re seeing it literally from her point of view, through her eyes, which means that the camera becomes the eyes of the person. Well no, of course it doesn’t. It was that basic. I had so much to learn making this film.
DT: Did you watch films with that in mind?
WO: Yes, but this is the danger: it ruins your cinemagoing experience forever, because as you’re watching a film you’re constantly pulling it apart and analyzing and dissecting. As I would watch a film, I began to think, ‘Why do I love this film, and how is it so clear that it’s her point of view? Oh, I see, they’ve done that. OK. So when she sits there, we hear her breathing really heavily. It brings us closer to the character.’ Something like that.
DT: Which films did you watch?
WO: We watched Night Moves, [DP] Ari Wegner and I. We liked that film for the way it builds tension. Last Days has a sort of simplicity. We really wanted simplicity. I really liked The Piano Teacher and White Ribbon. For me one of the greatest period dramas of all times is La Reine Margot. I think it’s just fantastic. Talk about viscera, there you’ve got it all. Again, that was about understanding how Patrice Chereau brought us so close to Isabelle Adjani.
DT: You had to work with a very low budget while doing a period piece. How did that work?
WO: We were interested to know why the common perception is that you need a big budget to do a period piece, because ultimately our film is four or five or six people in one location, and they wear one or two costumes each.
DT: But what a dress that blue dress was.
WO: If you’re going to have one dress, you’ve got to make it the very best. We knew it was going to be a tight shoot—twenty-four days—and we knew we couldn’t move away from the location. We had one or two days offsite, but it didn’t seem to impede the story.
DT: It may have helped it?
WO: I think it really focused our creativity, it really focused us to make decisions. If something didn’t serve the story, then it wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t necessary. We used the low budget to our advantage in the sense that if we just couldn’t afford something, we’d ask, “Do we really need it? Probably not.”
But there were other things, like the horse being shot. That was something I really didn’t want to compromise on, so I told the producers, “I know it’s not very affordable, but I want to see this horse being killed in one shot. I don’t want to have to cut to the gun, cut back to the dead horse, because we’ll know it’s a cheat. It will have far more impact.” But trying to find a horse that will fall over on command is expensive, so again, we probably could have afforded more background action in one of the scenes and not have the horse, but then did we need it? So it was always a balance.
DT: You couldn’t shoot the horse with a dart gun?
WO: That was probably more dangerous because then it would be somebody’s real horse. I know there are films where they do tranquilize the animals—The Lobster, for example, where they tranquilized the donkey, then pulled it over with a rope.
DT: How did you find a horse that fell over on command?
WO: We just Googled it and found a company called AB Film Horses. The horse we got is actually the biggest celebrity in our film, because it was also shot on the beaches of Dunkirk for Atonement. We have a famous horse in our film!
DT: You deviated from filmmaking tradition in several important ways. One, you had a female DP. Two, you had the editor on set. And three, you had the writer on set.
WO: Ari was the best person I met, so it was a no-brainer to work with her as cinematographer. It was a great advantage to have Nick [Emerson], our editor, on set, because we shot in sequence. By the end of the third week, he had very roughly assembled the first three-quarters of the film. We watched it, which could have been a disaster that sent us into our last week depressed. But ultimately we watched it and thought, ‘OK, it’s not nearly perfect, but there is at least something here that’s working. What’s missing?’ And we just wrote down a list of all the things that were missing, which we then put into a list of pickups for the last week. It also meant that because Nick was there every lunchtime we could watch rushes, every evening we could watch rushes, and I could even go to him and say, “Could you come on set for a minute?” which apparently is really forbidden, having the editor coming on set. I would say, “I’m thinking of shooting this in one shot, what do you think?” And he would be very fair in his appraisal and say, “Maybe you just need to get me the reverse.” It was very useful to have that, and we were constantly checking in. As for Alice [Birch, the screenwriter], she wasn’t there the whole time, but she did come and do some rewrites for us on set. She didn’t know she was coming to do rewrites; she thought she was coming for a set visit, but we sat her down and gave her a pen.
DT: What did you have to rewrite?
WO: The end. There was a scene where Sebastian’s confession is forced from him rather than coming naturally from his guilt, and we felt like it was probably much better if he felt compelled to confess, so that needed a bit of tweaking at the end.
END OF SPOILER ALERT
DT: I don’t know if it’s the same from a British perspective, but at least from an American perspective, you introduced a racial tension that is not in the original story. I don’t believe it’s in Shostakovich’s opera, either. Was that intentional?
WO: We weren’t casting those actors in order to create racial tension. If there was tension, it’s tension that exists in the story between these characters. In terms of the way we cast the film, we met everybody of all backgrounds and cast the best actors for the role. I did read one review which suggested that Katherine acts the way she does because Anna is black, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. That is not our intention, and I don’t even think it’s what comes across in the film either.
DT: From an American point of view you can certainly read it that way, because racial tension is much more important than class tension in America. You Brits would read it as class tension. We Americans would read it as racial tension. What’s your next project?
WO: I’m working with Walter Mosley, on The Man in My Basement. It’s an adaptation of a book he wrote about fifteen years ago. He’s done the screenplay and we’re shooting in Sag Harbor at some point this year.
DT: So you’re hooked on film. How come?
WO: I had such a good experience making this. I think film is the total medium for an artist in terms of preparation, building, establishing, creating, and then the final control you have in the end.
It’s terrifying…you have so much more control than in any other medium. Maybe not painting, but painting is lonely because you’re not collaborating. I really like the collaboration element of filmmaking…and the control. In a way painting is easier. You do it, it’s on your own, and you just stick it on the wall. You don’t have to wait for people’s response. They will either buy it or they won’t, whereas the part of film that is frustrating is that you have to make something that people think they have already bought or will buy. And that, I think, is difficult for art.
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