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New York Film Festival : The Tragedy of Macbeth / Q&A with Director Joel Coen, Actor Denzel Washington, Actress Frances McDormand and More!

Actress Frances McDormand, Actor Denzel Washington, Psquared Photography

Synopsis : A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.

Q&A with Director Joel Coen, Actor Denzen Washington, Actress Frances McDormand, Actor Harry Melling, Actor Bertie Carvel, Actress Moses Ingram 

Q :  Frances, I know that you did an event on stage a few years ago at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, also playing Lady Macbeth. Did the conversation about making a film “Macbeth” start for you and Joel around that time or did it predate that production? 

 Frances McDormand : I think I had asked Joel a couple of times, if he was interested in doing it on stage and he said, “absolutely not”, had no interested doing in theater. Tough I tried probably over about a 15 year period. And I gave up was very fortunate to do it  at Berkeley with Dan Sullivan who knows his way around Shakespeare and the theater.  I think that play did inspire Joel to think about as an screen adaptation.

Jole Coen : It’s interesting because Dan very generously let me sit in on some of the rehearsals that they were doing when they were putting it up on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre which was really great for me actually and I really appreciate it and thank him for that. But Francis was saying, my feeling was always that I’m not a stage director. I really wouldn’t know what to do honestly. But I did say to her at certain point if you want to think about it as a movie, or if you let me think about it as a movie, I might get somewhere with it and maybe we could do something interesting. 

Q : What does that mean for you to think about Shakespeare as a movie?

Jole Coen : It means that unlike doing something on the stage, where there’s one sort of visual metaphor for the whole thing which is essentially the sort of primary Stage set in terms of what you’re looking at, it’s just not the way my brain works. I mean movies are very much about where you’re looking from where you’re looking and how long you’re looking at a very particular thing from a particular and  angle and that’s really one of the things that distinguish it from theater in many ways. I mean that’s one way of looking at it, but just going to how you think about something in terms of adapting it dramatically for somebody to look at.

Q : So Since we have so many of the amazing cast with us, I thought we could talk a little bit about, I think something that’s always very important for Shakespeare wether on stage or screen is just putting your company together and staring of course with Denzel Washington, one of his great role. Early on, did you think of Denzel in this role and how did you fill out the rest of the cast. 

Joel Coen : What was great was, it was a pretty short conversation, you were like, “Year, let’s do it.” 

 Frances McDormand : Year, you don’t make lists for the best for a generation’s Macbeth, you one is born and then they play it from my point of view. 

Q : So, Denzel, you just said “Yes” right away?

Denzel Washington : Yes, I did. This is a fascinating journey for me. I went to school a thousand feet from here and played “Othello” at 20, didn’t know what I was doing, so just the long thousands feet. When you’re working with two…, not just two but elders and then witnessing these young masters(pointing young actors sitting by his side) chasing us down. But the cool thing to go back to what you were saying was that we were a company, the way Joel and Francis led us, we sat around the table, people played different roles in reading, I think we became a company, my daughter had maybe one line in the film, and a wonderful actress and the first day of whatever day was a reading Joel was like, “No, you’re going to read the king and he threw everybody under the bus, you had to sink or swim, that’s why I live for, so I’m honored and fortunate that they said, “Yes” to me. 

Q : What was it like for you to return to Shakespeare on screen, throughout your career you’ve done Shakespeare a several times some major productions, “Richard III” and “Julius Caesar”, of course. But you know come back to do this role on screen. Can you talk about what that was like for you? 

Denzel Washington : (He’s quietly making gesture) That’s how it was. You know that’s the ultimate challenge and it’s ultimate reward. You know it’s where I started and where I want to finish.

Q : It’s a very diverse group of actors in many ways, at least in terms of their background, I mean you have American actors, British Actors, you have people who have a lot of theater experience, some people with less, can you talk about harmonizing all of that?

Joel Coen : Yeah, it’s really true, and we had Brandon who is Irish and Harry and Birdie, who are Aunt Alex Hassell who payed Ross, and Cathrine Hunter are all coming from England and pretty much the rest of the cast all Americans, so you had this you know it was very interesting because we were all working with Kate Wilson who’s at Julliard here., one of the earliest discussion with Kate was accents. I think if I remembered right, didn’t we in an early rehearsal we sort of experimented with taking the accents  down to a sort of more it wasn’t…

 Frances McDormand : It wasn’t an experiment you said to Kate ask them to do it all in American Tomorrow, and 201, they all did it perfectly, and next day Joel said, “No, Go Back”, like oh that was fun…

Joel Coen : I just thought I liked the mix of it, and I thought that it wasn’t going to be a barrier to essentially, accepting the world that we were making, you know that’s kind of how we are landed. But you are right. I mean beyond that it’s the cast its diverse in other ways obviously. And I think that proceeded from a couple of place, the imperative for me at the beginning was who’s playing Macbeth and that was easy and short thanks to Denzel. And everything else just sort of proceeded from there. 

Denzel Washington : You got Yale and Julliard Mafia…

 Frances McDormand : Yeah, the diversity in the the dialects and the background of theater and film, and training was kind of exciting in that room. And it was in by invitation only too for at least three of the weeks, anybody wanted to be in that room, made themselves available to be in that room. I don’t think many people decided not to, almost everybody showed up. It was great.

Director Joel Coen, Psquared Photography

Q : I loved to hear the other actors, maybe say a little bit about that? 

Bertie Carvel : It’s extremely rare to rehearse in this medium, right and rehearse in a meaningful way. So I think that was an enormous privilege and one of the things I loved about the film was, I want to pay a huge compliment in every direction is that pays homage to both  the cinematic and the theatrical traditions that this play has sat in, it finds a kind of vocabulary that is, talking about the dialect, you want the play to be heard through whatever you are doing, you want to sort of put a layer in the way and I think that’s what’s so amazing , I remember Joel in rehearsal talking about the aesthetic and I was sort of drilling him trying to figure out what the thing was and he used the word sculptural, and very few other words which is his mode right, you know it’s quite hard to get him to commit to saying what it was, and that was very useful, but what was clear that was about taking things away and getting out of the way of the play and when I watch the film, that’s very much the impression that I have, The way everybody handles the language, everybody comes from their own different place whatever, you hear the play, and you see what’s going on in these people’s souls and I think that’s extremely hard to accomplish. I’m sure that having time in a room together to sort of marinated in the world of the play and is key in that it was a real privilege 

Harry Melling : It’s just what Bertie said, the fact that we had 3 weeks together, setting the language of how it’s going to work and everyone really pulling toward the same vision which is rare in films because everyone’s sort of coming at it from a different angle but to have those three weeks where we sort of set out the mission of what we want to achieve was just..I think vital and why’s it’s such a striking piece. 

Moses Ingram : I think one of the biggest blessings for me in this process was just being in the room and watching..I think people wait there whole lives to be in rooms like this one and to be in rehearsal and it’s like finding out everybody’s poops…LOL. You know watching them be in rehearsal and figuring it out right in front of me and me very much just not wanting to fuck it up, but then, so free and so graceful in it, it just was a privilege, a lot of days when I wasn’t working just to watch like the archway scene, I was right there, outside the arch watching it happen. I feel so blessed that like 50 years from now when like class of students is like watching this movie, I get to be like I was in the room with those people, it’s a beautiful thing. 

Q : Denzel and Francis, you refer to yourselves as elders, I think that’s one change from what we usually see in the ‘Macbeth” productions in films, when Polanski made his “Macbeth” in the 70’s, he co-wrote that with Kenneth Tynan. Tynan actually said in a piece that he didn’t want the actors were in their 20s and he thought that was because he didn’t want people who were quote too old to be ambitious. I think the interesting change that alters the dynamics of the story. I wonder if you and actors want to speak to that?

Denzel Washington : What was the question ?   Lol 

 Frances McDormand : About being an older couple, you know the part of what Joel and I talked about really early because the first thing I’ve ever did, the first thing that got me hooked on wanted  to be an actor for the rest of my life was the sleepwalking scene from “The Tragedy(of Macbeth)”, I did when I was 14 and I pretty much been practicing and rehearsing for it 50 years. So I feel like it was it kind of faded inevitability to it that it ended up being this and sculpted in this way, it seems absolutely perfect. You know some point we have to talk about the ceremony that we had for our four elders that used the this film as their punctuation point on their film careers.  Remember when we had them kneel before us and we had four colleagues, they decided to make this film would be their last film, so we had a ceremony, we made these really beautiful medal and beautiful ribbon and we had sword out, we made them nights and ladies that was really symbolic, there is something perfectly punctuation point in so many ways. So being an older couple take it for a second because you know what, when our company talk, this is the other thing about being an elder, I just get choked up over and over again. I can’t believe we did this, it’s fabulous. 

Bertie Carvel : I think these plays get them done again and again, because they can take the weight of reinterpretation, so of course every actor brings themself to every part they play, but the great roles can take, they have that depth of field, I think there’s something new is illuminated, I don’t want to see the same version of…you know that there’s nothing as a definitive version of these great places I don’t think. I think it’s ravening to put any give lens on the play..

Denzel Washington : it’s a built-in sense of urgency, this is the last go around and they’ve been stepped over by the king, and they want it, you know we understand…

 Frances McDormand : And we understand, you might think, “Oh, they don’t understand”, but guess what, we understand because when we first talked on the phone, Denzel and I, I’m not gonna getting into our own private conversation, but we both understand each other that there’s always been a fight, we fought it as gracefully as possible, but the fight’s never gonna be over. So you know, we brought that to it. We still knew how to fight, maybe we’re limping a little bit, maybe it took us little longer to get there, but the fight was still there.

Denzel Washington : Still knew how to win..

Actress Frances Mcdormand, Actor Denzel Washington, Psquared Photography

Q : This question for Joel, obviously big part of the film, it’s text, which is you know you are very faithful to, but it’s also the question the staging and look of the film and there’s a lot of choices that I think account for this very strong atmosphere of the film, I wonder if you could maybe talk about some of them, black and white, academy ratio. And just the staging, I mean Bertie was saying, you find a kind of middle ground between the cinematic and the theatrical, and I think that comes across in how it’s staged as well. I think a lot of people would do a Shakespeare film and try to naturalize it by finding you know certain landscapes or whatever..

Joel Coen : Well, I sort of started from the place of..there are two ways of approaching this which are as you just said that sort of naturalistic way, you rent a castle somewhere and you go out in Scotland and ride around on horses, and for me, I think this proceeded a little bit from the first impulse that Francis asking me to do on stage, in a way I didn’t want to abandon the notion of the play. It was taking a play and making a movie of it that was interesting to me, not trying to make a play into a movie.

I didn’t want to hide the play. What Berdie said earlier on, is really kind of I hadn’t actually believe it or not thought about it this way until he just said it, but a lot of the motivating impulse in terms of design was taking things away, it isn’t just about…the design was about stripping down in a strange kind of way. In that respect, I had you know probably the longest gestation process for any design that we’ve ever done, because everything I’ve done in the past has been, at least brushing up on naturalism, you know brushing it no matter how amped it may have been, but this was a seemed a totally different exercise and I had the privilege and the good fortune to be working with Bruno Del Binell and Steph and Dave both of them on this long process of figuring out what it was going to look like the idea of shooting in black and white in the aspect ratio were actually pretty much there from beginning.

But the thing about shooting in black and white which I’ve always loved and I love black and white, I love in general, not just in terms of this film. Black and white is a way of instantly abstracting an image in a way that everybody understands. You’re abstracting it by taking the color away, but it’s not like people read it as being abstract in quotations marks and that kind of abstraction, seem particularly suited to the enterprise of sort of preserving this as a play in the theatrical experience. 

Q : The question about shooting in black and white, whether there’s a connection with Orson Wells, Mel Brooks or Lawrence Olivier? 

Joel Coen : Orson Wells did a film of this play, “Chimes ay Midnight” which is particularly a very beautiful movie, I think his adaptation of this play(Macbeth) is a very strange movie, but it’s interesting to look at. So there was a little bit, but to be honest it was from a visual point of view and from what seemed like it would be interesting in connection with this play, we are looking more like Dreyer (Carl Theodor Dreyer) than we were with Orson Wells, because of the way he sort of strips everything down. I mean again going back to the same thing that Berdie was talking about.

Q : The lighting is also kind of like German expressionist or film noir.

Joel Coen : Yeah, Danish but also German expressionism and Murnau(Director F.W. Murnau), “Sunrise”, how you do big outdoor spaces on sound stages which is this beautiful thing he could do which nobody else has ever come close to. That’s was a bid inspiration and these sort of mind-boggling things that so simple and so beautiful and so theatrical, and the kind of enterprises of keeping it play. 

Q : The question is for Francis about having played Lady Macbeth before, and finding something new very time you approach this character? 

 Frances McDormand : In fact, I haven’t played it before, I only played it once at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I think I was 56 and 14 the first time. I didn’t really play then, I just memorized the lines, I’m not kidding myself, but I feel like there’s been a process towards the character for 50 years and I’m really glad that my interpretation that I was to give the role has been captioned on film this way, because I’m I fell really gratified that we are able to bring the idea not only that this was their last chance at ambition, but also maybe illuminate something about the female condition and the female power structure of what I think Macbeth was using from that period and especially in this couple, and like I kept saying Joel, nobody in 400 years everybody’s done almost anything. It’s not like we’re inventing anything new, but I think the way our cellar structure mixed made it a little different and we certainly had that in mind when we were interpreting the character and for me that’s really gratifying. 

Q : The Question for Joel. What was the greatest challenge in adapting the text into a screenplay?

Joel Coen : There were certain things that I saw in other movie adaptations of Shakespeare that I was trying not to do and trying to figure out how not to do them. For instance, its’ common in movie adaptations of Shakespeare that when there’s a soliloquy, you don’t actually see the actor speaking the soliloquy, you hear it in  voice over while he’s, I don’t know thinking about his launch or something you never know what the connection between what the actor is saying is recorded a voice over and now he’s wandering around or mooning around the set, it never really worked for me, so I thought how do you do that, and sort of preserve the language and the speeches and the soliloquies, but have them speak, but still have it be in a at least quasi-realistic context as opposed to go to the the edge of the stage or whatever the device maybe. So that was part of it. There are parts of the what Macbeth says in the plays are soliloquies that we incorporated into scenes, so that they’re actually spoken, it was that kind of a thing I guess that’s kind of getting close to what you’re asking. There were problems or issues or challenges like that. 

 Frances McDormand : One of the things that I thought was interesting Joel, the scenes that happen on the stage have a beginning, middle and end, they follow dramaturgically where as Joel intercut back and forth between scenes because in a film that just makes it more dynamic that was, I mean I don’t think that was a challenge but I think that was something that for me was really exciting about his adaptation. 

Joel Coen : That in particular that’s interesting because Macbeth is a play that at the end of the play Shakespeare himself..Shakespeare at the time in the play is doing something which is essentially parallel editing in film. He’s going to from this scene to that scene, back to this scene to that scene that are all supposed to be happening essentially in the same time, right. He’s doing it theatrically which is I found really interesting. When we made a movie, in the adaptation, we kind of exaggerated, I mean because you can in a movie, so that was another example of how the play got adapted into a movie and also how brilliant Shakespeare was is a dramatist to anticipate that kind of storytelling. 

 Frances McDormand : Oh, I think he’s be pleased, don’t you? LOL

Director Joel Coen, Psquared Photography

Q : This is the second time you are working with a streaming service, the film also be released theatrically and also on Apple TV, I guess. Your feeling about that? 

Joel Coen : You know as a filmmaker, you want an audience to see on the best and most sophisticated, and biggest platform possible. That’s why you spent all this time. We’re just talking to Denzel about the movies that he’s finishing right now, tweaking every little detail and the sound mix and the color and whatever it happens to be. However, One of the nightmare, I think any film directors are when someone says I saw your film in airplane…lol, here’s the thing about streaming service from a personal point of view. When I first got into the movie business which was almost 40 years ago, the reason I was able to make movies with Ethan, the reason we were able to have a career is because the studio at the point had an ancillary market that was backstop for more risky films which were VHS cassette or you know all of these home video markets which is essentially television. So fact that those markets are sort of responsible for my career to make it, I’m not gonna bust on them now, because they’ve become very successful, and sort of overtaking the market. It’s the reason I’m here and able to do this stuff. I have mixed feeling about it. The first thing, you want people to see it on a big screen. But the other part of it is, that’s been part of the history of our movies since the very beginning. That’s the best answer I can give you that.

Q : You are asking everybody, if there was particular passage in screenplay that helped you unlock something in the process? 

Francis got a phone call…in the middle of press conference.

Denzel Washington : Shakespeare now, is that willie on the phone? LOL

 Frances McDormand : (She picks up the cell phone, not a smartphone) Will is calling, I’ll call you later..

Denzel Washington : I loved that phone. 

Bertie Carvel : I think for me, I pitched Joel the idea that..you know what I was about to talk about my own performance which is always a bad idea, I’m gonna stop right now. A part like the one I play can be played in so many different ways, for me the key was about a sense of foreboding that maybe Banquo sees very early on, almost in the instant that Macbeth receives the news from the witches the prophecy. He knows his friend well enough to worry about where that might go and that was a hook for me and so the line is something like “That trusted home might yet in kindle you under the crown besides the thing of corridor but to strange and often times to win us to our harms the instruments of darkness tell us truth win us honest trifles to betray us in deepest consequence” which is just a great line and it’s true isn’t it. So the ambivalence of that warning, for me, I wanted it to be warning, but you can warn something of someone of something you don’t know. It’s like giving advice to someone isn’t it. You have to careful with advice because you don’t really know what the future holds, that was the key for me.

Harry Melling : Well, I can’t remember speech like Bertie’s done. So I can’t quote anything, but I just remember thinking the most important thing about Malcom is how woefully unprepared he is for what happens to his dad, that was kind of I think the crux for Malcom and then, from that he is spurred onto having to grow up very quickly, so that was kind of thing that I held on to. 

 Moses Ingram : I think often times, at least growing up, Shakespeare’s words seemed like something very hard to understand, not very much for me, and I think what I appreciate about what happens here in this film is that the language doesn’t feel unattainable in that way. I think a lot of times, it just put in a category all by itself, Shakespeare this massive thing, but in reality I think which kind of sounds pretentious that Shakespeare is really universal and it’s for everybody and it does lend itself to beauty and magic. I think it’s been captured really beautifully. 

 Frances McDormand : One of the things that I found in working on the role, a dramaturg once said to me, I don’t know if this is true, the meter and the words are in violet, but the punctuation you can mess with. So in the text that I originally memorized or worked with when we were rehearsing the play. Macbeth says to Lady Macbeth, “what if we fail”  and her reposes is “We Fail?” Question mark, and the dramaturg suggested to me, try taking the question mark away. And when I put an exclamation point on it, then it became my Lady Macbeth, “what of we fail”, “We Fail?”, but screw your courage to the sticking place and will not fail, because for us, it’s not a question of whether we’re gonna to fail, it’s question of whether we’re even going to attempt to fail which is all for my point of view.

Actress Frances Mcdormand, Psquared Photography

Q : Joel, you created this sort of narrator messenger figure as a kind of counterpose witches perhaps in the film, you see him at the end with pleiades, I just want to some comment on that? 

Joel Coen : Well, there’s tradition in production of Macbeth that use Ross in different way, and also movie adaptation, so for instance in the Polanski version that Dennis(moderator) was post it out was written by Ken Tynan, I have a feeling this was trying something in time and brought to it, he made Ross the third murderer that isn’t something that there’s a production history of that but he expanded that a little bit and I thought was really interesting and wondered how it could be expanded even further, I don’t know what ways it has been in the past, but it was an interesting way to think about that character, that’s kind of led to that ending, and the sort of ambiguous passage  with Fleonce when he finds him in the field, obviously I’ve seen a lots of productions of Macbeth. There are only so many productions of Macbeth on screen, that’s one of the more interesting ones. I attribute a lot of it to Tynan actually. 

Bertie Carvel : I love about it, I’ve spoken about how I think Banquo maybe see the writing on the wall earlier than others. But I love the scene where Lady Macbeth faints and immediately afterwards Malcom and Donald Bain decide to flee and you can tell that from point onwards, nearly everybody’s seeing the writing on the wall and the reason it’s appetite to the Ross thing is that I think what makes the play so political is that there will always be murderous, tyrants, opportunist, and ambitious people led down the primrose path, but it’s what everybody else does around them that makes it really dangerous and a figure like Ross who in Alex’s performances, you know at times seems archly evil, but at other times just seems like somebody who is existing in a Tyrannous state trying to live on his wits and seeing which way the wind is blowing, feels very present and very kind of relevant and it’s the reason that these plays get done again and again and don’t lose their sting because you don’t have to look very far to see that kind of stuff in the corridors of power anywhere in the world Today, so I think it’s really smart gesture. 

Here’ the trailer of the film.

Nobuhiro Hosoki
Nobuhiro Hosokihttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Nobuhiro Hosoki grew up watching American films since he was a kid; he decided to go to the United States thanks to seeing the artistry of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange.” After graduating from film school, he worked as an assistant director on TV Tokyo’s program called "Morning Satellite" at the New York branch office but he didn’t give up on his interest in cinema. He became a film reporter for via Yahoo Japan News. In that role, he writes news articles, picks out headliners for Yahoo News, as well as interviewing Hollywood film directors, actors, and producers working in the domestic circuit in the USA. He also does production interviews for Japanese distributors of American films and for in-theater on-sale programs. He is now the editor-in-chief of Cinemadailyus.com while continuing his work for Japan.


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