Joel Coen is striking out on his own to make The Tragedy of Macbeth, a new take on the Shakespeare classic starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Production on Macbeth is on hold for the moment – because of the apocalypse and all – but during a fundraising effort on Instagram, Coen and McDormand dropped some info on the film, and really played up how this is going to be a bit different from Macbeth adaptations in the past.
There have been many Macbeth movies. Roman Polanski’s 1971 effort might be the best of the bunch, but there was even an adaptation as recently as 2015, starring Michael Fassbender. Now, Joel Coen – who is making a film without his brother Ethan for the first time ever – is taking on the tale with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. In an effort to raise money for the Teatro La Fenice opera house in Venice, Coen and McDormand talked about their new movie on Instagram (via The Film Stage).
Regarding why he chose to adapt Macbeth, Coen revealed that McDormand asked him to direct a stage production of the play a few years ago, but Coen turned it down because he’s not a stage director. However, when he saw the production, he started “thinking about the play and it made me want to work with her on the play because I was so impressed with what she was doing with the part of Lady Macbeth, so I thought that would be an interesting thing to work together on and to do as a movie. So when I started thinking about it in terms of a movie, it became more accessible to me, intellectually, and that’s when it started.”
As for how this new Macbeth will differ from previous adaptations, McDormand said:
“We’re calling it The Tragedy of Macbeth, which I think is an important distinction. In Joel’s adaptation, we are exploring the age of the characters and our adaptation the Macbeths are older. Both Denzel [Washington] and I are older than what is often cast as the Macbeths. We’re postmenopausal, we’re past childbearing age. So that puts a pressure on their ambition to have the crown. I think the most important distinction is that it is their last chance for glory.”
On that same note, she added: “Something that’s very important to me is that they are an older couple and it’s very important for my performance that they are a childless couple, but that there have been many pregnancies and perhaps child born that have died either in stillbirth or very young. I think that it is her personal tragedy that fuels her ambition to give her husband the crown because she has not been able to give him an heir. For me, that is the essence of the character.”
The childless angle was actually also played up a bit in the 2015 Macbeth via a prologue that saw the Macbeths with the body of their dead son. This sounds a bit different than that, though. As McDormand adds, being childless “puts a very specific time pressure on the characters.” And, “There’s a real suspense and a real ticking clock. The time is running out–not only for the characters, but also it propels the storytelling.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Coen talks about how he sees his Macbeth as a thriller. “It’s interesting how Shakespeare sort of pre-figured certain tropes in American thriller and crime literature that were common in the early part of the 20th century,” said the director. “Which just had to do with, in crime novels, a story centered around a husband and a wife who plotted a murder. So that’s something that Shakespeare is obviously doing in Macbeth that you see echoes of in crime fiction, in American anyway, in the early part of the 20th century. That kind of fiction I used to read as a kid. I thought it would be interesting to bring certain aspects of that to the production of the movie.”
Beyond that, Coen confirmed that he’s keeping most of Shakespear’s language, adding: “The only thing I did, as is common in these adaptations, some more of less, there’s a certain amount of editing. But I would say the movie is about 85% of the language in the play. There’s about 15% which has been cut.”
And what else can we expect to see? Well, instead of three witches guiding Macbeth towards his destiny – and doom – we’re going to get three…birds? “In this adaptation, the witches are actually all played by one actor,” said Coen. “An actor named Kathryn Hunter, who embodies all of the witches. The witches in this adaptation are birds. They are sort of battlefield scavenger birds. They morphed, in a way, from being natural birds to be the actress Kathryn Hunter. That was one of the most fascinating and I think interesting and fulfilling parts of the production for both Fran and I on how that was going to work in the movie. So the witches occupy a big space in this story as well.”
A24 is set to distribute The Tragedy of Macbeth, but there’s no release date set yet. As a fan of Coen’s work in general, I’m dying to see what he – and Washington and McDormand – have here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see the results sooner rather than later.
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