How Joel Coen Differs From Shakespeare

This post was originally published Dec. 24, 20,21.

Joel Coen was just laid to rest “Hail, Caesar!” – his 17th feature film with brother Ethan Coen – when the idea for “The Tragedy of Macbeth”He came to him.

Coen was at Berkeley’s theater to see Frances McDormand play Lady Macbeth.

It wasn’t McDormand’s first crack at the role. 

the tragedy of macbeth

“I’m not saying I was good,” McDormand joked in a recent Q&A event after a “Tragedy of Macbeth” screening about her first Lady Macbeth performance — as a 14-year-old. “I’m just saying it hooked me. And so I’ve kind of been working on her ever since.”

Coen began to discuss the possibility of Coen working with her. He and McDormand eventually came up with a vision of a film adaptation. McDormand was the director and Coen wrote, while McDormand played Lady Macbeth. 

Coen and McDormand, both well into their 60s, also decided the film would stray from tradition – their Macbeths would be unequivocally advanced in age.

“It felt important to us,”McDormand added. “And when I did it on stage, it was important to me to acknowledge that I was postmenopausal, that I was not of childbearing age — and that that was going to be significant in the relationship and the destruction and the deterioration of the Macbeths’ relationship because he as a man can have an heir. He could have an heir with another woman. But he has stayed with her even though she hasn’t kind of filled her political job in the marriage.”

How Joel Coen Differs From Shakespeare
A24/Apple TV+

Coen also placed a priority on maintaining Shakespeare’s classic dialogue. 

“Another ambition was to do the play, do the verse — don’t sort of run away from that,” Coen said in the Q&A event. 

However, a compromise is necessary, no matter how small.

“We had a long discussion between ourselves and with Denzel,”McDormand spoke highly of Denzel Washington, who played the leading role in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”At 66. “Changing just the tense when he says, ‘Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should produce nothing but males.’” 

This line is not unlike other lines in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It has weight. It is delivered in Act I, when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting to murder King Duncan. It most powerfully serves as Macbeth’s declaration that Lady Macbeth should only give birth to males due her extraordinary strength and courage in facing adversity. 

the tragedy of macbeth

“Think about this play in the context of the Macbeths being an older couple and that the marriage having been a long one,”McDormand added. “And that does cast a different sort of light on the text.”

Coen and McDormand said they thought an adjustment in two words of the line to change a verb tense — the only tweaks made to Shakespeare’s verse in the film — would deliver a strong message and help achieve their vision.  

“So we changed it to ‘should have produced,’”McDormand added. “And I think what I like about that is that he first says, ‘Bring forth men-children only,’ which is probably something he said a lot. Because she’s a bad-ass, and he’s always liked that about her. But then he catches himself and realizes that’s probably not going to happen, and what have I just said to the woman I love?”

the tragedy of macbeth

Coen stated that Washington was also crucial to the interpretation and that he agreed to assume the role without any equivocation.

“I think Denzel understood immediately that kind of, you know, dichotomy in the character, that he was in certain ways in the play, he’s extremely sympathetic, especially at the beginning of the play,” Coen said. “But he’s also a gangster.”

Coen said Washington’s acting strengths paired perfectly with Macbeth.

“This is what he is so good at — holding those two things at the same time,” Coen said. “That was the big deal. That’s what he’s great at.”

How Joel Coen Differs From Shakespeare
A24/Apple TV+

The film features another important dichotomy — a physical surrealism versus the stark reality of a marriage story — that was decided on later. 

“This was a bit of a journey,” Coen said. “… How we could make this play into a movie but keep the feel of it being a play? That was really the ambition.” 

While they were resolute in preserving Shakespeare’s verse, and Coen’s on-set process with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel was not unusual, the director said they took extra time in preproduction to conceive the film’s visual and physical approaches.

the tragedy of macbeth

“Looking at other movies,” Coen said, “trying to figure out how much we’re going to build. How much of this is all going to be on sets, for instance, was a baseline decision that had to be made.” 

The entire movie was to be shot in Los Angeles soundstages. 

“Once that was made, you know, because we wanted to do things that had some scale, it was a question of, ‘How do we do that for a price?’” Coen said. “And also, has it been done before? What about in black or white? This is quite a different way of thinking about these problems in color. 

“So we were looking atThe movies silent era like ‘Sunrise,’ movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s that were made by Dryer and some German expressionist movies,” Coen said of Carl Theodor Dreyer, an early to mid-20th century Danish filmmaker known for emotional heft and deliberate pacing. “… We weren’t really interested in those idioms per se as we were in learning how to build these sets and what you could do.” 

the tragedy of macbeth

Coen and Delbonnel also studied theories by Edward Gordon Craig (a noted theatre actor, director, set designer, and early 1900s theater actor), who was suggested to Coen in an interview with Kathryn Hunter. Hunter had previously been cast to play the Three Witches role that prophesies for Macbeth that Macbeth should be king.

“He was a very, very influential designer in Britain and just on the whole history of theater design — and also did a lot of Shakespeare,”Craig was mentioned by Coen. “And he had these very, very interesting ideas about Shakespeare, one of which was that doing Shakespeare wasn’t about realism in any way. It was about sort of embracing it as a dream. This was kind of a singular, particular sort of importance to him and sort of baseline tenet of the way he sort of approached the material. And that was very resonant I think.”

Coen also mentioned that Japanese cinema was also being tapped, including Akira Kurosawa’s black-and-white master Masaki Kbayashi. 

“All done on sets, and it’s very theatrical,”Kobayashi was mentioned by Coen.

How Joel Coen Differs From Shakespeare
A24/Apple TV+

Coen stated that he wanted to mark the film as play-oriented as possible. They were also given a briefing to familiarize themselves with the cast. “look books”They will be familiarized with the sets. “what the world was going to be that they would inhabit.”

They also rehearsed the film like a play, with Washington methodically going through a premurder scene in which he offers a soliloquy as he navigates a corridor that led to King Duncan’s room.

“We all interchanged parts for two weeks,”McDormand added. “And then the last week we kind of galvanized and started getting up on our feet after being at the table.”

the tragedy of macbeth

After three-and a-half weeks of production remaining, they received an unexpected break.

“Movies have such a momentum going forward, sort of an inexorable push. So in that sense it was a luxury,” Coen said about the production’s four-and-a-half month shutdown in 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Coen used the extra time to edit what they’d shot. Upon the film’s return to production, COVID was still thought to be transmitted and transferred significantly by touch, something McDormand said required a major adjustment on set.  

How Joel Coen Differs From Shakespeare
A24/Apple TV+

“We shot the banquet scene then, after we had broken,”McDormand added. “When we came back, we were going to have bread and wine on the table. 

“Anyway, we decided no roast meat, no vegetables – nobody likes to come into the Macbeth’s house cause they don’t have good food. They get drunk and they break things,”McDormand laughed. “So we got rid of the wine, we got rid of the bread, and everybody got a goblet, and we said ‘Don’t let anyone touch your goblet. Don’t you even drink out of your goblet.’” 

But the return was worth the wait, and Coen said at no time did he think the film wouldn’t get finished.

Summarising “The Tragedy of Macbeth,”McDormand recalls recent remarks made by Daniel Craig (actor), who stated: “this play holds so much for so many interpretations.”

the tragedy of macbeth

“And that’s why Shakespeare keeps sticking around,”McDormand spoke in a melodic and factual manner, much like a high school teacher.

As for students who skip a step or two in their studies of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”McDormand loved the idea of the film just by looking at it.

“Absolutely, yes!”McDormand added. “That’s why we did it. Really.”

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”Apple TV+ begins streaming Friday. It was released in theatres on December 25.

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