Lady Macbeth: ‘We needed somebody who had the strength to carry out despicable deeds’

Theatre director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch talk about their barnstorming feature debut, starring Florence Pugh as a woman scorned in 19th-century Northumbria.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

In Lady Macbeth, acclaimed theatre director William Oldroyd relocates Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to the north-east of England in the 19th-century. It’s a tale about a young woman (Florence Pugh) trapped in a marriage of convenience, whose passionate affair unleashes a maelstrom of murder and mayhem on a country estate.

With formal overtones of Carl Dreyer’s classic Ordet (1955), this incredibly primal work plays out like a period film noir. Pugh is fantastic in the central role, a contained ball of evil quietly wreaking havoc and mayhem as she undergoes a sexual awakening and growing awareness of her own power.

Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch beautifully balance the dichotomy between the wilds of nature and the chilly symbolism of the patriarchal manor, conjuring a gothic tale of repeated betrayal that’s as enthralling as it is disturbing.

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The film is part of the iFeatures scheme. How did you work around budget constraints, and did they significantly inform some of the aesthetic decisions that you made?

William Oldroyd: Applicants were asked by iFeatures to come up with audacious ideas – we thought a low-budget British period drama sounded pretty bold. Early on, we decided that we would make a virtue of the fact that we had limited means – a tighter budget meant that we had to be very creative in our choices, and I always felt that so many elements that define British period drama, such as huge crowds of extras, sweeping aerial shots, horses and carriages, and millions of costumes, were actually superfluous to the heart of the story. By focusing on a few people in one location who don’t change their clothes very often we could direct all our energy towards the story and realise a radical drama that just happened to be set in the past.

Was the transition from theatre directing to filmmaking an easy one?

WOThe key differences when making the transition from theatre to film (as I quickly discovered by trial and error) are time and perspective. In theatre, I am used to spending five weeks in a room with a group of actors and a designer. It takes a couple of weeks for the actors to get to know each other, to build trust with me and have the time to discover how best to realise the writer’s intentions. During the rehearsal, the technical production, previews and even performances, we continue to make changes and assess each night how we feel the work is growing.

I realised on Lady Macbeth that I wouldn’t have the luxury of time as so many of the decisions had to be made in advance, and there was little room to test ideas and allow them to fail. I asked for 10 days of rehearsal before we started shooting, which helped me to get to know the actors and identify the key objectives for each character in the drama. But on set, with only 24 shooting days, there’s no way that I could afford to test an idea and see whether it would work. This was very stressful, but thanks to careful planning and a great team we got the footage we needed to make the film.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Alice, at what point did you come on board the project and what were the primary attractions of adapting Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District?

Alice Birch: I had read the book several years ago and hadn’t been able to forget it. I’d wondered if it might make an interesting film – Katerina was such a fascinating, compelling character and I loved how different it felt compared with other texts from that period. It read like a thriller. Will and I were introduced through our agent, and we both talked about wanting to make a feature. I gave him the book, and he loved it. I think we both loved it for lots of reasons, but primarily for Katherine.

Did you enjoy the challenge of writing a screenplay, and was the process very different from playwriting?

AB: I’ve always wanted to be a playwright, and I’m very comfortable in theatre. I wanted to write a film – I wanted to test those muscles and really learn, but I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it. But I absolutely loved it. There are similarities of course – the essential tasks are the same: it’s about delivering clear structure, characters who feel like they really live and breathe and – crucially – who you can empathise with. But film is a visual medium, whereas theatre in the UK is generally thought to be about the text. So, I had to be a lot more conscious of using dialogue sparingly and really think about visual options to give Will. I tried to think of it as delivering Will a map – a really robust map – that could support change and experimentation when he was on set, but had clear structural rules. Will and I worked very closely together while I was writing, which never happens in theatre, so I had clear ideas of what he wanted.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Florence Pugh is sensational. Could you talk about working with her and the qualities she needed to bring to the role?

WO: The character of Lady Katherine is quite wild and free spirited. She seems very much at odds with the stifling social atmosphere of Victorian England and always seems to be looking for escape. After we met Florence there was no doubt that she was the Katherine we were looking for. We needed to find somebody who didn’t just have the strength to carry out despicable deeds when pushed, but who also had the vulnerability and optimism of the virgin bride we meet at the start of the film. That person also needed to be able to carry a 90-minute film and is only off-screen for about five minutes. We found all those qualities and more in Florence. She’s a very instinctive and organic actor who works with great rigour and discipline.

AB: I think Florence is such a revelation because she’s not typical period casting. Period films often look like they’re held at a distance from us, and I think so much of what Florence does allows us to gain access to Katherine and the story close up. And she spoke the text brilliantly from her first audition.

WO: We talked about Katherine as a femme fatale at quite an early stage of development but decided that what stopped her being defined as such, in the traditional vein, was the fact that she never tries to get others to do the killing for her in a calculating way. Katherine is physically involved in all actions she takes, and it’s important that she is directly responsible. The objectification of Katherine is key, especially as the film is set at a time when women were still technically the property of their husbands and not free to own property themselves.

AB: I always thought about this as a world in which violence breeds violence. Katherine is young and on the very edge of her life – she’s hopeful and excited. Marriage was really the only opportunity to radically change her circumstances, so when we first meet her I think she holds some hope for what her life could be. The fact that she’s bought, the fact that her husband is cruel and disinterested, the fact that her father-in-law is incredibly violent and the fact that she’s so isolated from what she knew, or from kindness, makes her line into her descent more clear for me. Of course, another character would have behaved completely differently, so we had to define Katherine at the same time, and see that she makes choices.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

You use a lot of austere blues and greys for the house – highlighting the chilly formalism of the time – while the servants quarters have more browns and greens. Did you seek to have these two contrasts?

WO: The colour palette developed out of a conversation that I had with our costume designer, Holly Waddington, and production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams. We realised that following a key event that takes place around the midway point of the film, Katherine would only wear her black mourning weeds. This can often be a concern when using a digital camera because large areas of black can look flat and shapeless. Holly was not only interested in patina and texture, but also in the idea of a crow’s feather because it contains so many shades of black – blue black, green black, purple etc – and suddenly we had a palette from which to work.

We were also interested in, although not enslaved to, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi – who was in turn influenced by Vermeer – because he was contemporaneous with the story and captured an austere formality and solitude in his work. So many Victorian British period dramas used the stuffy dark woods, heavy drapery and fussy ornamentation that we associate with the period, but we felt like the Lesters were probably quite frugal and not great collectors. This led us to an empty, austere feel, more like a vacuum or a cell, which could be a useful counterpoint to the blustery brown moorlands that surrounded the house and from which Katherine is kept.

Also, the shots inside the house are quite rigid compositions. Katherine’s first walk alone uses handheld. Was this to present a contrast between her wilder side and the chilly formalism of her marriage?

WO: I worked really carefully with Ari Wegner, our cinematographer, to define the logic of the camera work. We felt that a formal frame and static camera would usefully represent Katherine’s prison and would also help to objectify her as we watch her from some distance. We tried to squash and squeeze her into the frame so that she was cramped and gave a sense of her being incarcerated. As Katherine begins to ‘wake’ and actually start to feel some sort of emotion, we wanted the camera to move with her and to breathe as she breathed, in order to get closer to her. There was always a question in our minds about how we find Katherine’s point-of-view, and I think that this felt like the most natural way to connect to her. When the men return to the house we then reinstated the formal composition and squeezed her back into her box, but by now we know that she wants to move and has a different inner energy, so hopefully this creates a tension on screen.

The film was developed with the support of the BFI, BBC Films and Creative England through iFeatures.

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